Thursday, May 10, 2007

How Should a Child Be Trained? (Part 18)

I almost did not post this section of Ryle's application of Proverbs 22:6. It needs some qualification. Yet, on second thought, I thought it would provide us with another opportunity to think carefully about the scriptures and how they apply to our lives. So here is Ryle's admonition, followed by my comments.

XVI. Train them, remembering continually the promises of Scripture.

I name this also shortly, in order to guard you against discouragement.

You have a plain promise on your side, “Train up your child in the way he should go, and when he is old he shall not depart from it” (Prov 22:6). Think what it is to have a promise like this. Promises were the only lamp of hope which cheered the hearts of the patriarchs before the Bible was written. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph – all lived on a few promises, and prospered in their souls. Promises are the cordials which in every age have supported and strengthened the believer. He that has got a plain text upon his side need never be cast down. Fathers and mothers, when your hearts are f ailing, and ready to halt, look at the word of this text, and take comfort.

Think who it is that promises. It is not the word of a man, who may lie or repent; it is the word of the King of kings, who never changes. Hath He said a thing, and shall He not do it? Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good? Neither is anything too hard for Him to perform. The things that are impossible with men are possible with God. Reader, if we get not the benefit of the promise we are dwelling upon, the fault is not in Him, but in ourselves.

Think, too, what the promise contains, before you refuse to take comfort from it. It speaks of a certain time when good training shall especially bear fruit – “when a child is old.” Surely there is a comfort in this. You may not see with your own eyes the result of careful training, but you know not what blessed fruits may spring from it, long after you are dead and gone. It is not God’s way to give everything at once. “Afterward” is the time when he often chooses to work, both in the things of nature and in the things of grace. “Afterward” is the season when affliction bears the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Heb 12:11). “Afterward” was the time when the son, who refused to work in his father’s vineyard, repented and went (Matt 21:29). And “afterward” is the time to which parents must look forward if they see not success at once – you must sow in hope and plant in hope.

…Go forward then in faith, and be sure that your labor shall not be altogether thrown away. Three times did Elijah stretch himself upon the widow’s child before it revived. Take example from him and persevere.

I would like to make a few comments here which relate to what I posted at the beginning of this series. Many in our day will object to Ryle’s use of the word “promise.” There is something to this objection which needs to be considered, yet I also believe that the thrust of what Ryle is communicating should not be discarded.

The objection is that proverbs by their very nature are not the same as promises. C. Hassell Bullock gives a typical statement in this regard: “It is inappropriate to treat the proverbs of this book as promises. They are theological and pragmatic principles.” After quoting Proverbs 22:6, he writes, “We are inclined to accept that as a promise, but the proverb really states a principle of education and commitment. That is, generally speaking, when a child is properly instructed in the way of wisdom from an early age, he or she will persist in that way” (An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books, 2nd ed., p. 162). An overview of the whole book of Proverbs shows that Bullock is correct. In fact, the whole wisdom literature of the Old Testament shows us that this world does not operate mechanistically or moralistically according to unalterable cause and effect. If the world did operate according to simple cause and effect rules, then we would not need wisdom. The classic example here is Job’s friends. Their reductionistic view of the way the world worked actually showed that they lacked wisdom because they assumed that the presence of calamity always and everywhere indicated God’s judgment on sin.

So as we approach Proverbs 22:6, we should not assume a simple cause and effect kind of equation. The world does not work that way, and we dishonor the teaching of the book of Proverbs if we try to make it fit that mold. Why, then, do I say that we should not discard what Ryle is trying to communicate?

Even though we should not consider Proverbs 22:6 as a promise, it is still a God-given principle which should inform and guide our expectations and hopes for life. We should take comfort as parents in this truth. It does give us hope that our labors will not be in vain. It is basically true that in the universe that God governs and sustains, when parents train their children in the way of wisdom, those children will persevere in that way even unto old age.

I fear that in our day we want to emphasize the exception to this verse rather than the rule. But this puts the emphasis directly the opposite way the verse itself does. Many, many times I have heard discussions which warn against discouraging parents by preaching this verse as a promise. The thought seems to be that so many parents do everything they can to properly train their children, yet the children still turn out poorly. So we had better not make them feel bad about failing as parents. But I disagree. If in fact so many parents are doing everything they can to train their children properly, then according to this verse the vast majority of those children will live wisely throughout their lives. If the children do not turn out properly, then the onus is on the parents (this does not in any way diminish the children’s personal responsibility). The guilt the parents feel should not be relieved by changing the emphasis of Scripture, but by the gospel. Parents who have not trained their children to follow the way of wisdom must repent and find forgiveness in the work of Christ. That is the solution for guilt. That is also the way that the parents who have made mistakes in their parenting can model for their wayward children the truth of the gospel. If the parents refuse to take responsibility for their wayward children, perhaps this is a clue into why their children are wayward in the first place. The parents themselves may have never learned the wisdom of living according to the gospel.

I want to make one other comment on Ryle’s application above. He emphasizes the “when a child is old” aspect of the proverb to imply that there may be a gap in time between the input of the parents and the effect in the life of the child. But this is not really what the verse is saying. If anything the emphasis in the text is on the child persevering in the right way throughout life.

All that being said, let me close with this. Parents, you should take hope in this text. You should expect that if you will train your children in the way of wisdom, they will follow that way for the rest of their lives. God is telling you that in the world that he made and governs, this is the way things normally work. I, for one, suspect rather strongly that the reason he has told you this is to encourage you in the work you are doing. So take God’s kind word to heart. Let this text guide your expectations and hope in your child rearing, and look forward to seeing God bring it to pass!

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