All Prodigals Here
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 1:4)
This verse speaks to the heart of every Christian parent’s desire for their children. I’ve lost count of the number of parenting books and seminars I have seen that promise to tell how to make sure it happens: “You, too, can produce the godliest kid on the block!” Such programs usually come with a foolproof list of how-tos. They tell us how to love them, feed them, teach them, and regulate them. If we do all these things faithfully, we are promised stars in our crowns and arrows in our quivers.
But What About ____?
The problem is that we all know incredible people who have come out of the most perverse, horrific family backgrounds who love the Lord Jesus with every fiber of their being AND are a delight to be around. But we also know people who were bibled, catechized, churched, separated, shrink-wrapped in modest gingham, who have been kept caffeine-, gluten-, and sugar-free since before the foundation of the world, who nonetheless turned out to be mean-spirited, arrogant monsters.
All of this confirms to me that, while parenting may be about a lot of things, the one thing it is NOT about is formulas. And it’s not a new problem. Even a cursory look at the kings of Judah should show us that. Of the twenty-one kings of Judah, only eight were faithful.
More troubling, only four of the eight faithful kings of Judah fathered faithful sons. The other four fathered wicked sons: Jehoshaphat’s Jehoahaz murdered all his brothers. Jotham’s Ahaz led all of Judah back into idolatry. Hezekiah’s Manasseh went even further, out-sinning the previous inhabitants of the land of Israel—doing more evil than the Amorites had done, filling Jerusalem with innocent blood from one end to the other. And Josiah (child star of generations of four- and five-year old Sunday School take-home papers) fathered four child-sacrificing idolaters.
It is curious that the kings whose devotion to God was the most marked produced some of the most horrific kings. How do you start with Solomon and Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah and Josiah and end up with children who murder their brothers, sacrifice children to false gods, and kill the prophets of God?
By the same token, how does an Amon father a Josiah?
It’s Not a Formula
No formula can explain this. The blessing is that it shows that there is no formula. The work of the Spirit in the human heart is nothing we can format, predict, or schedule. The Spirit moves as He will (John 3:8). The new birth is God’s doing alone—we can’t do anything to force it on either ourselves or our children (John 1:13). Knowing that ought to take the pressure off of us to find that perfect parenting method.
While there are no formulas, there are lessons to be learned.
We do see eight faithful kings in Judah, but not one of them was perfect. In the lives of these kings we see some recurring struggles.
There are those like Jehoshaphat whose courageous heart and absolute trust in God led him, in the face of overwhelming military attack, to pray, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” And he had seen God take their battle as his own and bring miraculous military deliverance. This was the same king who exterminated remaining male cult prostitutes associated with Baal worship. But in his later years, we continually find him in Ahab’s court and in Ahab’s business. Not only does he fight alongside Ahab and sit in council with him, Jehoshaphat eventually marries his son, Jehoram, to Ahab’s Baal-worshiping daughter, Athaliah. Jehoshaphat, for all his passion, appears to be more interested in Ahab’s approval than in God’s.
It’s not surprising that his oldest son took all of this to mean, “The Lord your God is one, but let’s not get too excited about it.” The end result: Athaliah would do for Jehoram what Solomon’s wives did for him—draw his heart away from truth. Jehoram and his son Ahaziah proved to have more in common with Ahab than Jehoshaphat. This convenient political alliance with the enemy eventually cost the lives of his sons and his grandsons.
And there are those like Hezekiah, who had demonstrated great passion for truth, destroying Baal worship sites, killing Baal’s priests, and sending priests throughout Judah to make sure the people heard the truth. He had seen the Lord of Hosts devastate the arrogant Assyrian king, Sennacherib. More personally, Hezekiah had experienced a more personal deliverance—God not only healed him of a fatal disease, but also confirmed that it was indeed his own doing by moving the sun’s shadow backwards (2 Kings 20:10). Yet, when Hezekiah is whole and prosperous, he unabashedly takes credit for both his health and wealth (2 Chronicles 32:25-26). It makes me wonder what lessons Hezekiah passed on to Manasseh, the son born to him during his last fifteen prideful years.
Arrogance is always an ugly thing, and nothing good ever comes of it. Proud religious people make lousy evangelists.
Writing about her father, Bertrand Russell, Katharine Tait describes Russell’s early religious experience:
The religion my parents had grown up in was a dry morality without grace, a series of impossible demands that left them defeated and depressed. They escaped from it joyfully into a free life that affirmed their own goodness and expected their children’s (Tait).
The frightening thing about parenting is that children do hear everything we say and watch everything we do. Worse, they expect the two to line up. If we say that we are saved by the glorious gift of grace but live under bondage to a list of unsatisfiable demands—we would be better off keeping our religion to ourselves.
In Psalm 34:1-8, David writes:
I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!
I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
This is what our children need from us.
Affirmation of the kindness, graciousness, and goodness of God and an invitation from us to them to taste and see for themselves the goodness of the Lord.