Can you guarantee that your children will be followers of Jesus when they grow up? Putting the word “guarantee” with any claim about how children will turn out once they grow up seems foolish. But some well-meaning people have taught that there is a biblical guarantee. And it is found in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV).
While this verse sounds promising, it is premature to claim it as a promise that if you keep your kids in church and raise them up in a Christian environment, they will become followers of Jesus. The key problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the nature of proverbs as teaching tools. Accounting for the proverbial nature and the big aim of biblical wisdom literature, we can find a hopeful promise in Proverbs 22:6 about child-rearing, but one that falls far short of a guarantee that Christian parents will have Christian kids if they just try hard enough. Instead, the promise has to do with the way of wisdom.
Proverbs 22.6: Raise up a child in the way he should go – two main interpretations
There are two main ways I have heard this passage interpreted: (1) if you raise up your child in a Christian manner, they will remain Christian for life and (2) you should figure out the unique “way of your child” based on their aptitudes and raise them in such a way that teaches them how to thrive within their giftedness.
Appreciate how different these two understandings are.
The key to this passage is making sense of what “the way he should go/his way” means.
The Way he should go…
The Hebrew expression in question is literally “on the mouth of his road/way.” The images of a mouth and a way/road work together to give the following idea: a child put on the proper path at the beginning will keep walking that path, even when they are older. So, what is this way?
The way of wisdom.
As one commentator perceptively notes, in Proverbs there are only two ways: “the way of the wise and the righteous or the way of the fool and the wicked” (African Bible Commentary, 803). Only one of these is the way a child should go.
Proverbs and Wisdom
Proverbs is a book of wisdom. Wisdom in the bible is a far-ranging concept. It discusses practical skills associated with understanding and successful living. But we must never mistake Proverbs—or biblical wisdom—with modern day self-help tools. A couple OT scholars describe it well:
“Wisdom is not primarily interested in relating a list of theological truths, an account of history or a picture of the future. Wisdom is about the ways of things—how they are meant to exist and work.”
Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction, 23.
Wisdom is a way of life concerned with finding the grooves of the patterns God has woven into creation and following them.
The grounding conviction of biblical wisdom is that there is a God who has created a world that works in certain patterns. Wisdom is the pursuit of understanding these patterns of relationship: (1) how things in the world relate to each other, (2) how people relate to things in the world, (3) how people relate to each other, and (4) how God’s nature and purposes guide all these relationships into predictable patterns.
Don’t miss that God is central to biblical wisdom.
The way of wisdom
Since Proverbs is the book of biblical wisdom, we should understand Proverbs 22:6 as part of biblical wisdom. In a book concerned with passing on wisdom (Prov. 1:1-7), it is best to understand “the way he should go” to mean “the way of wisdom.”
This way of wisdom includes lots of practical insight into how the world works in general and is grounded in the conviction that God, the Creator, has made the world and people in it to work a certain way.
Aim for the right way, and you might just get it
Practically speaking, to say, “raise up your child in the way he should go” is to say “in the way of wisdom.” This proverb is less than a promise that if you take your kids to church and teach them the Bible they will become a Christian and more than saying you should figure out the unique “way of your child” based on their aptitudes and raise them in such a way that teaches them how to thrive within their giftedness.
As parents, we should respect the individuality of each child and temper our approaches to suit them. But their self-will will always lead them into the way of folly, that is, the way of sin. The biblical antidote to the way of folly is the way of wisdom.
As we teach our children the way of wisdom, we put them in the best place possible to see that wisdom flows from and towards God. We put them on the path that can lead them to Jesus. But there are no guarantees they will walk it.
You can be sure, though that if you don’t make the effort to show your children how to walk on the way of wisdom, they will probably never find it on their own.
This last week someone raised an important question regarding singleness. In a past sermon on singleness, I called singleness a sort of spiritually elite category a couple time. Someone raised an important concern with such language to me. Given the history of the church, isn’t it problematic to elevate singleness as a spiritual category? After all, for much of church history the celibate priests, monks, and nuns were viewed as more spiritually significant than other people. Does calling singleness a spiritually elite state fall into the trap which the Reformation helped rescue us from?
This is a worthwhile question to consider. I’ll freely grant that spiritually elite may not be the best title to describe singleness. However, such a title does force a conversation for our time that is different than the historical concerns of the Reformation. Namely, the rise of singleness divorced from spiritual significance. Ponder with me this modern state of singleness.
Singleness in church history
It is always beneficial to be aware of the past. Up until the Reformation, it was self-evident to most people that the family of God consisted of two categories of unequal worth: the celibate clergy and the profane laity. The church taught—and people largely believed—that the single Christian clergy members had greater spiritual significance than the laity.
While it’s not completely clear how this situation developed, it started early in church history. Various strands of Greek philosophy and related religious expressions taught that material reality (i.e., bodies) was inherently bad and that spiritual reality was inherently good. Thus, avoiding certain aspects of creaturely reality—like sexual relations—was good. These very influential philosophies, combined with a few passages from Scripture, buttressed up the view that single church leaders and religious “professionals” were of greater value to God than the married laity.
Singleness in churches today
Spiritually elite may not be the best title for the singleness, but both Paul and Jesus do present singleness as a difficult state that has spiritual benefits. However, it is a pathway in life that won’t be easy or readily fit for most people. This teaching is most clear in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul writes things like:
8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
There is a lot to chew through in 1 Corinthians 7. But this much is clear: Paul presents singleness as a spiritually advantageous state.
Note very carefully that I’m talking about spiritual advantages not spiritual worth. Nowhere does the text tell us that being single is of more value to God than being married, spiritually or otherwise. In fact, the Bible tends to assume that marriage is the default pattern for humanity. But there are (potentially) spiritual advantageous to singleness.
Which leads to the key point for today: when it comes to singleness, the modern world doesn’t seem to be much like the ancient world.
Single in Christ ≠ plain single
The modern phenomenon of high rates of singleness outside and inside the church has very little to do with this the picture painted by both Paul and Jesus. Instead of men and women foregoing sexual relations in order to further devote themselves to Jesus, we see marriage rates plummeting in society, and also plummeting amongst those who follow Jesus. We see widespread practice of (and increasing acceptance of) premarital and extramarital sexual relations and pornography use among followers of Jesus. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:9, “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (NIV). The data, both largescale and personal, suggests that many young adult followers of Jesus do indeed burn with passion, but increasingly don’t turn to marriage.
There’s a wealth of reasons and sociological explanations for all of this. Our chief interest is to illustrate that for many followers of Jesus today, singleness is quite different from what Paul and Jesus envisioned. Their teaching was a challenge in their day when marriage was normal and sexual immorality ran rampant. And it is still a challenge today when marriage seems to be faltering and sexual immorality still runs rampant.
In addition to the change in single life, we should not miss another way that our time and place is different from the past life of the church.
Single as normal, not a vocation
There are many single followers of Jesus who talk and write about the vocation of singleness as a way to make sense of their position in life. That is well and good. But I have yet to see someone stand up and argue that the best move in the spiritual life for everyone is to reject marriage and any forms of sexual relations. But, if you must get married, make sure you keep sexual relations to a minimum to avoid the taint of lust. We tend to see this view as self-evidently wrong. But that is essentially what St. Augustine taught about sexual relations. And he was by no means unique on the topic among early church leaders.
In my view, the greater threat to the church at this point is not the re-emergence of the teaching (among Protestants) that God prefers you to be single over married. The greater threat is that we will simply adopt the cultural slide towards a casual singleness. A singleness that is not spiritually engaged. A singleness that has little regard for God’s intended patterns of sexual relations. The greater threat to the church is acquiescence to the cultural norms of today, rather than those of 2,000 years ago.
Most people today assume that sexual relations are necessary for a flourishing life, finding it comedic and/or sad for an adult to not be sexually active. The boundaries of marriage are deemed irrelevant for pursuing such sexual relations. And increasingly, people in the church are in agreement with that.
Single in Christ
While spiritually elite may be bad language, something is required to reassert a biblical picture of singleness. Followers of Jesus can learn to pursue spiritual devotion to Jesus within singleness. And don’t get me wrong, a great many singles in fact do this. But the social norms and behavioral patterns of modern singleness are very far removed from a pursuit of godliness. To the degree that our version of singleness within the church looks like the rampant social singleness around us, to that degree we have lost the vision of what single in Christ means.
And that is where I end. Single in Christ. That is a name better than sons and daughters. And that is a name that is better, but far harder, than single in contemporary America.
What role should sexual relations play in marriage? Since marriage is the God-ordained arena for giving of yourself in a sexual relationship, how is this supposed to work out? First Corinthians 7:2-5 guides us to the heart of the matter: those married in Christ should have robust sexual relations that are mutually beneficial, helping both husband and wife to navigate the tricky waters of sexual immorality.
Sexual relations in marriage
The husband and wife are supposed to “fulfill their marital duty” to each other (1 Corinthians 7:3). Notice that this frames sexual relations within marriage as a duty each spouse owes to the other. The use of the phrase “deprive one another” in verse 5 also displays sexual relations as a mutual duty. After all, if it wasn’t yours to begin with, then you can’t be deprived. If only all duties in life had such potential for pleasure…
Of the much that could be said regarding the duty of delight within marriage, I want to highlight two issues. First, this teaching on sexual relations is surprisingly equal in its attention to the sexual desires of both the man and woman. Second, we must be careful to not misrepresent the power that marital sexual relations have in helping each spouse remain sexually pure.
It takes two…
It is refreshing to notice that Scripture here provides a relatively balanced picture of human sexuality. Often in discussions of sex throughout history, women get overlooked (or ignored, or minimized, or misrepresented, etc.). When we read these verses in 1 Corinthians, notice that women’s sexual desires receive as much attention as men’s.
That is very different from a common sexual script we hear today, the common male-dominated picture where men try to take what they want from reluctant women who put out as a means to meet some other goal. In contrast to this lopsided, male-dominated view of sexual activity, 1 Corinthians calls for spouses to jointly work out patterns of life that result in a mutually beneficial sexual relationship.
Of course, the particulars of working out such a relationship are complicated. Each couple needs to figure out their own balance of give and take. This requires exploring, trial and error, and communication. For example, one spouse may find it uncaring to be approached for sex after they had a bad day; another may desire that.
Sexual relations need to stand in balance with all the other rights and responsibilities of life. But they are a right and responsibility. The biblical ideal commits a husband and wife to the project of knowing one another in deep ways such that their sexual relationship is a blessing to each.
Communicate. Couples tend to follow a simple pattern doomed to fail. They don’t talk about their sexual desires and pleasures with each other. Then they are frustrated when things are out of balance. It is hard to forge a mutually beneficial sexual relationship when both parties are always guessing in the dark. Spouses, to pursue the biblical ideal of 1 Corinthians 7 requires talking to each other about the status of your sexual relationship.
Sexual relations are not a rescue project
While recognizing the beauty—or at least beautiful potential—of sexual relations in marriage, there is an important limitation. This limitation has to do with how sexual relations in marriage relate to sexual immorality (that’s porneia).
There is a long-running idea in certain Christian circles about sexual relations in marriage. It goes something like this: girls need to remain sexually pure and modest until marriage where they can then rescue the boys from their sinful sexual longings. While this is a crass and simplistic way to put it, the basic idea is clear. On the one hand, yes, when a man and woman marry they should direct their sexual longings at one another. The problem, though, is that this simplified message under-estimates the destructive power of sexual immorality. It is also wrong to the degree that it puts pressure on women to guard the sexual morality of men, but not really vice versa.
According to 1 Corinthians 7:2, people should get married “because of sexual immorality.” That is, marriage is a guard against being herded down wrong paths by sexual desires. Based on this verse, many Christians have conveyed the idea to young people that getting married fixes “sexual immorality” issues. If you just wait until marriage, then everything will work out great and sexual immorality will blissfully disappear. This often well-intentioned advice, though, is wrong.
The problem is that this will never work if one (or both) of the parties in a marriage come in already devoted to sexual immorality. And, let’s face it, sexual immorality is one of the key idols of our time. We are primed, trained, and encouraged to devote ourselves to it.
Sexual relations within marriage are not a pathway to rescue anyone from sexual bondage. They are more like a pleasure garden to tend together. But if one or both spouses have a tornado of sexual immorality raging inside, the pleasure garden has no chance to grow and bloom. Pornography, habitual masturbation, and/or affairs will destroy the garden.
Worship of sexual immorality will not be defeated by sexual relations with a spouse, no matter how often or enthusiastic they be. Rescue requires far deeper work of grace and self-repair.
Sexual relations in marriage should rank among the most pleasant and fulfilling duties a spouse ever has. This beautiful duty calls for spouses to know one another and aim at fulfilling one another’s needs and desires. There is no place in this vision for tyrants, demands, or power struggles. Instead, spouses get to tend with each other a pleasure garden that is theirs and theirs alone.
Throughout the Bible we come across the expression fear of the Lord. It no doubt refers to a complex aspect of life and is far from simple. For a few thoughts on it, see “Who Do You Fear?”. Clearly, it is meant to play a significant role in life. If not, why does it appear so often? Alongside this “fear of the Lord,” another prominent idea emerges throughout Scripture: love for God. How do fear and love of God relate?
A bar magnet
Maybe the fear of the Lord and love of the Lord work kind of like this.
Envision a bar magnet.
As you know, a magnet has two distinct magnetic poles: the north pole and the south pole. As any kid can tell you, opposite poles attract and like poles repel.
So far, so good. Magnets attract and repel.
As you certainly know, this is why traditional compasses work. The magnetized needle interacts with the magnetic field of the earth, attracted by one pole and repulsed by the other, making it move.
The Love and Fear Magnet
Now let’s take this magnet and put love of God on the north end and fear of the Lord on the southern end.
To complete the image, we need to add one more piece to our metaphor: a compass. Look at this video and pay attention to how the magnet interacts with the compass.
There is a push-pull interaction of the magnet with the different ends of the compass (anyone who is into physics could go more deeply into the way the different magnetic fields interact, but we can ignore that for our sake). Either end of the magnet works to push the compass in the direction you want it to go.
You life should be like that compass needle. The love of God should keep us pointing in the right way. It connects us to the vital life of God and draws us ever towards him and the blessings he has. The fear of the Lord serves the same point: keeping us in connection with God. But it does so in almost the opposite way. The fear of the Lord is a force that repulses us from wickedness, sin, disobedience and disregard for God the creator and Redeemer.
Both love and fear of God need to move the needle of your life.
I’m no expert in investments and the stock market, but I know the general pattern. You buy stocks or bonds in some form or another and hope they go up in value. When they go up, you sell and voila, you make money. That’s the usual way things are done. But it’s also possible to bet against the market. In this case, your profits come from betting that certain companies are going to fall in value. If you take this approach, then you hope to hear the news of failure, disruption, and collapse. These patterns within the stock market capture the relationship of holiness to the world. Yes, that’s right. Holiness is a little like buying stock. To see it play out, consider with me Revelation 18—19.
Where your stocks are determines what you rejoice over
Revelation 18—19 is close to the end. We’re at the climactic showdown. The fall of Babylon dominates chapter 18. Now, Babylon in the book of Revelation is many things at many different levels. As Revelation unfolds, though, it becomes clear that Babylon is the anti-kingdom. As one author puts it:
“In his portrayal of Babylon the great, John is again confronting his audience with the choice between the beast or the lamb, the world or the church, those who dwell on the earth or those who are citizens of heaven, because Babylon is the “anti-Kingdom”—the alluring, all-encompassing alternative to the Kingdom of God.”
Menn, Biblical Eschatology, 2nd Ed., 294
Stockholders in Babylon
In the vision of chapter 18, we witness this anti-kingdom fall in judgment. Better said, we hear about the fact that it has fallen and we witness the way people respond to it.
The powerful and important people of the earth mourn (18:9-10). The businesspeople, the merchants, the traders, the Wall Street brokers mourn (18:11-17). The truck drivers, cargo ship captains, and freight train companies mourn (18:15-18).
Why is everyone so sad? Because they were vested in the existence and success of Babylon. They put all their savings into Babylon stock, as it were. They saw how wonderful, shiny, and great it was and poured all their money into it. They bet everything that it would endlessly increase in value. Instead, it turned out to be just like a crypto-currency exchange. The bottom dropped out on them and they are left with nothing.
Having lost their fortune is hard enough. But the coming return of Jesus in judgment makes it all the worse because everyone is about to be judged for what they have done (20:11-15—notice the repetitive emphasis on judging people based on their works). To use the picture from Jesus’ parable, it’s like Jesus will sit on the throne and ask each person to show their investment portfolio and judge them based on its value (see Matthew 25:14—30).
Stockholders in the Kingdom of God
Contrast the way the stockholders of Babylon mourn with the wild rejoicing that breaks out in heaven when Babylon goes into its death spiral. A great multitude cries out in worship, with the worship leaders shouting out, “Praise God” (19:1-5).
This is a stunning reversal in the plot of Revelation. Up ‘til this point, those who side with God and his Kingdom have mostly been getting trampled on. These people of God invested stock in the Kingdom of God and they bet all they had that Babylon would go belly up…but it looked like it would just keep growing in glory and splendor forever. It looked like holiness wasn’t going to pay out anything of great value. Until the turn.
Financial Advisors, in my experience, have one main component to their job. While they are specialists in the technical knowledge about how our financial system works—in all of its ridiculous complexity—even more importantly, they exist to tell you one message over and over again: it is worth it to play the long game with your finances. Don’t bet on what looks flashy and impressive now, bet on things that will hold value over the long haul.
And chapter 18—19 of Revelation show the tipping point where investments in holiness go from looking pretty silly to being the obvious best choice for the long run.
While Revelation has a cataclysmic, end-of-all-things aspect to its meaning and function, it also lays out for us the pattern of life until Jesus returns to close out this age and bring in fully the age to come. Babylon stands partially for a symbol of the world, people now, and how they stand in opposition to turning to God in worship. And, just like in Revelation, Babylon often looks pretty convincing and goes to great effort to make signing up for the Kingdom of God look like a fool’s errand.
As we work through 1 Peter, we see the conflict between Babylon and the Kingdom of God come into sharp focus. The people were suffering a fiery ordeal (1 Peter 4:12) of suffering, social ostracization, and persecution of various soft and hard types. An easy out? Stop living holy lives. That is, stop living lives devoted to knowing God and transforming themselves into the image of Jesus in word and deed.
Why? Lots of reasons. One of note: the stock with actual value is that which God holds, not Babylon (1 Peter 1:3-9)
Where is your stock?
Holiness is a bit like the stock market. Holiness is like investing your stock in the Kingdom of God and living for Jesus in all things. And holding out in trust and hope that, in the end, it will pay out. The other pathway is to invest in Babylon. It looks shiny and exciting, but no matter how hard it tries, it can never quite shake the “too good to be true” veneer. Whatever you invest there will burn up in Babylon’s death spiral.
On a practical point, this swing of events in chapters 18—19 of Revelation subtly but forcibly asks: are you in position to rejoice with the just judgment of God over Babylon, or am I more apt to mourn? It challenges you, the reader: are you able to rejoice in the defeat of the enemy of God, or do you have so much stock in it that it will be escaping as through a fire?
Some people are good at throwing things away. I’m not (though I’ve gotten much better with practice). You never know when something will be useful. Anyway, I was heading into a master’s degree before I finally managed to throw out my middle school papers, work, and notes that I had kept. There is just so much precious in them—at least, deeply precious to me. They speak to a past, a pattern of growth, work, and effort. They were precious. At least, precious in the sense of I would rather keep them around in a drawer in the dresser at my parent’s house that I didn’t live in and, even whilst visiting, hardly ever looked into. But keeping them there rather than throwing them away was important.
Which is one of the funny things about our pasts. They are dear to us, but often, the weight of the past is a lot like clutter which hampers life in the now.
In successive bouts of de-cluttering throughout the years, I have succeeded in throwing away (or recycling 😊) all of my former middle school, high school, undergraduate, as well as graduate school materials and assignments, except for a carefully curated few.
What ultimately got me around to throwing away/recycling? The past weighed too much.
The weight of the past
Papers are heavy
First, quite literally the past was too heavy to keep carrying around each time we moved. When you have to carry each and every box of papers from the past downstairs, into a truck, out of the truck, and upstairs into a new house, the weight of the past becomes far less precious.
Identities are heavier
Second, and more metaphorically, I found over time that holding on to so much of the past can be a burdensome weight in understanding who I am and what I am trying to be in the present. It has been fun to periodically poke about in my middle school essays, review my chemistry notes from high school, or look at water resources engineering problems from college. But these all bear very little connection to my life now. They are testimonies of what I once could do well, but no longer remember much about and no longer have any need to do. Holding on to them was holding on to an idea of who I am and what I should be able to do that is no longer true or necessary.
Yes, I once could do advanced mathematics and all kinds of cool stuff in chemistry. But outside of a brief stint in tutoring math and a few lucky times in substitute teaching, I haven’t done any of that stuff in more than a decade. Maybe this is just me, but I’ve found that holding on to these testaments of past ability puts a pressure on my life to still be able to do what I used to.
So, over the years I have progressively pruned, with increasing ruthlessness, my stash of precious papers from the past. Now the stacks and piles are a mere couple folders.
I’m sure you can tell a similar story with your own possessions. The experience of pruning things from the past is a helpful analogy to talking about change at church as we think through our current Church Health Assessment. In working through my precious papers which tied me to the past, there are three important principles I’ve come to appreciate about how I need to relate to the past: (1) honor the past, (2) live in the present, and (3) face the future.
Coming shortly, we’ll think a little together about how these principles relate to various ways the church relates to the past. As we process, discuss, and debate aspects of our recent Church Health Assessment, we will certainly need wisdom to figure out what in our past should remain our present, how we can honor the past, how we can face the future, and how we can do all these things without being weighed down.
Go ahead and look at the following picture and count how many triangles you see in it.
Do you see two? Most people will see two at least. Maybe you notice that there are at least six little triangles in addition to the big triangles, which brings our total up to 8. Possibly you see 3 more triangles as the “Pacman” mouths. Which would give us 11.
Or maybe you notice that there actually aren’t any triangles in the picture.
This picture is an optical illusion, the Kanizsa Triangle, to be precise. Look closely and you’ll notice that there are no complete triangles anywhere in this picture. There are no lines that actually connect to form a triangle. However, your brain so desperately wants to hold them together that it is really hard to not see a triangle. We even generate lines in our minds that don’t exist in order to make the shapes relate to each other.
Making up the lines in the picture is a phenomenon researchers call the Gestalt law of closure. We tend to see objects that are close together as related group. It’s a useful trait in real life where things close together very often need to be understood in relation to each other.
Seeing may be believing, but believing is not seeing
Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. Except sometimes, what we see doesn’t actually exist. Our seeing can be misled. Seeing is a reliable guide for a lot of life, but not all the time. We know this.
We also know that you can’t see everything you believe in. Sometimes it is just the way the world works. We don’t see air, or gravity, but we believe in them because of their effects.
I have never been to China, but I have zero doubt whatsoever that China exists. Not only is there all sorts of recorded evidence about China, but I know many people who testify that they are from China or have traveled to China.
We believe strongly in many things we haven’t seen, and many we will never see.
A different kind of seeing
Take a quick look at 1 Peter 1:7-9 (especially 8—9; 7 is there to make a complete English sentence):
7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (NIV)
Peter, writing this letter, knew Jesus personally and had seen him after his resurrection from the dead (see 1 Peter 1:3). But the recipients of the letter hadn’t seen Jesus. And yet, with a glance of loving faith, they are able to believe and be filled up with the joy that Jesus provides: a belief-filled joy which pours out salvation to souls.
They come to see and know Jesus through the testimony of others, through the evidence of lives changed, and through their faith.
Our eyes are capable of “seeing” lines where they don’t exist in the above optical illusion. Our brains see the shapes and fill in the connections. The optical illusion just reveals to us how our minds engage with the world around us. Because in real life, seeing how objects close to each other relate is critical.
The life of faith is similar, in many ways. The eyes of faith are also capable of seeing see how people, objects, and events in the world around us relate together and point toward things that are bigger than we can directly see and know.
This passage in 1 Peter calls to mind an interesting quote from C. S. Lewis that I recently came across:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
After an agonizingly long interruption, we return to our four-part series reflecting on Ephesians 6:4 and the command for parents not to provoke their children to anger. For a refresher, see part 1 and part 2 (they are really important for what is coming). As promised, in this post we will give brief thought to the way psychology contributes to our understanding of the covenantal relationship between children and parents. I have so far maintained that provoking a child to anger is accomplished through treating the child wrong in the very area of life where they have just expectations to be treated right. Psychology and child development theories lend some insight into better answering the question, “What are the legitimate expectations children have of their parents which, if not met, should result in anger.”
Consider the following big idea: parents should play a major role in child developing “life skills” and “civilization skills.” This probably sounds pretty obvious. But since the Bible speaks a great deal about how parents should help their children develop “life skills” and “civilization skills” (see the book of Proverbs), why bother with psychology at all?
Two reasons: (1) you are already borrowing from psychology, whether you know it or not, so why not be intentional about it, and (2) a lot of the biblical guidance on parenting aims mainly at the goals rather than the details. But in the throes of parenting, we are often grappling with detail questions. To avoid provoking children to anger, we stand to benefit from knowledge about what is normal for children in terms of their abilities at any given stage of life. Here enters psychology and child development studies.
You already borrow from psychology
“Why are they behaving like such children?”
Someone once shared that phrase with me, and it has proven a useful way to keep my sanity as I watch my own kids with a sense of bewilderment. Embedded in that phrase is an assumption, which you probably so firmly agree with that it passes by without a second thought. Namely, that children are different from adults. Not just that they are miniature adults, but actually different. This assumption comes to us through psychology and/or child development studies.
“In the modern study of child development, we simply take for granted that children are fundamentally different from adults. Yet, for much of human history, kids were simply seen as smaller versions of their adult counterparts.”
Even if you are making every effort to be stringently biblical in your parenting and avoid different “theories” developed by so-called “specialists” with dubious claims and motives, as like as not, the very way you think about children and the path of growing up is laid for you through modern child development theories that have become part of our collective unconscious as a culture. But, let us not naively rush in. The world of child development study is a mess.
Untangling the mess
There are many different theories of child development. I am not a specialist at any and have been impacted by several.
Rather than look deeply into one theory, I want to suggest some broad ways that child development theories can help flesh out what a child can legitimately expect from their parents. Because, remember, the idea here is that Ephesians 6:4 works by assuming some sort of “covenantal” relationship between children and parents. As such, certain ways parents can treat their children violate the norms and justly result in an angry child. We can find some guidance regarding what children can justly expect from their parents by looking at the way God created children and the needs they have in the process of growing to maturity.
children are different from adults
children are becoming adults
parents (or primary-caregivers of any stripe) play an outsized role in this process
it follows that insight on how human beings in general make the transition from children to adults will help us flesh out our model of what children can and should expect to receive in some fashion from their parents.
Broadly speaking, children can expect that their parents give them “survival skills” and “civilization skills.”
Navigating life today
Within the parent-child relationship it is the parent, not the child, who primarily has the wisdom necessary for survival and thriving within society. Note that this balance changes more and more as a child gets older. A parent knows far more than their 3-year-old about survival and civilization; their 13-year-old knows more about certain aspects of survival and civilization than they do. But, on balance, wisdom about life in society really does increase with age, which leaves the average parent ahead of their child, at least for childhood, and likely in certain ways for life. “Within society” is important. Humans are social beings. Especially in modern society, our survival is more dependent on how we work together than with knowing direct survival skills.
An immense amount of parent-child friction comes from parents implementing guards against the impulses of their children. While frustrating for children, these guards play the key role of preparing the children for survival and life in society. These rules range the familiar gamut:
yes, you have to eat your vegetables and not just ice cream and candy (even if they taste good)
no, you can’t play in the street
no, just because watching videos online is fun doesn’t mean you get to do it all the time
yes, you need to come in and say hello to your grandma and grandpa and not just sulk in the car
The list is endless, familiar, and both frustrating and difficult to navigate. In broad strokes, the friction emerges as parents implement rules that direct and constrain their children into certain patterns of living which enable their survival (health, well-being, etc.) and their ability to live in your culture (politeness rules, honor, shame, work ethic, etc.). No child comes pre-programmed with everything they need to live successfully. First, they can’t even stay alive. Second, the demands of your particular culture are enormous and require years of constant immersion and teaching before a child is adept enough to navigate them. Parents (or other types of primary care-givers) play an enormous role in the constant give-and-take of nitty-gritty decisions and debates about what is and isn’t good for their child at this exact point in time.
While we will consider many things Scripture does have to say about parenting in the next post, it does not answer for us whether 15 minutes or 2 hours or 6 hours of screen time is too much in a day. It does not tell us when our children should be entrusted with a phone, or a car, or money. It does not tell us what situations it is appropriate to raise your voice at your children. When you are to stick to your guns and when it is okay to change your mind. It doesn’t even tell us how often having ice cream is wise. There are no shortage of practical, in-the-trench parenting questions which Scripture does not answer.
Should you just follow your gut? That is often the case. After all, a big role of wisdom is allowing us to generate reasonable answers to novel problems. But studies of child (and human) development help flesh out the answers we can give. It really isn’t in your child’s best interest to let them watch 6 hours of daily screen time, be endlessly involved in social media, skip out of school, or forego eating broccoli because mealtime goes better when you just focus on dessert.
With novel problems emerging seemingly left and right calling for parents to try to navigate them—and help their kids navigate them—it seems like parents need to be experts at everything. Realistically, the best any of us parents can hope for is that our successes will not be overwhelmed by our failures. But, the biblical vision of parenting calls for parents to be deeply involved in setting boundaries, negotiating rights and privileges, and in all ways trying to guide their kids into wisdom. Getting a little help along the way can be helpful.
Adjusting aims and expectations
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits bequeathed to us through these sorts of child development studies is information that can help parents adjust their aims and expectations. Yes, in fact, you are going to have to say the same thing 200 more times before your child remembers it. Repetition is crucial to how they learn. And no, you are not imagining things, your teenager doesn’t hear you as well as they used to. In fact, their brain is shifting to be able to hear more people in general better, which means that you lose some of your privileged status in the corridors of their brain (sorry). Whether sinless children would have needed 200 repetitions or sinless teenagers ever would have missed your voice in a crowd or not, who knows (I suspect they still would have). But the kids we have today mostly follow predictable patterns of development with certain skills, abilities, and desires changing over time.
Knowing a few things about childhood development can help us parent with less frustration (at least theoretically). The biblical vision of parenting focus more on the long-game—what kind of person children should end up being. Adjusting our expectations and methods to better hit where our children are at developmentally as they age will help us get them there. After all, there are few things as frustrating in life as when someone is angry at you and you are not sure why. That happens often in childhood.
Much more could be said and has been said elsewhere. A big part of parenting is the on-going negotiation of who is in control of what between parents and children. Since
there is no perfect blueprint for any of the complicated questions involved
all parties involved are sinners, and
all parties involved are acting out of their own web of inscrutable and complex emotions, desires, assumptions, and beliefs about how the world does and ought to work
there will be endless opportunities for anger to rear up. Learning about child development from various psychological theories can clue us in to some of the inscrutable factors driving our children and give a little bit of practical guidance for the many specific questions parents must navigate with their kids on a daily basis.
Stay tuned for part 4, discussing some more specific biblical themes. After all, raising healthy, successful children who function well in society is wonderful, but it is short of the biblical mandate. God’s intentions for parents include other key ideas and children have an inherent right to receive them from their parents.
Acts 2:42—47 gives us a quick glance into the very earliest group of followers of Jesus. We see them living in an intense community with one another. As the text says,
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Hearing about this early church probably gets your blood pumping and excitement running. But… Wait… Hold on there. Sharing all possessions. Holding everything in common. Doesn’t that sound a lot like some type of commune, or maybe even communism? Were the early followers of Jesus communists? Should followers of Jesus today be communists?
Every so often the idea shows up that the early Christians were communists—or at least communistic—and that suggests we should be, too. It’s even here, in Wikipedia! Does this idea hold water? Let’s look briefly at the text and see what there is to see.
The (historically-specific) birth of the church
When we read the biblical text, it is helpful to remember that it happened in real history. The situation in Acts 2:42-47 was unique, and the unique factors are relevant. Let’s review what happened.
Pentecost, also known as the Feast of Weeks (see Leviticus 23:15-21), was a Jewish harvest festival held 50 days after Passover. By the time of Acts, this Festival of Weeks had morphed into a celebration of the giving of the Law. It was one of the three annual festivals for which Jewish people would travel from all over the known world to Jerusalem. On this particular Pentecost, probably sometime in May of AD 33, God’s Spirit showed up with a roar. Jesus’ followers threw caution into the wind, preached the gospel boldly, and Jews from all over the known world responded, becoming followers of Jesus the Messiah.
The historical setting is important for grasping what is happening in Acts 2. People from the world over had traveled to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage. They were on vacation. They weren’t immigrating. When many non-residents of Jerusalem accept Jesus as messiah and stay there, the practical problem emerges of how to take care of everyone.
Cue spontaneous gifts of generosity. Widespread gifts of generosity, to such a degree that Luke characterizes it as:
44 All who believed were together and held everything in common, 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need.
Acts 2:44-45 NET
This was clearly a communal way of supporting each other that is deeply foreign to most followers of Jesus today. But note how it is not communistic.
The early church versus Karl Marx
If we’re going to call them communistic, they are unlike any communism as it’s been practiced in the 20th-21st century. Notice that this is not a forced redistribution of wealth. It’s neither a profit-sharing endeavor nor the government forcibly controlling the means of production in society. It’s just people taking care of each other.
It’s organic, to use the criminally overused buzzword.
People shared what they had and what they could. People who had extra things, like the field that Barnabas sells (Acts 4:36-37), sold them to help other people. The fact that there are people who are “in need” makes plain that this “sharing everything” didn’t entail some sort of communal ownership of all the assets of each individual, otherwise, no one would be in need until the whole commune went bankrupt!
These early believers just were not concerned with addressing the questions which communism as a political theory tries to address at all. The sharing in the early church is more analogous to going and helping your neighbor move today than anything Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Mae Zedong, or Xi Jinping were ever up to.
Watching the growth, not just the beginning
Pay special attention to the way this pattern of extreme giving and communal living falls by the wayside as Acts progresses. This first account of the church is of a group of people in transition. After being scattered by persecution (Acts 6), they settle down elsewhere and start making longer-term commitments to the place they are at. Never again do we get a report of communities divesting themselves of their assets and living in a commune. Why? Are these later churches not hearing the same gospel? Aren’t they receiving the same spirit? Or did the apostles change the message?
To be clear, generosity and devotion to caring for each other remain a focus. Paul writes:
28 The one who steals must steal no longer; instead he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he will have something to share with the one who has need.
Ephesians 4:28 NET
But we see that the communal zeal and living on the means at hand fall by the wayside as not essential to the gospel community the Holy Spirit births. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 3:10:
10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this command: “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.”
There is no freeloading, no taking care of people who simply won’t bother taking care of themselves. The gospel does not permanently remove people from the normal patterns of life, but redirects them on their way.
But, more to this point, working and sharing with one another remain a lasting mark of the church. Selling possessions and holding all things in common, however, don’t. Those are responses to an immediate concern at the birth of the church. While giving us a example to follow of passion, fervor, and generosity, they are not an economic or political theory about how to organize a local or national economy. Or even how followers of Jesus today should relate to those systems of politics and economics.
The whole response of the proto-church in Acts is based on love and generosity and sacrifice for others. If that’s what you mean by communist, then you could call the early church communist. But a much better word for that is community. A community that loves and takes care of each other.
 Pentecost is 50 days (7 weeks and a day) after Passover. Passover was Nissan 14 on the year Jesus was crucified. This was either AD 30 or AD 33, with the later date probably more likely, though both dates have their advocates.
Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. Or a common one on the internet, “if there aren’t pictures, it didn’t happen.” These sayings neatly present a simple reality of how we as human beings live in the world: we depend a lot on our eyes. What we see has enormous influence on what we think, feel, and believe. That’s nothing new. But today there is something new. Today, it is easier than ever to make pictures that aren’t what they seem.
For nearly as long as there have been pictures, people have made fake pictures. In days of old, it took a fair deal of creativity and skill to pull off a decent fake picture. But no longer. Thanks to developments in artificial intelligence image generators, it takes shockingly little effort to make a reasonably good picture. But how good?
Surely, you will be able to tell the difference. Why don’t you give it a try?
You might be a little disoriented that it’s on a German website and in German, but you can handle this. All you have to do, is choose whether you think the picture is Fake, or a Foto (that’s German for “photo,”; I bet you figured that out because you’re clever). After each result, you’ll see a percentage pop up. That is the percent of people who guessed right.
Why don’t you go check it out?
Seeing and believing
Assuming you tried out the quiz (and if you haven’t, go do it—it is pretty fun), consider the following. At the time I took the quiz, the collective accuracy of people was right around 64%. To put that into perspective, that’s not much better results than the same amount of people taking the test would get if they just guessed randomly without looking at the pictures at all!
Naturally, this image is from an AI image generator. The prompt that elicited it: guessing with a blindfold, cartoon.
The results of this quiz suggest there’s a very high likelihood you will see fake pictures generated by artificial intelligence and not be able to recognize they are fake!!
No, the sky is not falling
Life will go on. You don’t need to invest all your savings in gold and go live off-the grid to try to avoid the computer apocalypse (at least not yet, anyway 😊).
But, it is time for us to start the long, slow process of preparing ourselves for living in a world where fake pictures are indistinguishable from the real, at least much of the time. Since what we see has such a strong influence on what we believe to be true, it’s going to take some work on our parts to live in this brave new world.
One key plank in our preparations for this high-tech world is the decidedly ancient Christian practice of charity. Charity is the effort to believe the best about other people and to assume that they act with consistent intentions and in ways consistent with their character. Of course, this “believe the best about people” can be grossly abused. Often people prove that we should not believe the best about them. But charity is going to become increasingly necessary. After all, it has never been easier to make a compromising picture or clip of someone and weaponize it against them. All it takes is a bit of time on an AI image generator. Anyone can do it.
Practicing charity with pictures we see online will better prepare us to treat the real people in our lives with charity. Jesus modeled a way of treating others that held together justice and mercy—a pathway of charity. A big part of charity is to see people not just for what they are now, but for what they can become through God’s grace. If having to wade through AI generated pictures helps us train in charity, then it won’t be all bad.
Even if it will be unsettling, confusing, amusing, and a little bit scary.
And just for fun
Here is the response ChatGPT spit out when I asked it to summarize this blog post in two sentences:
The article discusses the prevalence of fake pictures created through artificial intelligence and highlights the challenge of distinguishing between real and fake images. It emphasizes the importance of practicing charity in the digital age, as the ability to believe the best about others and treat them with grace becomes increasingly necessary in a world where manipulated images can be used to harm individuals.
Not bad. Although it feels funny to me to cite AI-generated text in a quote.