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.