Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.Proverbs 22:6
I have heard much debate on whether this verse is a promise or a principle. I assure you at the start, I probably won’t definitively clear that up for you in this post. But I do think we can learn something from the concept of the debate.
I think the question stems from uncertainty as to whether my actions can change someone else’s response and actions. I can’t be the Holy Spirit for someone else. However, I have power over my own decisions and actions. Therefore, I should do what is right regardless of how someone else may or may not respond.
This verse is a good launchpad for us to learn about one-sided commands. In other words, statements (or commands) that I am supposed to apply to me but that don’t take into account another person’s free will to do as they please.
The post from a couple of days ago that I titled Driving a Hard Bargain is an example of one of these types of statements. In the marketplace we are supposed to treat people fairly even if they don’t treat us fairly. Does this seem fair? That is the type of command I am talking about.
In Ephesians five and six there are commands to husbands, wives, parents and children. Husbands are to love their wives. Wives are to submit to their husbands. Children are to obey their parents. And parents are not to provoke their children to wrath (not to frustrate them) while raising them in a loving, Christian environment.
If my wife does not submit, does that mean I don’t have to love her? Or if my children don’t obey, I am no longer under the obligation to raise them in a loving way? No!
This is where we need to see the command that is given to us (whichever person in the family we are) and live in obedience to that regardless of whether others in the family are doing their part. Don’t make your obedience to God contingent on whether other people obey the commands given to them.
Reading Your Own Mail
As a husband I should focus on what is written to me. When I love my wife, it makes it easier for her to submit. But I should love her whether she submits or not. And, as a wife, her obedience to God’s command is submission, whether I love her or not. Again, it is much easier for her to do her part if I do mine. And, it is easier for me to do my part if she does hers. However, I should not make my obedience to God’s command based on whether other people are also obeying.
My responsibility is to obey the part written to me.
This is what I call “reading your own mail.” Read what is written to you. As a child, I should obey my parents because it is commanded for me to obey. The command does not say, “you only need to obey if your parents are loving and promise to give you a car when you turn 16.”
Gentle Aside: Parents, it is a dangerous thing to constantly promise some type of reward for obedience. They should obey because God told them to, not because they will get a treat for being good. Giving them treats is not wrong. But you should be the ones training them, not allowing them to train you into giving them something in exchange for obedience.
Principle or Promise?
I have dear friends who struggle with the decisions their adult children are making. Dad and Mom have been faithful in the ministry God has called them to. They are heartbroken because they, understandably, want to hold onto Proverbs 22:6 as a promise. But their children are making decisions that have departed far from the path they were taught. How do you comfort them?
In a perfect world, with perfect parents and perfect children, I believe this verse is an ironclad promise. If I always trained my children perfectly in accordance to God’s leading and there were no outside influences to pull my child off path, then this is a promise I could rest upon.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. My children are pretty good kids, but they aren’t perfect. I know I haven’t always been the best example of a biblically obedient parent. And, no matter how much we may try to protect our children, they are influenced by their peers and the worldly media that reaches them.
This is certainly not an argument for never letting your children outside the home. Or, for signing them up for a monastery or convent the day they turn 12. The argument is for you to also look at the principle behind the verse.
If I, as a parent, will train my child in the ways of the Lord when they are young, it will be very hard for them to go astray from that. If they do go astray it will be in conscientious disobedience to God.
Another Aside: For my animal husbandry friends, this word train is interesting to me. It is from a word that filtered into many other languages that is used for what we would call today, imprinting.
I don’t know all the ins and outs of how psychology uses the term imprinting, but in the animal world it is used to help the new baby animal learn about the world. You do things to them—like stick your finger in their mouth and nostrils—to help them think that being handled in this way is a normal occurrence. Then, when you have to administer medicine later, they won’t be surprised by it.
The word translated train, morphed into other languages meaning the jaws, palate and neck. It can mean to taste, to put something in the mouth. Metaphorically it can mean to understand.
Whether this verse in Proverbs is a promise or principle is not the point today. My point is that I should do my part whether the other person does theirs or not.
Approach the Bible with the thought that, “I will do what I am commanded to do whether other people live in obedience to that or not.” When God gives a statement that should be obeyed, I need to look and see if it is written to me. Is it my mail? If it is, then I should read it and heed it.
If what is written is not for me, then I need to accept that others must make their own choice as to whether or not they will obey. I do not need to be the one to force them to obey. That is not to say that I can’t teach others what is right. Especially in the home, parents are told to teach God’s commands (Deuteronomy 6:1-9).
There are situations where it is appropriate to train others in how to obey God. And, in some situations, God has authorized you and me with the responsibility to carry out the punishment for someone’s disobedience. But, our obedience to His Word is not based on their obedience.
We must read the mail that is written for us. Then we should obey it because it is right to obey. Don’t base your obedience on the obedience of others.