“We just wanted what was best for them.”
Imagine interviewing Isaac and Rebekah after Jacob had fled to the East, and Esau sulked angrily at being tricked out of his father’s blessing—vowing to kill his brother at an opportune time.
Isaac apparently thought in terms of the proper leadership role that the firstborn son ought to have occupied in a Middle Eastern family of that era. Rebekah apparently thought in terms of fulfilling—by her own designs—the enigmatic prophecy God had given to her, which spoke of a division of nations and the supremacy of the younger of the twins that she had carried so many years previously (Gen. 25:23). Both seemed to hold noble objectives for their sons, and both decided that God’s will could be best achieved with a little “push.”
For their favoritism and family conspiracies, we can legitimately criticize both Isaac and Rebekah. Partiality in parents breeds dysfunctionality, strife, and ultimately, hatred among children. And neither parent set a particularly healthy tone for the family. But in terms of their desire to seek a solid societal outcome for their children, we ought to cut them some slack.
What good parent doesn’t want his or her children to grow up to be a well-adjusted, successful, and some combination of chip-off-the-old-block or standing-on-the-shoulders-of-previous-generations type of individual?
Sometimes, however, our desires for our children’s future lives collides with God’s will. It’s not that we intentionally disregard God’s plans—no thoughtful Christian parent would want to do that—but it’s terribly easy to confuse or commingle our plans with what we think God’s plans are (or should be).
After all, we want what is best for our children, and we think we see useful ways to achieve this outcome. Surely God wants what is best for them as well. So doesn’t that mean that His plans will likely align with ours? Unfortunately, such reasoning is not safe.
First, we lack the knowledge that God possesses—a knowledge which grasps every fact, every connection, every contingency. Second, God has the right to direct all things according to His will. We do not. Sure, we may think that our child’s personality and gifts align perfectly to propel her into accounting, veterinary science, secondary education, or violin performance. Of course, we may feel that he would make an ideal carpenter, engineer, pastor, financial analyst, or physical therapist. But how much do we really know? Not much.
Given the startling twists and turns of our own lives, we might think that we would have long ago given up the attempt to scrutinize the plans of the Almighty, but we are incorrigible prognosticators—bent on figuring out the future before it arrives so that we have some edge in making decisions. And so we scan the future for our children—nobly hoping to direct them more securely according to God’s will but possibly shortchanging a process of personal experience and commitment that God intends for their maturity.
Think of Manoah in this regard (Judges 13). When given the opportunity to interact with God, he asked a question which seems innocuous enough, “What will be the boy’s rule of life, and his work?” (Judges 13:12), but the Angel of the Lord gave no reply. Manoah and his wife merely needed to obey the Lord in raising their promised child devoted to the Lord (see vv. 5, 7, 14). That is, they did not need to know what Samson would do for God or how he would do it. They merely needed to get him ready for any task to which God might call him.
Imagine that a CEO were to tell you, “I’m coming soon to assess your division. I want every employee under your management to be ready and prepared for crucial work,” but he gave you few other details. What would you do?
A wise manager would think through the diversity of needs in the company and prepare his section to fulfill as many roles as possible through core training that involves: (1) knowing the goals, values, and procedures of the company; (2) assembling resources that would apply to a wide variety of roles; (3) considering the likely roles that specific individuals might fill on the basis of their personality and giftedness and training them for those and other roles; and (4) be actively doing the work that you ought to be doing.
This means that parenting your children to be ready to do God’s will (rather than to do your will) involves at least the following.
1. Learn what the Lord values, what his goals are, and what processes he has already specified for carrying out his values and goals.
The first step to avoid supplanting God’s will with your own will for your children is to focus on learning the Scriptures. God has called parents to teach his Word to their children. God has not called parents to impose their will on their children.
So teach your children what God says is important. What does he love? (Deut. 10:12–13) What does he hate? (Prov. 6:16) What things are present in his eternal kingdom? (Matt. 5:3–12) What things are permanently shut out of his kingdom? (Rev. 21:8)
What are his attitudes toward sin, sinners, pride, humility, human government, the family, the church, work, play, entertainment, and any other conceivable area of life? If you are busy about the “CEO’s” business, you will find that you have little time left to impose your own will in place of his.
2. Train for usefulness and virtue.
We don’t know what God’s plan will look like in terms of vocation, location, or even marital status for our children, but we do know some of the traits and abilities that lead to usefulness wherever our children go. Moses’s training is a classic example of this principle in Scripture. Only God foresaw that Moses would be the deliverer of Israel, but it was useful to train Moses “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” so that he would understand leadership, warfare, and logistics, regardless of the role that he might occupy in the future.
In other words, teach your children useful things. Gather resources—not in terms of merely an accumulation of wealth but the accumulation of wisdom and experience—so your children are ready for many roles. Train your children in virtue. An industrious daughter will be successful wherever the Lord leads her to go (other virtues included). A generous, courteous son will be a tribute to the Lord’s work wherever he finds himself. God has called you to shape children in terms of good and evil through instruction and discipline. He has not called you to determine where they will “end up” in life.
3. Guide children to improve their natural and spiritual giftedness and to commit to being available to God.
As we watch our children grow and start to mature, we begin to form an inkling of likely roles that God might have for them. After all, they have a distinctive combination of personality, native gifts, and spiritual gifts that God appoints for them. It’s highly useful to recognize what God appears to be doing and to guide children according to their natural abilities as long as we both (a) shape those abilities so they are less likely to be corrupted by the Adversary and (b) recognize that abilities often play a muted role in God’s calling.
God always uses the abilities that he gives to a child, but he doesn’t always use it immediately, or in the way we think, or in the field we expect. Thus, we should help our children understand that they must be ready to do whatever God calls them to do. In other words, ability does not necessarily align perfectly with vocation.
God set Moses on the back side of a desert for forty years to tend sheep. That occupation didn’t seem to align well with his previous training or his future responsibilities as a deliverer, but God was shaping him. By training children to commit to following the Lord, we prepare them for the shifts in calling and opportunity of life that we see often exemplified in the Scriptures (Jer. 1:5–10, Isa. 6:8, Amos 7:14–15).
4. Help your children do what they already know is God’s will.
We shouldn’t pretend that we are interested in God’s will if we are not actively engaged in doing it right now. The best way to keep from supplanting God’s will with our own is to be busy doing God’s will regarding our children. This means we are to be doing God’s will, and we should be showing our children exactly what God says is his will regarding them.
In the interview with Isaac and Rebekah, a probing journalist would soon discover that along the course of life both parents were not clearly looking to do God’s will. Even if they had a good intent for their children, parental desire wasn’t good enough—and it never will be. The only way to find God’s will (not just yours) for your children’s lives is to be serious about doing what God has already told you to do:
Learn what the Lord values, what his goals are, and what processes he has already specified for carrying out his values and goals.
Train for usefulness and virtue.
Guide children to improve their natural and spiritual giftedness and to commit to being available to God.
Help your children do what they already know is God’s will.