Parental Wisdom

“If it was going to be easy to raise kids, it never would have started with something called labor.”[i] Gary Thomas in his book, Sacred Parenting shares about an amazing couple, John and Abigail Adams.

Abigail Adams lived during a time when allowing your children to travel overseas to accompany their father on an important diplomatic mission meant that years, not weeks, would pass before you saw them again.  Before one such trip, nine-year-old John Quincy had second thoughts; he was not sure he wanted to leave his mother for that long.

In a heartrending farewell letter to her son, Abigail showed what she valued most. Instead of pulling John Quincy back into her skirt, Abigail worked to strengthen her son’s resolve. She admitted that, yes, the separation would be hard and real dangers lay ahead (sea travel in the eighteenth century could be an iffy affair). But she also reminded her oldest son of his duty to take full advantage of the benefits he enjoyed as the son of an influential man. Some of those benefits entailed corresponding sacrifices and risks; but in the end, embracing those benefits with their risks would create a full life.

Abigail wrote this profound comment to her son: ‘It is not in the still calm of life…that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.  Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.’

A spiritually weak parent would have a grueling time writing such a letter, because no hurt can compare to watching your kids hurt. Abigail once said of her husband, ‘When he is wounded, I bleed.’ Most parents could say the same about their children. What mother or father hasn’t pleaded with God at some point, ‘Lord, let me feel that pain, if it will spare my daughter or son”? But Abigail had a bigger view in mind: without ‘great necessities,’ her son would never know ‘great virtues.’ She realized that a life full of challenges is a soul-forming life, and since she wanted a mature son, she told him to look his trial in the face…

Abigail’s approach worked. John Quincy grew up to become a successful man, perhaps one of the most creative, competent and effective secretaries of state for the U.S., and finally ascended to the office of president.[ii] 

But this same mother knew the pain of disappointment as well.

Two other sons had shameful lifestyles. Charles Adams became an alcoholic-his mother described him as a ‘poor, unhappy, wretched man. One relative described Thomas Adams as ‘one of the most unpleasant characters in this world…a brute in manners and a bully to his family.[iii]

‘To what do you and I most aspire for our children – comfort or character? Often those two come into conflict. To become an effective parent, we must choose service and character over pain-free living.”[iv]

Let me point out that parenting extends beyond raising biological children. Many elements in life are, in reality, addressing the issue of nurturing or mentoring the lives of others. What is parenting? It is the difficult task of instructing, correcting and disciplining those who you are responsible for. Parenting will do more to shape your soul than most activities in life. It is an activity that is God-like. God uses the family model, the model of fatherhood as a means to instruct us as His children. God is the ultimate picture of what being a parent, a father is all about.

One of the best books of the Bible to help you in the area of human relationships is the book of Proverbs. Master that book and you will know how to relate to people in a healthy way. Listen to what Proverbs has to say about parenting or fathering and how it influences and impacts the lives of our children. But what makes for an effective parent? We are going to examine a number of texts that on the surface may seem unrelated but upon closer examination will reveal how these elements shape a person’s life and ultimately challenges the lives of mentors, fathers or parents. Who we become affects what we do. Who we are and how we live impacts what we say. “The righteous lead blameless lives; blessed are their children after them (Proverbs 20:7).”

Here we find the key to bringing blessings to our children or those we mentor. The text describes the godly, or the wise as people who are living blameless lives. But what does it mean to live a blameless life?  Obviously, it doesn’t mean that we never sin, for no one but Jesus ever lived that life. Jesus was accused or blamed by his opponents, but they couldn’t support their charges. A blameless life is a life where a person is innocent of the charges. A blameless life is someone who is not living a sinful lifestyle. This text states that children who have righteous and blameless parents are blessed. So, what makes for blameless lives? I’m going to group six Proverbs into three areas that describes what constitutes a blameless life.   

The Blameless life is a life of Temperance.

A person who is temperate is someone who is moderate and restrained in their actions and appetites. This is a person who is living a self-controlled life or, as the New Testament describes it, as a Spirit controlled life. It is a life that demonstrates self-restraint in order to enhance not only their own lives, but more importantly the lives of others, particularly those they are responsible for and to. The apostle Paul describes it as life evidencing the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). It is a life where love and self-control are evident.

There are many Proverbs speaking to this issue of temperance: from a restraint of words and emotional outbursts to moderation in eating and consumption of alcohol. “The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered (Proverbs 17:27).” Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick-tempered displays folly (Proverbs 14:29).” In Proverbs 20, we find another expression of temperance. “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise (Proverbs 20:1).”

Here is a challenge to avoid substance abuse. How many people started out drinking, thinking they can handle it, but find that they eventually start drinking to handle their problems, until drinking becomes a way of life?  Or they experiment with drugs, but find that the drugs control them. We are living in a day where the consumption of alcohol and drugs are dramatically increasing. Old Testament scholar, Robert Alden writes: “Here the verse mentions two kinds of alcohol, wine and beer (the second is often translated strong drink). These are beverages made from grapes and grain. Either brew can lead to intoxication and foolish behavior.”[v]

Parents are models to their children, those that they are mentors to. To say one thing and do another is hypocrisy. Children often just walk the path their parents are on. Substance abuse finds its roots early in the human drama. Charles Bridges, points out:

The history of the world from the days of Noah proves, that the love of wine and strong drink is a most insidious vice. The wretched victims are convinced too late, that they have been mocked and grievously deceived. Not only does it overcome them before they are aware, but it promises pleasures which it can never give. And yet so mighty is the spell, that the besotted slave consents to be mocked again and again, till ‘at last it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.’ The raging power degrades below the level of the beasts. The government of reason is surrendered to lust, appetite, or passion.”[vi]

Brennan Manning in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, admits that 25 years ago, he had a drinking problem. He voluntarily entered a 28-day treatment program. Early on in the treatment program they had to sit in a circle with a leader and tell the truth to themselves, and to the other people in the group, about the extent of their drinking.

So, they went around the circle and they all told the truth, except for one business guy named Max. When it came time for him to reveal the extent of his drinking, he said, I never really drank that much.

They said, Max, you’re in an alcoholic treatment center and you are not here because you were sipping cokes. Tell the truth to yourself. Admit it.  He said, I’m being honest with you. I’ve never really had all that much to drink. They had signed affidavits to be able to get information. Max had signed one, too. They could glean information in any way they so desired. So, they had a speaker phone in the center of the circle, and the leader of the group said, I’m going to call the bartender close to your office and we’ll just find out. So, they called the bartender and the leader says to the person on the phone, do you know Max So-and-So? The guy says, Oh, like a brother! He stops in every day after work and has a minimum of six martinis. Man, this guy drinks like a fish! He’s the best customer we have—a prolific consumer of alcohol. The rest of the people in the group all looked at Max. Finally, Max admits, ‘Yes, I’ve had a lot to drink.

A little later on in the group, they asked everyone, have you ever hurt anybody, a friend or family member, while you were drunk? Some people said, yes, and they described it. When they got around to Max, he said he would never, ever hurt anybody. Not when I’m sober, not when I’m drunk. I have four lovely children. I’d never hurt my wife; I’d never hurt my kids.

The leader says, you know, Max, we don’t believe you. We’re going to call your wife. As soon as Max’s wife starts talking on the speaker phone, Max starts breathing heavily. He knows something’s coming that he has been unwilling to face. The leader says Mrs. So-and-So, has Max ever mistreated you or anyone in the family when he was drunk? ‘Well, yes he has. It happened just this last Christmas Eve. He took our 9-year-old daughter shopping on Christmas Eve, bought her new pair of shoes; he’s a generous man. On the way home, our little girl was sitting in the front seat enjoying her new shoes, and Max passed the bar and saw the cars of some of his buddies.

He pulled in. It was a cold, wintry day, with a high wind chill. He made sure all the windows were rolled up snugly. He left the car running so that the heater was blowing, and he said to our 9-year-old daughter, I’ll be right back. You just play with your shoes.

He went in the bar and started drinking with his buddies. He didn’t come out of the bar until midnight. In that time, the vehicle had shut off and the windows had become all frosted over and locked up tight so she couldn’t get herself out of the car. When the authorities opened up the car and rushed her to the hospital, she was so badly frostbitten that her thumb and forefinger had to be amputated. And her ears were so damaged by the cold that she’ll be deaf for the rest of her life.

The wife describes this to the group, and Max falls off his chair and starts convulsing on the ground.  He just couldn’t bear telling himself the truth about what he had done. He couldn’t face it. He was going to live the rest of his life in some fantasy world of denial about what he had done.”[vii]

The apostle Paul in challenging the believers at Ephesus points out the counterfeit that alcohol or any chemical substance for that matter really is. Rather than be controlled by alcohol we need to be controlled by the Spirit of God. “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.      Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:17-18).”

Debauchery is to be led astray morally, to gratify our sinful nature. One translation states that it leads to excess, which is the opposite of temperance. What happens when people are under the influence of a substance is that their moral inhibitions are stripped away. People will do things while they are drunk that they would never do while they are sober. Years ago, I read that 95% percent of violent college campus crimes are alcohol-related.”[viii]

Here the writer points out that the blameless parent, the blameless person will avoid chemical abuse. 

The Blameless life is one of peace

We are living in a moment of great unrest, anger, strife and contention and injustice. Yet, I’ll point out that we have always had injustices, which is not to justify them but to remind us how we need to respond in a godly, righteous and blameless manner. A godly, blameless parent does more to instruct those under them by how they live their lives than what they say. So how do we model the right behavior so those we are parenting and leading will learn to respond in a godly manner in a time such as this? We must have a balanced, measured approach to life’s injustices and evils.

On the one side we must not ignore what is happening. There are some things you can’t avoid, nor should avoid.

Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering to slaughter.

If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this, does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?[ix]

Indifference and neglect are expressions of irresponsibility. However, the approach we take must also honor God and others, even when others may not be honoring. The way of non-violent actions that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. exhibited were modeled after the One we live for, the Lord Jesus Christ. We overcome evil by doing good.

We must never get to the point of absolute despair and take things entirely into our own hands. God is on the throne and He does work to address those who oppress others. “Do not say, ‘I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the LORD, and he will avenge you (Proverbs 20:22).”

Here we see how we are to handle personal injustices. We are to look to God to address them rather than strike back by doing evil. We know that Paul was affected in his thinking and writing in the New Testament by wisdom literature. Notice what he tells us in the book of Romans:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written,’ It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the LORD. On the contrary: If you enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will be heap burning coals on his head.

            Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.[x]

But what about systemic injustices? We need to find non-violent means to speak to and address them. The approach of Nelson Mandela in South Africa after apartheid is an amazing example of the right kind of approach in addressing generations of abuses. In his Truth and Reconciliation Councils, the victims were allowed to address the perpetrators of crimes against them. The one story that comes to mind is the woman whose husband and son were murdered and then their remains were destroyed by fire before her eyes. What she spoke into the life of the police officer responsible is unimaginable for most people. She first wanted to say to him that she forgave him, and that God loved him and appealed to the court that his sentence would be to replace the loss of a son in her life and make him come to her home where she would be a mother to him. Needless to say, that amazing expression brought such a brokenness in the life of the perpetuator as he wept at such magnanimity of spirit toward himself. The only way to overcome both personal and systemic evil is to bless, do good toward those who render evil. Only good can overcome evil.

Here in Proverbs we realize that wisdom brings about restraint. Those who are righteous and blameless should not despise the laws and therefore bring judgment on themselves. “A king’s wrath is like the roar of a lion; he who angers him forfeits his life. It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel (Proverbs 20:2-3).”

Here we find a warning against doing something that would anger the King, and therefore cause the King to punish the offender. This could be a warning against provoking people needlessly. But a better application is that the king represents government, and that we shouldn’t violate the laws of the land, thereby suffering the consequences of our unlawful behavior. The apostle Paul warns that as believers that we must submit to those in authority, and this he wrote at a time when the authorities were not always sympathetic to the gospel. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (Romans 13:1).”

We must have the wisdom to know what to take on, what is shirking our responsibilities and thereby becoming passive. It is a balance, between becoming quarrelsome and become passive. Notice what Paul tells Timothy about the quality of a mature or a blameless leader, which is a great guide for godly parents.

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.[xi]

The Blameless Life is one of Diligence.

Godly parents take their responsibilities seriously. When we don’t accept responsibility for providing for our families, our families will suffer. Blameless living means we diligently provide for the needs or those entrusted to us. “A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing (Proverbs 20:4).”

What many people may not know is that laziness is a moral issue and the bible describes it as sin. Proverbs has much to say about the subject. “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry (Proverbs 19:15).” This does not mean that all poor people are lazy, but some that are poor are in that condition because of laziness. The problem is that children of lazy parents suffer with their parents. Often what their parents teach is tragic. Many people who have grown up on welfare learn to work the system because that is the only way of life they have ever seen modeled to them.

Years ago, I was ministering in a small city in Ontario. The pastor drove me around his city and when we came to a certain district, he said that this was not a safe place at night. Many of these people had grown up on welfare and their children have just imitated their lifestyle. And then he shared this personal insight into his life. His father was a shiftless man, but his mother was very industrious. The father was lazy, the mother industrious and hard-working. It was obvious who he had taken after, as he is one of the most diligent people I know. We may not think laziness is a big deal, but the Scriptures warn us in Proverbs 18:9: “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys.” What this text is saying is that laziness is destructive. Over the years, I’ve witnessed people who have had a negative impact on their families because they were lazy. I’m not suggesting that going from job to job is a sign of laziness, as most in our transient society have to, but there are some who can’t hold down a job because the underlying issue is that they don’t really want to work. This often leads to marital tensions and broken relationships. The result is that children suffer.    

There is another aspect to diligence, but it is reflected in working at developing healthy relationships. There are people who over-work and it is driven by other considerations than just providing for their family. Here we see the quality of a patient and understanding father, parent, or mentor who listens and is able to understand what is happening within the heart of the child or the person they are mentoring. They are sensitive to the atmosphere in the workplace, the home or the lives of others. “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out (Proverbs 20:5).”

People who feel that someone cares will have people share what’s happening within themselves. There are a lot of people who claim to be faithful and loving, but the reality is that those who are there for others are actually few and far between. According to biblical scholar, Derek Kidner, “the contrast is between profession and faithfulness, both of which contain the idea of steadfastness.”[xii] The idea expressed here is of a steadfast and consistent life. This is a life that fulfils their obligations. “Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find? (Proverbs 20:6).”

Years ago, while reading, I came across a statement that I’ve reflected upon and observed over the years. The gist of the message was simply that ‘the best way to love your children is to love their mother or father.’ When we truly learn to love our spouse, we can build a loving atmosphere in our homes. I also recognize it takes two people to work on this, but it creates a loving and healthy home.

In his book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas writes:

If we are serious about pursuing spiritual growth through marriage, we must convince ourselves to refrain from asking the spiritually dangerous question: Did I marry the right person? A far better alternative to questioning one’s choice is to learn how to live with one’s choice. A character in the Anne Tyler novel A Patchwork Planet comes to realize this too late. The book’s 32-year-old narrator has gone through a divorce and now works at an occupation that has him relating almost exclusively with elderly people. As he observes their long-standing marriages, he comes to a profound understanding: I was beginning to suspect that it made no difference whether they’d married the right person. Finally, you’re just with who you’re with. You’ve signed on with her, put in half a century with her, grown to know her as well as you know yourself or even better, and she’s become the right person. Or the only person, might be more to the point.

            I wish someone had told me that earlier. I’d have hung on then; I swear I would. I never would have driven Natalie to leave me.”[xiii]

            Children who have a godly father, mother, or parent(s) are blessed. Parents who are temperate, peace loving, and diligent are considered blameless or in biblical wisdom literature, wise. They understand and fulfill their obligations to others. These blameless people are laying an incredible foundation not only for their children to build on, but will enrich the lives of people around them. 

[i] Gary Thomas, Sacred Parenting, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 2004), 10.

[ii] Ibid, 23-24.

[iii] Ibid, 139.

[iv] Ibid, 24.

[v] Robert L. Alden, Proverbs, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1983), 148.

[vi] Charles Bridges, Proverbs, The Geneva Series of Commentaries, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1846), 334-335.

[vii] Bill Hybels, Telling Yourself the Truth (4-14-02).

[viii] “To Verify,” Leadership Magazine, (Winter, 1996, Vol. XVII, Number 1), 79.

[ix] Proverbs 24:11-12, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[x] Romans 12:17-21.

[xi] 2 Timothy 2:24-26.

[xii] Derek Kidner, Proverbs, TOTC, (Downers Grove, Il: Inter Varsity Press, 1964), 137.

[xiii] Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage (Zondervan, 2000), 124.

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