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Proverbs are Proverbs

Proverbs 22:6 - Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Many Christian parents have claimed Proverbs 22:6 as a wonderful promise concerning their children--a promise that their sons and daughters would turn out to be model Christian young people. Some Christian parents, however, have been extremely disappointed and even bitter towards God when their kids have turned out to be anything but model Christians. Some rebellious "Christian" teenagers have even gotten themselves into big trouble. What happened, anyway? Is God not true to His Word? Does He make exceptions to His promises? Did the parents claim a promise that really isn't a promise? What is the biblical solution that will answer these upsetting questions?

If you read the commentaries on the Book of Proverbs for an explanation of the "exceptions" to the promise of Proverbs 22:6, you will find that several different solutions are suggested. It may be that there is some validity to all of these solutions, depending on the particular home situation in which the proverb is applied. For example, one approach is to place the emphasis on the word "old." A person who holds this view might say, "The proverb does not guarantee that there will be no teenage rebellion, but if you train up children in the right way, when they are old they will follow that good training. Although they may sow a few wild oats in their adolescent years, they will eventually come around and toe the line. The temporary `boys will be boys' pattern that they are following now will soon be changed for a `faith of the Fathers' blueprint for the rest of their lives."

Although this solution looks quite reasonable at first, it isn't long before we realize that it has one major drawback. It doesn't always hold true! While many teenage rebels experience a happy turn­around, many cases do not have happy endings. Some "graduates" of Christian homes have literally self­destructed through substance abuse. Others have ended up as basket cases when it comes to the matter of being Christian spouses and parents. Far from being models, some have followed unprincipled and immoral lifestyles, sometimes living even more reprehensible lives than individuals with no Christian upbringing. There have been well-trained "Christian" dropouts who have actually turned wilfully against God and become outspoken atheists throughout their lives, turning many others away from the way of truth as well. Even when they are old, they do not depart from their evil ways. Certainly the "when they are old" approach to Proverbs 22:6 does not hold in these cases.

Another approach to resolving the apparent exceptions to Proverbs 22:6 has been to focus attention on the "training up" portion of the proverb. People who take this approach to the proverb would say, "When you see what looks like an exception to the proverb, it is because you haven't really scrutinized the training program of that individual. The Christian home may have looked good from the outside, but what was the home life really like? Just because the family went to church every Sunday and participated in Christian ministries does not mean that the proper training of the children was going on in the home. There may have been all kinds of problems behind the closed doors of what appeared to be a model Christian home. Discipline may have been lax, family devotions may have been a rarity, control of what the children read or watched on TV may have been neglected, real communication may have been virtually non-existent, and love between parents and children may have been unexpressed or minimal. The teenage products of such homes are not exceptions to Proverbs 22:6 at all, but are rather proof that they were not `trained up in the way they should go.'"

Here again we have a solution that looks good and is probably an answer in some cases, but it is not an answer that solves all the "exceptions" to Proverbs 22:6. There are numerous cases of Christian parents who have been diligent and dedicated in the godly training and proper upbringing of their children and yet have been sadly disappointed with the results. These parents were not "Sunday only" Christians and their homes were not just a Christian facade. These people were men and women of God who have earnestly built Christ-centered homes with lots of love. The fact that some of their children have departed from the faith cannot be blamed on the training program. No, this solution does not give a satisfactory answer to the cases of young adults from fine Christian homes who have rebelled and departed from the faith.

A somewhat different approach to Proverbs 22:6 could be called the amoral or nonmoral interpretation. This interpretation would say, "The proverb is not talking about the training of children as to moral and spiritual values, but rather the development of their natural abilities and interests. Children need help and direction in order to develop their God-given talents. If they are trained in line with their abilities, they will reach their full potential in adult years, they will live fulfilled lives, and thus they will `not depart from the way they should go.'"

While this interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 has some merit, it doesn't take a lot of insight to realize that there are "exceptions" even to this point of view. Not every child who has his or her natural abilities and interests developed (even to a maximum, by experts!) follows such a course through life. Limiting the proverb to natural talents and abilities does not get us off the hook as far as "exceptions" go. So while Proverbs 22:6 may be applied to the nonmoral aspects of a child's upbringing, let us not eliminate the spiritual and moral spheres from the scope of this promise. Remember that throughout the book of Proverbs "the way a person should go" is the way of wisdom, and the way of wisdom is inseparable from moral integrity and spiritual maturity. We need to look further for the full answer as to why, at times, this proverb seems not to hold true.

Appreciation for the nature of a proverb is of tremendous help in understanding the promise of Proverbs 22:6. Proverbs are general truths stated in general terms. A proverb is not a precept. A precept is a truth stated in absolute terms. An illustration may help here. Suppose we are making statements of truth about engineering students at a particular university. One statement might be, "A student must take and pass calculus in order to graduate as an engineer." That statement of truth is in precept form. There are no exceptions. But suppose we said, "Students who do well in calculus make better engineers." That is also a statement of truth, but it is in proverb form. It is a general truth stated in general terms. But there may be some exceptions. There may be a few engineering graduates from that university who are very good engineers but never did well in calculus. And by the same token, there may be a few graduates who were A+ students in calculus but have not made very good engineers. These exceptions, however, do not make the statement false, because it is a general truth stated in general terms. Exceptions do not make a proverb false. Proverbs are proverbs! Proverbs are not precepts. They are general truths stated in general terms. Proverbs 22:6 is a proverb. The occasional case which proves to be an exception to the general truth does not make this proverb false.

A brief look at a few of the other proverbs in this chapter further demonstrates the nature of a proverb. The truths of verses 4, 11 and 29, for example, are not always binding. They are usually true, but a little reflection on these proverbs will bring to mind a number of exceptions. Humility and the fear of the Lord do not always bring riches and honor and life (v4). Rulers are not always friends with the gracious and pure of heart (v11). And there are skilled people who have remained in obscurity, unrecognized by kings (v29).

Does this mean that we can expect some exceptions to all the Proverbs? What about the well-known promise of Proverbs 3:5-6? "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and don't depend on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths." Can't we take this promise as more than a general truth and claim it without exception? Yes, we can! Why? What's the difference between this proverb and Proverbs 22:6? The truth of any proverb that is supported by other Scriptures which are not proverbs can be taken as more than a proverb. The promise in Proverbs 3:5-6 of direction in life as a result of depending on the Lord is without exception. It is more than a general truth because it is stated explicitly in other Scriptures. Take James 1:5, for example, which is a promise made to the believer who is walking by faith. "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." Here is the same basic truth of Proverbs 3:5-6 but it is not in proverb form. Looking to God by faith and receiving wisdom for life's decisions is more than a general truth. It is without exception. The general truths stated in many, if not most, of the proverbs are shown by the rest of Scripture to be more than general truths. Thus, most of the time we are on safe ground when quoting a proverb as an absolute truth without exception.

However, the proverb that well-trained children will not depart from their good upbringing is a general truth that is not backed up explicitly by the rest of Scripture as an absolute truth without exception. In fact, when the Apostle Paul alludes to Proverbs 22:6 in Ephesians 6:4, it is significant that he does not include the "promise" part of the proverb. Children are to be brought up "in the discipline and instruction of the Lord," with no absolute guarantee of results.

The good news of Proverbs 22:6, of course, is that there is a promise for parents. The fact that it is a general truth, and cannot be claimed as an absolute guarantee of salvation or straight living for every single child, should not discourage Christian parents. Parents who "train up their children in the way they should go" can be confident that normally, with very few exceptions, their disciplined efforts are going to be rewarded with the salvation and spiritual well-being of their children.
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