We live in a cause-effect mechanical world. Insert coin, press button, can of pop falls into the tray. Turn key, press accelerator, car goes. Search, shop, click, and in two days a box shows up on your doorstep. This is the world we live in. It’s built on predictability. It is a mechanical age. Actually, it’s a mechanical world, but modern man has begun to figure out how to predictably manipulate the creation, which is governed by unbreakable natural laws, in order to set in motion a series of controlled events in order to produce a desired outcome.
If that sounds too complicated, here it is more simply: If one understands something about the properties of concrete, steel, and bedrock, he can engineer a mighty bridge and know before it’s built how far it can span and the weight it can carry. The predictability of the elements of the bridge make the final product less-than-surprising to the one who engineered it, at least if done properly.
Imagine trying to build a house without some certainty that the lumber will behave fairly predictably – it won’t turn into linguini at a random moment for no reason, leaving a house looking like a beached jellyfish – all flesh and no bones. Or imagine if electricity was suddenly conducted by plastic, causing essentially all buildings to burst into an instant conflagration. Imagine the stress of flying in a jet without the certainty that the laws of physics that govern the burning of fuel and principles of thrust will remain operative throughout your flight.
Predictability is predicated on repeatability – a thing that happens once can be repeated if you do the same thing again. That’s how we can get into our vehicles, start the engine, and assume with some certainty that every spray of fuel into a cylinder will result in an explosion, driving the piston backwards in the cylinder, turning the crank shaft, powering the transmission, turning the wheels, and away we go. Hundreds of thousands of repetitions of the same thing gets us to church on Sunday, work on Monday, and Gramma’s on Thanksgiving.
The appeal of the predictable is the certainty of a desired outcome. Unpredictability is the stuff of the gambler, who takes his best guess (even so, it’s typically “educated” and therefore has a modicum of predictability) at which of the possible outcomes will happen, and he may win, but odds are always he likely loses. Unpredictability means risk, risk is acknowledging factors beyond our control, loss of control is loss of predictability, and with that comes the possibility of an undesirable outcome, which can be ruin, disaster, or even death.
Who sets out on a trip if he knows a head-on collision is going to happen? Who invests in Solyndra and Enron knowing full well what is going to happen to these two companies? Death and bankruptcy are, to be somewhat crass, major bummers we try to avoid!
Who gives birth to a child with Down’s Syndrome? This particular defect assures, it would seem, a predictably more difficult, ostensibly less fulfillling life for both child and mother. Of course, in our nation, only one of these two gets to make that choice between “less or more fulfilling” for mother “life or death” for baby, but this is beside the point here.
The broader point is, we as human beings appreciate predictability as a means of keeping some measure of control.
Predictability is used for marketing, too. The medical prophets of our day preach eat this, it reduces the risk of heart attack. Eat that, and avoid cancer. Drink this, and your future looks free from the ravages of obesity. I won’t rant further about food; my thoughts (such as they are) on dietary controls and the illusion of predictability through nutrition are contained in a different article.
Here I’m considering the allure of predictability in one of the most challenging, fearful, unknown futures – the future of our children. No parent worth his/her salt wishes to raise a fool (for the grammarians, I recognize the proper word in terms of bringing up children would be “rear a fool,” but I just can’t bring myself to use the word, and never have. I’d rather take the criticism and stick to my ill-advised self-written rules of grammar…).
We want our children to be successful. We want them to live happy, productive, useful, and most of all God-honoring lives. We believe in hell, and we believe apart from faith in the Lord Jesus, our own children are doomed to eternal torment.
So how do we get the results we want out of our kids? They’re good results we want, after all. It’s good to desire heaven for your kids. How can we move through parenting with some measure of confidence that our children will navigate life without becoming shipwrecked and lost for eternity?
This is where the allure of predictability enters. What is the system, what is the formula, what are the ingredients that produce a certain desirable outcome? How can I as a concerned and loving parent ensure my child’s future?
The Bible is not silent on this subject, to be sure. But to be perfectly honest, it can be maddeningly unspecific if you’re searching for an assured, mechanically produced foolproof result. The most famous biblical line from Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” suffers (if you will allow me the liberty of using that term) from being both a proverb, and hence a general truth which permits exceptions, and from being somewhat vague. How do we train up that child in regards to the age of getting a cell-phone, the propriety of a Facebook account, and method of dating?
I have sometimes sat under mechanically minded Gospel preaching. Raise a hand, walk an aisle, pray a prayer, and salvation is yours for all eternity. It’s a process, akin to pressing buttons on a celestial keypad and entering your own name in the Book of Life. It’s there – you put it there by going through the process. God responds to the process. He has to. It’s a natural law, of sorts.
To be fair, I recognize that many have been converted under such preaching, because it is, generally, salvation by faith alone in Christ alone that is offered. But in application, it seems to me that the effect of regeneration is sometimes confused with the cause. In other words, are we regenerated because we do those things, or do we do those things because we are regenerated? That must wait for a different discussion.
The point here is that as a father, I desperately want my children to be rescued from a life of slavery to sin and its attendant temporal and eternal consequences; I want them to be converted, to take up their cross, and follow Christ, and any sort of procedure that promises me that will happen is powerfully alluring.
Case in point: as I was writing this, just a few moments ago, in a wonderfully tender moment, one of my children came down from her bed to see me, and with tears in her eyes, said, “I just don’t want to miss going to heaven!” This is on her heart as she lies down to sleep, in those quiet moments of darkness when a person, even a child, finally has enough silence to think about matters of eternity. This is where the allure of the predictable hits me. Sweet child, pray this prayer, and you’re all set! This is the process, these are the things you say, this is how you say them. We’ll post it on Facebook, get a thousand likes, and have you baptized next week! I want to give her a process and assure her of results. To be perfectly blunt, I want to give her a process and assure myself of the results.
I don’t do that, though, and here’s why: I want my kids to trust Jesus, not a process. I don’t want them to put their faith in their prayers, I want them to rest on the promises of God in the Bible. So tonight, I walked through John 6:35-40 and we talked about the Jesus who loses none who come to Him, how all who come to Him come because the Father gave them to Jesus, and how the Lord Jesus raises up everyone who believes in Him because He is intent on doing the Father’s will. Daughter, do you trust Jesus? Yes! Will Jesus do the Father’s will? Yes! Would you like to pray? No? Okay, let me pray for you. Oh Father, please help my daughter continue to find her rest in Jesus!
I have often witnessed the power of promised results through “models” of parenting. Here’s a model to follow – have these rules, educate them this way, dress them that way, discipline with this method, and presto – out of the machine comes a perfect Christian child. The Machine says don’t let them date – courting is only the path to a pure, happy marriage. Don’t send them to school – homeschooling alone inevitably produces Christian geniuses. Don’t let them play with Barbies or listen to rock music and thus soil their souls, make certain to feed them organic food, make sure mom doesn’t take a job, and voila! eighteen years later out of your front door walks a virtually sin-free super-Christian success story.
note: Not quite full, but at least moderately honest disclosure, lest you think I’m mocking all these methods: We are second-generation homeschoolers, my wife stays at home with the kids, but if I threw away one Barbie a day, my house would not be decontaminated for 23 years. If I have to hear Adele sing “Hello” one more time I’m going to lose my mind. Costco sells almost entirely organic food in gigantic quantities at low prices, so we eat it, but I personally prefer first adding copious amounts of MSG to it to make it more edible.
Parenting can be hard, mentally exhausting emotionally draining work, and the stakes are very high. We don’t want it to be in vain. We don’t want to be the mothers with broken hearts or the fathers who hang their head in shame. We want success, and that makes us susceptible to the promise of a system that can guarantee it.
Here’s the bad news: That system doesn’t exist. Not in reality anyway. It exists on paper. It exists in books. It exists in subcultures that are obsessed with the system, or worse, the creator of the system.
There are general biblical principles to follow, to be sure. Teach your children. Discipline them. Steer them in the right direction. Love them well. But any system that details specific guidelines with the promise of predictable outcomes is really just selling hope, and that without a money-back (or children-back!) guarantee.
I love homeschooling. I’m so glad my parents did that for me when it wasn’t cool, and at a time when even the Christian world thought they were nuts and predicted their kids would end up as awkward as a nun playing “spin the bottle.” But as great as homeschooling is, it isn’t the magic ingredient to having the perfect child. I know – I wasn’t and still am not the perfect child. And while I’ve seen homeschool be used to great success, I’ve also known some colossal train wrecks emerge from the homeschooling world. Perhaps most shocking of all, I’ve known some fine, upstanding people whom I greatly admire who somehow managed to become faithful believers and fruitful members of the Kingdom of God despite being a product of the public school. Well done, Dad!
I’m thankful my wife stays home with the kids. It means I have to work hard, we live in a smaller house, we make do with less, and there’s no trust fund set up for college tuition, but we believe it’s been good for our children. We don’t see it as the promise of perfect kids. How could we? Mothers living at home sometimes have kids who grow up to be a walking plague.
At the end of the day, we must raise our kids the same way we journey towards those pearly gates – by faith. We serve a sovereign God who knows tomorrow, because He controls it. We don’t control God, and so we don’t control tomorrow. Our “systems” and plans don’t control God or tomorrow either. But we trust Him. We have to. We have to trust Him with our children, too.
We do the best we know how, don’t get me wrong. We train up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord to the best of our abilities. But when it’s all said and done, unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers toil in vain. There’s no magic formula for bypassing the grace of God in building a house. There’s no foolproof plan for predictably wonderful children. There’s trust in God, tears in prayer, and the joys and sorrows of trying to shepherd unregenerate, depraved children into the arms of Jesus, begging Him to call them to Himself until He does, begging them to trust Him until they do.
My heart goes out to every parent whose child is living in out-and-out rebellion and wickedness. They are given to drink a cup of tears mingled with a bitter elixir of betrayal, disappointment, sorrow, guilt, shame, and loss. My heart shivered as I read an article last week written by a Christian brother whose daughter threw her life away down a sinkhole of drugs, only to die at age 29. God please, not my girls! But there’s no guarantee this won’t happen to any of us, and that’s incredibly unnerving at times.
We have the promise of programs and processes which ensure desirable results, but let’s be honest here – the power of sin can ultimately only be broken by the power of the cross, and there is no mechanical method by which we can impart that power into our kids. We must be faithful to the end, and our faith must rest on Jesus no matter what the results.
The allure of promised predictability is deceptive. It turns our eyes from Jesus to a method, a program, or a guru of some sort. I’m not suggesting methods don’t matter – they do. Far be it from me to suggest that having some sort of strategy for raising kids is useless. The Bible itself has methods of parenting in it, even if they aren’t as specific as we’d like to see. What time do we put them to bed in order to keep them out of hell? At how many weeks does a Christian baby sleep through the night anyway? Our hope doesn’t lie in methods, it ultimately rests in Christ. If our children’s future rests on our methods, God help them!
Further, we must apply our minds to attain as much wisdom to aid us in our critical task as parents as we can possibly afford. There’s no excuse for laziness or foolishness. But our hope doesn’t even lie in our wisdom. If my kids’ future is dependent on their Dad’s wisdom – God help them! (for example, see the part above about me intentionally eating crappy food!) But that’s the point, isn’t it? God help them indeed!
A word of hope is in order. God’s grace is strong enough to bring good results out of failed parenting. I’m so glad. I’m keenly aware of some of my failures, and no doubt tragically oblivious to some of them. But there is grace. I had the joy of visiting with a new friend not long ago, whose upbringing of instability, chaos, and lack of anything resembling godliness should have been seeds producing, and did for some time, a harvest of a confused, wicked young adult. But the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation, sanctification, and, if you don’t mind the term, success.
My heart rejoices in this grace. I want to help my children. But if their future rests on my parental prowess rather than the grace of God… again, God help them. That said, I don’t want to fail, and I want to do the glorious labor of raising them up. I just can’t do it with a guarantee of success, not only because they’re sinners and fall short, so am I.
Beware of the allure of predictable parenting. Your children aren’t machines waiting for you to program them correctly. They’re image bearers, but tainted with sin. There’s ultimately only one hope for them, and it’s Jesus. The solution isn’t ultimately to regulate or deregulate them, to be permissive or restrictive, to be passive or active, because there’s only one combination of a parent exactly like you, a spouse like yours, and child(ren) like yours in the entire world, and good parenting is going to look different for you than for me and vice versa. There’s no roadmap to guaranteed success. There’s only the promise of a Father in heaven who helps us be fathers and mothers on earth, a Savior who intercedes for us and hears our intercession on behalf of our kids, and a Spirit who gloriously gives life. This is the God we trust, the God we follow. God help us.
During a recent gathering of the Common Slaves, the conversation turned to a once wildly popular “Christian” movement for raising children, and its now discredited leader. I fully understand the appeal such a system offers. However, having witnessed some of its long-term fruit, I’ve been wary of such a system. Hearing from other pastors about the carnage they have also seen from such things moved me to put these thoughts down. -jr