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In the 1993 film Rudy, young Rudy Ruettiger goes to a Roman Catholic priest seeking advice. Rudy desperately wants to play football for Notre Dame, but all doors to that possibility have closed. “Can you help?” the young man asks. “Son,” the priest replies, “in years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts: There is a God, and I’m not Him.”
What do the priest’s two hard facts have to do with rearing children? Everything. We who are parents have great influence in our children’s lives, but we are not God. We cannot wind up a child like a Happy Meal toy and expect him or her to go wherever we want. Many parents will tearfully acknowledge that they did all the “right things,” but their children went their own way.
Which goes to prove that there is a God, and we are not He.
But our limitations do not relieve us of the responsibility to seek the formation of Christ in our children. The Bible commands us to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). With the Holy Spirit’s blessing, we can rear our children with confidence that our efforts will bear the fruit God desires in His time (Prov. 22:6).
To rear our children well, we need a biblical vision of the finished product. What should we want for our children? For what end besides their salvation should we labor, hope, and pray? In a word, we should want them to be successful.
Readers might balk at the use of the word successful in reference to children. We normally think of success in temporal, materialistic terms. But the Bible paints a positive picture of success. For example, Joseph “became a successful man,” because “the Lord was with [him]” (Gen. 39:2). The Hebrew word for “successful” means to be circumspect, intelligent, skillful, wise, and sensible. God told young Joshua, “Only be strong and very courageous . . . that you may have good success wherever you go” (Josh. 1:7). Later, “David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him” (1 Sam. 18:14). Solomon advised: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments. . . . So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man” (Prov. 3:1, 4). Jesus in His youth “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). He was the preeminently successful son anticipated in Proverbs.
The world’s truncated view of success is wrong and damaging to the soul. But God invites us to pursue success as defined in the Bible and to rear our children to be as successful as possible. How? By creating an environment in which our children can grow in favor with God and in favor with man.
To grow in favor with God, children need to develop character and godliness. Psalm 1 beautifully captures the successful person as one “who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (vv. 1–2). The psalmist here paints success not in terms of money, possessions, and power but as holiness and fruitfulness: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (v. 3). To rear our children for success of this nature, we must model the life to which we call them. Children need to see us trusting God during times of testing, forgiving people who sin against us, repenting of our sins, loving our neighbors, practicing integrity at work, sacrificing our resources, serving our church, and putting the needs of others above our own. They need to hear our prayers and our stories of God’s faithfulness. They need to be members of a healthy church. Finally, children need reasonable limits, clearly defined rules, and firm, consistent consequences when they disobey. This kind of environment nourishes the fear of God. As the Spirit applies the means of grace to the hearts of our children, they grow in favor with God.
To grow in favor with man, children need to learn skills that help them prosper in the world and bless other people. It is good to give our children opportunities to develop a talent, such as art, music, dance, sports, cooking, or writing. Each child can master a hobby that brings joy to his or her heart and fills an empty space in the world. Children need to learn the value of hard work and to earn rewards for jobs well done. They need an education that equips them to think, read, write, reason, lead, and cooperate with others. They need to learn to solve problems, take appropriate risks, and participate in causes that bless their community. Because the crafty “achieve no success” (Job 5:12–13), children should learn respect for authority, honesty, compassion, and sacrifice. They need to apologize to those whom they wrong and forgive those who wrong them. As children grow in favor with man, they flourish and succeed in life.
Above all, of course, we must love our children. We must be like the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep, knows His sheep, and will not let them go. We cannot control our children’s destiny, but with God’s help we can create a space in which they are loved and cherished. Our children will fail, just as we fail. When they do, they must know that we love them still. Ironically, it is when our children feel safe enough to fail that they will grow in favor with both God and man. That is true success.