“A foolish son is a grief to his father
and bitterness to her who bore him” (Prov 17:25)
Too many of us know this pain first hand—the pain of watching your child make choices that are rightly theirs to make, but that you know will not end well. So far my daughter is only capable of two-year old folly, and this is pretty easy for me to mop up afterwards (often literally). But many of us with older children can testify that teaching our children wisdom is not just a nice idea, but a matter of life and death. God knows your pain. In Isaiah the prophet cries out:
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the LORD has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.” (Isa 1:2)
So, whatever grief you are suffering due to the persistent folly of your two-year-old, your twenty-two-year-old, or your forty-two-year-old, God knows your pain. Furthermore, he has acted—so there is hope!
What is wisdom?
But before we get there, let’s start by thinking about what wisdom is. In the Old Testament, the idea of wisdom has a number of aspects. There is the idea of practical know-how, as well as the idea of moral behaviour. God’s laws in Deuteronomy were regarded as wisdom, as was King Solomon’s understanding of plants and animals. Broadly speaking, wisdom is the ability to so grasp the way the world works that you make decisions that lead to your welfare rather than your downfall, to life rather than death.
But this means that wisdom and folly are not ultimately practical categories, or even moral ones. Ultimately, wisdom and folly are spiritual categories. That is to say, they are about our relationship with God. Remember, the fool doesn’t just say in her heart “I’ll leave my washing out even though storm clouds are gathering”, or “it’s OK for me to check out a sex scene just this once”. The fool says in her heart, “There is no God”. Or, put positively, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7).
This is why the wisdom of this world is legitimately called ‘wisdom’—but is actually folly. On the surface it seems to get the job done in terms of practical living, and even some degree of moral order, but it misses a part of reality—the holy, loving Creator—so massively crucial that the world’s wisdom is, in fact, criminally negligent.
Now the truth is, we are all guilty of this kind of folly. In fact, Romans 1 tells us that, left to ourselves, we deliberately suppress the truth about God. That is, our folly is on purpose. Furthermore, this includes our children—“none is righteous, no, not one…” and it shows itself in the defiance of a two year old just as much as the defiance of a twenty-two year old.
So, really, teaching our children wisdom is impossible for us. We aren’t wise, and even if we were, they wouldn’t want to listen. We are completely powerless. Thankfully, God has acted to save us from our folly! The all-wise Father has sent his own beloved Son. He is the holy atoner who takes away the penalty of our criminally negligent folly. Only he can save us!
But wait, there’s more! If wisdom is the ability to fully grasp reality so that you can live well in it, and the holy, loving Creator is the chief part of reality, then Christ is not just crucial for our salvation—he is indispensable to our wisdom. Indeed, “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” In Christ we have God’s full and final revelation of himself—you cannot know reality any better than to know God, and you cannot know God any better than to know Christ.
What’s more, Jesus also shows us ourselves—that is, humanity as we are intended to be. If you want to live wisely, to know what the wise life looks like, look no further. The way he obeyed his Father’s laws, the way he prayerfully entrusted himself to the Father, the way he discerned human hearts, being both gentle and shrewd—this is the one we can follow if we want to be wise. This is the one we must point our children to, saying “copy me, as I copy Jesus”
A high standard? Yes! But remember, the Spirit he gives us is the same Spirit he himself was anointed with: “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Isa 11:2). So, “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God” (James 1:5). Remember, “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18.27). That’s why prayer is so vital. Only God can give someone life, we can’t—not even by preaching the gospel—without him.
Therefore, the solution to our own folly, and our children’s folly, is to preach Christ, prayerfully and persistently—both to ourselves and our kids. And to keep at it, consistently, “in season and out of season”(2 Tim 4:2). It’s by Christ we start, and it’s by Christ we continue.
On the days when I wish for a silver bullet, both now and in the future, I’m sure I’ll want to groan at being told to go back to basics in this way. But we need to always be reminded that new birth comes before discipleship—you cannot even see God’s kingdom, much less live wisely in it, without being born again, born from above, born of the Spirit as he applies the gospel of Christ to our hearts.
And having been made alive in Christ, where else have we to go, where else can we point our children, when he alone has the words of eternal life? But we can take heart by remembering his own promise that when we do abide in him, we will bear much fruit!
I myself am not old enough to say much about patience—I haven’t lived long enough to have done much waiting. But if Jesus, even though he was never ever guilty of our criminally negligent folly, “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52), then it seems reasonable to expect even the godliest child to mature over time—and some of us take longer than others. So we mustn’t panic if our children are still leaving their room a mess at 18! More seriously, no matter what folly our children are engaged in, and no matter how old and hardened they may seem, they are not beyond the saving, transforming power of the Lord.
So let’s persevere, preaching Christ prayerfully and persistently, so that our children may:
“…reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. (Col 2:2)
A version of this article was originally published in Magnolia magazine in July 2016.