The Empty Nest sure feels empty these days. At least it does for Chris and Cathy. Their nest has been empty for two years now, and they’d like nothing more than to fill it up again. Their son, you see, is going through a difficult time. When he first left home, everything seemed OK. He went off to college. He was becoming more and more independent, just like he was supposed to, just the way God designed it. But then something changed inside of him. He began to become more and more distant from his parents. Not just physically, but also emotionally and even spiritually.
He’d quit going to church. In fact, he told his parents recently that he didn’t really believe in God anymore. He said, “God is just something people invented to make them feel safe.” It had been a few weeks since they’d heard from him at all. And on most nights, there in their empty nest, these parents grieve for their lost son. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, you know. They brought him to church. They read the Bible together as a family. They went on mission trips together. He was an active member of the youth group. And what bothered them most was that passage in the Bible: A godly home guarantees godly kids.
Well, guess what folks? That passage isn’t in the Bible. But it does appear on a long list of sayings that we sometimes attribute to the Bible. It’s right there with “God just wants you to be happy.” That long list of passages that folks attribute to Scripture. But search those pages, you won’t find it. And this fictitious biblical passage has caused a lot of heartache over the years! Parents all over the world have grieved and mourned over lost children. And many of those parents did everything they could do to instill strong faith in their children. And STILL their children walked away from God. And so, their empty nests are filled with shame and guilt and regret.
I do not want to suggest that it doesn’t matter how you raise your children! I want to be crystal clear on that point! God calls parents to do everything we can to instill a love for God in the lives of our children. We take that seriously here at Glenwood. That is what our STAND@Home Ministry is all about! That is why we make such a fuss over children here when we dedicate them back to God and that is why we partner with families as new children come into their home. Deuteronomy 6 commands parents to teach children about God! Raising your children to love God is one of if not THE most important callings in a parent’s life.
So, please do not hear what I say in any way diminishing that clear, important call of God to parents. But also, hear this: No matter what we do, no matter how much we pray, no matter how much we teach, no matter how much we model, still, some children will leave God anyway. That is the fallen world we live in. That is sometimes the consequence of free choice. And believe me, God grieved that consequence of free choice long before we did. Let’s take a look at scripture to see what God has to say about this.
The passage that is often used to justify the guilt parents feel when a child turns away from God is Proverbs 22:6.
Train children in the way they should go; when they grow old, they won’t depart from it.In order to interpret this passage best, you need to understand what you are reading. This passage is a proverb. If you look up “proverb” in the dictionary, you will see this definition:
A short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.The key word in this sentence is “general.” Proverbs are generally true, almost always. But not always! There are exceptions. Proverbs, including biblical proverbs, are constructed to convey wisdom. There is a lot of wisdom in Proverbs 22:6. We should train our children to love God! We should do all we can to instill faithfulness in their lives. But that doesn’t mean we should take Proverbs 22:6 as a rigid, hard-fast law. That’s not how proverbs work. Take Proverbs 26:4–5 for example:
Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. (Proverbs 26:4)But now, listen to the very next verse:
Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes. (Proverbs 26:5)OK, which is it? Should we answer fools according to their folly, or not? Well, it depends on the situation. Both of these statements are true! And that frustrates those of us who want Proverbs to behave like laws. Proverbs 22:6 tells us what is generally true, but other parts of the Bible show us that this proverb is not always true.
Consider the many godly parents in the Bible who had children that turned out, shall we say, less than perfect. David was a man after God’s own heart, but his son, Solomon, followed the gods of his many foreign wives. Think of the list of Israelite kings: Jehoshaphat was a good king, but his son, Jehoram, did evil in the eyes of the LORD. Joash was faithful to God, but his son, Amaziah, allowed Israel to return to pagan gods. Josiah was a good king, but his son, Joahaz, did evil in God’s eyes. In fact, the Bible is filled with stories about good people who were raised in the faith, but who left God.
But the quintessential parent/child relationship in the Bible that shows us that there are exceptions to Proverbs 22:6? The relationship between God and Israel. Over and over again, this relationship is described as that between a parent and a child, nowhere more clearly than in Hosea 11:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the further they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and they burned incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
I took them up in my arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them
with bands of human kindness,
with cords of love.
I treated them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks;
I bent down to them and fed them.
They will return to the land of Egypt,As a parent, God the Father did everything He could do to instill faith in His child. He loved Israel, he taught Israel to walk in the faith, and he led Israel with kindness and love. Yet still, Israel rebelled and rejected their Father.
and Assyria will be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword will strike wildly in their cities;
it will consume the bars of their gates
and will take everything because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me;
and though they cry out to the Most High,
he will not raise them up.
So, folks, what should we do with this? Should we just throw up our hands and say, “Oh Well! I guess we should just ignore the faith of our children. If they aren’t going to listen to us anyway, let’s just not even try.” I think the most important words of Hosea 11 begin in verse 8. After Israel has rejected God, pay attention to what this Father does.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart winces within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I won’t act on the heat of my anger;Though his children are rebellious and stubborn and faithless, God, our Father, does not abandon them. He continues to love them. He continues to pursue them. He continued to pursue them all the way to the cross. God did not give up on them! And God does not give up on us! And thank God for that!
I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a human being,
the holy one in your midst;
I won’t come in harsh judgment.
They will walk after the Lord,
who roars like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come trembling like a bird,
and like a dove from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Ephraim has surrounded me with lies,
the house of Israel with faithless acts;
but Judah still walks with God,
and is faithful to the holy one.
(Hosea 11:8–12 CEB)
You know, we are all over the map on this one. Some of you are like the young couple that has just welcomed their first child into the world. You are excited and scared, and the prospect that your child may one day reject God is hard for you to even imagine. Others are in the thick of it. You are raising your children in the faith. You are doing the best you can do and you are always searching for new ways to communicate the gospel to your children. Some of you have raised good, God-loving children. You are proud. You thank God for the time you had when they were at home, and you rejoice that they remain faithful today. Others have watched your children leave home and reject God completely. And you can’t help feel a twinge of guilt every time we dedicate a child to God. Every time we talk about the importance of instilling faith in our children you know you made some mistakes, but you also know you did a lot of good things too. As I said, we’re all over the place on this one. Here is the cold hard truth, church. The proverb is true, generally.
Train children in the way they should go; when they grow old, they won’t depart from it.
Some may wander for a bit. Some may wander for a while. But most will finally find their way. But like all other proverbs, there are exceptions. And exceptions are tough, aren’t they? Especially when we are talking about our children. But if your children have left God, I want you to take comfort in this. God is bigger than you are. And who knows, you may have planted seeds in the life of your child that will sprout some time in the future. The Bible is filled with stories, life is filled with examples of people who found God later in life. As your family, we will continue to pray with you for your children. Our partnership with you in the raising of your children does not end when they graduate from high school. One thing is certain: God will not quit pursuing your child and neither will we!
Now, I want to say something specifically to Fathers, after all this is Father’s Day. A mother told me years ago: Be careful what you preach on Father’s Day. It seems like we always encourage mothers on Mother’s Day, but on Father’s Day, we typically just make dads feel guilty! As a proverb, that is generally true! But not today. Dads, please hear this: You make a difference in the life of your children. Do not forget that! You matter. And your role in their lives is essential no matter what our world may say to the contrary!
Mitch Albom, the author of Tuesdays with Morrie, wrote a short article for Father's Day titled "When Did Fathers become Expendable?" He described what happened on a recent exchange on The View, an ABC show with a massive female audience: A guest host, an actor named Terry Crews, had floated the idea that "there are some things only a father can give you." He was deluged by objection, both on social media and on the set. When he said, "A father gives you your name," cohost Whoopi Goldberg joked, "Like in The Lion King?" When he said "a father gives you your security" and "your confidence," cohost Jenny McCarthy, who is raising a son on her own, shot back, "I'm a single mother and I guarantee you, I can give my son all those things." The debate went on for several minutes at a high volume, with the female hosts paying homage to widows and single moms, and McCarthy hammering at the idea that her "amazing" son needs no man. Albom pondered how far we've come, that on network TV a man suggesting simply that "there are some things only a father can give you" is greeted not with agreeing nods but with cannon fire. He offered the following analysis:
What does a father bring to the table? I can cite a few things I got from my own: Strength. Quiet confidence. Discipline. Responsibility. And love. All displayed differently than my mother, which was fine. My father also taught us how to be a husband, how to respect a woman, when to lead and when to support.
It's true, not all men are like my dad. But plenty are. And fatherhood didn't suddenly, after thousands of years, lose its value. It may be trendy to dismiss dads as little more than fertilizer, but it's not true. In fact, it's pretty foolish. Such is our world, where a comment like Crews's brings a tsunami. Funny thing is, I remember someone from my childhood frequently saying, "He needs his father to do that." That comment came from my mother.Actually, moms and dads, raising children takes both of you. In reality, it may take all of us! The Bible may not guarantee that your children will turn out perfect, even if you do everything perfectly (and you won’t, by the way). Israel disappointed her Father, so did Cain and Jacob and Solomon, and the list goes on and on. You may be worried about your own child this morning. If so, remember this: God eventually redeemed Israel.
God is faithful. God is patient. God is gracious. Let that be a lesson and a great encouragement to us all as we attempt to follow in our Father’s footsteps.