We did everything right. As Christian parents, we scan the checklists of steps to bring up a child in the Lord. We teach them right from wrong. We tell them about Jesus. We bring them to Sunday School. We make it to church.
Of course, none of us parent perfectly. But watching a child go through deep spiritual struggles can be disorienting when we’ve done everything in our power to prevent it—often with a fervor fueled by our own humbling spiritual history. We’ve learned painful lessons with God, and we want to keep our children from having to learn them too.
Except that’s not how it works. We can’t keep our children from struggling—and if we try, we risk instead keeping them from the full truth and beauty of the gospel.
I grew up in what’s often dubbed a “broken home”—though I would also call it happy. My mom worked hard, and my grandparents lived with us for some of those years. Still, with that background, when my husband and I first started having kids, we set out to do it perfectly, as many new parents do.
With a confidence on the scale of first-year seminary students, we proof-texted all the verses in the Bible about parenting, order, and discipline, and we plugged it into an equation for perfect parenting. Our kids were going to be awesome because we were going to be awesome parents. We were parenting by the Book.
There’s nothing like the arrogance of the young and inexperienced—though, in hindsight, our problem was more than youth and pride. We had taken a prosperity gospel view of family life, moving principles of “health and wealth” into the process of parenting. More than money or physical wellness, family was where we most deeply desired success, so that’s where the false “gospel of success” took root in our lives.
At the time, we wouldn’t have called this legalistic or prosperity gospel teaching. We would have called it “biblical.” We thought if we could just do this Christian life well, we wouldn’t have to depend on God’s grace all that much. Grace would just be our backup for unusual days—for the curveballs.
We didn’t realize then that when we take principles from the Bible and strip them of Christ and his redemption and forgiveness, they become something else entirely. We took the posture of Adam and Eve holding the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, thinking that if we could just know what to do and not do, then we wouldn’t be quite so reliant on God’s grace.
This was especially evident in how we approached the Book of Proverbs. “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6). We treated verses like this as fortune-cookie guarantees rather than descriptions of the good that God wants for us. We looked for salvation through our own hands—as we humans are apt to do.
And that made sense, because the Proverbs are good. But we were too apt to judge goodness by whether something got us the results we wanted in the timeframe we preferred.
God judges what is good differently. Old Testament scholar Chad Bird says that using the Proverbs as guarantees is acting like Job’s friends, examining someone who is suffering and trying to figure out which Proverb he didn’t follow quite correctly: If we just do all the right things, we should be fine! Let’s problem-solve your failures. Perhaps there’s a nugget of wisdom in here that can fix your situation.
Job was a righteous man, and yet the Proverbs didn’t “work” for him. He did everything right, but God still allowed suffering, seemingly with no explanation, and showed up in the final chapters of the book to tell Job and his friends how incorrectly they’d judged the situation.
We often don’t want to acknowledge that Jesus not only said suffering could happen to us but promised it would (John 16:33). That is what the prosperity gospel ignores, and understandably: It feels so much more positive and productive to focus on the parts of the Bible that give us a feeling of control.
We don’t want to take heart that Christ has overcome the world. We want to take heart that, well, at least we did everything we could. We don’t want redemption so much as redemption on our own terms, by our own hands.
As our culture moves on from helicopter parenting to lawnmower parenting (where parents go beyond hovering to mowing down all obstacles for their kids), the temptation of prosperity gospel parenting only becomes stronger.
It feels like we’ve somehow failed if our kids are dealing with hard things. It feels like failure if they are struggling with their faith or wrestling with God. We start to think it’s our job to mow down all that struggle, forgetting it’s actually our task to be with and pray for our children in struggle and joy alike.
And parents are not the only ones with this sense of failure. I was speaking with a young adult not long ago who said she felt pressure to be happy all the time. Her parents kept saying that they just wanted their kids to be happy, so when she wasn’t happy, she felt like she was failing them.
“I just want it to be okay to have a day where I’m sad,” she told me. She wanted the freedom to feel the whole range of human emotions without disappointing her parents—without making them feel like they didn’t do everything right.
Of course, a central tenet of the gospel is that we can’t do everything right, and this is why we so deeply need God’s redemption. I remember once pouring my heart out to God when one of my kids was struggling. I cried out because I could not fix that pain. But God showed me then that if I had the capacity to remove all of my children’s struggles, they would never need him. They would never have reason to cry out to him for themselves.
My limitations help my children seek and see God. His power is displayed in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), not in mechanistic promises of family prosperity, and this is a power my kids must come to know for themselves. Learning to rely on salvation by Christ alone is often a daily battle. Our kids must wrestle through it—and past all their versions of self-justification—just as we did.
The longer I parent, the more I realize that God is more willing for my kids to struggle than I am. I always want to skip the struggle, ignore the struggle, fast forward to overcoming the struggle. I am often impatient and unwilling to walk through the pain.
But if we can let go of prosperity gospel parenting, we can embrace the true gospel of a God who is with us and for us.
We can introduce this God to our children—not a God who is counting up our parenting failures or demanding constant happiness, but a compassionate God who meets us in our struggle. Who allows us to wrestle with him. Who doesn’t ask us to pretend things are fine when they’re not fine. Who permits us, as Martin Luther put it, to “[call] the thing what it actually is,” even if it is uncomfortable or unhappy.
As much as we hate the fact that in this world we will have struggles—and our kids will have struggles—we can take comfort in God’s honesty, patience, and love. And we can show our children that this is what God is like, so much better than the prosperity gospel’s petty and often inept idol could ever be.
What if starting children off on the way they should go isn’t just teaching them right and wrong and making sure they go to Sunday School? What if it’s teaching them to fall on God’s grace, every single day?
Gretchen Ronnevik is the author of Ragged: Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritually Exhausted and co-host of the Freely Given podcast.
- Print & Digital Issues of CT magazine
- Complete access to every article on ChristianityToday.com
- Unlimited access to 65+ years of CT’s online archives
- Member-only special issues
- Learn more