The Call of the Wild: Strong Kids vs. Safe Kids
It’s interesting where bold observations hit you over the head. I was sharing a ride to an airport with a friend named Jeff Fray. Great guy. My age. Raised in the jungles of Africa by his missionary parents. He’s a full-time advocate for strong marriages. In the process of our conversation, he drew a great parallel between animals that exist in the wild and their counterparts who live in captivity.
It got us both thinking about the tension that exists in the hearts of parents of faith who are trying to raise their kids wisely.
Do we raise our kids in a way that forces them to learn how to thrive throughout their childhood in the worldly jungle that surrounds them, or do we raise them in the safe confines of an evangelical zoo? The threats of the one option are frightening, while the comforts of the other are tempting. But which one will we choose? The answer to this question is usually determined by two factors.
The first factor is our background. Some of us are inclined toward raising our kids in the evangelical zoo because that’s where we were raised. It’s what we’re used to. Then there are others of us who are inclined to raise our kids there because we spent our childhoods in the midst of the jungle but our parents did little or nothing to protect us from it or prepare us for it. Between running scared through early childhood and the scars from years of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll as teenagers, we figure we’d rather spare our children the kinds of wounds we bear.
The second factor has to do with where we place our focus. If our primary concern is the sexualized culture and the invisible forces of evil that want to have our kids for lunch, the safety of the zoo looks extremely attractive.
Raising kids in the context of our wild culture doesn’t seem to make any sense until you look at the built-in drawbacks of being raised in a zoo. Animals created to thrive in the wild, but instead grow up in the zoo, never get to develop the strengths that give them a fighting chance in the wild. They don’t need to. Daily room service by professional zoo keepers has eliminated their need to know how to hunt. Walls and bars separate them from other species so they remain unskilled at co-existing. Muscles designed to empower them to outrun their natural predators atrophy. They’ve never had to get good at smelling trouble. True, they typically live longer than their counterparts in the wild, but they don’t live in the way they were created to live—free. And if circumstances suddenly thrust them into the middle of the jungle outside their cages, they’d find themselves in serious trouble… fast.
Here’s reality. Ultimately, our children grow up and find themselves in the deepest and darkest parts of the cultural jungle anyway. College. Work. Community. Since it’s a foregone conclusion our children will eventually enter the wild, is there a way to give them a head-start on the competition without throwing them to the hyenas? Of course there is. Grace-based Christian parents do it all the time.
But we might need to do a proper inventory regarding the way we were raised. If we were brought up in comfortable spiritual environments that made few demands on our faith, we need to see them for what they truly are: contexts that factor out the need for God’s active power and presence working in our lives. These are breeding grounds for mediocrity, spiritual indifference, and biblical irrelevance. But what if we grew up in a family configuration where our parents failed to set standards and run interference for us? What if that left us scared and covered with scars? We need to let Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross do its complete work to forgive us, cleanse us from all unrighteousness and empower us to live godly lives in the midst of a Godless culture (1 John 1:9).
We also need to shift our focus from the threats that surround our kids to the God who longs to protect them. Neither they nor we are any match for the world system, but God is. We need to show our kids what faith in God’s power looks like lived out on the front lines of a lost and needy world. They need to see our unflinching confidence in His watchful care and how His grace shows up when we struggle or fail.
God isn’t calling us to raise safe kids; He’s calling us to raise strong ones. And even if we prefer to keep them in the zoo, come age eighteen, most of them find themselves in the jungle whether we like it or not. Protecting them makes sense in the very early years of their childhood, but preparation for real life needs to get a lot of practice well before they head out into the jungle on their own. Our families tend to fare far better when we operate in a context that forces both parents and children to live by faith in the middle of a toxic and hurting world.
And here’s the good news, if we raise spiritually strong kids, God throws in safe ones for free. This requires us to put our faith in the God who has promised to protect us. It’s amazing how safe the wild actually is when the King of kings of the jungle, the Lion of Judah, goes before us and also serves as our rear guard. Because as the Apostle Paul said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31).
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on the wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:29-31. See also Psalm 91.
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