New Horizons

The Way of Weakness in Covenant Nurture

Mark G. Sumpter

"Wake me up and tell me that I've been dreaming-who is sufficient to handle this?!" Under my breath, I've uttered these words dozens of times over the years. The blessings and joys of parenting-and, equally, the pressures and demands of trying to nurture my children wisely-often stop me in my tracks.

None of us needs to be reminded of the high call of faithful parenting. Teachers and youth leaders know this too. When we're in the trenches, responsible for the Christian nurture of the generation coming up behind us, we typically step out gingerly, one foot in front of the other, feeling for solid, scriptural ground.

We have experienced what it means to grow weary in the Lord's stewardship of household well-doing. Maybe it is sitting at the breakfast table, refereeing the dividing up of the last donut. Or perhaps you're checking in with your wife about the request that your sixteen-year-old has made to go four doors down the street for a neighborhood games night. To endure, we need to pray for strength and wisdom and then to put scriptural instruction into practice.

Biblical Orientation

We've sat under the teaching of the gospel for instruction, and we've read the popular Christian books on covenant nurture. We accept the biblical line of thought that only when we orient ourselves to the path of life that flows out of faith in our Savior may we learn to press on in this calling. But how are we to orient ourselves in a scriptural way? And beyond the home, how are the older people in the church supposed to take up the call to teach and nurture the younger covenant members?

There is a biblical orientation that beckons for our attention. It is the way of humility and weakness. At first it may seem out of place to speak of weakness in the same breath as guiding and nurturing children and young people. As parents of our children, as leaders of youth (and also as elders in Christ's church), we would naturally expect a pastoral exhortation to keep working on skills of wisdom, faithfulness, teaching, love, and discipline-but weakness?

A reminder of what it means to know and live in gospel grace gives focus to our approach. The life of faith involves, among other things, receiving with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save our souls (see James 1:21). As parents and elders, in order to find ourselves, we must lose ourselves; as teachers and youth leaders, in order to see God's light, we must confess our blindness.

But how different is the counsel of this age that influences today's home and local church! Contrary to this world's "sure-to-work" parenting tips and trendy youth programs, training our children requires the walk of weakness (Matt. 10:39; 2 Cor. 13:4). Have you noticed that church work with today's youth often sports an extreme image of adventure and fun and a power team-like, you-can-do-it kind of ministry? Such attempts, as helpful as they may be in relating to young people, miss the gospel's message of weakness by a country mile.

Our Master's path of discipleship, and thus our ministry of nurture to covenant children, starts at the trailhead marked contrition. To stay with the metaphor, humility and contrition are not customarily thought of as part of the climb up Parenting Peak, but they nonetheless characterize the terrain that leads to the summit of life.

One way we are strengthened in the Lord's grace for carrying out our charge of covenant nurture is to understand that God is pleased to showcase his power in the weakness of his people. In particular, it is encouraging to know that God has committed himself to manifesting his power in the interplay between the older generations and the younger ones.

How It Happens

How does this happen? God achieves his covenantal purposes as parents, teachers, and youth leaders faithfully nurture our youth, because weakness is uniquely associated with children and youth. The banner theme from the Bible, "God's strength is made perfect in weakness," emerges over and over again in God's redemptive purposes, because the older generation waits on his strength to be perfected through the weakness of the younger one. A look at the Scriptures shows that in our weakness God is sufficient for covenantal nurture and passing on the baton of the faith.

Note how God himself incorporates weakness in his own demonstration of covenant faithfulness. There is a dominant thread of teaching in the Bible about the Lord's unfolding redemption and the requirements of dependence and expectancy on the part of his people with respect to a coming child-one who reminds us of weakness. How does God prove he is faithful? A passage like Isaiah 54:1-3 strikes a chord that reverberates throughout the history of God's work of salvation:

"Sing, O barren,
You who have not borne!...
For more are the children of the desolate
Than the children of the married woman,"
says the Lord.

"Enlarge the place of your tent,
And let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings;...
For you shall expand to the right and to the left,
And your descendants will inherit the nations,
And make the desolate cities inhabited."

In this passage, God steps into Israel's life in Babylon and provides hope for his people in exile. Questions have been surfacing: The nation has been unfaithful to God; will she again know the blessing of offspring, stemming from God's favor? Will there be descendants to return to the land? Will there be another generation of the covenant? The passage provides hope. God will answer by bringing forth a promised child-in fact, an abundance of children!

This theme climaxes in the coming of the Christ Child. A man named Simeon was waiting in this hope, knowing that this child was "destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel" (Luke 2:25, 34). In the Isaiah passage, God requires that his people wait in faith, looking to him for his provision of children; this is fundamental to fulfilling his saving purposes of hope (cf. Rom. 9:29).

Throughout Scripture, we see the Lord's acknowledgment of a woman's barrenness and then the call to put faith in him for bringing forth the promised child. Whether it is Abraham with Sarah, or Isaac with Rebekah, or Jacob with Rachel, or Elkanah with Hannah, the old covenant weaves a tapestry with this important thread (see Heb. 11:11-12; Rom. 4:17-20).

The absence of fruit from a woman's womb provides the occasion for God to teach us that men are dependent on God for the provision of children. More specifically, the conception and birth of a child is solely a matter of his power. And with respect to the Lord's commitment to furthering the work of his kingdom, children are found to be vital.

The Bible rehearses God's delight in this. There is young Joseph and the nation that is dependent on him, then the ruddy lad David and his slingshot before Goliath, then the very young Josiah and his reforms, and then the Hebrew children in the story of Daniel in Babylon-to name but a few! In this way, we see that children and young people are prominent figures in God's way of bringing hope.

This activity is God's work of weakness, and the apex of that work of weakness comes in the provision of the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of his people. He is the hope-the child of promise, the seed-the One upon whom all the saved are dependent (Luke 2:25-32). The Lord's covenant faithfulness, in weakness, brings hope of life and the blessing of inheriting the nations (Isa. 54:2-3; Matt. 28:18-20).

Applications for Today

If God delights to use weakness to show his faithfulness in transmitting the gospel from generation to generation in the Bible, shouldn't we expect him to use weakness in our day? When we apply this truth, we see that parents and leaders today should don a mantle of hope and expectancy in their training of, and ministry to, children and youth, for God ordinarily uses these very ones-the little ones-to achieve his covenant purposes. We are stationed in the precise place where God furthers his kingdom purposes! What a privilege! Gratefulness, faith, and expectancy should characterize our attitude as we carry out our charge to nurture the children and youth of the covenant.

Scripture reminds us of several applications for covenant nurture:

- Weakness should be treasured in covenant nurture. Those charged with household nurture and the church-based training of children and youth are escorted up to a breathtaking lookout point of weakness. It is the place of dependence on God for him to use his revealed means of fulfilling his gospel purposes, and this transforms our thinking about parenting, teaching, and discipling the young.

Our weariness in parenting can be turned to wonder; as we recognize our lack of wisdom and skill in covenant nurture, God manifests his expertise. An attitude of humility is closely aligned with God's ordinary work of grace and enablement. He has us in this place of weakness, as we seek to pass on the faith and life of the covenant, for that is always where he is. Glory in weakness, for in weakness we have his strength.

- Weakness is the surprise of God's faithfulness, power, and wisdom. "Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord ... like arrows in the hand of a warrior" (Ps. 127:3-4). Our young Lord demonstrated God's surprise of wisdom and power before the church and the world (see Luke 2:40, 46-49). It is the Lord's way of redemption-Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).

The weakness of God is stronger than men; it confounds the wise, it silences the proud, it overtakes the strong, and it topples the mighty (1 Cor. 1: 25, 27). Take up your parenting, polishing the armor of children, for that is aligning yourself with God's ways. The weakness of children in the hands of faithful parenting is his eye-catching, head-turning way of strength and might.

Pastors have testified that having children with them on appropriate visits to see those in the hospital, or having young people tag along with the deacons to make a call on a shut-in, breaks down barriers, opens up conversations, and affords opportunities. Such weakness puts to shame the things that are mighty, and God gets the glory!

Weakness and Prayer

- Weakness finds a place in our parenting as we express our dependence on him in prayer. Knowing ahead of time from Scripture that God has ordinarily used children and youth in his purposes, we are stirred for expectant, faithful prayer. Prayer links us to his hope through the next generation.

Also, in this way, we are reminded of the place of children's prayers! This is one way that the younger serve the older. Their own modeling in prayer often astonishes us! Children move mountains in prayer; households and churches should be more careful to circulate prayer guides and prayer letters to children and youth. They know about the work of prayer with their boldness and simplicity. Again, weakness in prayer is the place where God demonstrates his strength.

- Weakness in the Lord includes the expectation that in making use of the weak vessels in the covenant-children and youth-we are planning for his ongoing blessing on the family and the church. In this way, we see that children and young people are vital and necessary to further God's kingdom. To put it in the form of a warning, without the faithful employment of children in their age-appropriate, maturity-appropriate ways of ministry and service, the family and the church will be powerless. Parents and church leaders need to include children and young people in church planning and deployment into areas of practical service.

For example, imagine that you have a missions ministry and prayer group. The prayer update distributed each Sunday evening can be wholly in the hands of the young people of the church. They can be responsible for the missionary updates, letter writing, display case of pictures and letters, e-mail, and maintaining of the section of the church's Web page for the missions education of the church. Also, imagine that every two years the youth of the church sponsor a missions conference-from start to finish.

Or imagine deploying young people in a college ministry that reaches out to international students at a local university with hospitality. Internationals would be partnered with host families in the church for the school year. Depending on children and youth to be involved in maturity-appropriate ways proves that God's wisdom in the family and the church is justified by the weakness of children (cf. Matt. 11:19).

Covenant Nurture Requires Endurance

As one parent to another, as one fellow-elder to another, our well-doing in covenant nurture requires endurance-it's a law of sowing and reaping. Training in covenant nurture, done in weakness, is not the usual place to which we go for strength in our weariness. But, as we've seen, weakness is accented in a prominent way in God's covenant purposes. If we look to our own resources of strength and wisdom, we will lose heart (Gal. 6:9)"and we know that as a common experience.

The place and role of children and young people in God's redemptive acts give us a fresh perspective on the opportunities for service and ministry in the household of faith. As we sow and reap in the ministry of teaching and discipling our children, we access the power of the Lord and his Spirit.

The second wind or boost of encouragement in the Lord's power for parenting and service involves putting into practice the way of humility and weakness. Depending on him is the way of strength. Remember, in the way of the little child he leads us (Isa. 11:6).

The author is pastor of Faith OPC in Grants Pass, Oreg. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2005.

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