Exceeding Me in All Things

In Book II of Homer’s Odyssey, Athene appears as Mentor to Telemachos, Odysseus’ son, to give him advice.  As a part of her speech to him, she states that “few are the children who turn out to be equals of their fathers, and the greater number are worse; few are better than their fathers.”[1]  While common experience may indicate that this is true, it seems exactly counter to what most of us would want for our children.  Most of us want our children to be “better than their fathers.”

In a particularly poignant passage in his classic book on Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown writes of the hurt that Augustine still felt late in life over the loss of his son.  Brown writes:

In the last book he ever wrote, Augustine will quote a passage from Cicero that, perhaps, betrays the hurt of his loss [of his son Adeodatus]: “Surely what Cicero says comes straight from the heart of all fathers, when he wrote: ‘You are the only man of all men whom I would wish to surpass me in all things.’”[2]

These two passages say much of the human condition.

First, they point out that it is very difficult for us to be truly happy for others.  Covetousness runs deep in the human heart, and we are often offended when others exceed us in almost anything.  This is true of both trivial and monumental things.

For example, sometimes a man who, when bested at a game, even if by an otherwise inferior opponent, will start doing silly things so that he can say he wasn’t really trying.  The desire to be better at everything in every instance is so strong that he would rather act the fool than try and be “exceeded” at something.  This is childish, but rather harmless, when the stakes are no higher than who will win the night’s last game of bowling.  Usually the biggest cost is merely a damper on the evening.

However, when a man’s life becomes characterized by this inability to recognize that others exceed him in many, if not all, things, then true fellowship and community with others becomes nearly impossible.  He is just too threatened by those around him to be a part of a real community, whether it be the family or the church.  Further, such feelings rarely remain in the trivial.

Second, as the Cicero/Augustine passage indicates, nearly all of us want our children to exceed us.  I know that I do.  I want my children to be stronger and more faithful Christians than I am.  I don’t want them to be my equals.  I want them to be better than their father.  Thus, I, like Cicero and Augustine, would say to my sons that they are likely the only men that I want to exceed me in all things.

Yet, if Athene is right, most likely they won’t.  So, what are we to make of this?  Ultimately, whether our children exceed us or not is up to the Sovereign Lord of the universe Who directs all things.

However, like Aslan, He follows His own rules.  He is not arbitrary and capricious, and His word is sure.  Further, in His word, He makes promises to us about our children.  For example, Proverbs 22:6 (King James) states “Train up a child in the way he should go: And when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Given what has been discussed earlier in this post, this passage should be a great encouragement to the Christian parents laboring to raise children that exceed them.  It doesn’t necessarily promise that my children will exceed me in all things, but it does promise that they be faithful Christians as adults.  Further, my training of them will hopefully exceed my own training, therefore there is good reason to hope that they will, at a minimum, exceed me in a good many things.

Surprisingly, I have only rarely heard this bit of good news taught in church.  In fact, when I have heard this passage discussed in church, it has most often been to explain it away in order to comfort those present in the congregation or Sunday School class with wayward children.

The common explanation is that this is not really a promise, but rather more of a guideline.  This is followed by an assurance to those present with wayward children that there is absolutely nothing that they could have done about it.  After all, it was the now-grown child’s choices, not theirs, that lead to the current waywardness.

I guess, perhaps, this is comforting to a parent with a wayward child.  But, it is the wrong kind of comfort because the comfort is derived from being able to deny any fault or responsibility for the current state of affairs.[3]  That should really be no comfort at all.  Trying to comfort ourselves by shirking God-given responsibility and authority is most certainly not one of the steps on the path of righteousness.

Further, it seems to do violence to the text.  Wonder how one knows when a passage is merely a general guideline as opposed to a promise?  Is it just its location in Proverbs, or is it the wording of the passage itself?

Or, is it the fact that many, many children who are raised in the church today end up departing the faith?  (75% seems to be a common percent cited.)  In other words, is it that what we are actually doing as a Christian parents in America is not producing faithful offspring, therefore it must be more of a guideline than a promise?  The problem couldn’t lie with us, so there must be something wrong with the Bible, right?


[1] The Odyssey of Homer, Richmond Lattimore trans., Book II, Lines 276-77, p.46 (1965).

[2] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 128 (2000)(emphasis in original).

[3] A better approach would be to accept responsibility and repent of sin.  Repent before God and make restitution by going to the wayward child and repenting of not raising them in the right way.  I am sure there are plenty of specific things of which to repent.  I have only been a parent 13 years, and I already have a pile of them (although I am trying to repent as I going instead of waiting until the end.)  I am sure that almost any parent, upon reflection, can think of a few.