One of the greatest challenges that a child can face is growing up in a home where dad is either absent or spiritually disengaged. The Bible is clear that fathers have the responsibility to take the lead in guiding and governing their homes. God’s design for families provides for children to be raised in two-parent families with dads at the helm.
A growing body of research has confirmed the wisdom of this design. According to the National Father Initiative, a father’s presence and involvement in the lives of his children diminishes poverty, abuse, neglect, sexual promiscuity, and criminal activity, and it enhances a child’s physical health and academic performance. This should come as no surprise to Christians because we know that God’s ways are both right and good.
But what about the children that grow up in homes where dad is absent (physically, spiritually, or both)? Are children bereft of the spiritual leadership of a father doomed to a life of failure? Must a mother who has no support from a husband in raising children resign herself to her children turning out badly?
Hardly. A godly mother can have a powerful influence over her children even in the absence of a fully engaged dad. The New Testament church leader named Timothy demonstrates this in a significant way.
In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul reminds his young colleague of his spiritual heritage. “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.” The lack of any reference to Timothy’s father is striking. Evidently, Timothy grew up in a home where his dad was not much of a spiritual leader.
Some of the most useful servants of God throughout history owe a great spiritual debt to their mothers.
In fact, his dad was probably not a believer at all. When we first read of Timothy in Acts 16, he is described as “the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek” (v. 1). He was the child of a religiously mixed marriage.
Timothy’s mother, Eunice, married outside the faith in clear violation of Old Testament law (see Deut. 7). Perhaps she grew up in a home where the Jewish faith was only nominally practiced or maybe she simply rebelled against her parents. Somewhere along the line, perhaps on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14:6), she became a believer.
When Paul writes his last letter to Timothy, he can describe Eunice’s faith as “sincere” and as having begun prior to Timothy’s. The silence with respect to the man of the house is deafening. Whether he was dead or alive, religious or not, Paul gives no hint that Timothy’s father provided any spiritual guidance to his son.
The earliest lessons in spiritual formation that Timothy received came from his mother and grandmother. Paul reiterates this when he reminds Timothy that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15). Who taught Timothy the Bible when he was a child? Not his dad. His mother and grandmother saw to it that he learned the Scriptures as a boy.
Some of the most useful servants of God throughout history owe a great spiritual debt to their mothers. The great fourth and fifth century church leader, Augustine, had a violent, unbelieving father and a godly, faithful, Christian mother. It was the tearful prayers of his mother, Monica, that God used to arrest him from his profligate ways as a young man and turn his heart toward the grace of God in the gospel.
Similarly, John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was raised by a godly mother and ungodly father. From his mother he learned to memorize hymns, catechism answers, and Scripture, all before she died when he was seven years old. It was those early lessons that God brought back to his mind as a young man and used to save him from a life of slave trading and debauchery.
Though Charles Spurgeon’s father and grandfather were both pastors, he regularly refers in his sermons and books to the spiritual influence exerted on him by his mother.
Even when the home life is fraught with difficulties and challenges, a Christian mother has a great opportunity to influence her children for Christ.
On one occasion, Eliza Jarvis prayed these words in the presence of her children: “Now, Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance that they perish. And my soul must bear a swift witness against them at the day of judgment if they lay not hold of Christ.” Spurgeon later wrote about that prayer, noting that the “thought of a mother’s bearing swift witness against me pierced my conscience and stirred my heart.”
The call to be a mother is a high calling indeed. Even when the home life is fraught with difficulties and challenges, a Christian mother has a great opportunity to influence her children for Christ. Her family is her mission field, and like all faithful missionaries she should trust the Lord to supply grace to meet all of the challenges as she seeks to seize all of the opportunities to impact the rising generation with the gospel.
This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of TableTalk Magazine.