Most families—rich, poor, or middle class—have an image, maybe even a dream, of what their child’s life will look like once they reach adulthood.

If pressed to describe it, the image might include impressive academic credentials, a high-paying job, good medical benefits, a solid retirement package, a house in the suburbs, a lovely spouse, and as many grandchildren as possible (but not to the point of financial endangerment). Behind the high-pressure academics, ACT tutors, private coaches, and race to optimize college acceptance lies a target at which many Christian parents are aiming. I once asked a parent what the college arms race was all about.

“So our kids can live in a neighborhood like this,” he replied, pointing to an affluent street of homes with perfectly manicured lawns.

Universal Dream

But this desire to see kids live the “American Dream” isn’t limited to upper middle class suburban families. The children of immigrants feel a similar pressure.

A Chinese American seminary classmate related a story about when he told his parents he wanted to pursue a career as a teacher or pastor. “That’s nice, son,” they said. “You will be a doctor or lawyer.” All the Asian American students in the class erupted in laughter, while the non-Asian contingent sat in confusion. They explained how their parents struggled and sacrificed to immigrate to America. To pursue a low-paying career, then, would insult their parents’ sacrificial efforts to provide opportunities for socioeconomic success.

A suburban lifestyle can dangle before poor parents and children as a fantastic ideal. Over the mountain or across the tracks lies a perfect neighborhood where troubles cease to exist. If a child can excel academically or athletically and “get out,” then problems will be solved.

Faithfulness or Idolatry?

There’s nothing wrong with parents wanting their kids to maximize the talents God has given them. I am deeply grateful for the academic opportunities my parents afforded me. I am grateful for my friendly neighborhood, my 401K, my health insurance, and my comfortable financial situation.

But does our craving to see our children excel arise out of faithfulness or idolatry? We may think an inflated desire for money or success drives our efforts to maneuver our kids’ lives. Yet I think at the root lies two more subtle idols: comfort and safety.  

‘Let’s Not Take It Too Far’

Often we want our kids to follow Jesus to a certain extent. We like their commitment to Christ when it means good moral choices and a sense of spiritual fulfillment. But what happens when they embrace the gospel to a point where life gets financially challenging, or even physically dangerous?

What if our child foregoes a medical school acceptance to serve as a missionary in Uganda? What happens when Christian conviction leads them to teach in the inner city or attend seminary rather than law school?

How do we feel when God calls our child to become a foster parent or to adopt children of another race—just when things were socially and financially comfortable with three beautiful biological children? What happens when God calls kids raised in the suburbs to live in an impoverished, crime-ridden area, or in a predominantly Muslim nation?

I imagine such possibilities generate visceral anxiety for many. We want our kids to be Christians, but let’s not take it too far, right?

The tough pill for parents to swallow remains that, just as God’s love for our kids comes with no strings attached, his lordship over their lives comes without conditions too. That the Father offered his Son as a ransom for our children and us means they belong to him, not us. The full benefits of salvation come with the full commitment of discipleship.

Great Risk, Great Reward

This level of surrender to Jesus comes with great rewards. A child willing to follow him anywhere will be a child with a satisfied soul. Indeed, the most fulfilling life is one centered on God’s glory and the advancement of his kingdom. 

With this possibility of deep satisfaction comes inherent risk. Rarely do we read a story in Scripture where a person lauded for great service to God did not face incredible risk and discomfort. Paul, in particular, traded status and wealth for social disgrace, hostility, imprisonment, brutality, and death. One only can imagine his Jewish parents’ reaction to his decision to follow Jesus. But Paul characterized the benefits of a life surrendered life to Christ in this manner:

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Phil. 3:8)

The Lord may lead our children into uncomfortable circumstances. For your child, that discomfort may involve a foreign nation or a college sorority, a low-earning profession or an investment bank. But regardless of what risk and discomfort may look like for your child, don’t let idols of comfort and safety rob them of the chance to experience the joy of life devoted to King Jesus—regardless of the cost.