Imitating Jonathan Edwards' Godly Parenting

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Words filled with biblical truth spoken into an air of uncertainty must be among the most agonizing parents can deliver to a child. Will children receive the Scriptures as foolishness or as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18)? The answer is not always known.

As parents, if closeness with our children were the only aim when they approach us with their fears and pains, we might restrict our replies to: “God is near. He is with you” or “God aches with you.” I find momentous biblical truth about the character of God in each of these replies (Hebrews 13:5; Lamentations 3:32-33). 

Yet, when in self-sacrificial love for our children we prioritize their relationships with God over and above their relationships with us, more biblical counsel emerges. This counsel potentially puts the parent-child relationship at risk for the sake of their good (Matthew 19:29) and sends us in prayer toward a God who draws people to himself.

Jonathan Edwards and His Daughter, Esther

Jonathan Edwards offered this kind of self-sacrificial love to his daughter, Esther. He wrote the following words to her when she was ill. His words meet the reality of the world’s sorrows:

I would not have you think that any strange thing has happened to you in this affliction: ‘Tis according to the course of things in this world, that after the world’s smiles, some great affliction soon comes.[1]  

He counsels her to make the time of illness useful within her spirit:

God has now given you early and seasonable warning not at all to depend on worldly prosperity. 

Having humility before God about her earthly illness would foster contentment in eternal rest. If she cannot improve her circumstance on this earth, Edwards advises she look to the eternal glory God might glean from her difficult season:

Therefore I would advise….if it pleases God to restore you, to lot upon no happiness here. 

Labour while you live, to serve God and do what good you can, and endeavor to improve every dispensation to God’s glory and your own spiritual good, and be content to do and bear all that God calls you to in this wilderness, and never expect to find this world any thing better than a wilderness. 

Lay your account to travel through it in weariness, painfulness, and trouble, and wait for your rest and your prosperity ‘till hereafter where they that die in the Lord rest from their labours, and enter into the joy of their Lord. 

He encourages his daughter to give herself wholly to the Lord in suffering. He can deliver challenging, truth-focused counsel because he has already made the same commitment to the Lord in his life. As a loving parent, being at a distance from his child without hope for future visits would undoubtedly be painful. 

But the exemplary nature of his contented commitment to God is on display when writing to his suffering daughter who is out of his reach, across many miles.  

You are like to spend the rest of your life (if you should get over this illness) at a great distance from your parents, but care not much for that. If you lived near us, yet our breath and yours would soon go forth, and we should return to our dust, whither we are all hastening. 

‘Tis of infinitely more importance to have the presence of an heavenly Father, and to make process towards an heavenly home. Let us all take care that we may meet there at last.[2]

He delivers world-denying hope in courageous words to a hurting child. First, by speaking challenging thoughts he risks that his words might be met with disagreement causing relational distance.

Second, he speaks words for the good of his child, without thought of himself. He advises his daughter to “care not much for” being near or far from him—so long as she remains near to the Lord. Edwards clearly has no greater joy than that his daughter would walk in the truth (3 John 1:4).

My Own Parenting

I do not want any less than what Edwards exemplifies. I would not ultimately want a pleasant-enough relationship with my daughter to the detriment of considering eternity—heaven and hell—together. Truth may be agonizing, at times, to convey—but these kinds of words are good; they are love. Speaking them is the kind of risk God asks me to take for the sake of Christ and the good of my daughter (Romans 10:14).

When my daughter is grown, I want her to see parents like Edwards. I want us to be rightfully content in the Lord so that our only request and hope is that she walk with the Lord to eternity. Edwards’ counsel is compelling, in part, because he is true to maintaining an eternal focus himself. To ask my daughter to follow me in contentment where I have never been would prove challenging! 

Ultimately, Edwards and his daughter are brought closer together through this focus. Esther writes of their relationship:

Last eve I had some free discourse with My Father on the great things that concern my best interest—I opened my difficulties to him very freely and he as freely advised and directed. 

The conversation has removed some distressing doubts that discouraged me much in my Christian warfare—He gave me some excellent directions to be observed in secret that tend to keep the soul near to God, as well as others to be observed in a more publick way—What a mercy that I have such a Father! Such a Guide![3]

Every decision of faith in the Lord is solely each individual’s to make. But, parents can aid their children’s individual decisions by refusing to create a relational dynamic intent on bringing us a sense of happiness and fulfillment. 

Looking to Edwards and his Esther, as a type of Christ-exalting relationship, we can continue to aim higher, with prayerful hope, for the kind of rich comradery that flows when both parties, by God’s grace, love the truth and content themselves in the Lord alone.


[1]Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987).

[2] Ibid., 402.

[3] Ibid., 419-420.


This post was originally published at Unlocking the Bible.



Lianna DavisMothering