5 September, 2013 Ed Moll
Bringing up children is a great privilege and a very demanding role; perhaps the most demanding responsibility most of us will face. Parenting also comes with a big dollop of guilt. The more we care about the welfare of our children, the more we beat ourselves up about our failures. How do Christians aim high and stay in one piece? We do it in the same way as the rest of the Christian life: by keeping our sights fixed on God’s grace. Our parenting is modelled on God’s perfect parenting – which means that, when we’re stuck, we can look beyond programmes and experts and ask, ‘What does God do in a situation like this?’ Here are some landmarks to look for if you feel in danger of losing your bearings as a Christian parent.
1. Christian parenting is about the home
God has placed us in families, and the home is the centre of parenting operations.
Deuteronomy’s instruction to parents embraces all of life when it says, “Teach [God’s commands] to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 11:19-20). The command to “Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” isn’t a decorating tip so much as an injunction to let God’s law govern every part of the home, from the front gate to the kitchen door. Why is that so important? Because children learn about your faith by watching everything you do and listening to everything you say. They will hear the Bible story you read them, and watch as you pray with them at bedtime; but they will also observe how you deal with stress, sin, disappointment, conflict, spilt milk, and success. Their fieldwork in the laboratory of life will show them what really drives you – whether it’s the God of the Bible, or whether it’s an idol in your heart.
This is daunting because it will expose the real you! The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus has seen the worst, and still sets His love on you. The grace of God is what stands between you (and me) and hypocrisy. Because you are a sinner forgiven by sheer grace, you can admit your mistakes and failures to yourself; and then you can admit them (appropriately) to your children so that they can see what it is like to live under grace. Don’t forget to show them it’s great, by the way!
Children are not in the home all the time. As they grow up, the influence of school, clubs – and yes, church – grows. Those bodies are partners in the work of raising your kids, but remember that the responsibility is primarily yours. Don’t abdicate it! You may need the school’s help to teach maths; but have the confidence to help your children think morally about loving their neighours; you may benefit from the church’s partnership in nurturing your child’s faith, but don’t slide all the responsibility onto the youth worker or pastor. Work together!
Some children can’t live with their own families and it is better for them to be looked after by carers, foster parents or relatives. Providing a stable, grace-filled home for a child who can’t have it from their own parents is a great gift.
2. Christian parenting is about the heart
The family is like a greenhouse in which we prepare our young seedlings for life outside the family. The Bible’s word for this is training, as in: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) and “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
If you concentrate your training on behaviour, you will raise Pharisees. Because Bible-believing Christians often have high standards in this area, we can produce excellent Pharisees. Jesus does not call us to breed hypocritical pew-sitters whose polite exterior masks their seething resentment. Parenting is about the heart, and discipline is training or nurturing a child’s heart. So when you challenge your child’s behaviour, look to the heart; ask them what caused them to react as they did.
Looking to the dust in your children’s hearts will expose the beams parked in your own heart. When you are angry at your children, is it really because they have done wrong? Or is it because their disobedience makes you feel weak? Or because you’re embarrassed in front of the other grown-ups? That is irrational and will exasperate your children. Confess your mixed motives to God and ask Him to change your heart, even as you ask Him to change your child’s heart.
3. Christian parenting is about your hopes
When your child says, ‘Mum, Dad, I’ve got something to tell you,’ what do you really hope they’ll say? And what do you most dread?
We’ve seen that the home is where children learn what is on your heart. So where is your heart? Remember: Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Parents unfailingly pass on their cherished values. What is your greatest hope for your children? That each becomes a doctor and not a dustman? That they get married and give you grandchildren? That they have economic well-being (or whatever the latest OFSTED target is)? Good table manners? What are you praying for your children? And when do you pray most earnestly for your children? Your crisis prayers will kick in when something you really value for your child is threatened: what is it that you treasure for them? Jesus told a parable in which a merchant sold everything he had to buy the pearl of great price (Matthew 13.45-46). We want the pearl too but often fail to sell everything: we long for our children to be disciples as long as they also gain a diploma, or a spouse, or a deposit for a house. Achievement, marriage and possessions are great blessings but terrible treasures compared to the Gospel.
There is another side to the treasure of grace. God showers undeserved mercy on us, and as parents we are called to mirror His grace in the way we love our children: initiating grace and unconditional love. They most need to know this when they have, or feel they have, disappointed us. This is particularly the case when the child, who knows that your heart longs for them to walk with Christ, has chosen to walk away for the moment. For all their gifts and achievements, they may feel they have disappointed you. They need to know of your unconditional commitment to love them and enjoy them, even as they know that behind the scenes you are praying for their return.
The long game will also help to determine how you tackle day-to-day situations. Instead of making it all up as you go along, keep thinking, ‘how will this decision now help my child treasure God above all else?’ Family life never stays the same and keeping track of your long-term hopes will help you keep your bearings as you adapt to a fast-changing family life. As soon as you’ve worked out how to handle one stage of family life, your children grow into the next one! Change what you do, but never why you do it: you love your kids and want them to know and love the Lord Jesus. The way you train and discipline your children will change as they grow up; and the best time for a family meal and Bible reading and prayer will change with family routines, but your end-goal remains always in sight. Parenting is a life-long task. There’s so much more to say. Don’t read it; hear it from other Christian families in your church with whom you can share and pray, laugh and weep.
Even as I write this I am thoroughly daunted because I can’t do this on my own. Maybe you feel the same. Good! Our children will not be saved by works; ours or theirs. They will be saved by grace. My role as a parent is to live by grace and let them see me doing so. You can do it too.
4. Christian parenting is about a whole lot of fun!
Don’t forget to enjoy your children! This is really important. There is a theological point here as well. If we truly believe that there is no better way to live than under the rule and blessing of Jesus Christ, then our lives as Christians should show it. And if you believe children to be a blessing from the Lord, then tell them; and thank Him; and live in the light of it. Enjoy!