"She's so cute!"
Updated: May 9, 2019
I remember the evening very well. We had a great night of playing with our daughter and the living room was full of almost all of her toys and, as I recall, a lot of our pots and pans. Half a bag of puffed wheat (or as she called them, “beans ball”) was strewn on the carpet around the base of her play kitchen. But now it was time to get ready for bed and we needed to clean-up. It all began very well, the hockey game was on and we all set to work cleaning up the house. Then it happened. Out of nowhere. All the toys were in the toy-box except one, and that’s when our daughter decided she was done cleaning up. And so the confrontation began. I’ll spare you the details of what happened over the next half an hour or so but needless to say the night ended with the toy in the toy-box and all three of us crying for various reasons. What had gone so wrong so quickly?
My son never had a situation like that. Other than not sleeping consistently until he was 3 years old, he was the perfect child. His problem was never outright rebellion and disobedience, but the signs were there, subtle as they were, that he had the same problem my daughter had. He had a certain cry, as he got older he would look at us a certain way, little things that reminded us there was a storm inside.
What went wrong with my daughter? What was the storm we saw every once in a while in my sons eyes? What did both of my children have in common despite being so different? Simple - sin. As Paul tells us “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) This is true of all people including both parents and their children. It is the universal human problem and it must be a central part of how we understand our children and of how we approach parenting.
Parents often get sidetracked with behavior. This makes sense, at some level, for it is our child's behavior that irritates and upsets us and calls for our attention. The danger, however, is that behavior alone becomes our focus. It is easy for us to believe that once we have corrected the behavior of our children that we have done our jobs as parents. It is easy for us to think that once our children ‘get in line,’ submit to our discipline and guidelines, and begin to act like good little ‘Christian kids’ that our job is done. Nothing could be further from the truth. We should not think that we have done our jobs as parents when we have merely changed their behavior.
The real problem, as Paul articulates in Romans 3, lies in the heart. The heart is the control center of our lives - from it comes our attitudes, actions, words, habits, etc. Behavior shows us what is in the heart, and if we are honest about what we see in our kids the truth of what Paul states is more than confirmed. Thus what our children really need is far more profound than simply correcting the behavior we find to be offensive and disobedient. If the heart is the where the real issue lies and if the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9) then our child has a problem that no amount of parental guidance and discipline can cure.
This means, as Tedd Tripp states, that in the task of childrearing behavior is not the issue. The basic issue is always going to be the heart. If you really want to help your child “you must be concerned with the attitudes of heart that drive his behavior.” He goes on to remind us that “[a] change in behavior that does not stem from a change in heart is not commendable; it is condemnable.” Herein lies the rub. When we see the way our children behave it is easy to see that they are truly sinful. But if our response to their sinfulness is to merely correct the behavior we don’t like, we will not get to the real issue (the heart) and we will run the very real risk of turning them and ourselves, into hypocrites. If all we demand of our children is a change in behavior and never address the heart from which their behavior arises then we will, at best, create children who honor us and God with their mouths, but whose hearts are far from him. (cf Matthew 15)
How do we target the heart and with what? Future blogs will respond to the first part of the question, but for now I want to focus on the latter part. If you attend CRC on a regular basis, the answer to the second part of the question should be clear and obvious - if the problem is sin, the solution is the gospel. The solution to the sin problem lies outside of anything that we can do. We must entrust our children to the Lord and instruct them in, and model for them the transforming power of the gospel.
Our job as parents, as William Farley articulates, is to prepare our children for the day of judgment. We do this by exposing to them a gospel-centered worldview and by modelling this worldview for them. He continues, “parenting is not primarily about doing the right things. It is about having a right relationship with God -- a relationship informed by the gospel.” We should not seek to merely change our child's behavior, nor should we try to turn parenting into therapy, nor should be try to parent our children with religion.
Our children need to hear and see the gospel clearly, every day. We must tell our children about sin and its effects. We must tell them that our sin alienates us from God and puts us under his judgment. We must tell them that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves from sin and this inevitable judgment. We must tell them that no amount of personal effort, external obedience, religious commitment or discipline will ever solve the problem of sin within them. We must tell them that victory over sin can only be ours when we accept Christ’s victory over sin by faith and repentance. We must tell them that this is not a one time thing we accept, but a lifestyle, a worldview, that must consume them.
The bottom line of parenting is this - we want to see our children converted. We want to see them develop and grow spiritually. We don’t want mere obedience, but Holy Spirit wrought regeneration and faith-filled living. We don’t want a mere recitation of a prayer ‘asking Jesus into their hearts.’ We don’t want mere religious adherence. We want God to regenerate, justify and sanctify our children.
So how do we parent in light of these realities? While we admit that the salvation of our children is completely up to the sovereign electing grace of God there are a few things we are called to do as parents. One caveat, however. Let us not think that if we do these things God WILL save our children. There is no such biblical guarantee. Remember, ours is the obedience, the result is the Lord’s.
We must pray like crazy for the salvation of our kids. When you don’t know what to do for or with your child, pray, pray and pray some more. Entrust them to God over and over again. Pray for their salvation more than you pray for anything else.
We must understand and model the gospel for our children. If we as parents don’t understand the gospel and the impact it must have on our lives, our children will never be able to learn it from us. We must take the gospel seriously or our children never will. If you are not sure about what the gospel is and means for your life join us every Sunday at CRC you will hear it in every sermon. You can also read a book like What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert; The Gospel-Driven Life by Michael Horton; or In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson.
Be willing to share both the bad news and the good news of the gospel with your children. The gospel is only understood when we speak about the heart and about sin as well as about the victory that Jesus gives us in his atoning death and resurrection. Remember Jesus is the answer ONLY if the questions are the right ones.
Understand that you may have to work against what our child hears elsewhere, even from other Christians and the church. I can promise this will not be the case if you attend CRC, but if your child goes to VBS or a Christian school or has broadly evangelical influences elsewhere they will probably have their relationship with Jesus distorted in some way. A lot of churches sell the semi-Pelagian doctrine of salvation - "To those who do what is within them, God will not deny." Be aware of what your child is hearing about salvation and make sure it is corrected with the true gospel.
Be aware of your child’s spiritual development. Children have varying capacities for spiritual understanding. Each child grows physically and intellectually at a different pace. Each child learns and understands in different ways. This means we need to pay close attention to each of our children individually and teach each one in accordance with who they are. This means we will, at times, need to listen to them more than talk to them. We must use wisdom to meet them where they are at with the gospel.
Don’t force things. Teach the gospel well. Set a consistent example. Pray like crazy. Pay attention to where each of your children is at and how they learn and develop. But don’t manipulate your kids to believe. Trust God to work in your child’s life in his good way and in his good time.
Never give up on God! My son is 17 years old and a solid Christian young man. My daughter is 19, is not saved and has no use for the gospel. But she is still young. God may still yet save her. So my wife and I will never give up on her.
Soli Deo Gloria