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On Which Parenting Hangs

January 25, 2012

“When something is amiss, it is only natural to become preoccupied with “what to do.” For today’s parents, this has become an obsession. We are looking for the right technique, the right strategy, the right thing to say, the right way to act. Experts and publishers are not only indulging this obsession, but fueling it outright. We have even invented a word — parenting — that until recent times, was not even in the dictionary. Parenting has become an activity. This was not how it was in previous generations.”

-Dr. Gordon Neufeld

It seems that Christian parenting isn’t much different. But our labels are better–we have “Christian” obsessions. Tack on Bible verses here and there, and maybe a label to prove that this book is at long last the book that describes “How to Change Diapers God’s Way.” Or perhaps it’s slightly more spiritualized, presuming to speak for God, “How to Retain the Heart of Your Teen in Three Easy Steps.” Ultimately, these types of teachings serve to bind consciences into thinking that such formulas (or zeal) will save our children’s souls, rather than serving to encourage parents to trust God in this journey of faith.

Overall, we focus so much on getting the formulas right, the activity of parenting correct, or learning the perfect techniques that we fail to realize the essential foundation: love.

Parenting Hangs on Love

In both the Old and New Testaments, God made it clear that the two greatest commands are 1) to love God and 2) to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that “all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Although specifically speaking of a different loving-our-neighbors-relationship, Robert Lupton remarks:

“So fundamental to the life of faith are these twin teachings of loving God and loving neighbor that they are given top priority in God’s original handwritten instructions for daily living. Christ later underscored their central importance by declaring that the entire law is contained in these two inseparable commands. A Christian training institute (or church, for that matter) that steps over these basics on the way to “deeper” theological pursuits can hardly be considered biblically faithful.”

Likewise, a parenting philosophy that makes its foundation on claims such as “establishing authority from day one is the most important thing you can do as a Christian parent” or “keeping your child totally separate from the world is the only way to Biblically parent” (just to name a few popular options) with no mention of these commands, is a philosophy that we should examine carefully to see if it is truly and fully biblically faithful.

What Wondrous Love Is This?

The love that parenting (and all relationships) hangs on isn’t just some sort of “feel-good-I’m-happy-love,” but neither is it “tough love parenting.” Instead, it is the type of love that Jesus portrayed through His parable of the Good Samaritan, the kind of love that we see described in 1 Corinthians 13, the love that ultimately led Jesus to lay down His life for us.

1 Corinthians 13 gives us a matrix through which we can test our love for our children. Perhaps we’ve become desensitized to think this type of love doesn’t apply to our children. “Tough love? Oh, yeah! That’s how you gotta get through the trenches parenthood!

So the question begs to be asked. Am I being patient to my children? Am I being kind to them? Am I not envying or boasting? Am I responding to them in a way that is arrogant or rude? Or how about…am I insisting on my own way? Am I irritable or resentful? Am I rejoicing in the wrongdoing or in the truth? Am I loving them by bearing all things, believing all things, enduring all things? At this, perhaps the cymbals begin to tinkle, or maybe the gongs are clanging quite loudly.

Parenting in Love Views Big and Little People Correctly

When we look at people, ourselves and others, we know at least three things are true: 1) People come into the world a with sin nature, 2) people are created in the image of God and 3) God loves people.

It’s easy to skew these views as we look at little people in particular. We assume the worst (opposite of “believing all things”) and assume all actions and responses are flowing forth from as sinful ones. This is a view that demonizes children and often causes adults/parents to give well-intended responses with reactions that are not exemplifying love, especially not a love that “bears all things” or “believes all things.”

Here’s an example: A crying baby because he is alone in a room?=definitely trying to manipulate and that’s sinful behavior. An adult crying because her husband just left on a trip?=Well, of course she’s simply exhibiting true sorrow and sadness of heart and that’s the sign of true love for her spouse. Both may be expressing the same emotions about similar situations, but when the emphasis is misplaced, it’s easy to view the little person’s actions through a lens that can only see actions as sinful. Another: A child has difficulty falling asleep at night?=showing signs of rebellion. The parent has difficulty falling asleep at night?=an adult has had a hard day and has difficulty falling asleep at night. And the list could go on…

Perhaps as we seek to disciple our children, we should ask, “If I were mentoring a new believer or discipling another Christian and they sinned (let’s just say an adult for the sake of this illustration), would the way I respond to my children be an acceptable (or, even ethical?) way to respond to an adult believer? Would my response, if given to an adult, be considered impatient, arrogant, rude, or irritable?

Galatians 6:1-2 is not limited to how we should disciple adult believers, but also the little believers, even if their faith and bodies seem small to us. Little people are more vulnerable and physically needy than big people. This doesn’t mean their needs are wrong or need to be eliminated. Usually we fail to take into account that their bodies and emotions are not yet developed in the ways that ours are. They need to be restored gently and to have their burdens carried, too; but perhaps with even greater gentleness and with more sensitivity to their burdens.

“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for our sins. While I was yet being unloving toward my children, God was demonstrating His love for me, laying down His life for me. While my children are “yet sinning,” what is my reaction?

Jesus’ death on the cross was more than a one-time love-demonstration. It was the constant heart-stance of His time on earth as He interacted with sinners. It was the whole heart of God in sending Jesus to die in our place—love that was see glimpses of from Genesis onward. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

I do not merely view this passage in a way that makes me think because God did this for me, I must show God to my children by doing this to my children. (God doesn’t call parents to be God to their children.) Rather, these reflections of God’s love for me  are seen in light of the parable of the unmerciful servant. I am one who has been richly forgiven: when others seek mercy and forgiveness from me, I remember that my far greater debt has been removed.

The distance between God and me is infinite. He is Creator, I am but clay. He is sinless, I am sinful. He is righteousness, I am unrighteousness apart from Christ. By contrast, the space between my children and myself is about 24 years of life experience and life skills. With the exception of Abraham and Sarah and perhaps a few other parents, at most we’ve got about 40 years on our kids–not much. I am weak and clay, and so are they. I am sinful, they are sinful. They are unrighteous apart from Christ, and so am I.

With a host of parenting books stating that parents must act as “God” to their children, it’s helpful to remember that we’re more like our children than we are like our God. Realizing that I too stumble and make mistakes even while trying my hardest makes it easier to have compassion on my children as they do the same. It also reminds me that I am quite capable of misunderstanding, misinterpreting, and even misdirecting my children’s actions.

When I see them in their sin, I remember how God has dealt graciously with me and my sin. When I see them in their neediness, I remember the compassion and care God pours out on me.

Ann Voskamp states it this way for difficult days of parental relationship-building with children: “Just for today, I will ask for His grace, the moment when I am most repelled by a child’s behavior, that is my sign to draw the very closest to that child.”

Seeing my own weakness and shortcomings, it’s a lot easier to realize I can’t be a better parent or create godly children by striving harder, harder, harder on my own…anymore than a drowning man can be rescued by being told to swim harder. What my child needs is a rescuer, and that is exactly what I need, too. (Note:  I can’t be that rescuer!) (Of course, this perspective doesn’t remove my position as parent, nor does it remove the unique roles God has given to parents and children.)

Back to the Greatest Commands

It is truly paradigm-shifting to live life through the lens of Matthew 22: 37-40. In pointing to this, Jesus both simplifies things and calls us to go deeper. He moves us from just seeking to obey the letter of the law, to searching to live the spirit of the law. Surprisingly, it is the latter that is both harder and freer—the latter that compels us to see we cannot do this in our own strength, but to rest in the Spirit to write His law within our hearts. Thus, we are compelled to seek God’s grace to relate to our children in a way that is flowing forth from loving God and loving our neighbors, here our tiny little neighbors who also happen to be our children.

EmergingMummy.com.

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  • Rachel January 25, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Fantastic thoughts, thanks! I needed that on what has been a “difficult day.”

    • Keren January 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

      Thanks, Rachel. Me, too. 🙂

  • Jenn T January 27, 2012 at 12:50 am

    Thanks. Reminds me of something I recently read on a gentle mothering message board: “It’s as though the parents,like the man in the parable are saying, “Whoopee! I’ve been spared the punishment I deserve, so now I’m free to go pass judgment on you and mete out what YOU deserve.”. Instead of being humbled by the grace and passing it on.”

    This is something we need to be reminded of. Often.

  • Concerned Parent January 27, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Ummm…I’m sorry, but I think it’s a stretch to say “parenting hangs on love??” There’s not a command to parent, but there are plenty of commands to children to obey and respect authority. And there are commands to parents to discipline (and yes, I mean spank) their children. Parents are to train their children to obey. If they don’t, that’s not the parents’ role to “give grace” or “give mercy.” You wouldn’t be training them well if you did–it’s not consistent, which is the key to training children.

    So your statement about treating kids like adults is ridiculous! Would you feed an adult a bottle? Change an adults diaper? I don’t think it would be too ethical if I came over and changed your diaper, so this analogy obviously breaks down real fast. Of course I’m not going to treat my kids like I would an adult–they don’t ACT like adults. When they start acting like adults, then I’ll give them the respect I give adults. Until then, we’ll keep we’ll keep training them up in the ways of the Lord, thank you very much. And YES, that includes spanking them. You are disobeying God’s word to state otherwise.

    When you start to base things on love alone, you are going to have problems. That’s not the order of authority that God created. You start to do things that are unnatural instead of the natural, which Romans warns specifically against.

    • Keren January 27, 2012 at 10:56 am

      “There’s not a command to parent, but there are plenty of commands to children to obey and respect authority.”

      You’re right, there’s not a specific command stating “parent your children,” but there are admonitions for parents to train and instruct their children. In addition, the NT admonition to fathers twice includes not provoking children to anger. Those must all flow out of the two greatest commandments: loving God and loving others.

      “Would you feed an adult a bottle? Change an adults diaper? I don’t think it would be too ethical if I came over and changed your diaper, so this analogy obviously breaks down real fast.”

      There are many adults who have medical needs necessitating such care. I hope we wouldn’t treat them poorly simply because their bodily and functional needs are an inconvenience or difficult for us. And again, we would want to treat them with love–they type of love we see in 1 Corinthians 13.

      “Of course I’m not going to treat my kids like I would an adult–they don’t ACT like adults. When they start acting like adults, then I’ll give them the respect I give adults.”

      Loving my children is not conditional on their maturity or even their obedience. Yes, we may interact with them differently, but that does not change that we should interact with love.

      “When you start to base things on love alone, you are going to have problems. That’s not the order of authority that God created.”

      The beauty of love in this case is what we see manifested in the ultimate example of God sending Christ to earth. It’s “not the order of authority” for God to come to earth in human form as a helpless baby, to have spent His earthly time in simple conditions, or to ultimately lay down His life for us. This is grace. This is mercy. This is love. This type of love and the Gospel flips our paradigms on their heads. It calls those who wish to be greatest to be the servants. It calls those who would Lord authority over others to bow down and love and serve.

      I know, you probably think there are aspects of your comment I’m ignoring. For now, I don’t have time to delve into a more lengthy discussion.

    • Rachel January 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm

      <>

      That’s not in my Bible.

      • Rachel January 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm

        Code issues . . .

        Concerned Parent’s statement:

        “Parents are to train their children to obey”

        That’s not in my Bible.

  • Elizabeth January 27, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    I agree! I have to parent with humility… as a homeschool mom especially, so many of the bad habits I am trying to replace with good habits in my training are once I struggle with myself. I am definitely clay.

    I was so saddened yesterday when a mom I was talking to kept talking about how manipulative babies were… at the same time I noticed how happy she was to be snuggling a baby (she was volunteering in the nursery where I work regularly during a Bible study.) I don’t understand this need to judge babies and children even more harshly than we judge ourselves and other adults.

  • Susan January 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    I don’t think the article is advocating a “no discipline, love alone” approach. Rather, I think it has addressed a very real issue that crops up in Christian parenting. So many parenting approaches–both secular and Christian–focus on soliciting a desired behavior. I think that’s the wrong goal. Of course it’s important to teach our children to obey. But unless we demonstrate a biblical heart of love during the process, we will fail to point them to Christ.

    I also don’t think the article advocated treating kids like adults. Rather, it speaks of showing them the same kind of love we would show an adult. We ARE examples of Christ’s mercy and grace to our children. Giving our children the benefit of the doubt is not failing to teach them; it is understanding that they have moments when they are tired and fearful and insecure just like we do. I am thankful the Lord does not “spank” me every time I respond wrongly. I am also thankful that He has the wisdom to know when I do need a “spanking.” While we can never have the infinite wisdom God has, I think that letting our conversation be always full of grace includes our children too.

    There is more to training our children than disciplining. Training includes both positive and negative reinforcement. Yes, it requires punishing wrong behavior, but it also requires demonstrating the love of Christ. Spot on, Keren.

  • Deborah January 31, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Great food for thought, Keren. Thank-you!

    (And I just today discovered your “new” blog!)

    Perhaps our greatest fault (especially as parents in “American” culture) is that we want a book or a formula or isolated verses (isolated from the context of the Bible’s primary message, i.e. the Gospel), so that we can have things “all figured out” and “move on” with life. We fail to see that we need constantly to read the Bible as the one book it is so we can repeatedly recapture its message and be motivated by it — as spouses, parents, friends. Recognizing that, by God’s design, family roles put us where we must run repeatedly to God for the wisdom we so desperately lack is definitely humbling.

    Thank-you again!

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  • Meredith February 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing. It’s so simple, and yet something that tends to get lost in all the details, specifics, and pressures that are often an unnecessary part of parenting. Sharing.

    • Keren February 7, 2012 at 9:35 am

      Thanks for the note, Meredith!

  • Sarah@EmergingMummy February 6, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Beautifully said. Love this so much.

  • Cynthia @ The Hippie Housewife February 7, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Oh yes: “we are more like our children than we are like our God.” Such truth. Thank for these life-giving words you have shared here.