“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.