Real Life Parenting

Not long ago, I was lamenting to my wife about one of my children. As I passionately articulated my frustration with some particularly annoying behaviors she began to smile. Then she laughed and said, “You do know who that sounds exactly like, don’t you?” I somehow got the impression she didn’t mean her.

Unfortunately, I am all too often faced with the reality that my children generally reflect my behavior rather than my oh-so-wise parental instruction. Obviously this challenges me to make sure that even at home my behavior is consistent with what I would like to see in my children and, more importantly, with what is befitting a follower of Jesus. It also challenges me to find better ways to combine the teaching of biblical truth with real life in a way that impacts my kids and affects their behavior. As counter intuitive as it may sound, I believe that to genuinely impact our children’s behavior we have to actually focus less on their behavior and more on their heart.

Consider the words of Deuteronomy 6:7-9. “You shall teach [God’s commands] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” These verses convey two eye-opening principles. First, my goal as a parent should be to shape the heart of my child toward God. If this is my goal, the primary focus of my parental instruction is biblical truth about God and His Word rather than behavior modification. Secondly, These verses tell me that the context of my parental teaching is not primarily church, special “family devotion” times, or fatherly lectures – it is real life. Whatever my family and I find ourselves doing together provides a platform for shaping the heart of my children toward God.

Not surprisingly, this is the approach that Jesus took with his disciples – and what is parenting if not intense discipleship! A quick perusal of the gospels shows that Jesus trained these undisciplined, uneducated men into the foundation of the Christian church by simply spending intentional time with them. They took road trips together; went to dinner and parties together. They ministered and served together. They visited sick people and went to funerals. They managed finances, went grocery shopping, and harvested crops. They went fishing, they told stories, they hung out around campfires and even went to church. In short, Jesus shaped the heart of his disciples toward God through real life personal interaction. As simple as it may seem, this is still the best way to shape the heart of a disciple (or child) toward God. Notice that there are two essential elements to this approach: intention and time.

We have to spend time with our kids doing the kinds of things they do on a regular basis. It isn’t a waste of time to play, color, read, take walks, and have meals with our kids. Additionally, we also have to find ways to include them in the things we do. Let them help you with chores, take them to work, serve together as a family. Of course it’s easier to do these adult things without kids, but when possible we should include our kids.

As we spend time with our kids, though, we must sure to be intentional about using these experiences to connect our kids and their lives to God. You don’t have to preach. Just use casual comments. Isn’t it cool that God made us with the ability to play? Didn’t God give me a neat job? God sure is amazing/powerful/wonderful/etc. Or you can pray together. Ask spiritually minded questions. You will need to find what works for you, but just be intentional about connecting real life to God’s truth.

A discipleship approach to parenting will take some thought because most of us are used to reacting to bad behavior rather than focusing on proactively shaping our child’s heart toward God. I know from experience that it is tempting to chase down every bad behavior and counter it with teaching about why it’s bad, but I also know from experience that this is generally futile. Instead, we must commit ourselves to a lifestyle of intentional discipleship. It will likely prove to be long, hard, tiring, and inconvenient at times; but it will also prove worth it!

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Choose What Matters

As a parent and as a pastor, I frequently find myself in discussions about the busyness of life – when my wife and I try to pick a date to have friends over and can’t find an opening for weeks; when counseling appointments are continuously moved; when meetings have to be rescheduled; when church programs seem to be competing with sports and entertainment. Over and over again, the conclusion is reached: “man, life is just busy.”

When life is this busy, we are faced with an almost constant need to make choices as to how we will spend the little time we have. How will we fill our day? What will we do with our “free time”? What activities will the kids participate in? Which invitations should we accept? What obligations will we take on? These are legitimate and realistic questions that I would estimate each of us face on a very regular basis – more than likely multiple times a day.

The temptation is to simply field each of these questions as they come. Here I decide to do what is easiest and there I decide to do what feels good. Convenience, feelings, urgency, preference – each becomes a standard of decision making in the busy family. While it may feel like it cannot be helped, I think this style of decision making can lead to inconsistency, frustration and even the promotion of values that are not our own. What we need is one standard for decision making that always trumps all other standards.

Fortunately, God has given us the standard in His Word in Matthew 6:20. Jesus says, “… store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” We often think of this verse in relation to money, but I would suggest that the point of this verse is of larger scope than that. Far from merely being instruction on how to spend money, Jesus’ words were an admonition to make the kingdom a priority in your life. Later in the same chapter he supports this understanding by admonishing his followers to “… seek first the kingdom of God.” What does all of this have to do with making decisions amidst the busyness of life? Everything! Our quest for a singular standard against which to weigh all of our decisions ends here at this verse. When we are sorting through all of the options for our time and energy and even finances, we must choose the things that matter for the kingdom – for eternity.

It may seem innocent enough to skip church to play sports or to go to a movie rather than serving in a ministry. Perhaps it isn’t wrong to chill out and watch tv rather than put the effort into conversation and family devotions. And that is exactly the point! So many of the decisions we face are not necessarily between right and wrong, but between things that matter and things that don’t. I challenge you today to choose the things that matter. As you parent your children and lead your family, consider the lesson you are teaching with every decision you make. Consider the values you are instilling and the priorities you are strengthening. Toward those considerations, here are some choices you should make to ensure you are choosing the things that matter.

  • Choose important over urgent. One of the most common barriers to making decisions that matter for eternity is the myriad urgent matters that materialize over the course of a day. Urgent and important aren’t the same thing, yet urgent generally trumps important for most of us. Especially in a family, there seems to always be something that has to be done “right now.” Take the time to step back and ask the question “Is all of this urgent stuff demanding my attention actually important?” Important tasks contribute to long term mission and goals, so make sure that what you are spending time on is something you would consider important to your family health and priorities.
  • Choose productivity over entertainment. One of the constant complaints in my house is that “this isn’t fun.” This always leads to the never-too-soon-to-be-learned life lesson that “life’s not all about fun.” Unfortunately, this expectation is not restricted to children only. Our society seems addicted to entertainment. Though I am certainly not anti-fun, we should be cautious about over prioritizing it. I believe that the majority of what we do should have some productive value. It should contribute to our overall life priority of pleasing and following God. This does not eliminate fun, it merely requires that we think more strategically about the kind of fun we have. It’s tempting to sign our kids up for every sport, camp and activity that they might enjoy, but enjoyment doesn’t make something necessary or even beneficial. Again, each of these decisions must go back to your over all priority to put the kingdom of God first. We must consider what value all of this endless entertainment truly has for the follower of Jesus. I am not at all saying that all entertainment is wrong, but I think we should choose productivity over empty entertainment and choose entertainment that adds value to our families.
  • Choose relationships over amusement. Though very similar to the previous point, this choice is primarily regarding wasted time. We spend countless hours watching tv, scrolling through Facebook, playing video games, and wasting time in a wide variety of ways. I challenge you to choose to spend your time building relationships rather than merely amusing yourself. I know that we greatly value our downtime, but I would challenge you to limit this wasted time so that you can intentionally invest in relationships within your family. Ask questions, read and study the Bible together, enjoy each other’s company. I certainly can relate to the desire to “just relax,” but we should make the choice to prioritize activities that build and strengthen relationships.
  • Choose service over selfishness. Our children are growing up in a culture that is increasingly self-centered. Despite our desire that our children not be selfish, we regularly make decisions that instill in them the belief that the world revolves around them. We give them everything they ask for, shower them with toys and treats, drive them from practice to game to class without regard for the impact on the family, provide endless entertainment with little responsibility and spare them the consequences of bad decisions. We must stop choosing to conduct our families in a way that promotes selfishness. Instead, choose to model, promote and prioritize service. Choose to deliberately allow your children to sacrifice for the well-being of others. Choose to serve together as a family. Choose to prioritize serving in church and the community. Consider the lessons you are teaching when you insist your child make their soccer game, but skip your turn to serve in your church ministry. If you want to make choices that matter for God’s Kingdom, start by choosing service over selfishness.
  • Choose character over convenience. With the busyness of life and the hectic pace that many of us face, it is quite easy to make decisions based merely on convenience. While there are certainly times that convenience is an appropriate standard for decision making, it cannot become our primary method. We cannot expect to always take the easy way through life and arrive at God’s intended destination for us. It might be easier to give in to the demands of our children, or to let them do whatever they want; it is often easier to do things for our children rather than have them do for themselves. It might be easiest to park them in front of tv or video games to keep them occupied. It may be easiest to stay home from church to sleep or study. Unfortunately, easy is not always best and it is through intentionally choosing to do what is difficult that we can actually choose to develop character. As you sort out your life and schedule, I encourage you to evaluate whether or not you are simply choosing convenience. You might be doing so at the expense of character development.
  • Choose eternal over material. In the interest of choosing things that matter for the Kingdom, you will of necessity need to reject the countless opportunities to make material things the priority in your life. Even for professing followers of Jesus, material possessions are often a never-ending pursuit. It is hard to defend the claim that God’s interests are our greatest priority when we make decisions based solely on accumulating finances and possessions. Consider what values you are teaching when you choose to buy that new car or boat; when you have to have the newest and nicest of everything. I urge you to make choices to live on less; to avoid excess and extravagance. Choose to live and give sacrificially. Deliberately choose to go without certain conveniences for the sake of being able to be generous to others. You should look for ways to invest in the kingdom even if it seems to negatively affect your own wallet. Jesus’ followers must intentionally and passionately pursue eternal interests rather than material ones.

 

All of these choices can really be summed up in one ultimate choice we must make: choose God over everything else. As a believer, it is your responsibility to raise your children to love and serve God. I believe that most Christian parents want this for their kids, yet regularly make decisions that instill and encourage values contrary to this end.  I urge you right now to evaluate your busy schedule against the standard Jesus set for us and choose the things that matter!

 

Photo by Jagbirlehl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A Change of Heart

I recently heard a godly, well-meaning older gentleman tell a young father that raising kids was just like training dogs. He explained that you just need to develop a routine of simple, specific commands that you repeat regularly and you can train them to respond on command. While most people don’t state it in that fashion, this advice reflects a behavior based understanding of parenting that is extremely common – even within the church. As parents, it is incredibly easy to make our children’s behavior the focus of our parenting. Raising “good” kids that behave “properly” is the assumed end game for many parents. While there is nothing wrong with desiring and working toward good behavior in your children, this should not be the goal you are working toward as a parent.

The responsibility of a Christian parent, the very heart and soul of all we do, is to shape our children’s heart toward God so that they will have a thriving personal relationship with him. In a word, it is “discipleship.” The focus of our parenting should be discipling little followers of Jesus so that one day they become grownups that genuinely and faithfully follow Jesus.

It should be overwhelmingly obvious that the task of discipling a child – shaping their heart toward God – has to be all about the condition of their heart. Unfortunately, this is something that many Christians miss in their personal walk with God as well as in their parenting. We are always trying to make the Christian life about performance, rather than about identity in Christ and personal relationship with the Father. God himself spoke of this problem, condemning his own people because they “…come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught (Isaiah 29:13) .” In this instance, the problem wasn’t their behavior – it was their heart. They said the right things and did the right things, but it was merely outward conformity to a bunch of rules.

Tragically, this outward conformity to religious standards that God hates and condemns is precisely what many parents are encouraging through parenting that focuses on behavior modification. Yes, you can train your child like a dog to follow your rules and do what you want them to do, but without a heart that is chasing after God they are no better off simply because they’ve followed the rules. Instead of always focusing on changing and curbing bad behavior, we must use bad behavior as an opportunity to look into our child’s sinful heart and shape it toward God.

The shortest answer as to how to do this is simply to give them the gospel.  We must give our children the gospel faithfully, constantly and relentlessly because a man-made training program of rules and commands might change behavior, but only the gospel can change a heart. When sinful behavior presents, take a step back and remember your goal. It is not conformity; it is genuine heart change. So you need to take the time to understand why they misbehaved. You need to empathize by sharing your own struggle with sin and then explain that this is a universal problem for all of humankind. Give correction and help them understand why consequences are good and necessary. Also, make sure to share the good news that God offers forgiveness and He offers to help us have victory over sin. Over all, you should place drastically more emphasis on God’s goodness than on your child’s badness.

Of course all of that takes time – much more time than a harsh word of reproach and a swift punishment. And the results take more time to. You may not get immediate conformity, but that’s ok because the goal is not to shame them into conformity but to drive them toward God’s heart. Make this the central focus of all you do as a parent. I urge you to make your child’s relationship with God more important than their behavior. Work toward shaping their heart toward God more than you work at changing their actions. Make discipleship your aim because if good behavior is your goal, you may one day reach the finish line and find you have run the wrong race and lost your children in the process.