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.

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Your Kids Are Watching

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Recently at a carnival style event at our church, my 7 year old son came running up to me with a prize he had won. He held up this little rubber ducky and said, “Look Dad, your worst enemy – a bath toy!” We laughed together over the silliness of a rubber ducky being my worst enemy, but the reality is that I’m really not a fan of bath toys. I think they’re unsanitary; not to mention they delay the bathing process that as a parent I just want them to finish with as quickly as possible. However, it isn’t actually my dislike for bath toys (as real as it may be) that is of interest in all of this. What I find fascinating is my son’s ability to conclude that bath toys are my worst enemy.

I’ve never set my children down and proclaimed the evils of bath toys or placed them on a list of sins to be avoided. I’ve never forbidden them or said that they were bad. And obviously I’ve never actually declared rubber duckies and the like to be my worst enemy. What I have done is complain about them, refuse to purchase them, make the kids wait until “next time” to play with them, and maybe on occasion throw them away. This behavior toward the toys led my son to conclude they were my enemy. While funny and totally harmless, this incident made me consider just how vital our every-day (every-moment for that matter) behavior is to the raising of our children.

There are virtues and behaviors that I instruct my children in on a regular basis with somewhat questionable results. I can lecture, talk, teach, preach, beg and plead but they can still forget what it was I wanted them to do or how I wanted them to behave. Yet, without any formal instruction on the matter, my son can conclude that I hate bath toys. The fact of the matter is that the behaviors I most often see in them are not the ones I teach them about, but the ones they see in me.

As a parent it is absolutely critical that you realize your most important and effective teaching tool is your own behavior. You can tell your kids about honesty, integrity, self-control, selflessness, kindness, respect, self-control, service, loyalty and other biblical virtues – and you should. But that teaching is only going to be a fraction as influential as your own behavior. You must consider what you are actually teaching and be intentional about your behavior. In our daily lives we must model honesty, integrity, self-control, selflessness, kindness, respect, self-control, service, loyalty and other biblical virtues if we want them to take root in our children’s lives.

Additionally, we must remember that they are always watching! In a moment of frustration or anger or stress we can unravel all of our intentional teaching behaviors with one thoughtless act. And for some reason that is still beyond me, those are the moments that never seem to slip past them. I don’t know why, but it always seems to happen that way. They seem oblivious to the times when you work hard, control yourself, use kindness or show love; but shout “You idiot!” at one driver that cuts you off and you will hear “You idiot” screamed for the next week every time someone is upset.

Children must come with a built in radar for the moments we least want them to see or hear and they are always there. Always listening and always watching. This can be terrifying, but we must use that fear to cause us to be even more intentional about modeling Christ-like behavior to our children. This includes modeling forgiveness. As we try to model the behavior we want them to learn, we will certainly mess up. We will sin and we will lose control. Though unfortunate, these moments also provide an opportunity to model good behavior. We want minimize the bad behaviors we model and we want to be intentional about good behaviors, but one of the most important things we can do for our children is to teach them that the journey of faith is an imperfect one and God is always waiting to forgive. Model repentance in front of your children. They see your mistakes, so let them also see the humility and brokenness that they need to learn for themselves.

For good or bad, they see you. For good or bad, your behavior as the parent is the most influential teaching tool you will ever have. This journey we call parenting is difficult enough on its own; don’t make it harder with careless actions and behaviors. As you look toward the people you want your children to become, begin by being that sort of person yourself. And remember – they’re always watching!

I Didn’t Hear You!

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As is the case with many parents, I never cease to be amazed by my children’s extraordinary talent for selective hearing. By way of example, let me describe a regular occurrence in my house. I frequently walk into a room where my children are and communicate some instructions to them such as the following: “I need you to get this room picked up, put on your socks and shoes, and get in the van.” After offering these simple instructions, I go about my business. Inevitably I return a few minutes later to find that nothing was done. Almost without fail, the excuse I am given is, “I didn’t hear you.”

Technically speaking this isn’t true. I know they can hear me because I have been blessed with healthy children, none of whom suffer from hearing loss. I also know I am close enough when I speak to them that my voice can be heard. However, it is true that they did not hear in a way that made a difference in their behavior.

You know what my children do hear, though? From anywhere in the house, they will hear you open a piece of candy or bag of chips. I can sneak down to the basement, jack up the music and open that bag so carefully and quietly – and they will still hear it and come running. That’s because they hear what they value and it affects their behavior!

As frustrating as this might be for me as a parent, I am realizing that on a spiritual level I can often be guilty of the very same thing. God has given me His Word and He wants me to hear it and respond to it in a way that has an impact on my life.

I encourage you to consider the relationship you have with God’s Word, the Bible. You must value God’s Word and allow it to impact your behavior. This type of relationship to God’s word requires discipline and must be cultivated. If you want to revitalize your personal interaction with the Bible, than consider taking these steps to increase the value you place on God’s Word.

  • Fall in love with the author. This may seem trite, but the reason the Bible is so special is because it is from God. It is communication from our loving Father. Stop studying it for information and begin listening to the voice of God from its pages. Look for God in His Word and be amazed again at His glory and wonder. If the Bible’s impact on your life is fading, than perhaps your love for God is as well.
  • Read with prayer. If you want God’s Word to make an impact in your life and not just fill your brain, than you need to approach it in the power of the Spirit. This means prayer. Pray before during and after you read God’s Word. Ask God to teach you and change you. Intentionally submit yourself to the Spirit’s teaching through prayer.
  • Meditate on the message. You cannot assume a brief and casual interaction with the Word will change you. Spend some time thinking about what God was saying and what you should do about it.
  • Make changes. Perhaps the simplest way to let God’s Word change you is to begin to make changes in your life that will align you with the truth you encounter. As the Spirit works on your heart from within, you can begin to shape your behavior from without.

As a genuine believer, don’t just hear the Word; consume it in a way that leaves you different. Make it personal. Examine your attitudes and actions in the light of its truth and be willing to make changes. If regular interaction with God’s Word is not changing you, then there is a problem. I challenge you today, get into the Word and prayerfully ask God to use it to transform your life. Trust me, you don’t want to stand before God and say, “I didn’t hear you.”

Protecting Our Children

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I recently wrote about the dangers of a casual attitude toward sin. In that post, I also spoke of the need for parents to guard their children from sin instead of placing them in harm’s way. As I thought more about this important topic, I felt it might be helpful to delve into it a little more by describing some of the ways we might be putting our kids in a position to sin.

I don’t mean to imply that we are trying to tempt them nor am I saying they are relieved of responsibility. I simply believe that sin is a powerful and appealing force on a child and as parents we can create an environment that makes it either easier or more difficult to fall prey to that force. Though I think it is usually unintentional, we often place our children in harm’s way. In no particular order, here are some area in which parents are failing to create the safest possible spiritual environment for their kids.

  • Entertainment – A great deal of the entertainment we expose our children to promotes values that are contrary to God’s Word. We expose them to bad language, sensual behavior, materialism, rotten attitudes, disrespect and selfishness (to name a few) all in the name of entertainment. And that’s just the material targeted to children. They also see and hear so much more of our grown up content than we realize. Just to be clear – I’m speaking of entertainment that would generally be considered safe for kids. Don’t let down your guard just because a show, song or website is marketed to kids. Pray for wisdom and practice discernment.
  • Conversation – With children of all ages, we must be careful of how we speak in front of them. There is the danger of talking about issues or topics that are just above their level of maturity or providing information they shouldn’t have. With careless conversation, we can provide unnecessary exposure to a wide array of temptations like gossip, anger, bitterness, covetousness, etc. When we speak within ear-shot of our children we had better consider what thoughts our words might place in their minds.
  • Busyness – Without thinking about the consequences and for often the best of reasons, we overcrowd our children’s lives to the point that they simply are not capable of responding in a proper manner. We demand good grades, good behavior and good attitudes all the while filling their lives with practices, rehearsals and extra-curricular activities. In addition to placing them in circumstances in which it is difficult for them to act righteously, we are also modeling a value system in which God takes a back seat.
  • Priorities – Though most Christian parents tell their kids that God comes first, we actually model worldly priorities. Though there are many ways in which we do this, I’m especially concerned about the current trend of prioritizing just about everything above church. I question the wisdom of a parent that keeps their child home from church for homework or lets them skip church to play a sport. Even consistently skipping church for work sends the message that work trumps God. We must prioritize God’s kingdom above everything – including entertainment, work, social activities and even education.
  • Confession – actually, the lack thereof. We create a whole host of temptations for our children when we sin and do not admit it. Being a godly, Christian parent is not about always getting it right. It’s about pursuing Christ in every area-including parenting. When you fail, don’t rationalize it or make excuses or stubbornly deny it. Instead, confess to your child that you, too, are a sinner who needs God’s grace and mercy. Confessing, asking forgiveness and planning how you will behave differently in the future creates a spiritually wholesome and safe environment. When we don’t, we set our children up for failure in dealing with their own sin as well as create an environment where resentment and anger easily grow.
  • Unrealistic expectations – In Colossians 3:21, Paul instructed parents not to provoke or exasperate their children. One of the most common ways of doing this is to pile impossible expectations on them. I’m not talking about expecting them not to sin. I’m talking about placing behavioral demands on them that are merely based in our own preference. Demanding certain grades regardless of circumstances, expecting young children to be quiet or still for long periods of time or requiring adult-like emotional responses out of children. Especially with young children, we can create unrealistic expectations by putting them in difficult situations and expecting them to not be affected. Pain, sadness, exhaustion, grief, confusion and many other external conditions can all affect behavior. We must realize this and be prepared to teach them how to cope.

Almost every parent claims to love their child and would probably face harm themselves in order to physically protect their child, yet many Christian parents consistently place their children in spiritually dangerous situations. Too often we create circumstances in which it is almost impossible for them to do anything other than sin. While we cannot excuse nor prevent sinful behavior, we do have an obligation to place our children in an environment that will nurture their spirituality, growth and holiness.

Please understand that I am not promoting legalism nor am I trying to judge anyone’s parenting practices. I merely hope to challenge Christian parents to evaluate their own actions in regard to how they may be negatively affecting their children. Let’s seek God’s wisdom as we undertake the huge responsibility of raising the children He has gifted us with.

Sunday Supper September 20, 2015

 In a feature reminiscent of my childhood in which Sunday supper consisted of a smorgasbord of leftovers and a random assortment of other foods, I bring you an assortment of random items of interest from the past week.

 

“The point is, love is a verb, sure. But it’s an impossible verb. It’s the kind of verb that pulls us out of our Western enlightenment secularistic bubbles into the country of the supernatural.” – Love Is Not a Verb

 

10 Things You Can’t Expect from Church Volunteers provides some helpful insight to the challenge of volunteerism.

 

5 Ways to Talk to Your Children About Death offers some helpful thoughts on discussing death with children.

 

For fear of being legalistic, we can rob ourselves of the benefits of a regular pattern (or “spiritual disciplines”) of walking with God. Is this biblical or beneficial? Not at all! – Don’t Lose Spiritual Disciplines for Fear of Legalism

 

Your Child Is Your Neighbor presents a case for the practical application of biblical “people” principles to parenting.

 

Here are some great lessons about legalistic churches, as a former member shares “5 Things I Learned in an Unhealthy Church.”

 

5 Pastoral Pet Peeves is funny and helpful.

 

Enjoy this random collection of stuff and be sure to let me know what you’ve been reading or watching that is interesting, enjoyable or helpful.

Honoring Mom

Recently we were having a family discussion about spending some money to do something nice for “Mom” for Mother’s Day. I was encouraging this and the kids seemed excited – until, that is, one of them decided we should scratch the idea and spend the money on the kids. My explanation that this wasn’t going to happen was met with the following angry accusation: “Mom gets everything she wants, because of you!”

Though I’m sure my wife would argue as to the truth of that statement, I took it as a great compliment. My wife doesn’t ask for much and I certainly don’t do an adequate job of giving her all that she needs, but I’m glad that my children recognize that I honor their mother and make her a priority in my life. I think this is essential for developing within them the kind of honor and respect they must have for their mother and in turn for women in general.

In a culture that is increasingly disrespectful of women it is vital that godly men not only harbor feelings of honor and respect toward our wives and mothers, but that we express it and demonstrate it in front of our children. We cannot expect that they will do or feel what they have never seen. It must be modeled, encouraged and cultivated.

There are many ways to do this, but one way that works particularly well for my young children is to simply tell them stories. They love a good story and stories make for great opportunities to have some fun, inform them of their history and also give honor to those to whom it is due.

I tell them stories of my mom (their Grammy) who loved us fiercely, but wasn’t afraid to grab us by the ear if we got out of hand. I tell them how she taught us God’s Word, but also modeled an authentic and vulnerable relationship with the Lord. They’ve heard stories of how she has protected us from danger, and also that she always made our stomach flutter when she drove over the railroad tracks. Most of all, they hear that their Dad loves his Mom and they believe that is the way it ought to be.

In addition, I try to regularly make them aware of the story playing out in front of them every day. I point out the sacrifices their mom makes for them and for me. We talk about her hard work, her love, her care and attention. I encourage them to express gratitude for her selfless service. Though never as often as she deserves, I praise her in front of them for being a wonderful wife and mother. They know that Dad is flawed, but they also know he loves their Mom and believe that’s the way it ought to be.

My desire for my children is that they appreciate their mother and recognize that I love her and appreciate her too. I want my sons to grow up with a clear and biblical picture of how to treat a lady and I want my daughters to understand how they should be treated by men. The best hope of this desire coming true is if I take the time and make the effort to model this myself – even if I risk them thinking that I give Mom anything she wants.

Sunday Supper May 3, 2015

 In a feature reminiscent of my childhood in which Sunday supper consisted of a smorgasbord of leftovers and a random assortment of other foods, I bring you an assortment of random items of interest from the past week.

 What Diversity Matters? Great thoughts on diversity in the church.

 “Someone once said that ‘98.4% of statistics are made up on the spot.’ Though statistics seem trustworthy, they must be understood within a context that isn’t always so obvious.” – wise words on the careful use of statistics by Paul Seger.

“The church is designed as a place for God’s children to function as a family, united in heart and purpose.” – Living on Mission through Biblical Community

“It is highly unusual to hear church members say that they don’t desire their churches to be obedient to the Great Commission. And most church members do desire to see their churches grow – until the growth affects them. It is at that point they can become disillusioned and critical.” – Seven Reasons Some Church Members Don’t Want Their Churches to Grow

I Can Do All Things – an excellent treatment of a frequently misquoted verse

Al Mohler reflects on issues of religious liberty in this excellent article.

“I could be the best disciple or pastor, and God still owes me nothing. In fact, the opposite is true: I owe God everything. It’s a privilege just to serve him.” – God Owes Me Nothing

Why We Don’t Keep Secrets in Our House – very helpful thoughts on child abuse prevention.

 Enjoy this random collection of stuff and be sure to let me know what you’ve been reading or watching that is interesting, enjoyable or helpful.

A Father’s Comfort

20150215_083502_edited-1On a fairly regular basis, my four year old little girl will come to me in obvious emotional distress. She will have that just-about-to-cry look on her face as she climbs into my lap, cuddles in close and says with a dramatic sigh, “Dad, I’m just havin’ a wuff day.” And though her “wuff day” usually involves extremely minor issues from my perspective, I hold her and comfort her and let her know that it will be ok. Typically, before I am even done enjoying the moment she is back in cheerful little girl form and off to discover some new drama.

I must confess that there are times when that little scenario is an inconvenience and I let it annoy me, but recently I have realized how often I am just like her. Truth be told, we all have rough days and we all need to be comforted from time to time. I am thankful for wonderful people in my life that I can turn to when things are rough, but I am even more thankful for a Heavenly Father that is always waiting to take me in His arms and offer comfort.

One of the primary ways we receive this comfort from our Father is through His Word and one particular passage God has used in my life recently is 1 Peter 1:1-6. Peter is expounding the wonders of God’s character and then says “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials.” This is where the truth of Scripture and my experience with my daughter have collided to teach me a valuable lesson about my own suffering.

You see, my little girl comes to me just because I’m “Dad”. She has no real expectation that I will change anything or that she even has a fixable problem. She just knows that in that moment, Dad can make it better. She illustrates what I believe Peter is expressing: I can have joy in my most painful circumstances because of Who I am able to turn to for comfort. My comfort and my joy are not bound to my circumstances, but to my Father.

To paraphrase Peter, He is my Holy comforter who knows me intimately. He is a gracious and merciful Savior who is all powerful and forever faithful. He is my protector and He is ready and willing for me to come to Him in my need. That is where I find comfort and joy in my time of suffering. All I need to do is take a page out of a little girl’s playbook and go to Him as His child. He cares and He is more than able to give comfort no matter how rough life has gotten.

The Bag of Shame

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Today was one of those exciting mornings that have become somewhat regular for our family. I’ll spare you the details and suffice it to say the events of the morning included a last second dash to the curb because I forgot to take the trash out; the discovery of water under the sink; a child manifesting sickness of multiple varieties; having to change my clothes as a result of said sickness and finding that the baby had decided it was a good time to redistribute all the clothing in her room. And, by the way, this all transpired before 11:00. I write with trepidation at what the remainder of the day might bring.

However, as per the usual, we found some humor in the midst of this mess. As I was dashing around cleaning up the sick child who hadn’t quite made it to the bathroom, my oldest followed me. Observing the chaos, he comments on the nature of the accident and says, “Dad, go get the bag of shame.”

Some context is probably necessary here. We have a prize bag at our house. The idea is that if the kids do something exceptional throughout the course of a day, then they get to reach into the bag and choose a reward. Well, to my very logical 8 year old, it seemed to make sense that we should also have a bag of shame. I laughingly explained that we do not have a bag of shame, though my imagination admittedly runs a bit wild at the thought of what we could put in that bag.

As the day progresses, I find myself thankful that the craziness always passes and that God doesn’t keep a bag of shame either. We are so prone to mistakes, foolish decisions and even sin that we would always be partaking of this bag. Instead, he offers patience and forgiveness and blessing. Thank you Lord for your undeserved favor on your children.

Growing Up…Eventually

In the early 80’s, Toys R Us launched one of my most favorite advertising jingles. As a kid, I loved to sing along with those unforgettable lyrics – “I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid…” – and imagine what it would be like to stay young and play with toys forever. However, that was a childish dream, not a viable lifestyle choice. We all knew the day would come when we would grow up, move out, get jobs and have families of our own.

That is, we all knew it until now. Now we have young people (particularly men) staying at home and living like children into their late 20’s and 30’s. Sociologists have coined terms like “extended adolescence” or “adult adolescence” to label this new phenomenon and continue to move the age for early adulthood later into the 20’s. As one man said, “If 60 is the new 40, then 25 is the new 13.”

Whether this social change is a problem or not is an issue that I will leave to the experts. My concern is of a more practical nature as it relates to the church. Whatever labels or opinions we want to apply, many of these young men and women are a part of our church families. As such, it is our responsibility to care for the spiritual development of these young people. Toward that end, I want to make some suggestions:

• Differentiate between societal norms and biblical truth. What might seem abnormal to you might be nothing more than a matter of personal preference. Societal norms such as leaving home and finishing school, while a good idea, are not biblically mandated behavior. Though certainly not an exhaustive list, the following biblical principles might apply:
o Honor your parents (Eph 6:2).
o Avoid laziness and work at meaningful labor (Many proverbs like Pro 6:6-11; Col 3:23; 2 Thess 3:10)
o Be unselfish (Gal 6:2; Phi 2:4; I John 3:17)
o Use your gifts for the benefit of the body (Rom 12:6-8; I Cor 12:4-11; I Peter 4:10-11)
o Use wisdom in your finances (Pro 6:1-5, Ecc 5:10; 2 Cor 9:6-7).

• Clearly communicate expectations of adulthood. Once we’ve established the difference between societal norms and biblical truth, we must clearly communicate some expectations. Though the church should help educate all people on what the Bible teaches about being a spiritually and socially mature adult, this responsibility largely falls to parents. It is not fair or safe to assume that your child or young adult has just happened to figure out what is expected of him as he grows older without you having told him. This obviously begins with biblical instruction, but extends to social norms as well. Clearly spell out expectations as to when and how they should become financially independent, etc.

• Refuse to enable unacceptable behavior. Many of the parents who are frustrated by a 25 or 30 year old son living at home and playing video games all day are paying for those video games. They are also more than likely paying the bills, providing food, doing laundry, keeping house and otherwise generally pampering that same son. After clearly communicating expectations, you have to start enforcing consequences when those expectations are not met. Simply put, under normal circumstances, people grow up when they have to and not much before.

• Extend grace. Perhaps the most important thing to remember when dealing with those who are different than you is that whether right, wrong or just plain different – everyone needs grace. We should graciously be patient with those who are immature and simply need to grow up. We should graciously forgive and instruct those who are in sin. We should graciously show Christ’s love to those with different preferences. Approach others with grace, remembering that as God’s child you are the recipient of great grace.

Though traditional milestones may change or be delayed, it is vital that the body of Christ stand willing and able to help our children mature into godly men and women who will be equipped for the good work God has prepared for them.