Being the Parent (part 1)
During our last year in seminary Anne and I took a class called the “Theology of Children”. It was an excellent course until mid-semester when the professor turned to the practical topic of discipline. I remember one class period in particular. The professor said something like this:
“A child must be permitted to explore freely, to touch, taste, feel, whatever she wants which means parents and teachers are responsible for child-proofing the environment. And if the child is going to become creative, curious, self-confident, unhindered by self-doubt, then parents and teachers ought never to use the word “no”. No, is the child’s word to you. No is never the parent’s word to the child. She must learn to set her own limits and see the world as an open place where there are no roadblocks to learning and exploring.”(paraphrased)
I don’t remember which theory of child development this professor embraced, but my mom tried a similar one for a week when I was a kid. I believe it was Dr. Spock who emphasized positive reinforcement. No negative words, only positive. No spanking. Ignore bad behavior and praise good behavior. My mom tells me that lasted about a week—after which I received a very serious spanking.
There are thousands of child development theories out there. Some are, indeed, helpful. But there are two foundational truths about children that just about every secular theory rejects, making most of them incompatible with the biblical model.
The “Innocent” Child
The first is: children are “fallen”. What does that mean? Ephesians 2:1-3 provides a good answer:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in other passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
That second to last clause is crucial. Paul doesn’t say, “Hey, everybody makes mistakes.” He says that we are by “nature” children of wrath. That means: we do what provokes God’s wrath - sin, disobedience, self-focus, idolatry, pride, you name it - without trying. It’s who we are. Our hearts and minds are from conception, by nature, oriented self-ward rather than Godward and so as soon as we’re old enough to choose between God’s way and some other way—we want the other way.
God did not originally create human beings this way. Sin nature is the result of sin’s entry into the world through Adam and Eve’s decision to turn from God in the Garden. That turning, that willed reorientation, broke the life-giving, purifying connection between God and humanity. As a result, “in Adam” - as Adam’s children - we don’t learn to sin, we come prepackaged, sin-ready, batteries included.
If you have kids you know this. We have a big family. Most kids learn to say “mama” or “dada” first. Ours learn to say “mine”. It’s survival of the fittest, Lord of the Flies. There is no natural generosity or selflessness. They come prepackaged to lie, cheat, beat and steal in order to get the cookie, toy, stuffed animal they want. We don’t teach them this. You don’t have to teach them these things. They come fully quipped.
And so maybe you can see the problem with purely secular parenting methods. The world assumes that children are by nature good. The parent’s job is just get out of the way and let their natural goodness flourish uncorrupted. But if by nature, we’re “children of wrath”, then “getting out of the way” means standing aside while our children lurch happily down the broad path that leads to destruction.
Made For Joy
The second truth that secular theories ignore or reject is a positive one. All human beings are designed and made to glorify God and enjoy him forever (Rom 11:36; Eph 2:4-10; Rev 21:3-4). Those two things, joy and glorifying God, go together. John Piper says, and it’s true, “God is most glorified when we’re most satisfied in him.” And we’re most satisfied when we turn from self to God. Our souls and bodies were made for fellowship with Him—and so no passing, dying, earthly pleasure or good will satisfy.
But the first truth, that we’re fallen, means that we get really confused about the second. Our natural desire to be happy is misdirected so that we look for ultimate happiness in fleeting, worldly stuff that dies rather than God.
Kids are born fallen—self oriented—but because they were made to glorify God and enjoy him there remains a deep longing for satisfaction and fulfillment and love…which means they’re very open to being directed to the chief pleasure and good of knowing God and loving Jesus.
There’s at least some truth to the idea that children are “innocent”. They’re fallen little beasts, but they haven’t had time to walk in that fallenness. We’ve spent our lives cramming alcohol, money, achievement, and sex into our bodies and souls, becoming addicted to our various idols. They haven’t. They aren’t hardened by habit, hurt, crushing failure and rejection. They want love and joy. Only God can satisfy that. Your task, our task, is to show them that truth before they get crushed. This is why God commands parents to raise children from infancy to know him and to love him (Dt 6:20-24; 11:18-22).
The instruction God gives both children and parents is built on these two truths.
Colossians 3:20-21 and Ephesians 6:1-4 are key texts both for parents and children. Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians at around the same time and sent them in the same bundle of letters from Rome so it’s important to read them together.
Let’s take Colossians 3:20-21 first
“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
Now flip over to Ephesians 6:1-4
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Children are born oriented away from God toward sin, so God commands children: “Obey your parents.” But they’re made to glorify God and enjoy him forever, so God commands parents, fathers in particular: “Raise you children in the ‘discipline and instruction of the Lord’.”
Children have one task: obedience. Parents have one task: teach your children to know, love, trust, and serve Jesus.
What God says to children:
The word for children in both texts is “tekna” which generally refers to any child of whatever age who remains dependent upon parents. The call to obedience does not magically end when you turn 18. In the context of the first century men were often under their father’s roof and authority until he died. He was patriarch. If you are under your father’s roof…or mother’s…no matter your age, this command applies. You can be 2 years old or 40 years old and be a tekna.
Why does God command children to obey?
A few Sundays ago after church as Anne and I were sitting on the couch, exhausted after a days work, barely able to think or talk, our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Murielle walks in. We don’t notice, but she’s found a pair of sharp scissors. There’s a small children’s rocking chair in our living room. Murielle gets on the rocking chair, stands up, grabs the back of the chair with one hand, scissors in the other, and starts rocking back and forth. Anne and I, amused at first, see the scissors and then proceed to freak out.
We understand that when you can barely walk holding sharp scissors and standing on a rocking chair is stupid. Murielle can’t see that. She’s enjoying herself. That’s childhood. That’s the teenage years. That’s your life until you get out on your own.
There is not a lot of difference between what Murielle does at one and a half and the kind of things I did when I was a teenager.
One Friday when I was sixteen or seventeen my friends and I decided to head down to Mexico to buy liquor and beer for a party that night. Before heading down we get an idea: “why don’t we start the party now?” So we take some leftover beer from last week’s party and start drinking on the way down. It was homecoming weekend so my car was covered in white shoe-polish football slogans. So here we are, teenagers on the way to Mexico, drinking and driving, with white shoe-polish all over the car.
And we were surprised when we saw the flashing lights behind us. Why were we surprised? Because we were stupid.
All children are. That’s why tekna are called by God to obey—and that’s why parents are called to make sure they do that.
The danger if you’re a child (especially an adolescent one) is: you don’t know yourself or the world but you think you do. You’re a mixture of arrogance and stupid. If you’re still under your parent’s roof you likely think your parent’s rules are unreasonable because they don’t know your world. They’re operating on the basis of the way things worked in the “olden days.” They dress badly, listen to horrible music, and have no idea what its like to be you.
You may be partly right but your first problem is that what you don’t know about the world and about yourself eclipses their uncoolness.
You don’t see that but everyone else does.
Your second problem is that the main person who sees that truth is God who knows you and your parents perfectly and still says: “obey your parents.” They’re wiser than you are. You can’t both follow Jesus and dishonor, disobey, disregard your parents.
The command to obey comes with a promise: that you’ll live long in the land and be blessed. That’s not magic. It doesn’t mean God’s going to give you a Porche and you’ll live to be 100. It’s practical. If you consistently ignore your parents, you’ll probably wind up dead, drunk, divorced or in jail. But if you listen to them you’ll not make as many life-shortening decisions.
So your task is easy. Obey your parents.
Your parents have it much worse. We’ll only be able to bridge into that subject in this article. We’ll get to the rest in part 2.
What God says to Parents
Paul writes that parents are to “bring [kids] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:4) in a way that does not “provoke” them to anger or “discourage” them (Col 3:21).
What often happens is that Christian parents let the culture determine their goals. One cultural goal, for example, is “success”—success in school, success in sports, success in career.
As a parent you decide that the most important thing is for your kid to excel in sports and/or get good grades. You might see church as part of that, teaching good values and morals, but mainly you want your kid to succeed and so you take him to practice instead of youth group, a game instead of church. You don’t spend much time talking to him about Jesus or the bible but you make sure the homework is done. Your kid gets straight A’s, plays varsity ball, can tell you the batting stats for the entire Yankees bench but has no idea that he’s a sinner in need of salvation.
So you’ll raise a kid who’ll get a great job, have a great family, great life. But if he doesn’t know Christ he’s going to die and go to hell.
Or, you’ll raise a kid who thinks that his self-worth depends on achievement but who fails at school, sports and work and as a result sinks into despair drugs and self hatred - and then he dies goes to hell.
Your primary goal as a parent is not to produce a college graduate. It’s not to produce an “honor roll student”, a quarterback, a hockey player, a lawyer, or doctor. Your goal isn’t to raise a nice person, a good citizen, a really hard worker, a self-confident adult. Those are good things but that’s not why God has honored you with the responsibility of being a parent. You have one primary purpose and call—to teach your children to know, love, and serve Jesus. That’s it. And when you let anything get in the way of that task you’re hurting your kid, sinning against him and God.
So what does it mean and what does it look like to raise a child in the knowledge and love of God?
We’ll get to that in part 2
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