How Christians Parent
Passage: Proverbs 22:6, Luke 2:21–2:40
On June 25, 2011 I became a husband. Prior to that, Emily and I went through a marriage prep program where we met with a mentor couple for months. We went through a work book and were given multiple books to read. We met with the priest multiple times so he could make sure we understood the responsibility we were undertaking and were equipped to deal with it. All this before the church and priest would deem us fit to be married.
On July 1, 2011 I became a pastor. This was after an 18 month process to become a certified candidate that involved multiple interviews, written work, a psychological evaluation, a deep background check and other work. Then came three years of full time seminary. A 60 hour masters program. Part of that was two years of intern work. And after all that, I had to write over 60 pages of written responses to questions, take another psychological evaluation, have a 360 colleague evaluation, and sit through 4 hours of oral examination and interview. All to ensure that I was equipped and ready to be a pastor.
On February 22, 2014 I became a parent. We went to the hospital late on Friday, Emily delivered on Saturday morning, the child was placed into my arms, and on Monday morning we were sent home.
Isn’t it funny how we teach and train and test, equip and evaluate people in so many aspects of life and yet not when it comes to being a parent. You have to do more to be entrusted to operate a motor vehicle than you do to be entrusted with the life and soul of another human being.
I felt unprepared when I became a parent. I have felt unprepared countless times in the three years I’ve been a parent. How many of you that are parents have routinely felt unprepared for the job?
This morning we are going to look at the topic How Christians Parent.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Of course that is our goal as parents. To train our children in the way they should go. We want to give them tools to navigate life faithfully and successfully. We want to give them all things necessary that when they are old they will be safe, secure, and happy in life. And yet, I don’t know about you friends, but I had not the faintest idea when I became a parent on how to do that! I know there are a ton of parenting books out there that’ll give you their take. Is there a uniquely Christian way that we can be faithful parents? To begin to answer that question, let’s take a look at one of the few stories we have from when Jesus was a child.
Luke 2:21-40 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”, and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
So you might be wondering what that story has to do with parenting or what a story about Jesus as a child could tell us about parenting our children. You might say, well Pastor Matt, if I had Jesus as my child, I wouldn’t have any parenting issues!
We’ll start with the end first. Scripture says about the boy Jesus that he grew and became strong and he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was on him. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of this probably had to do with the fact that Jesus was the son of God and was himself God incarnate. However, part of his growth in wisdom and grace might have had to do with the fact that his parents started him off on the way he should go. They were in Jerusalem on his eighth day to fulfill what God required of parents. They saw a partnership between themselves and God in how to raise the child. They saw a partnership between themselves and the church, err Temple, in how to raise the child.
Parenting is a spiritual exercise. That’s what we see in this episode from Christ’s childhood. Jesus is in Jerusalem for a religious ritual and prophetic words are spoken over him. All of this is spiritual. And he grows in wisdom and strength. Parenting is a spiritual exercise. And as such, we should look to Scripture to guide our parenting. We should look to Scripture to help give us principles in how we approach our spiritual task of parenting. And that’s what we want to do this morning.
Paul David Tripp, a pastoral counselor, wrote a book entitled Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles that Can Radically Change Your Family. In this book, he looks at parenting from a spiritual perspective. What spiritual principles can we use to better understand our role and responsibility as a parent? How can the Gospel reframe how we look at our task? How can the Gospel train, equip, and ease our burden as we seek to help our children grow in wisdom and strength?
I want to run through the 14 principles. You could really spend a ton of time on each of them, you could use this book as a small group curriculum if you wanted.
14 Gospel Principles that can radically change your family:
- Calling: Nothing is more important in your life than being one of God’s tools to form a human soul.
Your role as a parent is a divine calling on your life. We talk about calling a lot in the church, especially as it pertains to vocation. Vocation literally means calling. Is your job, your career, what God has called you to do. Pastors talk about being called to the work of ministry. Growing up I heard my parents talk about teaching as a calling. In the church we’ll also talk about God calling us to actions, to ways that we can live out our faith in the world, often action that is counter cultural. Rarely do I hear us talk about parenting in terms of calling or vocation. And yet it is.
God has entrusted a human soul to you as a parent. God has entrusted the well being, the mind, the personality, the choices, the life of one of his children to you. You are God’s ambassador in that person’s life. This is an awesome thing. And it might well be the most important thing you ever do in this life. How do you see yourself as called by God to be a parent? How does that change how you view your parenting?
- Grace: God never calls you to a task without giving you what you need to do it. He never sends you without going with you.
Saying we are called by God to this, saying God has entrusted us with the soul and life of one of his children leaves me with fear and trembling. And yet, God graces us with all things necessary to accomplish it. And in those moments when we fail, God is with us. Like any good, big, beautiful, important thing, like any thing worth doing, God doesn’t task us and leave us alone. God is with us. And the God who has given us the will to be parents will give us grace necessary to complete this task.
- Law: Your children need God’s law, but you cannot ask the law to do what only grace can accomplish.
One of the things we see in the Bible is that Law does not lead to transformation. The Law reveals our transgressions. But the Law cannot and does not change our very nature. For that we need Jesus. For that we need grace. When we look at who we are as parents and how we parent, how often do we want to regulate behavior? How often do we want rules themselves to produce virtue? How often do we equate don’t hit your brother with love your brother? Rules can’t produce virtue and character. Law won’t lead to transformation. Only the love and grace of God can do that.
- Inability: Recognizing what you are unable to do is essential to good parenting.
Friends I have good news for you. We can’t produce saints. We can’t raise perfect children. That’s good news. It’s good news because it means we are released from the burden of evaluating our ability as parents on whether or not our children are perfect. God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, produces saints. We. Are. Freed.
One of the biggest mistakes we can make as parents is in thinking we have the ability to produce perfect children. Because when we fail to make that happen we will feel like failures as parents and then use different means to attempt to make our children into saints. Oftentimes those means are fear, reward, and shame. None of these are things God used in our redemption.
Tripp writes, “Here’s the good news: we can admit our powerlessness as parents and not live in constant panic and frustration. We can embrace our inability and not worry our way through our parenting years. Why? Because as parents we serve a gloriously loving and powerful Redeemer. He loves our children infinitely more than we do and as evidence of that love, he has placed them in a family of faith where the story of his love will be heard again and again. He has power beyond our ability to understand…Good parenting lives at the intersection of a humble admission of personal powerlessness and a confident rest in the power and grace of God.”
- Identity: If you are not resting as a parent in your identity in Christ, you will look for identity in your children.
This is related to the last principle. If who we are as people is totally tied into our success or failure as parents, we will fail. Our children can’t thrive under the burden of our own egos and identities. As parents, we must totally and completely find our identity in Jesus. We must see ourselves as beloved children of God. We must see ourselves as worthy not because our children are good students, good athletes, good citizens, but because God has declared us worthy in our baptism. Our identity is not found in the size of our house or the size of our bank account but in the size of God’s love for us. Just as we are freed when we recognize the things we cannot do as parents, our children are freed when we find our identity in the God who loves us beyond measure.
- Process: You must be committed as a parent to long-view parenting because change is a process not an event.
Parenting is a process. It’s why it’s so hard. As modern people we are conditioned to instant gratification and simple solutions to problems. The spiritual exercise of parenting defies all of that. So much of parenting is planting seeds in a garden we won’t see for years. Which is a little bit of what makes it spiritual. And a lot of what makes it hard.
It means that we will see our child do something right one time and then fail to do it right for weeks on end. It means we will only see little glimpses of the gradual change and transformation we hope our love and guidance will impart. But then again, our own redemption is a process. Our own sanctification is a process.
To that end, as parents we can’t take a view that the ends justify the means. If parenting is a process, then we have to be concerned about the things that are making up that process. This is something we will touch on soon, but we have to see how our parenting strategies are functioning to help our kids love God and one another. God is playing a long-game with us in our redemption and discipleship. We have to play a long-game with our children as we seek to raise them in the way that leads to life.
- Lost: As a parent you’re not dealing just with bad behavior, but a condition that causes bad behavior.
In the church we have a doctrine of original sin. That is that all fall short of the glory of God. And we understand how that applies to other people. We might even understand how that applies to ourselves. But boy is it hard to admit it applies to our children. But the reality is that part of parenting being a spiritual exercise means that we aren’t just dealing with the choices and behavior we can physically see. We are dealing with a spiritual condition as well. Not only do we need to see changes in behavior, but more importantly is seeing growth in grace. The process stems from the spiritual journey of your children.
- Authority: One of the foundational heart issues in the life of every child is authority. Teaching and modeling the protective beauty of authority is one of the foundations of good parenting.
So many struggles we face as parents stem from this issue of authority. Being lost means that we want to be in charge of our own lives. We want to be the ultimate authority of our life. How we model the role of authority in our own lives as parents will teach our children how to respect the authority of God and the authority of others.
- Foolishness: The foolishness inside your children is more dangerous to them than the temptation outside of them. Only God’s grace has the power to rescue fools.
We all know that our children face temptations. And in this day and age those temptations scare us and keep us up at nights. And so we fight against those temptations. But we never address the spiritual issues that cause our children to succumb to temptation. We deal with the symptoms; we fail to deal with the root issue. In the Bible, the book of Proverbs talk about foolishness and what happens as a result of foolishness. How to overcome foolishness isn’t to avoid certain behaviors, however. It’s to gain wisdom. Are we helping our children gain wisdom so they can navigate the parts of life that we can’t even imagine yet? Or are we simply dealing with the presenting problems of the now?
- Character: Not all of the wrong your children do is a direct rebellion to authority; much of the wrong is the result of a lack of character.
John Wesley had three simple rules for Christian living. The first was do no harm. The second was do good. Understanding that there is a difference between the two is the first step in building character. And building character is an essential job of us as parents. Helping our children see that it is possible for them to do no harm but also not do good is part of our job as parents and part of the acquisition of wisdom.
- False Gods: You are parenting a worshipper, so its important to remember that what rules your child’s heart will control his behavior.
Worship means to give worth. We often talk about worship as what we do in church or a disposition of our hearts and souls towards God. But really it means to give something worth. And when we define worship that way it’s easy to see how worship is something we all do. The question isn’t if we worship; the question is what we worship.
Are we worshipping God? Are we worshipping possessions? What are we giving worth to? What are we allowing to change our behavior? To influence our choices? And how does that apply to our children?
True confession, my son idolizes Thomas trains. And I have participated in his idolizing Thomas trains. When Patrick was struggling to make good behavior choices, my wife made a behavior board for him. That if he listened well, if he was good at school, etc he would get a star. And as he got more stars he would get closer to the moon. And once he made it to the moon he could get an extra Patrick TV show, a special trip the library, or a trip to the playground. And that worked for a little bit. But it was hard because sometimes he would make it to the moon at a time when we couldn’t take him to the library or the playground or watch TV. So he lost a little interest in it. So I had a great idea. I started buying Thomas trains and told Patrick if he made it to the moon he could get one. And it totally worked.
But here’s the deal, Patrick will do anything for a Thomas train. And threatening to take away Thomas trains is also very effective. On some level you may be thinking, what’s the problem? But Patrick isn’t following directions or making good choices because that’s a better way to live. He’s not doing it out of love for his mother or me. He’s not doing it out of love for God. He’s doing it because of the Thomas train. I’ve guided my child into idolatry.
The gospel seeks to have our actions be motivated out of a love for God and a love for others, rather than out of some physical or material gain. The gospel seeks to move us from idolizing things in the created world, be they money or power or success or others, to loving and serving God with our whole being. How are we contributing to this in our own children? Or are we parenting our children in such a way that they learn to love things rather than their Creator?
- Control: The goal of parenting is not control of behavior, but rather heart and life change.
This is related to the last principle. So often so much of our efforts in parenting are about controlling, modifying, and changing behavior. We think our jobs as parents are to ensure that our children exhibit good behavior. And that’s partly true. However, if we understand parenting as a spiritual exercise, our main goal is not modifying behavior, but in deal with the root problem that causes bad behavior.
Our children’s problem and issue, our problem and issue in general as people, is not a behavior issue, but a heart issue. Our goal as parents is to give our children to tools they need to turn to God and find redemption and transformation in His love and grace.
To bring these two sections together, I used a behavior board and Thomas trains to attempt to control my child’s behavior. And as a result my child loves Thomas a whole lot more but is no where closer in his relationship with God.
- Rest: It is only rest in God’s presence and grace that will make you a joyful and patient parent.
Paul Tripp writes, “If you are struggling to be patient, finding it hard to be joyful, and sometimes dreading the next day of parenting, could it be that your struggle to be tender and loving toward your children is rooted in the reality that you are overburdened and overwhelmed? Could it be that in your attempt to be a tool of grace in the lives of your children, you have lost sight of the amazing resources of grace that are the gift of the Father to all of his children? Perhaps in all your work to be used of God to produce children who know what it means to rest in his wisdom and grace, you have forgotten how to rest yourself.”
We need rest. We need to be renewed. And how much does our culture work against that? But when we are at the end of our rope, when we are at our wit’s end we have some place to turn. We have someone to go to. We don’t have to rely on our own emotional strength as parents, we don’t have to rely on our own wisdom as parents. We need only rest in God. There we can find renewal. There we can be refilled. And there we can find strength to do all that is asked of us, even if its more than we can do on our own.
- Mercy: No parent gives mercy better than one who is convinced that he desperately needs it himself.
We end with mercy. Because parenting asks a lot of us. Sometimes parenting asks too much of us. Sometimes it feels like we can’t do it, like we aren’t up to the task. When we lose it with our children. When we are knowingly too impatient. When our kids give us a little too much attitude and it sets us off. There are moments when the well feels dry, no?
In those moments, God meets us with mercy. When we fail to live up to our high calling, when we fail to be perfect for our children, when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed. God meets us with mercy.
And this is a good thing. Parents needing and receiving mercy isn’t a consolation prize. As parents we need to receive mercy because it is either to give mercy once you have received it. As we are shown mercy by God, as we receive mercy from God we are better able to show mercy to our children. We are better able to be patient, to extend grace, and to love our children as we receive all these things from God.
Parenting is a spiritual exercise. Our role and goal as parents is shaped by the gospel. But the gospel reminds us that even as we fall short, God’s grace is sufficient. As you go today, know that God has appointed you to be parents. God has called you to this work. But God has not left you alone. He will help you and guide you. He will give you strength. And his grace will be sufficient so that even in your weakness, God’s love and grace and power will be made strong. Let us pray.