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  • Parenting Reformed

    "My godly parenting -- and my joy in that process -- is much more about my relationship with God than it is anything about my children."

    What is the goal or purpose of my parenting? For most of my earlier parenting years, I thought the goal was that my kids would turn out a certain way: faithful believers, godly character, or whatever else we use to measure "success" as parents. However, the older my kids got, the more I realized that while these were outcomes I wanted and prayed for, and that I could somewhat influence positively or negatively, they were not ones I could bring about or manage through parenting techniques or skills. Through diligent application of parenting techniques, I could usually manage my kids' visible behavior, especially when they were younger. And through careful control of what they read, heard, and viewed, I could somewhat manage their intellectual beliefs, at least for a time. But none of my parental "shepherding" or "guarding" actually formed their hearts in some manageable shape.

    As I looked into the Bible for parenting guidance, I realized that it doesn't much address parenting techniques or skills per se -- which was a bit surprising, considering all the books on my church bookshelf that address that very thing. Even more surprising, the Bible does not say that as a parent I am even supposed to focus on shaping or fixing my kids' hearts, though this was something I had always assumed to be my biblical parental assignment. So I reconsidered: What is my biblical goal and focus as a parent?

    First let's consider a more foundational question: What is my goal and focus in obeying God in anything (not just parenting)?

    (Exodus 20:1-2 (ESV)) [20:1] And God spoke all these words, saying, [2] “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery...

    The Israelites entered Egypt as a family or small tribe. In Egypt, as they became a sizable independent people group, they were enslaved by the Egyptians, to prevent them from threatening the current ruling dynasty. When God rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, this also made Israel into an independent nation, seeking a Land of their own. Thus Egypt was the place where God's chosen nation was both formed and rescued. God introduces the timeless "Ten Words" summary of His Law by reminding us that He made us and rescued us, motivating us to obedience out of gratitude to Him as Creator and Savior.

    This means we are to obey God because of who He is and what He has already done, not so we can get Him to do something more. We don't obey God "so" he will bless us (or "because" He will bless us). He does bless us, but hope of future blessings and even promises should not be why we obey. If they are, then our loyalty to God will wax and wane based on our perception of how well He is coming through for us at the moment. Our joy in obeying will be based on how well He is meeting our expectations.

    Sadly, my joy in obedience is often forced, and my loyalty does often wane, because I do tend to think this way in my heart, if not my head. In my heart, I often obey to get things from God, rather than give back gratitude to Him. Equally sad are all the times I have told my children -- in one way or another -- to obey God so He would bless them, or to obey me so I would bless them. The Bible teaches that God does bless our obedience, but it never suggests we are to obey with the goal or focus of getting what we want -- they are not the same thing.

    Applying this principle to my parenting, which is a significant part of my obedience and service to God, it is a dubious purpose and focus if I parent faithfully and obediently "so my children will be godly children." It is predictable that an approach to parenting which focuses on my children's response as the goal, yields joy in parenting that waxes and wanes with that response. It is also predictable that such an approach emphasizes parenting processes (not to mention countless books and seminars) that focus on fixing and shaping our children, rather than on being a godly parent simply because I am grateful to God for rescuing me and adopting me as His child.

    If the foundational purpose and focus of my parenting is not my children's response, then what is it?

    (Deuteronomy 6:1-8; 6:20-25 (ESV)) [6:1] “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, [2] that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son's son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. [3] Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. [4] “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. [5] You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. [6] And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. [7] You shall teach them 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. [8] You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes...[20] “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ [21] then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. [22] And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. [23] And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. [24] And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. [25] And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us."

    We parents often cite this passage as our manifesto for how we are to conduct our families so we will raise godly children. In this, we are half right: It is how we are to lead our families; however, its primary focus is not to raise godly children, but rather that we would be godly parents. The focus of this passage is me and my godliness, not my children and theirs. My life is supposed to be a dynamic relationship with God where my obedience and joy are manifested in all I say and do "along the way," because I belong to Him and I am grateful to Him, not primarily so He will bless me and make my children godly. My parenting is supposed to be about sharing this relationship with my children, so that they will see God in me and be attracted to Him, and ask me about the "meaning" or purpose of my joyful obedience (v. 20), not primarily about me shaping or fixing my children to make their beliefs and behaviors godly and obedient.

    How do we share our relationship with God with our children?

    At the risk of stating the obvious, we parents must first have a dynamic heart-changing (our hearts, not our children's) relationship with God, or we have nothing to share with our kids but a set of intellectual beliefs and moral rules. Perhaps a general lack of this in the church is one reason our "godly parenting" is often focused more on our kids and their relationship with God than on ourselves as parents and our relationship with God, and frequently reduced to discussion of methods and techniques to bring about outcomes in our kids rather than to reflect a relationship built on gratitude in ourselves.

    According to Paul, when we have such a relationship with God, we share it by making ourselves and that relationship "manifest" to others.

    (2 Corinthians 5:11 (NASB)) [11] Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences.

    Because it is a relationship, not just a set of doctrines and rules, it must be shared rather than just taught.

    (1 Thessalonians 2:8 (ESV)) [8] So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

    Others must be able to see it for themselves, in who we are as well as what we say and do. In the church today we parents too often ask what and how to teach our kids (intellectually and morally), when our real emphasis should be on what and how to share with them (relationally).

    And we must be careful not to fall into the temptation of sharing a false front, or a facade relationship, to try to make a "better example" for our kids. A facade -- even a well-intended one -- contradicts the genuineness and humble honesty inherent in Paul's exhortation to make ourselves and our relationship with God "manifest" to close significant others. It "teaches" our kids (and others) that our faith is a hypocritical facade rather than a dynamic relationship, and encourages them to build their own relational facades with God, us, and others.

    (1 Corinthians 2:2-5 (ESV)) [2] For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. [3] And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, [4] and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, [5] that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

    So what is "godly" or "biblical" parenting?

    My "godly parenting" is more about my joyful obedience to God (my Father) than about my raising godly children. It is more about me sharing my relationship with God with my children, than it is about me shaping or fixing my children. I share a relationship with my kids more by being genuinely manifest to them, than I ever can by teaching them beliefs and behaviors.

    My godly parenting -- and my joy in that process -- is much more about my relationship with God than it is anything about my children.

    (c) 2012 Jeff Gilbert. May not be posted, distributed or otherwise used without permission.
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