The talk no-one wanted to give
I asked several men in our church if they were willing to speak on the topic of ‘leading your family spiritually’, and I got the same reaction from everyone: “Why me? I don’t know if I am qualified to speak on that. Our family Bible reading and prayer times are well, er, erratic. I need to come and listen, not talk on it!”
I’m sure the men in our church are not alone. Many fathers probably feel they could do a whole lot better in this area of parenting. They know they need to show leadership and direction in family life. And it is not as though nothing happens and it is non-existent. Rather, with all the pressures of work, nights out at meetings, tiredness, ratty kids and homework to be completed for tomorrow, establishing any regular and significant time of family Bible reading and prayer seems be a constant battle. As one dad put it, “Bible reading in our house is a rather like the Wright brothers attempts at flight—lots of furious activity, followed by a brief period of flight before a crash, and then it is back to the start again for another go”.
For that reason, this article begins with a word of confession and encouragement for any fathers reading this and feeling uncomfortable. If we have failed in our responsibilities or grown weary and given up, we need to turn to God in repentance and ask him to forgive and strengthen us to get back into the saddle and get started again. The cross of Jesus and the throne of grace are the places we must go, remembering our great high priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness and so offer mercy and help in our time of need.
It is never too late to start to to improve in leading our families in godly ways. Anyone can wallow in remorse and self-pity. That is easy to do. The harder and most necessary thing is to show true repentance by picking our selves up and doing better tomorrow. God himself is at work by his Spirit to enable us to obey and serve him and our families.
This could be a good point to fall to prayer before reading on!
A word of warning
We also need a word of warning at this point. There is great value in having other Christian families around us from whom we can learn and with whom we can share our joys and struggles in leading our families in godly ways. To know that other fathers struggle with exactly the same things can be a great encouragement. At the same time however, there is a danger of comparisons.
Other families can often appear really together and ‘spiritual’ and we hear only of the good times and how little Johnny says his prayers each night himself after reading Calvin’s Institutes for an hour before bed—and he wants to be a missionary! Every family is different. Children in the same family are often very different. What works for one child may not for another.
Likewise, there is no set parenting formula that guarantees Christian children. Salvation is God’s work, not ours. His Spirit blows where he wills. We all long for our kids to be committed Christians, and will work and pray fervently to that end. But, under God, it may not happen! That does not mean we have ‘failed’ as parents. There are many wonderful Christian parents who have faithfully modelled godly Christian living and brought up their children to know and love the Lord Jesus not to see any fruit from their labours.
We need to relax and trust God and prove faithful in our context with our children. Just as children are a gift from God for which we should be thankful, so the kids we have been given, with their individual personalities, strengths, faults and sinful hearts, have been given to us by God. We must accept what God has given and with him work to shape them into responsible and mature adults who will hopefully embrace the gospel and love Jesus as their Lord.
Instructions for fathers
The Bible gives fathers a critical role in leading their families spiritually. There are several specific instructions to teach and lead their children in the ways of God. Ephesians 6:4 tells fathers not to provoke their children, but to discipline and instruct them in the Lord. Much of Proverbs is instruction to a father in how to direct and teach his children. This does not exclude mothers (Proverbs 1:8 makes that clear), however it seems that fathers are especially responsible to do this work (again, look at Ephesians 6:4). Fathers have “given life” (Prov 23:22) and are responsible for sustaining that life physically and spiritually. The well-being of our children is our responsibility, including their spiritual well being (note how 1 Timothy 3:4-5 applies this especially to those who would lead the church). Such concern must begin from the earliest days (Prov 22:6: “train up a child in the way he should go …”)
What will this involve?
Many things are involved in this spiritual provision and leadership of our families. It is more than just reading the Bible and taking them to church and Sunday School. It is a whole lifestyle of modelling and instructing, disciplining and encouraging our children. They are our young apprentices in life and in the faith. We wish them to learn all they can to take their place among God’s people and become his servants in the world.
We must therefore:
- model Christian living. Whether we like it or not we will model something. The question is, will it be a godly example or not? Our values and priorities will show through. We can say all we like about how important our kids are and how important church is or reading the Bible, however if our actions reveal something else, they will speak more loudly than our empty words. Reading the Bible regularly, being quick to pray when facing different situations, saying sorry and showing true repentance, treating our wives with love, gentleness and respect, will all set an example and reinforce lessons learnt in family Bible reading and Sunday School.
- model prayer and forgiveness. Two important areas of modelling are in prayer and in forgiveness. What we pray for and how we pray will become models for our kids. Do we pray broadly for salvation of others, for missionaries, for peace in the world, for our leaders in government, for our church leaders, for brothers and sisters at church to grow as Christians? Or are the prayers we pray with our children only about material things, our safety, our pleasures, our problems? Do we confess our sins and say sorry ourselves and show the importance of confession and forgiveness? It can be hard to admit fault and ask for forgiveness from our children (or our wife in front of the children), as we are sinful and proud. We can mistakenly believe it might compromise our leadership and authority in some way. The very opposite is the case—modelling humility, repentance and forgiveness will be powerful lessons for our children.
- teach and instruct our children. This cannot be left to Sunday School teachers and youth leaders alone. We are the principal teachers of our children! It is not just formal times of reading after dinner or before bed, but involves making the most of any and every opportunity to speak of Christian things and give a biblical perspective on life events. As we walk along the road, as we drive to soccer training, as we watch a movie together or discuss an issue from school, we have opportunity and responsibility to teach (see Deut 11:18-21). So often ‘quality time’ happens in the midst of ‘quantity time’.
- discipline and correct. This is part of spiritual leadership and we need to show we love our children by drawing the lines of right and wrong, and acceptable behaviour. This must, of course, be done carefully and consistently and be coupled with plenty of positive encouragement and commendation when they act in godly and right ways. Secure and loving relationships are the best context for learning especially for learning hard lessons via discipline and correction. There will be times when we must learn to let our children fail and suffer the consequences of their actions because these can be the very best lessons (Heb 12:7-11), but to do this within a safe environment where the consequences will not be too hard.
Some tips from old hands
- When it comes to family devotions, have realistic expectations and keep the program simple. Better 10 minutes a few days per week than ambitious plans for daily hour long Bible studies that never happen!
- Be prepared. As with our own Bible reading and prayer, family devotions will not happen unless we plan for it. You may need to change other arrangements to ensure there is a time when the family can be together (e.g. switch off the TV, or leave earlier for work so you can be home earlier for dinner, etc). Discuss with the family what they would like to read or do in devotions together.
- Accept failures. There will be good times and disasters. Kids are sinful. Some days they are just tired and ratty and it maybe better to cut your losses, lead in prayer and put everyone to bed early. Don’t give up. Investigate different ways or materials to use, or times to get together. Pray lots and keep at it.
- Variety is the spice of life. There are a host of good kids’ Bibles, illustrated Bible story books, quiz games and workbooks for kids that you can try for a time to add some variety. Reading the Bible itself is obviously the most valuable thing to do, however reading a great Christian classic like Pilgrim’s Progress (adapted for children) is worthwhile also. Remember, kids are often very visual and enjoy activities and challenges as much as just listening to stories. Their minds are like sponges, so take the time to teach memory verses (try using some of Colin Buchanan’s songs), or teach the Lord’s prayer, or a catechism.
- Remember their age and capacity to learn or concentrate. You will need to vary things as they grow. You may need to split the family and do one activity or book with the eldest, while your wife reads a simpler Bible book to the youngest, if the age range is to wide. As they get older, give them more choice in what they read and the method of doing things.
- Give positive associations to church activities. Do some fun things together after church. Have an ice cream on the way home. Have other families or your children’s friends over for Sunday lunch. Be spontaneous. Be enthusiastic yourself about meeting with God’s people and hearing from the Bible (remember you are modelling things all the time!)
- Make the most of Christian camps, Summer School, KEC and fellowship or Sunday School activities. These are great for their teaching and input but they also help build long term friendships and a Christian peer group for our children. Godly youth leaders need to be encouraged and supported as they can play a very important modelling and mentoring role, especially when your children become teenagers.
- Make the most of some of the books around on parenting. You will not agree with everything in them, however they often stimulate you to action and provide new ideas which can re-energise weary hands. Take the time to talk to other fathers and offer some encouragements to each other. We need support and help in this area as much as any other in the Christian life.