Jars of clay: Being a Christian parent

I’m glad this article is in the Jars of Clay series. It feels like an appropriate metaphor, because there are few areas where I feel as weak and inadequate for the role God has given me than when it comes to parenting my two children. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. I suspect most Christian parents feel that inadequacy keenly. (That’s probably why over the years most people we have asked to write for The Briefing on parenting have baulked at it.)

Why do we feel so insecure about parenting? I guess it’s because we know that our kids can change. We’ve seen it in the family lives of dear friends—godly Christian people and wise parents—whose teenage children have suddenly gone off the rails. At any moment the credibility of our parenting ‘expertise’ might fall through the floor.

So rather than share my so-called ‘expertise’, I want to briefly cover what I’ve noticed the Bible has to say about parenting,1 and reflect on my experience of implementing it over nineteen years of being a father.

The somewhat surprising thing is that, for a topic we consider so vital, the Bible doesn’t give much specific advice to parents. Of course, we can apply other biblical relationship principles—like love, forgiveness, wisdom, generosity, grace—to our relationships with our children. But in this article I’m going to restrict myself to some specific biblical instructions, and one or two general principles that I think get overlooked at times.

Here are some of those things I’ve found that the Bible says, followed by my
observations and reflections:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 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. (Deut 6:4-7, cf. Deut 4:9-10, 11:18-19)

Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Col 3:21)

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Prov 22:6)

Did he not make them [i.e. husband and wife] one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. (Mal 2:15)

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:4)

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 3:14-15)

1. God is looking for Christian marriages to produce ‘godly offspring’ (Mal 2:15). So a strong union with my wife is not just a good thing in itself, it is a means of growing new people of God. This verse gives my wife and I a pithy summary of our goal as parents: to produce godly offspring.2

Yet my observation is that, as Christians, many of us as parents are so busy filling our children’s time up with other activities—musical lessons, dance, sport, academic extension, TV, computer games, and so on—that one would be forgiven for thinking that the development of godliness in our kids is not high on our agenda. If true, we need to address that issue urgently.

2. The primary responsibility for the discipline and instruction of the Lord belongs to the father (Eph 6:4).3 Yet my anecdotal evidence is that, if Bible reading and prayer with children is done at all, it is often done with the mother. Failing to lead spiritually is the sin of Adam that all men are, by nature, prone to. For me, the temptation comes every night: “Oh, it’s too late/I’m tired/my favourite TV show is on. We’ll read the Bible tomorrow night.” Even when I muster the energy to resist that urge, my temptation is to mainly do what I’m good at (reading the Bible and talking about it), rather than what I’m not very good at (prayer).

3. Instruction of children should happen all through the day as we interact with them in daily life (Deut 6:7). Formal times of systematic instruction (which I think may be partly in mind in Eph 6:4, cf. Acts 7:22, 22:3) are important. But Christian instruction can be part of casual conversations in the car, hanging out the washing, even watching TV.

This is an example of where our culture has changed in a way that doesn’t help us very much as Christian parents. In Old Testament times, children spent much more time with their parents than they do today. We ship them off to school five days a week for most of the waking hours when they are most able to learn—effectively outsourcing their training and instruction. Then in the limited time we have with them Monday to Friday, we often try to teach them the Bible at the end of the day as we put them to bed. That’s when they are mentally and physically tired, and have their shortest concentration span, which is hardly ideal.

We need to rearrange our diaries and cut down on distracting activities in order
to make more time to just hang out and interact.

Yet even when I am with my children, God-words don’t flow easily from my lips in daily conversation with them. No doubt I need to be more God-focused myself, so that my discussion with family (and friends!) keeps pointing to him.

4. The Lord knows it’s not going to flow naturally and instinctively out of us, and that we’ll tend towards laziness in this area, and that’s no doubt why he commands his people to teach his word to their children diligently (Deut 6:7). I find this both a comfort and a challenge. It’s a comfort because I know you only have to tell someone to be diligent when it’s going to be a struggle; so when I find it a struggle, I know that’s normal. It’s not good, but it’s normal. And of course it’s a challenge because of those temptations I mentioned in point 2 and my sinfulness.

5. As I interact with my children as a father I am told not to provoke, and so anger or discourage them (Col 3:21, Eph 6:4). Yet as a parent it’s just so easy to inflame a conflict with my children—often as a way of asserting myself over them—or to tease in a way that can only discourage or anger them. If you are like me, we need to repent and ask our children for their forgiveness. More prayer—especially for us dads—may be part of the antidote for a quarrelling spirit (1 Tim 2:8).

6. I am encouraged in the task of providing Christian training and instruction to my children by 2 Timothy 3:14-15, which makes it clear that even young children4 can understand the Scriptures and learn the wisdom that leads to salvation.

7. I am also conscious that what trains every one to live a godly life—whether child or adult—is the grace of God (Titus 2:11-14). Yet as a Christian community, when it comes to teaching young children, it is easier to tend towards moralism: don’t lie, be kind, and so on. Of course we need to align a child’s moral compass with God’s, but until grace changes the mind and heart, knowing right and wrong will only increase their culpability. It is the word of grace in the gospel, applied to the hearts of our children by the Spirit of God, that sanctifies them (1 Cor 3:6, 2 Thess 2:13).

So at the very heart of my parenting must be prayer to God for him to do his work, even as this ‘jar of clay’ repeatedly fails to be a faithful parent.

In Deuteronomy 6, the Israelites are told to recount to their children what an astonishing thing God has done for them. What other people have had such a great privilege (Deut 4:32-33)? God has not only rescued them out of Egypt, but spoken to them on the mountain.

Yet, as Hebrews 12:18-24 reminds me, the story I have to tell to my children is an even more amazing one than the Israelite parents had. My story is about the new and greater rescue and revelation of God brought by Jesus. So with a greater message to pass on, it’s all the more reason for me to be a ‘diligent’ and gracious parent.

  1.  I will only be dealing with the situation of a Christian mother and father, but I am conscious that many struggle with Christian parenting as single parents or with a non-Christian spouse. To those, I hope you nonetheless find some help in this article.
  2. If you want a fuller explanation of the goal of parenting, see Fatherhood, by Tony Payne (Matthias Media).
  3.  The word in Eph 6:1 is ‘parents’, but Paul seems to intentionally change and use a different word in verse 4 that is specifically ‘fathers’.
  4. The NIV translates it ‘infants’ in 2 Timothy 3:15; in fact the Greek word can refer to babies (e.g. Luke 2:12, and even the unborn, e.g. Luke 1:41). Of course, it’s important to understand what concepts children can process at different stages of their development. I’ve been greatly helped by my wife Stephanie in this over the years—and funnily enough, you can be too because she has a book for Sunday School teachers called Their God is so BIG (Matthias Media) in which she explains a lot of the practicalities of teaching the Bible to young children.

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