The arrival of a first-born child into a family is one of the greatest moments in all human experience. It rates with marriage as one of the big milestones in a person’s life. As such, it is particularly important that the Christian believer should understand it from a spiritual viewpoint, setting it in the context of his or her faith, and therefore relating it to God through Jesus.
Parenting and perspective
First, we need to keep the whole thing in perspective. The birth of our baby is not actually the most significant human event since Bethlehem, and we need to learn not to act as if it was. When we become inevitably obsessed with the new arrival, we need to remember that we are surrounded by those who will show a polite interest in our baby, but who don’t necessarily want to listen for hours about him or her. There will be those who would love to be there and do that, but who cannot—either because they are not married, or because they are unable to conceive their own child. For them our obsession will be painfully insensitive. There will be others who have been there and done that years ago, and for whom our obsession is a tad boring. This means we are fairly safe with close relatives, and with our peer group who are also having their own babies. But we need to remember that even the latter are much keener to tell us about their baby than they are to hear about ours!
No—the wise Christian will give God the glory when their first child is born, and not let their own life be taken over in an unhealthily obsessive manner by the newborn.
Parenting and Christian service
Childbirth is not the moment to go light on ministry. Our culture tells us to do that: to focus all our energies within the home, on the threesome of mum, dad and junior. But there is no encouragement in the Bible to focus our energies inward at childbirth. There are hints in Scripture that marriage is a moment for focussing our energy on the marriage relationship for a period, so that we build it on a firm foundation for the future (Deut 24:5). But there are no similar scriptural injunctions about parenting. We need to remember that a child is an awesome gift from God, given by him—like all his other gifts—to reinforce our relationship with him. Parenting will remind us of our spiritual weakness and sin, our need of God’s grace and forgiveness every day, and our need of the fellowship of other believers in the church. Just as marriage is all about our relationship to Jesus (and our sanctification: Eph 5:18‑33), so is parenting. Paul wrote “For this reason I bow my knees before the father, from whom every family on heaven and one earth is named” (Eph 3:14-15), which reminds us to look upward in our parenting and not downward (cf. Eph 6:1-4; Col 3:20-21). Every horizontal relationship in human life is ultimately about the vertical relationship we can have with God through Jesus. I need to understand my parenting in terms of God’s relationship with me, and also in terms of my relationship with the rest of Christ’s body, my local church.
As a parent I will want to be more effective in the service of God than I was before becoming a parent. It is not a time to give up on Bible reading and prayer. (The wise Christian husband will make sure that the devil does not get into his family at this point and strangle his wife’s devotional life.) It will mean that we need to bring ministry within the home before the birth of the first child, or the mother will inevitably feel cut off from ministry at childbirth. She will, of course, have a new and vital ministry in the spiritual charge of her child, but that can only rightly be exercised in the wider context of mission and ministry within the body of Christ. Using our homes for the gospel—to host activities such as Bible studies, youth groups, social events, or dialogue evangelism suppers—will be a vital preparation for a spiritually healthy family life. Our children need to become part of our ministry to the wider world right from the outset. How sad it is to see, in local church life, how many young families drop out of effective Christian service at the birth of the first child!
Parenting is about maturing as a Christian and serving the glory of God. It is not just about producing a new generation of believers.
Parenting in light of God’s grace
So we are not to be product-orientated in our parenting. Parenting is not about producing an end result in the life of the child, whether good behaviour or a saved soul. Parenting is about bringing honour and glory to God through our obedience in the tasks he has given us, which is only possible because of what God has first done for and in us. It is because God loves me unconditionally that I love my child. It is not primarily because I am the parent and they are the child.
God allowed the first human beings to rebel against him. He did not prevent (as he undoubtedly could have) Adam and Eve from eating the fruit in the garden. Nor, when they did, did he erase the tape and start at the beginning again. He allowed the human race freedom and dignity.
That is the model for our parenting. What we have brought into the world we cannot control, and we need to prepare ourselves from the outset with that thought. Our children belong to God; they do not belong to us. And we are not to act as though we own them or can ultimately control them. We are to parent them as God would have us and not as a sort of social experiment in behaviour modification—adjusting our treatment of them in order to achieve certain desirable outcomes in their lives. Those outcomes lie in the hands of God alone.
It is possible to recognize the grace of God in our own experience, but then to revert to the will of man in our parenting. We know that we were saved by grace, and grace alone. No merit in us was being rewarded when God saved us. But when it comes to our children, we start to think as though their faith is something that can be achieved by human effort: “I may have been saved by the grace of God, but my child is going to be saved by my good parenting”. We should never think that our child’s belief in Jesus will be God’s reward to us for how well we have parented them. Nor should we think that our child’s failure to believe should be primarily attributed to our failure as parents. We need to remember John’s words:
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
Good parenting does not guarantee converted children and bad parenting does not necessarily result in unconverted children.
Some authors on parenting cannot quite cope with the total consequences of this great biblical truth: that the thing we want above all else for our children (that they should be saved) is something we cannot do for them. They cannot even do it for themselves. Only God can save. But our culture has such a ‘can do’ mentality that these writers find it impossible to start from a ‘no can do’ position. So, although they are technically ‘Calvinist’ in their theology (believing we are saved by the grace of God and not by human effort), when it comes to parenting, they become gradually more ‘Arminian’—the grace of God begins to fade away and human effort comes more and more to the fore. To put it starkly, we can imagine this conversation:
“Are you saying I can’t do a thing—that how good a parent I am won’t make any difference at all to whether my child gets saved or not?”
“Yes. Our children will be saved by God’s grace alone.”
“So why should I bother to be a good parent, if it isn’t going to make any difference at all?”
“Out of obedience to God—because he commands you to be a good parent, and not because of any possible outcome in the life of your child.”
Once we fully understand this, it is liberating. No longer is my parenting done in the context of either embarrassed guilt or self-righteous pride, as my children either match or fail to match my expectations of them. Now I can parent out of gratitude for the wonderful father God has been to me.
Parenting in terms of my own sin
Actually, I find I need all of my spiritual energy to cling by my fingertips onto God for myself. I know he holds me, but I also know that I try to slip from his grasp every day. I do not actually have spare spiritual energy to believe for my children and to save them by my spiritual effort on their behalf. My spiritual battle is with my own sin, and not with my children’s sin. I need to beware the self-righteousness that encourages me to forget my sin and to focus my spiritual energy instead onto the next generation. So all the spiritual care that I exercise for my child—praying for her and with her, reading the Bible with her, talking to her about God and to God about her, introducing her into the fellowship of other believers, and witnessing with her to those who don’t yet believe—it is all done in the context of the grace I am experiencing in the forgiveness of my own sin moment by moment every day. We are two sinners experiencing grace together.
The greatest enemy of my child’s spiritual health is my own hypocrisy and pharisaism. When I start to think that I am good, or that our family is better than other families, or when we find ourselves tut-tutting at the behaviour of our children’s peers at school, we need a fresh awareness of our own sin. We do not need a greater awareness of other people’s sin. There is a great danger of seeing spiritual threat out there, away from the home and outside the family, and not seeing the greatest spiritual threat as within the home itself. Satan loves us not to notice his presence. But he is the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2) and he is found everywhere and always invisible; so he is just as present in your home as he is in the local shopping centre.
Home-schooling, for an example of how this plays out, is spiritually neutral. It may be effective or risky, but it is neither a good nor bad thing spiritually per se. We will not necessarily impart a Christian world view to our children by it, because there can be an inherent spiritual distortion in home-schooling. If a spiritual or moral value is conferred upon home-schooling, that is dangerous—particularly if we are deceiving ourselves about the fact that we are really adopting it because of its educational value to our children (education being one of the great idolatries of the modern age). But the most sinister aspect of a misplaced emphasis on home-schooling is the wrong view of sin it betrays: that sin is ‘out there’, rather than ‘in here’.
Christians will home-school their children for all sorts of very good reasons, but protecting them from sin in the world out there will not be one of them. As one friend ironically remarked, “God so loved the world that he home-schooled his Son”.
We do not own our children, and God has blessed us with the fellowship of other believers in the church. In that fellowship our children will find alternative models of adult belief. So, for example, a teenage son, desperate to find an identity distinct from that of his vicar father, will realize that he can be different from his dad without having to reject his dad’s belief. There are other distinct adult models of Christian discipleship which he can adopt. So other adult Christians have an important role to play in my children’s lives. As a parent I must have the humility to accept that God may choose to use some other Christian to play a crucial part in my child’s spiritual development. It is his choice. While I can never wash my hands of my spiritual responsibility for my children, I can be grateful that God has provided other believers who are prepared to run youth and children’s groups, summer camps and many similar things, from which my children can benefit spiritually. They may have an enormous influence over my children’s faith, and I should be deeply thankful for that, and constantly prayerful that it may be so.
Trusting God with our children
So as our children grow up, we need to parent them as God parents us. During childhood and adolescence, it is not wise for parents to be constantly concerned over whether their child has leapt through some particular ‘hoop’ of conversion. A child needs a great deal of psychological space in which to develop, and wise parents will grant him or her that freedom. A child can be ‘converted’ one week and then a long way from ‘conversion’ another week—not, as we know, in the eyes of God, but as we view things from our human perspective. And so we need to trust that child to God, and not be pressuring him or her to conform to patterns that we would like to impose upon them. Our parenting is not for our own benefit… so that we can reassure ourselves we are doing a good job.
We cannot use infant or child baptism as a way of coercing the grace of God into a child’s life. God never hands the initiative in salvation over to human beings. It is always his. The wise parent acknowledges that and trusts his or her child to God’s grace, without trying to wrest the initiative away from God. Stories about little children in believing families at an early age praying prayers of commitment at their mother’s knee by the bedside are lovely, but they may not be particularly eternally significant. We walk by faith and not by sight, and we must learn to do that in our parenting. In the teenage years, it is far more profitable to ask ourselves which direction a child appears to be moving in than whether they have passed some humanly-visible boundary, like an outward profession of faith. Many parents need to be much more laid-back in their outward expression of their spiritual concern for their children, and perhaps rather less laid-back in their inward expression of it—praying intensely for their children’s spiritual welfare like Job (Job 1:5). We will need to exercise great maturity, wisdom and self-control in knowing when to speak and when just to be there, unshockable, supportive, open, honest and available.
Our children must know the genuineness of our own spiritual lives, not because we parade our sanctity before them, but because they see the reality of grace. Some say that parents should never be seen to disagree in front of the children… which is an excellent thing if the parents never disagree. But if the marriage is like most marriages are, it is not the absence of conflict but the resolution of conflict which demonstrates grace. It is not hiding away our sin, as though a cross word or a selfish act never occurs within the relationship, but it is the working out of grace in the lives of two sinners. Our children know that we are sinners, and need to know that we know that we are sinners, and that we know that they know that we know we are sinners… and that nevertheless the grace of God has broken into our lives to save us. When we die, we do not want our children to say what a great mother or what a great father we were. We want them to know what great sinners we were, saved by the grace of a far greater God.
CJ Mahaney in Living the Cross Centered Life says about his son:
The most important thing I can teach him is that, even though he’s being raised in a Christian family and is leading a moral life, he’s a sinner who desperately needs the substitutionary death of Christ for God’s forgiveness.1
Our children must see grace demonstrated in the marriage and in the family, not self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Our parenting must never be a pretence in order to produce a product. It must rather be a public demonstration of the grace of God, battling with and forgiving my sin every day. We model to our children the normal Christian life—so, for example, they see us studying our own Bibles for ourselves day-by-day and they realize that that regular habit only comes at considerable personal cost and is a part of the daily battle we fight against sin and the devil. They need to hear us being honest about the Christian faith, so that they know we are unshockable—our awareness of the depth of our own sin making us entirely aware of the depth of depravity in others. Our children must never feel that they have to protect us from knowing the truth about their lives.
Every new parent hopes to be the perfect parent. But perfection is not the experience of human beings during this life. Woe betide us if we pretend it is! Our children are growing up as the children of forgiven sinners, in a sin-soiled world. Whether we want them to or not, they will sample all sorts of things that we would prefer them not to. It is very important to bring such things ‘within the firelight’, so that they can at least be freely discussed within the home. For example, we might prefer that our children did not drink alcohol. But it is very unlikely that they will grow up without drinking. Much better for them to experience alcohol sensibly within the home than for it to have the exciting allure of something lying out there ‘beyond the firelight’.
The home must not be a place of pretence, where parents or children ‘act’ in front of one another. It needs to be a place where the veils are down and artificial boundaries are not imposed. It is not a place for children (or parents) to have ‘secret lives’.
Our ultimate goal for our children is heaven (which God alone can achieve), not just good behaviour on the way there, and especially not just good behaviour which impresses others on the way there. The Bible has a lot to say about self-righteousness (none of it good!), but from time-to-time ideas about Christian parenting emerge which tend to produce judgemental and self-righteous parents who compete over how well their children know their Bibles, and at how young an age they can recite a Bible overview.
The grace of God never tends towards competitiveness and self-righteousness. It puts us all on a level playing field, quite unable to look down on one another. Parenting is all about such grace.
If we treat our children as God treats us, we will not go far wrong. They are not our possession. They are entrusted to us by God, and we have only been given them for a time. So the best thing I can do for my child is to walk as closely to Jesus Christ as I can. The closer I am to Christ, the better a parent I will be. I need to focus my parenting on the cross and on salvation, and pass every parenting puzzle through that lens, searching for wisdom and perspective in God’s word.
- CJ Mahaney, Living the Cross Centered Life, Multnomah, Colorado Springs, 2006, p. 29. ↩