“The Gospel is the Environment for our Parenting.”

Another nugget of wisdom from Counsel from the Cross, this time on gospel-centered parenting. I wrote some about this in a post a while back on discipline verses punsishment, subtitled parenting our children the way God parents His.

What does gospel-centered parenting look like? Here is how Paul put it:

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4); and “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21).

Isn’t it easy to see how Paul’s counsel to parents is based on God’s gracious pattern with us? We are not to be harsh or demanding with our children. We are not to provoke them to anger or discourage them. Of course, the obvious question we have to consider is what will provoke them or discourage them, and, by contrast, what does it look like to discipline and instruct “in the Lord”?

Although there are many ways we can provoke our kids in disciplining them, we learn from Paul’s expositions of grace in these epistles that we provoke and discourage our children when we forget the gospel and demand, as a condition of our approval and affection, that they obey the law that “neither our fathers not we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). By itself, God’s law, although it is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12), will serve only to aggravate or discourage them. The law will stir up within them the desire to sin because they are not able to obey it. It won’t furnish them with the power or motivation to obey us or the Lord. The law has its uses with our children, but making them good isn’t one of them. Only the gospel and God’s grace can change hearts.

The proper place and function of the law is something that we might recognize in our own lives but fail to believe when it comes to raising our children. We know that we don’t change and mature by making a list of things we need to do and then scrutinizing our failures when we don’t do them. But, amazingly, we think that’s how our children will change. But when they cry that they can’t obey, we should agree with them, although it is true that we are to acquaint them with the law’s demands.

Rather than telling them that they can and will obey, we must tell them—frankly, gently, sadly—that they cannot obey. They need help. They need Jesus. Making a list and giving stickers and time-outs when they succeed or fail won’t change their hearts. It may make them little Pharisees, knowing how to look obedient so that they can get approval, but it won’t change their hearts. We are to use their disobediences as a gospel opportunity to remind them that they are sinful and flawed, but if they flee to Jesus he will love and welcome them. We must remind them that they “do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with (their) weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as (they) are, yet without sin. Let (them) then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that (they) may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).

Jesus understands their weaknesses. He knows about temptations. When we—and our children—struggle with obedience, we can draw near to the throne of grace where we won’t receive judgment and punishment, but mercy and grace to help. That is the portrait of the Savior that our children need to see. This is the image that will transform their hearts and teach them to run to him, rather than away from him, when they sin.

… The gospel is the environment of our parenting.

7 Responses to “The Gospel is the Environment for our Parenting.”

  1. Bethany October 20, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    This makes sense to me and I am in agreement, but my struggle is how does this look when parenting two-year-old and one-year-old boys who need to learn boundaries and to control their tempers and to share and…? I guess what I'm asking, is what does gospel-centered parenting look like when I'm dealing with non-verbal (or barely-verbal) children? Aside, of course, from exercising patience and love and understanding, is there something else I should be doing?

  2. strengthfortoday October 20, 2010 at 10:16 pm #

    I recently was leaving a building and called to our 4 yr old to come…that it was time to get in the car. She wanted to continue on the swings. I told her she needed to come now. Her sister went and fetched her for me, and when she came to the car, another friend was standing there with me. She reached her hands up to give him a hug, and he refused her because she did not obey me right away. It saddened me. This is not grace. I have more than once used an example, such as a special treat of going to TCBY or something on a particularly rough day that it is not because they “deserve” it or have earned it that we are going out. It is because I love them. I delight in doing kindnesses for them, even on “rough” days. Our kids need to understand that our love is constant even when their “lovable” behavior is not. There are so many facets to this…I hope there is more conversation. I agree with Bethany that some of these things sound so right in theory, but how to translate that to real life is something else altogether…and between one family and another it will look different, and between one child and another…and even with the same child, but under varying circumstances. Parenting well is hard.

  3. Wendy October 21, 2010 at 3:47 am #

    Oh, Diane. My heart aches at your description of that scene. “Our kids need to understand that our love is constant even when their 'lovable' behavior is not.” Amen.

    And, Bethany, I HEAR YOU!! Boy have I struggled with this. I didn't have this vision when mine were 1 or 2 years old. This is new to me, and I am just in the last year getting to a place of understanding the idea of parenting in light of the gospel. It was so helpful to me when my boys who were both slightly delayed in speech FINALLY started to really communicate with me. They are 4 and 5 now, and we are still in the very early stages of explaining sin and grace and Christ.

    When they are so small, so much of parenting is just keeping them safe, especially safe from themselves. As for non safety issues, the gospel idea that dominated my training of them needed to be that I AM HERE FOR YOU ALWAYS. MY LOVE IS UNCONDITIONAL. That's one of the things that makes me uncomfortable with Ezzo's sleep techniques. I was very uncomfortable with letting my child cry unattended that long. But that's a side issue to discuss on another day.

    I'd love to hear others' suggestions of how this looks with such little ones.

  4. Keren October 21, 2010 at 4:43 am #

    This is a topic that I have been mulling over a lot lately, as I have an almost-3-year old and an almost-1-year old (and also as we have left a more burdensome spiritual environment). For us, we are gradually understanding that these ages focus on instruction. Not instruction as in giving a command and expecting automatic obedience, but instruction which actively demonstrates to them what we are expecting/desiring to do, and serving them by being the main demonstrators. This is an age where they need so much nurturing, particularly in the physical and emotional needs realm.

    Here's an example: I want my 2yo to share with the 11mo. I could look at the 2you and say, “You need to share.” Minutes later, she's not sharing. So I punish/chastise her. OR, I want them to share. They are struggling to share. I sit down with them, and demonstrate sharing. We talk about how it is hard to share. Maybe I stop there. Or maybe I talk about how God tells us to share/to love and go from there. I think it's the second scenario that demonstrates Gospel-centered parenting, even though my children are really too young to grasp even an elementary working-knowledge of the Gospel. But it's the start of laying down a framework.

    Very helpful article and helpful comments, as well. I was helped by what you pointed out about showing unconditional love. I too would love to hear thoughts on what this looks like with very young children.

  5. Wendy October 21, 2010 at 5:15 am #

    Keren, Yes! Thanks for sharing that. Great example! Discipline as it is used in the Bible is proactive training in righteousness, not telling someone what to do and then punishing them when they don't. In the old system, I used to get my son out of time out, ask him why I put him in time out, and his answer was an honest “I don't know.” I punished him for something he didn't even understand. And my training was no more than Pavlov's dog conditioned by a bell. It didn't even come close to touching his heart. Engaged gospel centered parenting takes a ton more effort, that's for sure!

  6. Bethany October 22, 2010 at 1:47 am #

    Thanks for your feedback and comments, Wendy, Diane, and Keren. I have been meditating on all this today and it seems to me, if I'm truly being honest with myself, that my day to day struggles involve dealing with my own sin more than actually dealing with my children's. My sinful reactions to their childish behavior and my impatience with their need to be taught love by example.
    One thing I need to constantly remind myself is that the root word of discipline is “disciple”. And if I give a good, honest, hard look at how Jesus treated His disciples, I'm not following in His footsteps. I'm more inclined to punish foolishness instead of repeatedly answering the same follies with love.
    Thank you for the encouragement here. Every time I come to this page, I find the Lord encourages or convicts me, and for that I am continually grateful to Him.

  7. He Gives Us Manna October 24, 2010 at 3:49 am #

    I needed to hear this tonight Wendy. I need to wake up every morning and read this. I think I'll print it out and stick it in the bathroom with all the other signs that I have that I need to tell me what is true for my day 🙂