The Grace-Covered, Deeply Serious Task of Christian Parenting

It is a little after 6. I stayed up too late last night watching television. I am jolted awake by my daughter loudly speaking in my ear. "Daddy, it's time for devotions."

This is where the rubber of Christian ideals meet the road of obedience.

One of our primary tasks as Christian parents is to be the spiritual leaders of our children. We are, in a real sense, their first church. We are the main source of their discipleship. While proverbs are not guarantees, they do speak to the normal way things work in God's design, and one of them says: "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6)

A failure of much modern Christian parenting literature is that it tends to focus much more on what it means to raise well-behaved human beings than to raise Christ-followers. I have read many books about discipline and boundary-setting and being supportive - all good things, mind you. However, the central focus of Scripture is on discipleship. "Teach [God's words] to your children, speaking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." (Deuteronomy 11:19) We are to "bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)

We baptized all of our children in their first weeks of life. We did this because baptism is a mark of God's promises and because God's promises are, throughout Scripture, for us and for our children. (Genesis 17:7; Acts 2:39) That is perhaps a discussion for another time, but I mention it here because it stresses that there is a duty for parents embodied in baptism. God's covenant, His promise-based relationship to us, always comes with both blessing and obligation. While the promises are true and good, we must live into them and raise our children to walk in them. Failure to press into these promises for ourselves turns them from a blessing into a curse.

When we baptized each of our kids, we took several vows as their parents. This is one of them:
"Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before them a godly example, that you will pray with and for them, that you will teach them the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?"
What I have always loved about that vow is that it holds together two realities at once.

On the one hand, parenting (like all of Christianity) exists in the context of grace. Any discussion of our duty as Christian parents brings a great deal of guilt for all of us. Let me name two specific species of that guilt.

One is the guilt of missed opportunities. All of us are on journeys of discipleship, and some of us arrive at a given place much later than others. I sometimes talk to parents who didn't pursue such discipleship when their children were young. They are now deeply worried that, because of their failure, their children are somehow doomed.

The other is the guilt of daily struggle. Even when we pursue this calling, we do it imperfectly. It is so easy, especially over time, to let things slide. This is the guilt I wrestle with. There are things I believe I should do, and we do them for a time, and then they fall by the wayside as life gets busy or my wife's medical struggles wear us out or whatever.

It is crucial that we apply God's grace to our guilt. Otherwise, it will slowly strangle us with discouragement. For those mourning missed opportunities, the good news is that our children are ultimately in God's hands, not ours. He can walk with them and work in them despite our failures. For those struggling in the day-to-day, the good news is the same. What's more, all of us must be reminded that while God does bless faithfulness, He isn't about spiting us for our failures. In Christ, there is now no condemnation for those who believe.

However, grace doesn't change the fact that parenting is a serious business. A pastor has an enormous power over a church, either to bless it or harm it. We are all, in a sense, the pastors of our families. We are entrusted with the nurture and care of these little souls.

Again, I want to stress that I am talking about raising them as Christians, not simply as well-behaved pagans. That vow I love speaks of "bring[ing] them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord," which has the right sense of it. Are we teaching them, when they sin, to simply apologize or to repent and trust in Jesus for their forgiveness? Are we teaching them to obey out of fear of punishment or out of a love for God and a thankfulness for His work? When they have spiritual questions, are we shunting them off to Sunday school or youth group or are we acknowledging that we are the ones who are responsible for finding the answers? We are the shepherds called to lead these little lambs to the living water of Christ.

Along those same lines, are we using the "means of God's appointment" to do this? Ever since its beginning, Protestant Christianity has insisted that God has given "means of grace" to grow us as Christians. Those means are the study of God's Word, prayer, the fellowship of the church, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. One of our core duties as parents is to apply these means of grace to our children. We are to read and study Scripture with them. We are to pray with them. We are to help them learn to live as part of God's people, worshipping Him and being a community of faith together. We should also, although I realize this one is strange to many of us, baptize them and prepare them to come to the Lord's table. These are the avenues through which God ordinarily works, and while we can't force our children to receive it in their hearts, we can put them squarely in the path of such mercy.

All of that might sound abstract, so let me try to explain how we have pursued this in our family. I want to stress that all of these practices are imperfectly realized - I don't hold myself up as a shining example but simply as someone stumblingly trying to live into this calling. Here is what our rhythm of family discipleship looks like:

  • We pray with our children nightly, lifting up some requests from the day or week and saying the Lord's Prayer.
  • We sing substantial spiritual songs with them - each of our kids has a hymn we chose for them at birth, and there are others we also seek to expose them to. This is not simply about finding non-objectionable music on Christian radio but rather aimed at giving them songs they can return to in times of profound spiritual struggle.
  • We read the Bible with them regularly. Now that our daughter is old enough to read herself, I have been seeking to get up with her and spend time in Scripture and prayer together each morning.
  • We catechize them. This one is very much done imperfectly - in fact, we're in a season of not-doing-so-great with it - but catechisms are memorization tools the church has used to teach kids the essential beliefs of Christianity. We use the New City Catechism, and when we're on our game, we review a question a couple of times with them each breakfast.
  • We involve them in the life of the church. That obviously looks different because I'm also the pastor, but it means stressing the importance of the church to them and then modeling that in our own lives.
None of these things are done with perfect consistency. All are done within the context of God's grace. Also, none of them are necessarily well-received by our children. That is important to admit: faithful parenting assumes we realize our job as parents is to be our children's shepherds, not necessarily their friends. To lead them in the best paths rather than the enjoyable ones they might prefer. In practice, that means there are plenty of prayers with kids squirming in our arms and exasperated pleas of "would you please repeat this answer instead of hitting your brother."

In addition, parenting often forces us to recognize our own deficiencies. There are times we are called to lead our children in ways that we are not especially strong. That has certainly been true for me. We must recognize that our calling in such moments is to do two things. First, to confess our failures to them When our sin affects our kids, even if it is the sin of half-hearted pursuit of Christ, one of the best examples we can give them is our own repentance. That being done, we are to press harder into discipleship ourselves. If we feel incapable of leading our families, we should neither abandon the task or seek to fake it. Instead, we should ask how we can learn and grow so that we can be out ahead of them, calling them to follow us as we follow Jesus.

We do all of this because we are trusting in those promises. God is faithful to us, and while each of our little ones must walk their own road in life, He is faithful to them as well. He will not forsake us as we seek after Him, and He will bless our children as we lead them on those same paths.

This hope is what gets me out of bed in the morning. It is what moves my feet across our very-cold floor and my fumbling hands as I pour my coffee and sit at our table. I glance over at her. She is looking at me, hands clasped, waiting for me to take the lead. I smile at her through my tiredness. "Let's pray."
"The Lord has remembered us; he will bless us...
he will bless those who fear the Lord,
   both the small and the great.
May the Lord give you increase,
   you and your children!
May you be blessed by the Lord,
   who made heaven and earth!
" (Psalm 115:12-15)