The topic of spiritual leadership in the home is a very important one. When it comes to raising kids, we tend to spend a great deal of time on the academic progress, the physical development, and the social experiences of our children, but their spiritual growth can sometimes be an afterthought.
The goal of spiritual formation in our children is to reach their hearts. If they are impacted at the heart level, and not just trained for “behavior modification,” they will be changed from the inside-out.
So where do we as parents begin? We start with God, because everything really begins with him. Families were his idea, and it’s a beautiful design, despite the many challenges. He has designated the home as the greatest, most important “arena” for the discipleship of our children. Youth groups and camps are key supplemental resources in the spiritual growth of our kids, but they should not be relied upon as the main source of spiritual formation. They should complement the primary platform for spiritual nurturing for our children: the home, under the leadership of godly parents.
Ultimately, God is the One who brings transformation in a child’s heart—or in any heart, for that matter. As hard as we might try, you and I as parents cannot create heart-change alone, though God works mightily through parents who make themselves available to him! We are instruments in God’s work. I like the title of one of Paul Tripp’s excellent books: Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. That’s what we are!
Since he is the only One who can work in the areas of soul and spirit, it makes sense that we look at the spiritual growth of our children through his eyes and heart, as revealed in Scripture. As parents, we must look to God first and foremost, especially because it can be our natural tendency to look first at strategies, methods, and our own performance as the means for reaching our children. We need to remember that without his enabling grace, strength, and power, nothing we try to do in the area of spiritual formation will get very far. We are Christ’s servants, called to follow him and seek his direction in our parenting.
Through the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, God speaks to our hearts as parents:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Notice that God starts out by first talking about our hearts being directed toward him. Before we speak to and instruct our children, our own hearts need to be directed toward God in a personal, loving relationship. Quite simply, our attempts at the spiritual formation of our children will fall on deaf ears if our hearts are not right before God.
For many years my wife had this reminder above the kitchen sink:
No written word nor spoken plea
Can teach young hearts what they should be;
Nor all the books upon the shelves,
But what the teachers are themselves.
Oh, how true! Our children are looking at who “the teachers are themselves” when it comes to walking with God, and no methodology replaces that. Our hearts as parents need to be following God’s heart. His first charge to parents has nothing to do with teaching, but with following and loving him wholeheartedly.
We can often feel as parents like we are going two steps forward and three steps back. Sometimes we miss opportunities to seize teachable moments or we react poorly to the frustrations of parenting, such as a child’s negative attitude or defiance. But the great thing about the Gospel is that the grace of God is sufficient for each one of us! The apostle Paul even embraced his shortcomings by exclaiming, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).
We are utterly dependent on God’s mercy and his grace as we raise our children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6: 4). He is the One who will touch and transform their lives. He doesn’t need us in the process, but he wants us; his calling on our lives as parents indicates that we are “in the mix” in shaping our children for his glory. As we focus on God’s heart and surrender to his lordship, we can then turn to our children and seek to “train [them] in the way [they] should go…” (Proverbs 22:6).
We train our children by first praying for them… A LOT! Lift up your children (and your decisions as a parent) often to God’s “throne of grace…so that [you] may receive mercy and find grace to help… in [your] time of need” (Hebrews 4: 16). Prayer has been the anchor of our parenting, and because we have seen God’s faithfulness and grace so clearly through answered prayer, I urge you to make it one of your highest priorities on a daily basis.
Parents naturally love their children. But showing love is another matter. Children spell “love” this way: T-I-M-E. Spend time with your children. This is increasingly difficult in a society filled with incredible busyness and continual distractions. Intentional time together is a key that unlocks the heart of a child. A child senses whether he or she merits priority in the parent’s life. This does not mean that you have to live under the pressure of being the “perfect” parent who makes it to every single event and meets every expectation of your child. But establish a pattern of spending time with your child as a priority and be dedicated to it. When spending time together is the norm, your child will understand when occasionally you must meet an obligation for work or for some other reason you cannot be present. Talk often about how much you love being together and how important time spent together is to you.
Jesus showed us the impact of time spent together in his relationship with his disciples. He did not continually give “Sermons on the Mount,” but rather he climbed down and shared life with those twelve who were closest to him; they walked, talked, ate, laughed, cried, worked, and ministered together. Why did the disciples ask Jesus, “teach us to pray”? Because they observed his own prayer life and saw the power of his personal relationship with the Father.
Like the disciples, may our children be close enough to us that the relationship that we have with our Lord draws them toward him. And may God help us to reach our children for Christ at the heart level as we ourselves love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength.