(Editor’s Note: This is the third article of a three part series entitled Kids in the Family of God. Here is Part One and Part Two.) I don’t think it’s biased to say my 23-1/2 month-old daughter is the cutest child God ever created. (Though she may be rivaled in two weeks when our second kiddo is born.) But coupling that statement with biblical truth, I should rightly say, “She’s the cutest little ball of depravity ever created!” From as early as three months, we knew our daughter was selfish, self-serving, and self-focused. Honestly, how could she be anything else!?
As she’s grown, and as we lovingly discipline her, we’re learning to speak not of good or bad - of “trying hard” and succeeding and failing. Instead, we speak of obedience and authority and discipline. As parents, we try (though we often fail) to reflect the loving-parent-ness of God when we explain to her – whether she can understand or not – that we know what’s best for her, and even if it hurts her feelings, she needs to obey because God put us in her life to reflect him.
By engaging kids, we see brokenness restored, over and over and over.
When we see her move from disobedience to obedience, we see an echo of the gospel. Humanity was created to obey. Our fallen nature pulls us to disobey. Her obedience is common grace as God turns her heart to listen and act.
When we lovingly have those corrective conversations in our community, two things occur: first, we display gospel-focused discipline for other parents and for those who will be parents one day. We learn from other parents in their loving discipline as well. Second, no matter what someone’s family history is, or how they were raised and disciplined, our community experiences together what it means to address the heart in our own disobedience. While we encourage our community not to carry out discipline in front of others, we do have these corrective conversations, and doing so has led to great discussions on our own tendencies, and our need for God to change our own hearts.
Corrective discipline is just one example of seeing brokenness restored in our children. When one child hurts another (intentionally or otherwise), we see forgiveness asked and granted, and a relationship restored. Even thinking on physical restoration, kids seem to get sick, bloody, stubbed, and bonked far more and far easier than grown-ups. But they also seem to bounce back with far more ease than our aged bodies do!
In seeing health restored after sickness, in seeing black and blue toes return to normal, even in seeing teary eyes turn into joyful squeals, we see brokenness restored. In the same way that Jesus’ physical healing pointed toward his spiritual work, all of these little restorations are echoes of the objective reality of God’s restorative work in his creation. Paul explains this in his letter to the Colossians: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20).
Raising kids in the family of God allows you to see these things often - in your own children and in others.
Kids’ Need for You - Your Need for God
Most of us are familiar with verses like “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17) and “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). But when we really stop to think of what these verses mean, we see the gospel echoed in the life of a child.
Think of what a baby is able to do. Nothing. Young children are completely reliant on something outside of themselves: to provide for them, to nourish them, to care for them, to teach them, to do everything for them. Think of an elementary child. They’ve figured out how to walk and feed themselves, but they’re full of questions. They don’t know “this” or “that,” and they turn to someone “greater than themselves” (to use overly-obvious language for the metaphor I’m getting at) for answers. Even the rebellious teenager still needs Mom and Dad far more than they let on, and if the relationship is healthy, even adult children ask their parents for advice.
“Receiving the kingdom… like a little child” speaks of our great need - our inability to receive the kingdom by attaining it, by self-reliance, by our own work, action, and volition. We need something outside ourselves and greater than ourselves to deliver the kingdom to us. The only position we’re able to take before our heavenly Father is “humble… like a child” – full of nothing but a desperate need for God the Spirit to convict us of sin, enact his salvation, and continually apply the truth of our inability to areas of sin, selfishness, and evil. In objective salvation and in ongoing discipleship, children remind us of our need for God. Because whatever it is, without his work in and through us, we can’t do it.
Parents have the blessing of seeing this day in and day out. But as our entire church participates with our children, in communities and during gatherings, everyone can see reflections of our own position before God. Whether providing snacks, rocking to sleep, drying tears, opening a jar, cleaning up a spill, leading a song, saying a prayer, changing a diaper, picking up a toy, protecting against allergies, praying for, or otherwise serving our kids, we’re reminded of our great childlike need as we meet the needs of children.
This has been alluded to already in this series of posts, but a third way we see the gospel is to realize that raising kids in the family of God reveals our hearts, and reveals our idols. Here are just a few examples:
- Embarrassment by a kid running, or making a noise, in a gathering of the church, might display a “fear of man” idol – you care more than you should, about what “they” think of you and your parenting.
- Annoyance with a child’s comment during a community meeting might display a lack of patience, which might be a control issue and/or selfishness over (in your mind) the “wasted time.”
- Stifling your child’s comments, for fear of what they might say, might be another control issue, as you distrust that God’s sovereign goodness extends even to your child – even if that means God uses your kid’s comment to humble you!
- Many parents don’t want other parents to speak into their family. While some advice-giving is ill-placed, self-sufficiency and pride is revealed in disregarding, or disallowing, godly counsel and wisdom from folks who are removed from your family’s daily patterns and rhythms. (One of the greatest parenting rebukes we’ve received was from a college guy – I despised him for a moment “what right do you have…” but he was removed enough to see objectively what I couldn’t!)
- Harsh words that slip out toward your child might reveal your lacking understanding of grace or at least your lack of displaying that grace.
What is revealed about how you treat your kids and the kids in your community?
I close this posts with wise words from Tim Chester:
"In You Can Change [Crossway, 2010] I identify four truths about God (the four Gs as some have characterized them):
- God is great – so we don’t have to be in control
- God is glorious – so we don’t have to fear others
- God is good – so we don’t have to look elsewhere
- God is gracious – so we don’t have to prove ourselves
“All our sinful behavioural and negative emotions stem from a failure at a functional level to believe one of these truths. So they’re a great diagnostic tool – both for ourselves and when pastoring others. But more importantly, they offer hope. Learning to have faith in these areas offers the real prospect of change through faith. It means we are speaking good news to people and that’s what we’re after – gospel-centred change. Legalism says, ‘You must not . . .’ The gospel says, ‘You need not . . . because God is bigger and better than sin.’"
Beyond biblical principles to follow and beyond experiential practice, the heart of raising kids in the family of God is that – in parents, in community members, in attendees of the church gathering, and in anyone else who participates in the corporate life – God uses children as one very-easy-to-see-way to reveal our idols. Through children, he shines a light on our selfishness. Through children, he shows our need for grace when we fail our children and other parents. And through children, he consistently points us toward the unquenchable need to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
Ben Connelly lives in Fort Worth, TX, with his wife and daughter (with another on the way this fall). He started The City Church in 2010 and lives on mission by teaching public speaking at TCU. Ben sits on the board of a few city-focused organizations, trains occasionally across the country, and writes at benconnelly.net. Twitter: @connellyben
Parents, for more resources on discipling your children at home, check out Winfield Bevin's Beginner's Guide to Family Worship.