A Little Background
My wife and I have 3 girls under 5, and we’re still working out what raising godly children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) really means in a practical sense.
For us, it sometimes looks like listening to hymns or Bible stories in the car on the way to the grocery store—or letting the girls take turns praying before our evening meal. Other times, it is insisting that, yes, you’re going to get dressed now because we go to church on the Lord’s Day, no matter how much you want to watch Paw Patrol. I’m still working on building a consistent habit of family worship, which was so easy in the newlywed days before there weren’t other hungry little souls at the table squabbling over their sister’s kicks or stuck-out tongues.
When I got married, it revealed how much I needed to repent of my selfishness. When I became a father, it revealed how much I need to repent of my too-easy frustration and my need for control. Over the last four-plus years, I’ve learned one irrefutable truth: I can’t “control” my children—that is, I can’t dictate their behavior or heart-intentions.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I can (and must!) train, discipline, lead, exhort, encourage, and set an example for them. My goal is and should be to point them to Jesus. But I am not able to grip their hearts or master their wills to do exactly what I want them to do. While I am responsible for teaching my children what is right and wrong and how they should conduct themselves, I cannot actually regenerate them by a sheer act of parental will. “Salvation is of the Lord.” That includes the salvation of my children!
While it is yet early to see real evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in their hearts, every so often I get a glimpse of what might be called “soft soil.” I see a flash of that soft soil when my toddler starts piping up from the back of the van with “Holy, Holy, Holy,” totally unprompted. I see it when my tender-hearted four-year-old prayed at dinner every day for weeks for a member of our church who broke her foot.
The other night, as my wife and I were cleaning up the evening dishes, I heard my eldest in the other room explaining to her sister that God loves her and then paraphrasing John 3:16 to make her case. I looked back at my wife, who was beaming at me. Yes! God is working in her little heart!
Of course, the next night, I was scolding this same daughter for talking her sister into sneaking out of the bedroom and into the kitchen to get her a snack, contrary to the clear (and many times repeated) parental injunctions to go to sleep. When addressing this issue after the fact, I actually heard myself saying to the child, “When you told your sister to disobey mom and dad, you were tempting her to sin, just like Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin!” (I don’t know why; it was just the first thing I could come up with.) To this, my daughter calmly responded, “Does that mean God said I have to surely die?”
This was not the conversation I planned on having with my four-year-old at 10:30 at night. I sighed and responded, “That’s a big discussion to have at bedtime, love. How about this? The Bible says that Jesus died to take away our sin. The Bible also tells children to obey their parents in the Lord, for this is right. So, please, stay in bed, go to sleep, and stop telling your sister to get out of bed!”
Could I have stopped and expounded on the nature of physical vs. spiritual death and the reality of sin separating us from God for eternity? Sure, I suppose I could have, but (as noted previously) my daughter is four and was more focused on getting a Lara Bar before bed than systematic theology. That discussion will have to wait a bit.
I sometimes get frustrated about my daughters’ behaviors or anxious about what kind of young women they will one day grow up to be. In those moments of paternal pique, my patient and righteous wife usually says something profound and simple: “We’re planting seeds.”
That’s what Christian parenting is, isn’t it? We’re gardeners, tasked with a few little plots of soil. Our job is to be diligent, patient, gentle, and intentional. Till the soil, order the rows, water the earth, plant the seeds, and (carefully, oh so carefully!) pull the weeds. But for all of our efforts, we can’t force those little sprouts to push up from the earth. We don’t shout at those buds to open and bloom. The Lord of the Harvest gives the growth, after all. He’s an expert vinedresser, planting and pruning in His perfect ways. I don’t know exactly how (or even if) my girls will repent and believe the Gospel of Jesus, but I believe in Him and so I parent in hope of that.
So here’s a bit of encouragement for my brothers and sisters seeking to raise up their little ones to know the Lord: Our God is faithful and true, and He will bring about His harvest. You know why? God has never depended upon perfect parents in order to produce faithful offspring. Somehow (amazingly!) He uses even inconsistent, fretful, impatient parents to raise up His little ones to know His name.
Just be faithful, mom and dad. Till the soil, water it with the Word, pray over the seeds you plant, and trust the Lord. That is what the Master Gardener expects of you.