Reflections on Parenting as Gospel Ministry

Recently, the church I pastor, Sycamore Baptist Church, began a small group specifically devoted to parenting. The group is designed to encourage and equip parents to parent from a gospel-centered perspective rather than a man-centered perspective. To that end, we are studying Christ-Centered Parenting. Before we began the Christ-Centered Parenting material, we watched a talk Paul Tripp gave at The Gospel Coalition Conference entitle Parenting as Gospel Ministry. Tripp does a good job convicting parents, as well advocating for a gospel-centered approach to parenting. After the talk, however, I had several parents ask me in not so many words to put some feet to the material he covered. Of course, I attempted to do that but in thinking about those conversations on the ride home, I felt I left them with more questions than answers. So here is my second attempt after further reflection.

The Points

Tripp makes three major points in his talk:

  1. We must be willing to confess our own inabilities and need for God’s grace.
  2. We must realize that we are God’s ambassadors.
  3. We must seek our identity in Jesus not our children.

In his talk, he fleshes these points out, while providing a healthy dose of conviction along the way. As I thought about these points in relation to how we are to parent our children, I realized they provide a good model for us to follow in the heat of the parenting moment. Here is what I mean. When you approach your child, you should not only do so as an ambassador for Christ, speaking the truth of God’s Word into their lives, but you should also be willing to confess to your child your own struggle with the sin they are exhibiting. So for instance, if your child is being unloving to their sibling, you may approach them and say something like:

  • I understand it is not natural for us to love one another (you acknowledge the sin with which they are struggling).
  • I don’t always want to love others (you confess your own struggle with that sin).
  • But God has called us to love (you provide God’s biblical teaching).
  • In John 13:34 Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as He has loved us (you ground God’s teaching in Scripture).
  • The love Jesus exhibited was a self-sacrificial love. He gave Himself for us so that we might have the opportunity to have a relationship with God (you preach the gospel).
  • Without Jesus changing our heart, so that we love God, we will never be able to love others as God has called us to (you continue to preach the gospel, showing their inability to keep God’s command without Jesus first changing their heart)
  • After exposing their heart and need for Jesus, you provide an appropriate punishment or means of discipline.

That’s the Ideal, but Life’s Not Ideal

At this point, some of you are reading the list above and thinking, “That’s great, that’s the ideal, but life doesn’t usually happen in the ideal. What do I do then?” Point taken. The ideal can’t happen every time, I get that. I also get that some of your children aren’t old enough to understand all the concepts I’ve listed above. In those times, I think it is appropriate to do what the situation or age of your child allows.

Stepping Stone Approach

So say your child is young. They can’t stay engaged through all of the above steps, or they might not even be able to understand what you are trying to communicate. At that point, I believe we need to take a stepping stone approach.

In our backyard, we have stepping stones from our back porch to the trampoline. In order for our kids to get to the trampoline they must walk that path, stepping on each stone along the way. Each stone they step on gets them closer to their goal of reaching the trampoline. We need to view our parenting as the same. Instead of leaping to the trampoline, we need to walk the path stepping on each stone along the way. When your kids are young, you may only step one or two stones in. As they grow in their understanding, you may take a few more steps. As they grow more and more, you keep going in the same manner until you have reached your goal of helping them fully understand their heart motives in a grace and love driven way.

So for example, if your child has a problem with sharing. You may tell them that God calls us to share with one another. When we don’t share, we are being unloving and unkind.

Or if they are hitting their brother or sister, you may tell them that God calls us to be kind and loving to one another. Hitting your brother or sister is not kind and loving.

Or when you tell your child to say they are sorry, yet you can tell they aren’t. You may say, “I see that you are not sorry. Let me pray that God would change your heart and help you to see the right way to treat others and when we don’t treat others rightly we should be sorry for our actions.”

I know it’s simplistic, but when our kids are young, they need something simple. As well as we have to remember that our ministry to our kids should take a stepping stone approach.

Parenting is an opportunity to help your children see why they are doing what they are doing.

Parenting is more than bending your child’s will and activity to your own will. Certainly, we all have house rules we want our children to follow. There is wisdom in that, especially rules that are based off Scripture. But those rules are not their for the rules sake, just as the Law is not there for the Law’s sake. The Law in the Bible exists to show us our inability to keep it, as well as to point out our sin. The same with the rules in your house. Not only do they serve to provide structure, but they are there to show your child their inability to keep the rules, as well as to teach them what is sin. So don’t take rule breaking as an offense, instead see it as an opportunity to help your child see why they are doing what they are doing.

Your child didn’t load the dishwasher, clean up their room, or take out the trash when told because they have an authority issue. So when that time comes, instead of yelling at them in a fit of rage because it’s the fifth time this week they haven’t done their chores on time, you need to take the opportunity to point out to your child their issue with authority. And not just your authority, but ultimately God’s authority.

Parenting is an opportunity to point your children to Jesus.

As parents, we are to point our children to Jesus. But before we can point them to Jesus, they, just like us, need to see their need for Jesus. They need to understand they are sinners who need a Savior. The only way they are going to understand they are sinners is if we point out their sin in a loving, kind, graceful, and consistent manner. Hence, the suggestion to consistently point them back to what God’s Word says, even when they are young. As we point out their sin, we point them to Jesus. We may or may not do that in the moment. Other times of discipleship occur throughout the day. Reading the Bible with your children is one such time. Regardless of when you do it, our job as parents is to point our children to Jesus. He is the only One who can ultimately produce change in them, because He is the only One who can change their heart (mind, will, emotions, feelings, desires).

Parents, Respond Appropriately

Along with driving your kids back to the Bible and Jesus, we, as parents, need to make sure we are responding appropriately in the moment. Instead of flying of the handle in a fit of rage, we need to lovingly, yet assertively address them and their behavior. As well as we need to dispense the appropriate discipline, not being too harsh or too easy. Before we discipline, we need to explain to them the reason they are being disciplined and how much discipline they are receiving.

So for instance, we often give our kids a pop on the bottom when they misbehave. Before you call CPS on me for child abuse, the pops we give are not meant to hurt. Instead they are meant to get their attention. Before we pop them, we make it a point to talk to them and tell them how many pops they will receive and why. Afterwards, we always make sure to give them a hug and tell them that we love them. In doing so, we are attempting to mirror our heavenly Father’s discipline of us. God never disciplines us in a fit of rage. He doesn’t stop loving us in the moment. Nor does He walk away so that we feel shunned, disowned, or that we have to win His favor back. No, He disciplines us out of His grace, mercy, and love for us (Heb. 12:6). We should discipline our children in the same way because we are God’s ambassador. As His ambassadors, it is our job to model to our kids our heavenly Father’s response to us when we sin against Him.

It is about your heart

I believe Tripp drives hard at the parent’s heart instead of providing a list of techniques because it’s important our heart be right before we can deal with the heart of our kids in a biblical way.

Salvation

As parent’s, we must believe that we are saved by Jesus’ righteousness instead of our own. In other words, we must believe we do nothing to attain or maintain our own salvation. If we don’t, we will expect our kids to live a righteous life. That expectation will always lead to disappointment and frustration, because our kids, just like us, do not have the ability to manufacture a righteous life in and of themselves. Along with frustrating ourselves and our kids, we will end up producing self-righteous Pharisees who ultimately don’t see their need for Jesus.

Change

Closely related to the last, as parent’s, we must see God as the One who has and is bringing about change in our life through the Work of the Holy Spirit. If we don’t recognize that is how change comes about, we will try to change our kids in the same way we are trying to change ourself – through behavior modification. That mentality will lead to any number of parenting methods that are not healthy. We may try to bring about change through fear based parenting, will breaking parenting, or materialistic motivational parenting. While each of these may bring about the desired effect in the moment, they don’t address the heart, nor do they bring about long-term change.

Identity

As parent’s, we must find our identity in Christ, recognizing that we are God’s children and ambassadors. If we don’t, we may try to find our identity in our kids, which ultimately places a  burden on them they are not meant to bear. Also, if we don’t find our identity in Christ, we won’t be able to point our kids away from their own identity struggles to Christ.

So, when approaching parenting from a gospel-centered perspective, we must realize that parenting is first about our own heart. We must deal with it first before dealing with our kid’s heart. I know that makes parenting more difficult and time-consuming than we might have first thought, but we have to be willing to do the hard work of learning and dealing with ourselves so that we can deal biblically and gracefully with our kids. Remember, we must take the plank out of our own eye before we can take the speck out of another’s (Matt. 7:5). A few resources you may find helpful in dealing with your own heart, and in turn your child’s is:

Questions for Reflection

  1. What am I missing? What questions do you still have?
  2. Are you practicing gospel-centered parenting or man-centered parenting?
  3. What do you see as your goal in parenting?
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How is the culture trying to absorb Christians?

Not too long after I moved to the community of Sycamore I made an interesting discovery. I was walking around the church property checking things out when I came across two trees with a board wedged between them. Evidently, the board had been there for quite some time because the trees have grown over the edge of the board, so much so that you couldn’t pull that board out of there if you wanted. You would have to cut it out.

Now, I have no idea how long that board has been wedged between those two trees. But what I do know is that those two trees didn’t grow over that board overnight or even in a matter of weeks. Instead, that board was quietly and slowly absorbed by its environment over a long period of time.

What happened to that board is a good illustration of what could happen to us and what we are in danger of every single day. As those who are supposed to live set apart lives, we are in danger of being absorbed by our environment. Specifically, what I mean is that we are in danger of losing our unique Christian identity and beliefs. To be sure, that loss isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a slow and subtle process that takes place over a period of time. A process we must guard against. But how?

How can we avoid being absorbed into our environment?

Daniel provides a good example. He lived during Israel’s exile – a period of time when Israel was carried off from the Promised Land to Babylon because of their disobedience to God (Da 1:1-4). The exile happened in several waves. Daniel and some of his friends found themselves in one of those waves (Da 1:6). It is here that Daniel begins to teach us how we can avoid being absorbed into our environment. What did Daniel do? How did he avoid being absorbed into his environment?

He Understood the Babylonian’s Plan

Beginning in Daniel 1:3 we read,

“Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king.” (Da 1:3–5)

The Babylonian’s plan was to immerse the youth from high ranking families in Judah into the culture of Babylon. They would be given new names, clothing, and a new diet. They would also be taught a new language and be schooled in Babylonian literature and customs. All of this would take place over a 3 year period. Essentially, they were attempting to absorb the Israelites into their own culture by giving them a new worldview, and they were starting with their youth.

Daniel, however, wasn’t fooled by all the glitz and glamour, the perfectly prepared meals, and a chance at acquiring a high ranking position in his new home. He knew their plan and what it entailed. He knew he would have to give up his heritage, his connection to Israel, and more importantly his faith. As you read through the rest of the chapter and book, you see that Daniel resisted their attempts to absorb him into their culture. Over the years, he remained faithful to God. As a result, he was able to have an impact on their culture and king. To be sure, Daniel’s actions took courage, and he did experience persecution and suffering, but he was also successful in accomplishing his God given purpose – to glorify God. He was able to do that because he knew the Babylonian’s plan.

How is our culture trying to absorb us?

While Daniel knew the Babylonian’s plan, we may not always know how our culture’s plans to slowly absorb us. While we don’t have time to discuss them all, I do want to point out one major tactic our culture is using to slowly absorb Christians and change our worldview, and that is through the use of entertainment. Look at what one author has to say,

“Those who produce it [speaking of entertainment] want to instill their values, and thus far they have been very successful in doing so. Much of what is produced for viewing on television and in the movies and much of what is produced lyrically in popular forms of music is clearly depraved. Every form of God-hating thought and behavior, from blasphemy to sexual perversion, is glorified, and we as Christians watch or listen to it hour after hour after hour. And then we wonder why there is so little discernible difference between the thinking and behavior of Christians and non-Christians.” [1]

So the world uses entertainment. The world uses entertainment because it is a powerful worldview shaping tool that exists in many different forms – social media, news, talk shows, print media, novels, television, YouTube, video games, the arts, etc. Entertainment comes in many different shapes, sizes and forms. Americans are voracious consumers of these entertainment mediums.

Entertainment’s Ability to Shape Our Worldview

Entertainment has a powerful ability to shape our worldview because when we are being entertained we generally let our guard down. After a hard days work, the last thing we want to do is put in more work analyzing that which we are seeking to be entertained by. I know that’s true of me. After I have worked all day in my study – reading, writing, thinking, and interacting with others, after I have taken care of the kids, played with them, bathed them, and put them to bed for the night, I’m worn out. The last thing I want to do is analyze the worldview significance of the show or YouTube video I’m watching, the novel I’m reading, or the podcast to which I’m listening. In reality, I don’t want to do much of anything. All I want to do is relax on the couch as a passive consumer for a few minutes before I go to bed.

While there is nothing wrong with relaxing while being entertained, we must realize we are still being influenced, and in some sense to a great degree. Stories play on our emotions, shaping and changing us, while at the same time entertaining us. I was reading an article the other day in the opinion section of the newspaper. I can’t remember which newspaper it was, but the article centered on how to win people to your side. One tactic the article kept coming back to was the power of story. They told their readers not to enter into a debate, but to simply tell their story. They chose that tactic because stories affect and move people in a way that debate and argument can’t.

Our secular culture knows the power of story and they use it in the form of entertainment to try and shape our worldview.

Now, I’m not telling you this to ruin your time of relaxation at the end of the night. We can still be entertained, but we do need to think more carefully about that which we are allowing to entertain us. We should do that thinking before we get to the end of the day when our bodies and minds are worn out.

So if we want to avoid being absorbed into our environment, and as Christians we should because we can’t be salt and light if we are the same as our culture, then we need to know our culture’s tactics. While our culture uses other tactics, one powerful tactic used is stories in the form of entertainment to shape and change our worldview.

Question for Reflection

  1. What other than entertainment is our culture using to absorb us?

Resources

Post developed from my sermon How Can We Avoid Being Absorbed into Our Environment?

[1] Keith A. Mathison, Table Talk Magazine, July 2017, 16

How Can We Find Meaning in Life? – Part 3

When I was in high school, my friends and I would pretty much do something almost every night during the summer. It wasn’t necessarily anything big or exciting. A lot of the time we would end up sitting on the tailgates of our trucks in our school’s parking lot. Even though most of the time we just sat in the Calvary parking lot, I rarely missed a night out with my friends.

Now, of course, I didn’t know this then, but I know it now, I was there every night because I wanted to be a part of it all. I wanted to be a part of it all because I was seeking meaning in the moments, in being a part of the crowd, in being in on every inside joke.

If we’re honest, we all seek meaning in something. Whether it be in the little moments of life, knowing we are in the “in crowd”, or something else, we all seek meaning in something. Maybe you are pursuing something right now that you believe will finally provide the meaning for which you long.  Or maybe that which you have pursued so long has just let you down, and that’s left you wondering: How can I find meaning in life?

In order to answer that question, the the last thing we need to look at is:

In What Do We Find Meaning?

At the very end of the book, in verse 13, the author speaks and says,

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ec 12:13–14)

So in what should we find meaning? Well, we should find meaning in our relationship with God. It’s the one thing that is not going to let us down. It’s not going to fail us. It will provide fulfillment. And that fulfillment will be an eternal fulfillment.

We should find meaning in our relationship with God because we were made for a relationship with God. As well as we were made to live according to His will, which brings Him glory. When we live in the way in which we have been made to live, we will find satisfaction, meaning, and joy. We will find fulfillment.

To try to live in any other way, then, will ultimately result in dissatisfaction, meaninglessness, and despair. Sure, those things may not come for a while. I’m certain the preacher in Ecclesiastes’ experience wasn’t all doom and gloom as he was indulging in the pleasures of the world, creating great works, building and sharing his wisdom, etc. Ultimately, however, he found those things left him wanting. They left him dissatisfied, joyless, and in a state of despair. That’s because these things and the others I discussed in Part 1 and 2 can’t hold up that kind of weight. They are like a person who walks into the gym for the first time and thinks they can bench 300 lbs. They are pumped up. Talking their strength up to their friend. They slap the weights on the bar, lay down, yell a few times to pump themselves up, then struggle to even get the weight off the rack. If they are to get it up and over their chest to press it, they soon find that their muscles are weak. Too weak to hold that kind of weight. Soon their arms have given way, the weight comes crashing down crushing their chest. That is what it’s like to ask these things to provide us with meaning in life. They seem like they can. They talk like they can. They yell at us like they can. But when it comes time, they ultimately fail us.

But God will not fail us. He will provide us with everlasting meaning because He is strong enough to hold that kind of weight.

The great thing is we can have a relationship with God because God Himself made a way. Jesus came and died for us. For our sins, so we, an unholy, sinful people can have a relationship with a holy God. If we believe and repent of our sins, we can experience that. We can experience a relationship that will provide meaning.

Conclusion

So the secret to meaning in life isn’t found under the sun, instead it’s found in God. The One who stands outside of the material world. The One who created us. The One who we should worship. So quit trying to find meaning in the things under the sun and look to the Son — Jesus Christ. He’s the One who can and will ultimately satisfy.

Question for Reflection

  1. Have you found that the things of this world let you down when you try to find your ultimate meaning in them?

Resources

Post developed from my sermon: Ecclesiastes – Hevel and the Secret to the Meaning of Life

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