(Missionary to Thailand Brandon Lingle has written a parenting book in Thai, and he has graciously agreed to share it in English.)
Remember that moment when your first baby was born? When you first got to hold him or her? The joy and anxiousness that flowed through your entire body? That precious moment when our kids came into the world not having a clue who we are, and us having no clue who they will become. I had tears in my eyes, a smile that lasted so long my face began to hurt, and I remember telling God over and over again, “Thank you.”
Then time went by and our second child was born. I remember smiling then crying an hour later. Our second child was born with an infection in his lungs, which caused his lung to collapse. I’ll never forget hearing the news from the doctor in the NICU then having to walk that long hallway back to my wife’s room to tell her. Doctor said at that moment he had a 50/50 chance to live. Not sure how accurate that was, but that was the news given to me, and now I had to try to keep it together and tell my wife.
Life as a parent is full of incredible joys and fearful moments. On top of that, parenting can feel like an incredibly difficult task. Were you shocked like me to find out how hard it was just to eat a meal once you added a small child to the table? What about trying to get them ready to go somewhere, or trying to get them to sleep? Why do they fight us, and why do they fight with each other? Why is it so natural for them to do bad and yet so hard for them to obey and do what is right? Ever wonder why this is so difficult?
The Heart of a Child
The reason parenting is difficult is that our kids are born with a pre-condition that is very real, very serious, and very noticeable. Most parents are in denial of it, but that doesn’t make it go away or be less true: Our kids are naturally bad at being good, and good at being bad because they were born that way, all of them.
Think about it, what do we have to teach them? All children need to be taught obedience, telling the truth, not hitting, sharing and much more. Why? Because they are not born into this world with the desire to do those things.
Their behavior tells it all, and that’s why parents naturally focus on fixing bad behavior. If kids are hitting others we will correct them by telling them, “Hitting is bad; don’t hit.” When caught lying we tell them it’s wrong and not to do it again. There is a fundamental problem in this approach to parenting.
Correcting behavior is good and expected of parents, but if that is all we do we are missing our main calling. We are not fulfilling our God-given roles in the lives of our children if we are not getting to the heart of the issue. As parents we can easily be distracted with focusing on and correcting the external instead of aiming for their hearts.
Here’s a familiar example to illustrate what I mean: Two young kids are fighting over a toy. They are both demonstrating selfishness and stubbornness. Both are seeking their own happiness at the expense of their sibling. Normally our reaction to solving such a quarrel is to use our detective skills and ask, “Who had it first?”
This question deals directly with justice and fairness, and I know I have asked it before, but the problem with this approach is that it bypasses the heart issue. Justice isn’t a bad thing, but at this moment our kids’ greatest need is to be shown they have selfishness in their hearts, which is preventing them from showing kindness or love to their sibling.
So what do we do? Just tell them straight that they are selfish? Does that work with your spouse? Nope, and it doesn’t work in parenting either. Instead we should ask questions that cause our kids to probe their own hearts, teaching them to identify underlying issues and motives.
Instead of just giving the command “Give that back to your brother,” we should take time and aim for their hearts. Here is an example of how to do that in our scenario:
“Honey, your brother has that toy right now. Do you think he is enjoying playing with it?”
“Do you think it would make him happy or sad if you took it away?”
“Would you delight in making your brother sad?”
“Do you think that it would be kind or rude for you to try to take away something that he is enjoying?”
“That’s right, and love is not rude. When he is through with it and puts it down, then you may ask for it.”
Notice in this example the parent is not coming full force at the child with a lecture and telling him what he did wrong. The situation is approached gently with questions. We are called to “probe their heart” as it says in Proverbs 20:5: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” We want to be that “man of understanding” for our kids. Helping them draw out and see what’s in their hearts.
In the example above the mom gently reminded her daughter that “[love]… is not rude” (1 Corinthians 13:5). She helped her child dig into her own heart. This will not only bring lasting change, but will give us many opportunities to show them their need for the gospel.
What I’m about to share next is so foundational to our parenting. It is the reason we aim for the heart and need the gospel. If we don’t accept this truth we will be parents who only treat bad behavior and not the root problem our children face. In case you didn’t know, here it is: Our kids were born sinners. That’s not a popular statement to make, and it’s not my idea or speculation, but that is what God has told us in his Word (Psalms 51:5, Romans 3:23; 5:12).
If we don’t believe this, we will be misguided in what we are to do in parenting, which is to help our kids identify not only sin out in the world, but the sin they will have to combat in their own hearts. I know for some of us to hear that our children are sinners is not easy, but it’s true. And accepting it really helps make sense of their conduct and why they are sneaky about the things they do. It’s usually not hard to convince parents, especially those with young kids, that their children are very good at doing bad.
By definition a golfer is someone who does what? Plays golf. A chef is someone who cooks food. The title “sinner” is given to anyone who sins. Everyone has lied before, had bad thoughts, and said and done bad things. Usually children’s first word is “no.” And they use it from then on out to undermine your God-given authority in their lives.
Here is an illustration I’ve heard before that might help us understand what “sin nature” means: If you placed a pig in a room and in one corner you have mud and in the other a fine bathtub with all kinds of luxurious soaps, which corner do you think the pig is going to go for? The one closest to it? No, it will follow its desires. By nature it loves what is dirty, and if God hasn’t given us a new heart and desires, so do we.
I love kids, especially my own, so much. Their cuteness and sweetness has melted my heart multiple times. Even though they are precious, when they act up, really act up, I’m reminded that they are cute . . . sinners. Notice that no books are published with the title How to Teach Your Child to be Selfish or Lying 101. Those books don’t exist because you don’t have to teach someone how to sin.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Why so negative?” In today’s culture if you want to be heard and liked you need to speak positive things and make people feel good, right? But I care too much about your family and mine to speak around the root of the problem.
If I had cancer I would stay clear of doctors who couldn’t speak straight to the severity of my condition. We can’t be effective parents until we know and accept the source of our child’s misbehavior, bad choices, and rebellion against authority. That source is their sinful nature and it has affected their hearts and ours, too.
Even though their hearts, character, and behavior are flawed like ours we love them more than we can express. The bond between parent and children is so rich and beautiful. Ravi Zacharias, one of the most influential Christian leaders of our day, told this story about his grandchild: One day Jude was witnessing his mom run around the house in panic looking for the lost car keys. His mom stopped and said, “I must be losing my mind.” Then little Jude walked up behind her and said, “Whatever you do, don’t lose your heart because I’m in there.”
They have our hearts. We love to love them. God has made every little child born in his image. God has not given up on rescuing them and bringing them back to himself. One of the greatest tools God uses to lead and turn hearts towards him is parents.
So Why the Heart?
During high school my buddies and I decided to buy paintball guns and have some fun. We met at a friend’s house, which had some woods and a big area to make war in. I’m pretty sure I had the cheapest gun, which could only fire one at a time and didn’t have very good range. So after my friends took off into the woods I quickly lobbed a paintball into the area where I heard them. There was a scream. And to my amazement my friend came out with his goggles filled with paint!
That was a funny memory because we still can’t believe it happened. Aim is important. Everyone knows that. Normally you don’t hit a target without it. Parents are missing the mark in parenting if they aim for anything else but the heart. It is the target. So why the heart?
You will notice the main plea I have in this book is to go after the hearts of your children, but why? How do we know that is the most important or even necessary? The heart is referred to more than 750 times in God’s Word. In the Gospels we constantly see Jesus emphasizing the heart.
For example Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
Another familiar passage is God telling Samuel “ . . . the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7). It’s natural for us all to focus on the external, but “God looks on the heart.”
Solomon used an analogy similar to a pitcher when describing the heart. He said in Proverbs 15:2, “the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Let’s say we have a pitcher, which represents our child’s heart. The substance inside, sweet tea, represents what’s inside their hearts. The spout of the pitcher is the mouth. When poured, what comes out? Sweet tea, of course. If the pitcher has water inside, water will come out. If our children’s hearts are full of anger what will come out of their mouths (Proverbs 26:24-26)?
If our kids’ hearts contain selfishness, what will come out of their mouths?
If their heart has faith what will come out of their mouths (Romans 10:9,10)?
And what if their hearts consist of wisdom? What should we expect to come from their mouths (Colossians 3:16)?
We get a glimpse of our hearts and our children’s hearts when speech and actions come out. Matthew 12:34 says, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
What you and I say and do comes from our own hearts. I remember mis-speaking about this one time and my wife correcting me. I can’t remember which kid did what, but I do remember starting to boil inside after he or she did something I probably asked them 100 plus times not to do, and I said as calmly as I could at the moment, “You are turning me into a mean dad.”
But were they? Did they really change my heart or just bring out to the surface what was already in my heart? I got upset because they weren’t acting the way that brings me satisfaction and ease, so I started to get upset. They didn’t put anything into my heart, they just helped bring it out for me (and my wife) to see.
We need to stop blaming our kids for our own heart problems, which come to the surface as bad behavior. Shifting the blame on them will not only make them bitter, but cause us to miss the opportunity to grow and mature ourselves. Parents, we have growing and maturing to do. We are parents that need to be parented.
Praise God he does that! Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.” We parent our kids so one day they don’t need us or have to depend on us, but God takes care of us and shows us we will always be dependent on him.
What we say and do reflects our hearts. It was said this way in Proverbs 27:19, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.” In the day that proverb was written you would have to look into a puddle of smooth water to see your reflection. The proverb is teaching us that the heart reflects man’s true character.
Here is an example of how knowing this helps guide our parenting: Suppose our child spills a drink at the dinner table, we don’t have to discipline them for this because it isn’t a heart issue. It probably was just a maturity or clumsiness issue. If he threw it, that’s different. I’m talking about an innocent spill. Be slow to anger and don’t punish childishness, rather only sin. We have to take time to look past the outward actions of our kids and focus in on the heart.
What’s Not the Cure
We have diagnosed the problem, so what’s the cure? Before we talk more about that, let’s talk about what it’s not. Paul Tripp wrote something we have been guilty of doing that is not the cure: “It’s so tempting to raise your voice, to make your vocabulary more pointed, to shake your finger, to get up in the faces of your children, and sadly to slap their faces, to shove, push, pull, or pinch. None of these things opens up the hearts of your children . . . All of these things shut down the hearts of your children. These things make your children angry and defensive. They make them want to escape you rather than hear you. They take the focus away from their own hearts and on to you.”
Causing our children to fear us isn’t the answer.
Every person’s cure to their sinful nature and heart issues is repentance and believing the gospel. Which means trusting and loving Christ above all else. When that happens in an individual it’s called being “born again” (John 3:3-15). First birth we were born in sin (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12). When we repent and trust in Christ alone he gives us a new heart. We trust in him just like a sky diver would trust in his parachute one hundred percent because it is his only way to be saved (John 14:6).
God alone can change the hearts of our children. We can shape and lead our children’s heart to or away from God, but we can’t change them. King David said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). God said, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put in you . . . ” (Ezekiel. 36:26).
God alone can bring real change to our children’s life and hearts. Paul Tripp reminds us that, “You have not been asked to cause them to think or desire what is right. You are simply called to expose what is bad, point to what is good, and talk about the Redeemer who can lead them from the one to the other.”
Don’t be the parents who think their kids are innocent and their only danger and problem is the “bad out in the world” that can influence them. If you took your kids to a remote island you would still have to battle heart issues. Influence is important and powerful in a child’s life, and that’s why we want to constantly show them the “gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16).
Don’t Focus on the Stage or the Act, but the Heart
You and I, at this moment, are playing a role in the world’s longest and most complex story. God has set the scene and stage. He has created characters. We are now caught in the middle of the grand story as it is unfolding. Often as parents we busy ourselves and worry ourselves with the stage. We want the environment in which our kids live to be unpolluted. We are worried it will stain them or drag them in the wrong direction. Or maybe we focus in hard on how the character is acting. How they are putting on “the show.”
The Bible tells us the stage is broken (Genesis 3:17, Romans 8:19-21). Our act and desires fall short (Romans 3:23), but there is one who can save us! Jesus didn’t come to help us put on a better show, and he didn’t come to fix the stage, but he did come to give us new hearts and reconcile us to the Director and Creator of the universe. We cannot always control the stage on which our kids live their everyday lives, but we can help shape the way they view it and understand it.
For our parenting we must go to God for strength, wisdom, and encouragement. We will receive these things when we study his Word. But, did you know that in the New Testament there are only two verses specifically addressing parenting (Colossians 3:20-21, Eph. 6:1-4)? Why so few? Did God think this subject was less important than others? The answer is simple and obvious, but we may have missed it. Farley explains, “There are so few Scriptures because the gospel is the classroom that teaches us everything we need to know to become effective Christian parents.” Meaning parents need the whole Bible for their parenting.
Let’s continue discussing parenting in the gospel classroom together. My goal and hope is each chapter, a different class and subject, will be rich with gospel and clear in its effects and application. Parents, let’s be encouraged by how the gospel gives us guidance and hope in our parenting.
Copyright © 2020 by Brandon Lingle @ https://lookaside.fbsbx.com/file/Intro%20-%20Chapter%201.pdf?token=AWweAHzYHnnqtG2JEAISzHe3UhxcHs-NuTUU4ezmjnOlaskyUYxtwmTJTQmnzd9PB1B4dxu1AkBlaA6niTImhDiBNoDcyjBKL4wqWplEPWnPC0zaKv89YZoCVxEdNYkXFzsn_13oGGWZPyJGqX_W7Z8W3LAZk32Rd8AxCCrO0vHuCg . Used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from Lifeword.org.