Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A warning for parents (part 1)

[Note: This the the first of a two part blog based on warnings that I have discovered over the last couple year of studying parenting and spiritual issues. In this time I have read two books by Christian Smith, a sociologist who studies spirituality in youth culture. He has identified that one type of faith predominates among American youth. He called it moralistic therapeutic deism. He doesn't consider this type of faith to be healthy. I agree with his analysis.]

If I ask just about any parent in my church what their top goals for their children are I'm likely to get these three priorities:
  • That they would follow God.
  • That they would do good and avoid evil. (Obedience.)
  • That they would be safe and happy.
In reality, I honestly think that deep down inside those are the answers I might give also, but 2 out of 3 of those responses are misguided. In truth, most of us really place the two weaker values ahead of the more biblical.

If you are a Christian parent, there is an absolute command to help your children to follow God. Deuteronomy 6 is the Lord's command to parents (the older generations) to give guidance to children (the younger generation) as the Lord says: 
"Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.5 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. (NLT)
It might be real easy to say that this passage gives parents two responsibilities: to guide children into love of the Lord and to guide children into obedience. But, that is not really accurate.  There is only one responsibility for parents here. That is to love the Lord. Obedience is something that flows from our love for God. Jesus said, "If you love me you will obey my commands" (John 14:15). You will notice in this statement that obeying God's commands is not a command, but are result of our love.

Have you ever notice that most Christians are more like the older prodigal son? We usually look at that story from the eyes of the one who ran off after taking his inheritance. But we think, like the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, that because we have created bounds, that God owes us something. Parents, just teaching your children rules and boundaries isn't enough for proper spiritual development. That parenting style can lead to an entitlement complex where children grow up thinking that because they followed the rules, God owes them.

Unfortunately, when Christian parents focus on obedience, they don't create people who love God. They create obedient children. In fact, that obedience is often not to God at all, but rather to the parents. In my experience, these children often walk away from spiritual things we they are no longer under their parents' authority. Even if they continue in obedience, they can do this without a deep, honest love for God.

Instead of focusing on teaching your children obedience, make a priority of teaching them to love God and to love others.  As evident in the Deuteronomy passage, conversations on obedience will be important along the way  as they learn to live out their love for God and their love for others, but obedience isn't the starting point. The major mistake I notice when obedience is the starting point is that parents make their own law the measure of good. That might include non-biblical rules like those that guide the way they dress, the importance of attending church functions and sitting certain ways in those functions, and choosing a parent-approved life path. Be careful not to create a false law in your children's life. It is better to create a honest love.

I would recommend that parents read Grace Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel and The Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight. These books will help parents to focus on putting love for God ahead of obedience to you.

[Tomorrow I'll post on the thereputic mistake that parents make.]