For the past two decades, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable. I have grown uncomfortable as I’ve listened to people tell me how they’ve used my book on parenting, Age of Opportunity, or my brother Tedd’s book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart. Something was missing in the way these parents were interpreting and applying the strategies detailed in the pages of our books.
It took me a while to figure out what was off. Then it hit me: the missing piece was the gospel. This sounds obvious, almost cliché, but the significance of remembering or neglecting the gospel in parenting is greater than we often realize.
The Biblical Picture of Parenting
Whenever I travel to speak, I always have someone come up to me afterward asking for an effective strategy for this, a guaranteed formula for that, or a proven approach to some other struggle. I try to impart helpful guidance in the moments we have together, but what they (and I) really need is a big-picture, gospel worldview that can explain, guide, and motivate all the things that God is calling them to do.
Take marriage, for example. If you want a healthy relationship with your spouse, clicking on Buzzfeed’s “Fourteen Ways to Make Date Night More Romantic” will not get you there. You need the gospel of Jesus Christ to establish foundational principles of unity, understanding, and love — not a listicle of tips and tricks.
This is what we’re after in parenting. If you desire not only to cope but to thrive with vision and joy as a parent, you need more than seven steps to solving whatever. You need God’s helicopter view of what he’s called you to do. You need the gospel of Jesus Christ to reveal the foundational principles that will not only help you make sense of your task, but will change the way you approach it.
Often, these biblical principles are counterintuitive to the natural principles of our flesh. Nevertheless, they’re essential to understanding who we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do in all things, including parenting.
Fourteen Christian Principles of Parenting
This may seem hypocritical. I just told you not to rely on BuzzFeed’s list of fourteen ways to make date night more romantic, and now I’m offering a list for Christian parents. The difference is that this list isn’t comprised of strategies or techniques: these are fourteen overarching themes in Scripture that, when properly understood, offer a vivid picture of God’s calling for parents.
1. Calling: Nothing is more important in your life than being one of God’s tools to shape a human soul.
In a couple brief but profound paragraphs, Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 20–23 summarize the value that God places on parenting.
2. Grace: God never calls you to a task without giving you what you need to do it. He never sends you without going with you.
Ephesians 3:20–21 provides us with the single redemptive reality that makes parenting possible.
3. Law: Your children need God’s law, but you cannot ask the law to do what only grace can accomplish.
Romans 7:7 tells us that we need the grace of wisdom that God’s law alone can give, but the rest of the chapter reveals how only the Spirit can produce change.
4. Inability: Recognizing what you are unable to do is essential to good parenting.
God has tasked parents with many things, but nowhere in his word has he tasked you with the responsibility to create heart change.
5. Identity: If you are not resting as a parent in your identity in Christ, you will look for identity in your children.
Second Peter 1:3–9 warns about identity amnesia. When applied to parenting, it means that when you’re not getting your identity from God and the work of his Son, you will probably try to get it from your children.
6. Process: You must be committed as a parent to long-view parenting because change is a process and not an event.
Even the world’s best teacher — Jesus — had a process mentality and, because he did, he was willing to leave his work to unfinished people (see John 16:12–15).
7. Lost: As a parent you’re not dealing just with bad behavior, but a condition that causes bad behavior.
Luke 15 is a tremendous help to parents, because it sheds light on the condition that is the reason for all you have to deal with in the thoughts, desires, choices, words, and actions of your children.
8. Authority: One of the foundational heart issues in the life of every child is authority.
Teaching and modeling the protective beauty of authority is one of the foundations of good parenting. The famous Ephesians 6:1–4 parenting passage is very helpful for this principle.
9. Foolishness: The foolishness inside your children is more dangerous to them than the temptation outside of them. Only God’s grace has the power to rescue fools.
Psalm 53:1–3 reveals that your child has the heart of a fool and, because he does, he is a danger to himself and desperately needs God’s arms of rescue that come through your parenting care.
10. Character: Not all of the wrong your children do is a direct rebellion to authority; much of the wrong is the result of a lack of character.
Romans 1:25 and 28–32 connect character issues to the most significant of all human functions — worship.
11. False Gods: You are parenting a worshiper, so it’s important to remember that what rules your child’s heart will control his behavior.
This should be no surprise, considering how often the Bible warns us (see Exodus 20:3, Deuteronomy 11:16, 1 Samuel 12:21, and many more).
12. Control: The goal of parenting is not control of behavior, but rather heart and life change.
No matter how successfully you control their choices and behavior, your control cannot and will not free your kids from a deeper need – a clean heart (Psalm 51:6, 10, 17).
13. Rest: It is only rest in God’s presence and grace that will make you a joyful and patient parent.
This may surprise you, but I cannot think of any directive from the mouth of Jesus that is a more appropriate call to every Christian parent than the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20).
14. Mercy: No parent gives mercy better than one who is convinced that he desperately needs it himself.
Hebrews 4:14–16 gives us a model for a life-long mission of humbly, joyfully, and willingly giving mercy.
Parenting by Gospel Grace
Many Christian mothers and fathers are exhausted, discouraged, and frustrated. It’s time we consider a new and better way: the way of grace. These fourteen gospel principles are meant to help you see how radically different parenting becomes when you quit trying to produce change and become a willing tool of the grace that rescues, forgives, and changes.
They are meant to yank you out of the daily grind and have you consider the big picture of what God is inviting you to be part of: the high and holy call to be an essential part of his mission of rescuing the children he has given you.
In all these things, it’s not just about the mission that he has sent you on, but the fact that he has gone with you. Parents, God faithfully parents you, so that by his faithful grace you can, in turn, faithfully parent your children. In every moment of parenting, our heavenly Father is working on everybody in the room.