We have a really good parenting question in the inbox today. How do we raise kids who are not naive and not cynical? It’s a question from a dad, a listener to the podcast named Rick in Fort Worth, Texas. “Hello, Pastor John! Matthew 10:16 says we are to be ‘shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.’ As we raise our children, we don’t want them to be gullible or naive. Yet, we also don’t want them to be hard-hearted and cynical. How then do we shape their perspectives in preparing them for this world? What mistakes and consequences can be the result of this effort?”
Well, this is such a good question because it reflects a very mature grasp of one of the main paradoxes of the Christian life.
On the one hand, Jesus is sending us out into the world like sheep amid wolves. Sheep are very vulnerable. They’re not viewed as belligerent. Nobody is afraid of a sheep biting them. On the other hand, we are to be wise, and discerning, and mature, and stable, and strong, and shrewd, and not duped by the winds of false teaching. There it is, the paradox — and he’s got it. We’re to be, on the one hand, humble and lowly, counting others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) — and yet, on the other hand, unwavering in our convictions, full of courage, because Proverbs says, “The righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1).
“Meekness is willing to take suffering. And it is so content in God that it rejoices in the suffering.”
So, Rick, it seems to me, has a pretty good grasp of the challenge in front of us, not only to be this way, but to raise kids who become adults who are this way. Now, I don’t know that I can say anything he wouldn’t think of on his own since he’s got such a good handle on this, it seems to me, but I’ll try. Let me make four suggestions. I think it will be obvious what sorts of mistakes could arise in the effort to carry out these suggestions; we’ll see.
1. Illustrate the paradox.
From the earliest age, teach the children from the Bible, day in and day out, with specific biblical statements about this paradox of shrewdness like snakes and innocence like doves. And fill out the teachings with stories from the Bible — and then maybe stories from Christian history, biography, or from the current day. Whenever you see someone in a biography, or in history, or in missions, or in contemporary life, illustrate the paradox. Point it out: help the children see the beauty of it and how much you admire it, and they should admire it.
Let me give a specific example of the kind of teaching I mean when I say, “Pick out specific sentences to illustrate what this paradox looks like.” I’m really influenced here by what I’ve been thinking about recently because we at Desiring God have tried to articulate a core value that gets at this very thing. I’ll mention the name of it in just a minute.
It says in Ephesians 4:1–2 to “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling as Christians. Then it gives three words — more than three, but I’ll just mention the first three: being lowly, meek, and long-suffering. We read that to our children. Then we ask them, “What do you think those three words mean?”
Let’s talk about lowly. What is lowly? Humble because of our sin, and what terrible suffering it took to save us, and how dependent we are on God all the time. Lowly and meek: dove-like, sheep-like, a way of life that fits in with lowliness and long-suffering, not getting angry easily, not returning evil for evil.
Then you pause and you press in further with your kids as you work through what those words mean, modeling for the kids how to take the words of Scripture seriously. And you ask, “What is the way of life that Paul calls meek that’s supposed to fit with this lowliness of attitude?” Then you show them. Now, I’m thinking of this right now just because, in my working through Ephesians in Look at the Book, this was so incredibly fresh to me. I’ve never seen these three verses together like this. I asked the question to myself, and now I’m asking it to my imaginary kids in front of me: What are some illustrations of what meekness looks like? Because we want to get this right here. We don’t want meekness to look like it isn’t.
Restore, Correct, Defend
Here are the three illustrations:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness [meekness]. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
Now, here’s the catcher: it takes a lot of guts, a lot of courage, to confront somebody in a bad behavior. It’s just so much easier to sweep it under the rug. Everybody else is just ignoring it. You’re going to go to him with courage and confront him — but you’re going to do it in meekness. Meekness is that courageous, lowly way of doing it.
Here’s a second illustration:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness [meekness]. (2 Timothy 2:24–25)
“You can be a sharp, careful, incisive critic of culture, and yet you might love it and care for it and pray for it.”
Now, there it is again. The first illustration from Galatians was about correcting their behavior. The second illustration is about correcting their doctrine. And that may even require more courage, depending on what kind of person they are. You’re going to get in their face and tell them that what they believe about this is not true. But you’re going to do it with meekness. Meekness is combined in those two instances with courage.
Here’s the third one:
Have no fear of them, nor be troubled . . . always being prepared to make a defense . . . for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness [meekness] and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14–16)
Meekness stands in front of people who are perhaps gnashing their teeth and ready to revile you and slander you, and it speaks a witness for Jesus courageously, boldly, and yet with meekness.
You then step back with those three illustrations out there for your kids, and you say, “What is meekness? What is a meek person like?” The answer is this: courage, courage, courage, courage. Correcting behaviors, correcting teachings, bearing witness in front of slanderers — but all of it with a gentle and humble demeanor. Now, that’s going to be a paradox for them they’re going to wrestle with for the rest of their lives. Oh my, to return to it again and again and again in our Bible reading would be wonderful.
Then you might illustrate it from Acts 5, where the apostles had been beaten for their witness, and it says in Acts 5:41, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Meekness is willing to take suffering. And it is so content in God, so confident in God, that it rejoices in the suffering. You teach from specific texts and stories and illustrations about this paradox of courage and meekness.
2. Look for pithy phrases.
The second thing would be simply to look for sharp, clear, memorable, provocative phrases that can sum up what you’re trying to get across. Now, that’s what we’ve been doing at Desiring God. We’ve hit upon two phrases: one is called brokenhearted boldness, and the other is contrite courage.
That’s one of our core values now because we want to try to get at this paradox in a very controversial, strident, angry age we live in, and look at what courage looks like. What is this supposed to look like when Christians are courageous? Are they supposed to be brash, and braggarts, and loud, and strident? Or is there another way?
I think finding a phrase that you repeat year after year for your kids, so that when they leave home twenty years from now, they’ll remember, “Well, there was something called brokenhearted boldness, there was something called contrite courage that my dad believed in. I’d like to discover it again.”
3. Model what you want to see.
The third thing I would suggest is this: be a model for your children in this. Be bold, be humble, be courageous, be contrite. Over time, they’re going to see this. One special form of modeling that I think is really important happens in this media-saturated time, where you’re looking at the news, you’re looking at videos, you’re looking at YouTube, you’re looking at all kinds of things, and you see stuff you can’t stand. It really bothers you. It’s so harmful, it’s so unbiblical, and the kids know that you feel that way about it, and they’re watching.
“Joy in the Lord in the midst of hardship is a great evidence to the children that Christ is real.”
Now, how’s Dad, how’s Mom going to respond to these things they so strongly disagree with? You want to model for them by saying, “Now, this is wrong. This is hurtful. This dishonors God.” You want to show them, “How do you love your enemy at that moment?” You might pause at that very moment, turn off the news, and pray. Pray for the person whom you just criticized because of how destructive their view was. The kids will learn: you can be a sharp, careful, incisive critic of the culture, and yet you might love it and care for it and pray for it as you ought.
4. Exude joy.
The last thing I would say is this: Don’t be joyless; be full of joy. I look back on my parents’ effort to give me strong convictions in the midst of worldliness that they thought was encroaching on every side, even back in the fifties and sixties. I think the key that won me over so that I embrace their faith today — the key was that they were both not only Bible-saturated, with high moral standards, but they were the happiest people I think I’ve ever known.
I took it for granted growing up. Now I look back on some of the things they went through in their marriage, and in finances, and in culture, and in disputes, and I marvel that they were as happy as they were. Joy in the Lord in the midst of hardship is a great evidence to the children that Christ is real. It doesn’t guarantee that they will embrace the truth and the beauty of Christ, but it is a powerful attraction.