As we seek to shape our children’s character toward godliness, we often focus most on training and correction. How can we teach them to think and act in God-pleasing ways? How can we help them cultivate obedience, self-control, kindness, humility? Frequently our efforts center on our kids’ actions, hopefully also with an eye to the heart. Johnny pushes Sally, so we address the misbehavior, administer discipline, oversee the repentance/forgiveness process, and discuss underlying motivations. And indeed, this type of episode it a critical part of raising godly children. I find myself often mentally rehearsing Ephesians 6:2 -3: “Honor your father and mother… that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” How can I help my child see that honoring me will contribute to life “going well” for him – and failing to do so is linked to things not going well with him? Or: how can I help him internalize concepts of sowing and reaping – that his choice to sow anger here will cause him to reap negative consequences?
But one can focus too much here and under-emphasize grace. Am I raising my children to believe that it’s all about them and their actions – everything rests on their obeying, behaving well, choosing the righteous path? Because everything does not rest on these things. Everything rests on the finished work of Jesus Christ and the fact that His perfection covers all of our earthly imperfections – that forgiveness and life are free gift from Him. So what am I doing to build this critical reality into my interactions with my kids?
Last week I got a chance to test out my “demonstrating grace to my kids” muscles; the episode revealed that they’re on the weak side. I had to mail a package at the post office, and I quietly decided we’d pop into the donut shop next door afterwards for a treat (the type of thing we rarely do on a weekday morning). The donuts would be a fun, low-key treat just to make them happy; I would surprise them with it when we were through at the post office.
As we were leaving the house, my eldest decided he didn’t want to go to the post office and threw a full-bore tantrum. Putting shoes on the other two as I addressed his tantrum, I was sorely tempted to bring up the donuts. “I was thinking of stopping by the donut shop for a treat afterwards,” I could tell him; “but it won’t go well with you if you continue to disobey me. We won’t go if you can’t harness some self-control.” But no, I realized. This was to be a “grace” outing, and grace means unmerited favor – no ties to behavior. I kept mum, handled the tantrum, and got us all to the post office. While we were there my oldest two were less than polite; they fought over a chair they both wanted to sit in; and my two-year old daughter provoked her baby sister. I once again considered either scrapping the donuts or to using the pending outing as a carrot to motivate better behavior from them. But again I felt a check: no! The whole point of grace is to demonstrate love and mercy in the face of sin and poor behavior. So I simply corrected them and we soldiered on.
When we left the post office they were surprised that I was taking them to get donuts. I would have been too if I were them. But of course they were also most pleased. “How did you guys behave in the post office,” I asked them; “were you thoughtful or selfish?” Selfish, they admitted. “You’re right,” I said. “Do you know why I’m taking you to get donuts? Because God always loves us and always has good for us, even when we act badly,” I said. “He loves us even when we sin.” My four-year old discussed this with me briefly as we made our selections. At that moment I wondered: how will he internalize this concept if it’s not regularly introduced and explained to him? He won’t. And so I must train myself to intentionally extend Gospel grace to my kids in moments like these, to paint a picture for my children of God’s unmerited favor. I must show them throughout our lives together that our actions are never the bottom line; God’s grace always is.
There’s a tension here of course, because we don’t want to indulge our children or excuse poor behavior in the name of grace. We don’t want to fail to train in godliness and cheapen grace in the process. To this end I like Jessica’s words in her “Full of Grace” post: “How can we make our homes full of grace without having completely rambunctious children who take advantage of our kindness and without regretting our offer of grace? We can guard against this by making sure that our children are well-disciplined. Certainly, we are to discipline our children… The point is, grace ought to abound. Christian homes centered on rules and rigidity are not examples of the kind of grace we see in the New Testament. God gives grace to sinners, particularly when we are downcast and weak.”