Purposeful Parenting, Part II - Shepherding the Heart

Purposeful Parenting, Part II –– Shepherd the Heart

Last week I attempted to show that, according to Scripture, Christian parents are meant to take charge of their children and home life. Our children do not “rule the roost.” They are under our God-given authority, and we should always seek to exercise that authority with Spirit-filled humility, love, self-control, patience, and prayer. Recognizing that we live in a kid-centric culture, our parenting –– now more than ever–– needs to be intentional in establishing boundaries and order in the home, not least in the realm of spiritual nurture. There is a lot of cultural and social pressure for parents to let kids “have their way” and “get what they want” in order to keep them happy, even to their spiritual and emotional detriment (e.g. unmonitored internet access, illicit music, etc.). Even so, we must look to God’s Word for wisdom and strength to do what is right. The Scriptures are “a lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path” (Ps. 119:105).

As we continue to think about purposeful parenting, I want us to think briefly about our overall approach to the parenting task. We are called to be shepherds in the home–– not irritable drill sergeants. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, are we shepherding the hearts of our children with patient instruction, understanding, and prayer, or are we merely doing an irritable form of behavior modification through manipulation tactics and fits of anger? When we shepherd the hearts of our covenant children, we parent at the heart level, not merely at the behavior level (c.f. Mark 7:21; Luke 6:45; Proverbs 4:23). Tedd Tripp, in his insightful book entitled, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, writes: “The parent is the child’s guide. This shepherding process helps a child to understand himself and the world in which he lives. The parent shepherds a child to assess himself and his responses. He shepherds the child to understand not just the “what” of the child’s actions, but also the “why.”” To be sure, this approach to parenting requires more time, patience, and thoughtfulness. It’s not always convenient or efficient. It requires a lot of measured instruction and loving conversation with our children. And frankly, it may necessitate a big paradigm shift on our part.

Of course, this approach does not in any way dismiss the need for consistent correction, and, at times, firm discipline. Indeed, discipline is an integral part of the faithful shepherding care of our kids. However, by shepherding our children’s hearts we help them not only to recognize their sinful behavior (and its consequences), but also the root of their sinful behavior (i.e. sinful nature). Dealing with our children’s sin at the heart level will help them to see their profound need of the redemptive work of Christ, and not just moral reformation. Faithful parental shepherding ultimately points our children to the Good Shepherd, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the One who, by His grace, saves us from the ultimate and eternal consequence of our sin. And let us remember, He is the only One who can change the hearts of our covenant children. We cannot. Kevin DeYoung writes:

I want to grow as a parent–– in patience and wisdom and consistency. But I also know that I can’t change my kids’ hearts. I can’t make their decisions for them. I am responsible for my heart and must be responsible to teach my children the way of the Lord. But there’s no surefire input–– say, the right mix of family devotions, Tolkien, and nutrition–– that will infallibly produce the output we desire. Ten years into this parenting gig, I’m just trying to be faithful and to repent all the times I’m not. ~ DeYoung, Crazy Busy

Perhaps an example of parenting as a shepherd would be helpful. Let’s imagine for a moment that your child secretly ate a piece of cake before dinner, not long after you clearly forbade him to do so. One response would be to blow up in frustration, communicate a few cutting words in a raised and irritated voice (in front of the whole family), and to then send him to his room for the night without dinner or any further discussion. In this scenario the parent has only exhibited anger and displeasure, and has missed an opportunity to shepherd the heart.

A better response would be to calmly ask your child to sit down in another room. This way you can meet privately so as not to shame him in front of his siblings. You can then discuss not only the sinful behavior, but also the root cause of it. It’s a wonderful teaching opportunity. Here you not only have the chance to discuss God’s law (e.g. Honor your father and your mother, do not lie, do not steal, etc.; Ex. 20), but also the child’s need for the One who perfectly obeyed God’s law on his behalf and gave His life as an atoning sacrifice for his sins. Read a couple of verses from the Bible and pray with your child. There may still be consequences for your child’s behavior (e.g. go to bed without dinner), but through your shepherding care you have demonstrated godly self control, provided wise instruction, dealt with the condition of the heart, and pointed them to Jesus Christ–– the only one who can provide a “new heart” and empower His redeemed children to “grow in grace” (Ez. 36:26; II Pet. 3:18).

Some might say, “My child disobeys me 268 times a day. Am I really supposed to go through this exact process every single time my child disobeys?” The answer is no, especially in high training times (e.g. ages 2-5). But it should be often, and in some measure, daily. As your children enter adolescence you will find that these gospel conversations become more and more meaningful and interactive. The most important thing to remember is that we are shepherding our children, and not doing behavior modification. We want our children to know Christ by faith, and to love and obey him with a grateful heart, and not to think that being a Christian is simply a matter of behaving oneself and keeping up appearances. We don’t want to train our children to be hypocrites and Pharisees, but rather, those who love Christ, and rely solely upon his grace for their salvation. And we must take the long view. The beautiful Live Oak Trees that we see all over Charleston did not grow overnight. Let us not overestimate what may happen in five years, and underestimate what the Lord may do in the lives of our children in twenty. Patience and prayer ... patience and prayer.

- Pastor Jon