Restoring what our selfishness has destroyed
11 MINUTE READ
We live in an age that is increasingly suspicious of authority.
We’re autonomous individuals. We want to decide for ourselves what we’re going to do with our lives. And our parents, our teachers, our peers, our employers – we’ll listen to their advice if we decide they’re worthy of our respect, but we’re not going to let them tell us what to do or how to do it.
The older I get the more I feel like I’m becoming that grumpy uncle who keeps saying, “Kids these days! Where’s the respect?” But it’s true, isn’t it? “Kids these days” are shaped by “parents these days” and “schools these days” who are all about letting children discover the world for themselves, letting children be who they want to be, and not constraining them by that dirty word, “Authority”.
Now I know it’s important to tread carefully when it comes to giving advice on parenting. Parenting styles are like politics – it’s easy to talk to someone you agree with, but as soon as you start saying someone else has it wrong, it makes people feel threatened and quickly leads to conflict and relational tension. But often our fear of offending means we don’t talk about it at all. It’s just easier to keep our thoughts to ourselves. However, specific parenting styles aside, there are some basic biblical principles that I have found really helpful as a parent, and now as a pastor of parents.
As heirs of Adam, our default attitude from birth is that we are the centre of the universe. Think about why a baby cries. It wants something. And it wants it now. So it will make the loudest most unpleasant noise it can until it gets what it wants.
“As heirs of Adam, our default attitude from birth is that we are the centre of the universe.”
But this self-centredness doesn’t end as a baby grows and begins to establish a concept of the wider world around them. Think about our society. Think about how marketing targets our desires. So much of the narrative we are being fed is, “It’s all about you.” Your happiness. Your fulfilment. You, reaching your fullest potential. You, being true to yourself. What is the most common way parents articulate their hopes for their children? “I don’t mind so much what you do darling, as long as it makes you happy.”
Now, like me, you might be thinking at this point – well, that’s not how I see the world. I’m not so selfish and narcissistic to think that I’m the centre of the universe. But it’s such a pervasive narrative, it’s a message that is being shouted so loudly, and our sinful hearts are so stubborn, that we often find ourselves getting sucked into this way of thinking. And we forget that this is the default disposition of our hearts.
This self-centred mindset has filtered even into the church. Worshipping God has become for many churches and Christians a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I want a spiritual experience that will lift me up from the mess of my life. I want God to bless me so I can live a successful and fulfilling life, in a happy marriage with beautiful obedient children. Christianity is the add-on, the upgrade that I install on the operating system of my life to make it better than it would be otherwise.
But this is not the God we worship. God is not interested in being our genie or our personal fairy-godfather in the sky. He didn’t send His son to die on a criminal’s cross just so we could have more fulfilling and happy lives than the atheists next door. Jesus came to fix the biggest problem in the universe. He came to put right what we had put wrong. He came to restore the relationship that our self-centredness destroyed. And part of restoring that relationship means removing our misplaced and misguided “self” from the centre and replacing it with the true centre of all things: the Creator who is the only Being worthy of all glory, honour and praise, the Lamb who was slain. And it’s only by the Holy Spirit supernaturally changing our hearts that we can give God His rightful place at the centre of our lives.
The wonderful by-product of a God-centred life is that we will be happier, more fulfilled, more contented, more able to weather the storms of life, and better parents than we would have been left to our own devices. But if we pursue these blessings as ends in themselves, we will lose our connection from the source that provides them. It’s only by taking the focus off our pursuit of self-fulfilling satisfaction, and focusing instead on God and His glory that we can find true and lasting satisfaction – living as we were created to live.
So when it comes to Christian parenting, like all aspects of life, we should begin and end not with our desires and priorities as parents, or with our children and what they want – we should begin and end with a pursuit of God and His glory.
This will first mean teaching our kids the beauty of obedience to our heavenly Father’s loving authority. We don’t obey God just because of the threat of judgement for disobedience. Or because it’ll put us in His good books. We obey God because He made us, He knows us, and He knows what’s best for us. It’s truly the best way to live.
And likewise, as parents we don’t want our kids to obey us because it makes our lives easier. We don’t want our kids to obey us so that others will be impressed by our family dynamics – “What great kids you have”. We don’t even want our kids to obey us just so we can set them up with some good life principles to help them succeed in society. First and foremost, we want our kids to obey us so that they will learn what it’s like to live under the loving authority of God.
But whatever the reason for obedience, it’s important that our kids do obey us. Too many modern parenting styles are absent of any (or at least severely lacking in) discipline or authority. Parenting for many is a negotiation between equal parties, attempting to allow children to fully express themselves, to explore and learn through self-autonomous trial and error, only intervening when they are in danger or putting others in danger. I want to acknowledge that for many parents, the way they relate to their kids is a reaction from overly domineering or even abusive and controlling parenting that they may have faced as children. But the alternative to an abusive, authoritarian approach to parenting is not to remove authority but to reform it. As Tim Chester says, we shouldn’t tell our kids off for being kids.¹ But a God-centred parent will exercise loving and consistent discipline. They will be an authority shaped by and submitting to God’s authority over us.
Which means parenting begins with the heart of the parents. If your heart is set on your own selfish agenda, you will just want your kids to get with your program, you won’t discipline your kids for their good, in love and patience. Instead, your discipline will be a means to your own ends. On the other hand, if your child is the centre of your world, you will only reinforce their already self-centred nature. You’ll also deprive them of a true understanding of God’s good authority. And it won’t just affect your kids. Like any idol, putting your children at the centre of your universe will just leave you disappointed and deprived of a healthy relationship with your Maker.
The solution is not to try and find a balance between parent-centred and child-centred parenting, but a whole new paradigm: God-centred parenting. What is God’s will for my kids? How does God want me to respond to this disobedience? How can I teach my kids to value and love God and all the good gifts and commands He’s given us? And how does God’s authority shape me as a parent?
In my work as a pastor, I’m constantly confronted by my own inadequacies to lead God’s people. The qualifications for church leadership that we see in the pastoral epistles (1&2 Timothy and Titus) are almost all about having a character shaped by love for and obedience to God. I can have all the theology and apologetics and counselling skills, but really if my heart isn’t constantly being fed by and shaped by God’s word, if I’m not treasuring God above all things then my ministry will suffer. It’s the same for parents. Who we are as parents is more important than what we do. Our kids are shaped far more by what we model for our kids than what we teach them with words. Your kids will learn far more from the things you value, the things you prioritise, the way you behave and respond to difficult situations, the way you treat your spouse than from what you say to them or the rules you make.
“Who we are as parents is more important than what we do. Our kids are shaped far more by what we model for our kids than what we teach them with words.”
So it’s worth asking ourselves, what is it that fills up our lives and our children’s lives? And what is that teaching them about what our family prioritises? The more I reflect on this (and finding time for reflection is one of the things I don’t prioritise enough!) the more I want to make changes so my kids will see parents who make time for each other, make time for hospitality, and make time for dwelling in God’s word and prayer. But just inserting those things into our calendar isn’t enough. We need hearts that treasure God, His Word and our relationship with Him. If you get this right, everything flows from that God-centred heart.
But the question remains: how do we discipline in a God-centred way? I find myself often regretting that I’m too critical or too negative with my kids. I hate to think that there’s this “Us vs Them” dynamic between my kids and their parents; one side constantly pushing boundaries, the other side constantly putting their foot down and enforcing the boundaries. Some of our family’s most harmonious times, especially as the kids get older, have been when we negotiate rather than enforce. Hearing what our kids are feeling and wanting, giving them the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. But like any leadership, you still need to be responsible for the decisions that are made. Boundaries are still important. Again, authority is not the enemy. Remember our default position? Just letting the kids do what they want will end up with a child-centred family and a kid who thinks they are the centre of the universe.
The solution is not trying to find a balance between legalism and licence. The solution is grace-centred parenting. In our rejection of His rightful place at the centre of our universe, God hasn’t treated us as we deserved. He could have just wiped us out. Justice would have been served. But in His love, mercy and grace, He took the punishment we deserve on Himself. This is amazing grace. This is the God we worship. He is not only worthy of our whole-hearted worship, He is overflowing with infinite grace to accept us despite our half-hearted worship. And so being God-centred parents will mean we’re also grace-centred parents.
“Grace-centred families are where apology and forgiveness are the recurring themes as we work through conflicts together.”
Grace-centred parents are quick to admit their own faults and apologise. Grace-centred families are where apology and forgiveness are the recurring themes as we work through conflicts together. Parents who are shaped by grace can be honest about their shortcomings because they have been accepted by God despite them. They take their own guilt and failings to the cross of Christ and find peace and forgiveness, mercy and grace. They take their inadequacies and weaknesses to God in prayer, asking for Christ’s strength to work powerfully in their weakness. And in all of this they are modelling a life shaped by grace to their kids.
There are any number of parenting books and parenting philosophies out there. I’m not pretending that this short article will solve all your problems and give you a comprehensive paradigm for healthy Christian discipline. But rather than a continual search to find the perfect parenting solution, I believe what we need most is a continual reminder of these two simple but epic, life-changing, family-shaping truths:
1. God is the centre of the universe.
2. He relates to us by grace.
We can’t go far wrong if we are continually striving, in His strength, to be God-centred and grace-centred parents.
Dr Andrew Williams Dr Andrew Williams is the father of Jack (6) and Charlie (4). He and his wife Claire job-share on the pastoral team at City on a Hill Evangelical Church and he also locums as a medical registrar in Wellington, NZ.
- Chester T and Moll E. Gospel Centred Family: Becoming the Parents God Wants You to Be.
- UK: The Good Book Company; 2019. p 13.