I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently. She’s not a parent yet but has had a lot of experience with young children anyway. I shared with her one of my deep-set insecurities: “What if my kids never learn to obey God?”
One of the main focal points for people on the opposite side of the parenting spectrum is to be darn sure that their kids know what obedience looks like. They believe that if they demand a high level of obedience and provide harsh punishments for disobedience, their kids will learn to obey and will have an easy time obeying God when they grow up. While I don’t think that harsh punishment is good for children (and current child-development research agrees with me), I’m left with this nagging question inside: How will my kids learn to obey God?
Of course, as a lover of Jesus, I do want my kids to obey God. I myself have a hard time submitting my will to God’s at times…partly because my parents raised me to be an independent person. I’m grateful to have had such empowering parents, and I hope to empower my own children as well, but the question of obedience still remains.
As I talked with my friend, God reminded me of how He has parented me the last 15 years, and how my own desire to obey has grown.
Let me take you through it. I think you’ll find many aspects within my story that are parallel to your own.
*The 2 steps below were revealed to me by God while I was falling in love with him to represent our lives in God in general, but I feel him saying that they belong in the discussion below, as well *
Step 1. Abide.
When I was 14 my Daddy-God won my heart.
I remember falling in love with God. I was star-struck. Giddy. His love for me was literally overcoming. I would sit on my hot-pink teenage bedspread and talk to him for hours. I was always hungry for more. When a friend talked behind my back or a boy rejected me, he was the first one I went to.
He filled cavities in my heart that I didn’t even know existed.
At that time I was still guilt-driven, through. If I forgot to pray for a day or two, I would come back to God with way more shame than my sin called for. I was sin-focused in everything, always thinking of ways to sin less instead of focusing on God’s power within me.
Fast forward to college. For the first time in my life someone suggested to me that I was already holy.
I argued with him fiercely, you guys.
He claimed that Jesus’ death on the cross was enough to put God’s holiness inside me, and all I needed to do was submit to the Holy Spirit in my behavior; I was already clean at my core.
This was so offensive to me because I had spent years trying to become the holy, pleasing sacrifice that the Bible tells us to be, and the thought that it was all for nothing was devastating.
Devastating, but true.
Every guilty prayer, every compulsive trip to church, every good deed got me NO CLOSER to God.
Because I was already as close to Him as I could possibly be.
God living inside of me gives me FULL ACCESS to him. I needn’t be hungry, I just need to eat!
If you’re hungry for God, then feast! Do not let your hunger plague you. God is not hiding himself from you, he’s offering himself TO you!
This is what I believe God means when the Bible talks about abiding in Him.
This was my first step toward true obedience.
Step 2. Surrender
With my eyes opened to the entirety of the gospel and the entirety of what Jesus earned for me on the cross, God’s biblical commands took on a fresh meaning.
I realized that He wasn’t making demands so that I would somehow live up to his standard and become “good enough”—-but that actually his commands are put in place to protect me and the rest of God’s bride.
I was flabbergasted! God gave us those commands to protect us? Not to control us? WHAT?
After coming from a home, a school system, and a society which seek to control, the idea of a God who truly seeks relationship above all else was mind-blowing.
However, suddenly being freed from the compulsion to obey forced me to see clearly the reason why I was really obeying in the first place: fear. For fear of hell, rejection, distance, and outcasting, I obeyed God. Once He revealed to me that his blood covers over all of those possibilities, I wasn’t left with much to motivate me to obey.
But I did still have one game-changing motivator: love. The love I had for God was all that remained.
And it was enough.
But not right away.
I still felt Holy Spirit’s insistence that I not sleep with my boyfriend, cheat on my tests, lie to my parents, and so on. I also felt the simple freedom to disobey. I still knew that God didn’t want me to disobey him, but I also believed that if I did disobey, my standing before God and my place in his heart would not change.
So I did disobey. And do you know what? It never went well for me.
But after I disobeyed, what did God do? Punish me? Send me away? Smite me?
No. He kept on loving me and accepting me. But I knew that my sin saddened him, and that saddened me. And I sometimes had a consequence for my sin.
Cheat at school? Never learned the material and fail the next test.
Lie to parents? See the trust break and the distance grow.
Sleep with boyfriend? Feel my heart get committed to a boy who’s not.
I don’t believe that God sends punishments to us, ever, but there is a natural order of things and if we break that order through sin, there may be a natural consequence to that action.
So through my knowledge that I was disappointing God and through the natural consequences that sin brought into my life, I slowly learned to respect and obey God out of love. I realized why God didn’t want me to do the thing in the first place, and so my disobedience resulted in more trust in him!
Now I want to please him because I love him, not because he forces me to obey. The negative feelings I have when I sin and the desire for relationship with God come from the way that God has loved me and been faithful to me. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard him speak to me in a special way on a day that I really needed it, or had the Holy Spirit give me the words to say when I felt lost. Even when I am faithless, he remains faithful and treats me according to his own goodness, not according to my behavior. This is what it means to be God’s son.
How to we compare?
So, then, what does it mean to be Drea’s son? Does it mean that no matter how faithless or nasty you are, she responds with love? Does it mean that she’ll wait for you to learn to obey out of love, or does she try to force you?
It’s a good question, isn’t it?
I really believe that we are meant to imitate God to our children, in every way that we can. And actually, I believe that most of us do; we imitate the God that we know…but sometimes who we “know” isn’t the real God. If I see God as punitive, I’ll likely punish my children. If I see him as distant, distance will likely be my default.
So let’s review the steps and apply them to our kids.
Step 1: Abide
Above all else, I want to be a Mom who is accessible. I want my children to always always always be free to come to me, whether it’s with good news or bad. I believe that as they learn to be loved by me, they will learn to be loved by God as well, and that’s really what he wants, isn’t it? To love and be loved with his creation.
And this starts on day 1: I nursed my son as much as I was able, believing that the feeding system that God put in place would be best to teach him what love is (current child-developmental research agrees). I also trusted the natural cue-giving system that God made. Baby cries, Mama feels pain hearing it, Mama nurses baby/holds baby/rocks baby/sings to baby, baby stops crying. This put us in the “attachment parenting” category, but I’m not ashamed of it. Baby-wearing and co-sleeping also added to the ease of relationship for us with our baby (child development research supports these as well).
What does it look like for a 2-year-old?
His experience of the world still comes first for me, and empathy is always my first response. I want to be a parent that he wants to abide in. I let him know what the consequence will be if he does a negative behavior again, only after I show empathy for that behavior.
He drops a book on his foot. “Oh, buddy, that looks like it hurt! Are you okay?…This is why I want you to use 2 hands on the book when you carry it.”
He throws himself on the ground in anger. “I can see that you’re really upset. You wish that you could watch TV all day! But now it’s time for dinner. Do you want to come now or in 2 minutes?”
He slaps me. “What’s going on, bud? You hit me and it really hurts. Did you do that because you wanted attention? Next time you can say, ‘Mama, Mama!’ You don’t have to hit to get my attention. If you hit me again, Eli, I’m going to have to put you down.”
He throws a block. “I see that you threw a block, Eli. Are you trying to get my attention? If you’re too tired to play and you’re ready for nap time, you can say, ‘Nap, Nap!’ But if you throw a block again, bud, then you won’t get to play with them anymore.”
What about for older children?
I don’t have older children, yet, but I plan to still respond first with empathy. When we model empathy, kids can learn to have it as well. My 2-year-old is already showing some rudimentary empathy. If he hurts someone else and can see their pain, he stops what he’s doing and tries to apologize or hug them. This is something that all kids are made to learn, and modeling it well over time (even if we’re not perfect at it), will sufficiently teach them to be empathetic, caring, people. It will also give them a default setting with which to relate to God: to naturally respond to God with trust and intimacy, rather than fear and distance.
Consequences certainly have their place in parenting, and I’m not trying to undermine that, but the trust and intimacy that we build with our children during the early years (or lack thereof) will affect them far more deeply than whether or not they ever learned to stop throwing food when they’re done eating (spoiler–they all learn this eventually).
However, the guidance that we offer, in my opinion, takes a far more central role because without some wise parental guidance, they can’t learn to surrender.
Step 2: Surrender
My son loves raisins. We offer them as a reward when he pees in the potty (wasn’t my ideal potty-training plan but, you know, it is what it is), so their value is probably raised even higher in his mind.
We keep them on a shelf juuuuuuust above his reach.
Or it was, anyway.
I probably tell him 7 times a day not to reach for things on that shelf. I explain that it’s dangerous and that if he wants something he can ask me instead. He knows that it’s off-limits.
One morning last week I was busy filling water bottles, and Zeke was busy packing a backpack; we were late for school and just about to walk out the door.
All of a sudden there was a crash and a scream. Eli was reaching high for the raisins, and the glass jar they’re kept in came crashing down on his little feet. Shards of glass flew everywhere and Eli’s blood was dripping off his toes.
What struck me the most, though, was the look on his face right after it fell. I saw an afraid little face looking at me that yelled “Help, Mama, help!!”
Zeke tenderly cleaned his wounds while I helped clean up the glass.
After things settled down, we talked to him about why we don’t let him reach for that shelf; it’s not because we don’t want him to eat tasty things or be happy, but because we could see the danger that he couldn’t see.
In that moment of disobedience, Eli learned to trust us a little more. He realized that all those times that we told him not to reach we were really looking out for his own best interests, not trying to deprive him or control him.
There are a lot of lessons that I want my children to learn while they live with me, but this one is paramount: the voice of God is here to guide us toward the best path for our lives, and God is trustworthy enough to obey.
I believe that as I model that as a parent, my children will be ready to obey God as well.
I want to leave you with the rendition of this article as it reads in my prayer journal: simply, and full of the Holy Spirit’s voice.
“Lord, how do they learn to listen? to obey?
Well, how did I learn to obey you?
You insisted, you explained, you loved.
You loved some more.
I disobeyed, and you showed me your goodness.
My guilt and desire for connection came from our established relationship.
Then, I listened.”