By: Scott O'Malley
April 23rd, 2021
My wife and I had our first child in 1994. At that time I had a job working with troubled teens and had been thoroughly trained in behavior modification techniques. My wife was an ESL teacher in the public school. Despite these experiences that many would assume should have prepared us for parenting, by the time our son was three years old we had an angry tyrant on our hands. We honestly had no idea what to do with him. By God’s wonderful grace we went to a Bible conference and were introduced to a biblical view of parenting. Our eyes were opened to see the power and wisdom of the Word of God and how it was and is far superior to anything the world has to offer.
As a father of eight, I know the incredible joys and blessings of children, but also the immense sorrow and burden when my children struggle. After seven years of working directly with children in the field of social work and now over 20 years of counseling, I have had the privilege of knowing a wide variety of struggles parents face. Many parents call Twelve Stones to share the difficulties they are having with their children. While all the stories are unique, there are two basic questions that come through in every call: 1) is there hope for my situation, and 2) what can I do to address and stop the unwanted behaviors I am seeing? I always try to reassure the parents that there is hope because we serve a God of hope (Romans 15:13); but I also try to help them take a step back and be willing to assess the foundations of their parenting.
A Word of Caution
Understandably, many parents want to be told what to do to change their child’s undesired behavior. Many want a formula or a to-do list that will relieve the pressure they are facing. “But parenting formulas not only don’t deliver the promised outcome (safe, happy, never-in-trouble kids), they keep us from parenting by faith” (Julie Lowe, Child Proof pg. 1). Parenting by formula not only excludes faith, it also doesn’t account for the fact that a parent can do everything right and the child could still rebel (God was certainly a perfect parent when Adam and Eve rebelled in Genesis 3). Our parenting is a personal ministry that our children must respond to in some way. “Counseling [parenting] – no magic, no technique, no sure cure. Biblical counseling [personal ministry] is simply the way of speaking wisely with moral decision makers who will trust and obey either lies or truth” (David Powlison, Speaking the Truth in Love pg. 53).
Foundation #1 – Dependence on God
If there is no formula or quick solution, what are some foundations that parents can lay so that we can confidently fulfill our calling to train up our children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6)? The first foundation we will look at is dependence on God. John 15:4-5 says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” If we do not depend on Christ by abiding with Him, the Bible declares we can do nothing of eternal value. Parenting is one of the most important tasks we will ever undertake, and it has massive eternal significance.
What exactly does it look like to abide with Christ? Here are a few thoughts: “Abide in me means to continue in a daily, personal relationship with Jesus, characterized by trust, prayer, obedience, and joy” (ESV Study Bible pg. 2054).
My favorite practical fleshing out of what it looks like to stay connected to Christ in an abiding relationship is described this way: “we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God . . . Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God. It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God pg.23).
Let’s examine how to apply this quote as it relates to parenting. As a regular rhythm of life for every Christian, especially parents, it is wise to read the Scriptures daily (Joshua 1:8-9).
Perhaps today you are beginning to read through the book of James. Learn about God - In James 1 you come across the truth that God is a giver of good gifts (James 1:17).
Meditate before God - You begin to meditate on the generosity of God and some of His many wonderful gifts in your life. Then, you are reminded that children are one of God’s best gifts (Psalm 127:3), even though you are having significant challenges with one of your children right now.
Prayer and praise to God - As a result of remembering your child is a gift you fight against being cynical. But, because you are struggling so much you cry out to God for help. You ask God to help you persevere as a parent (James 1:2-4). You continue by crying out for wisdom (James 1:5), asking God to help you not be tossed around by every parenting philosophy under the sun (James 1:6). You plead with God to help you stay anchored in His truth (James 1:18) and that you will really listen to your child and seek to understand so you don’t respond in harsh and explosive anger (James 1:19-20). Finally, you ask God to search your heart and show you if there are any ways in which you have only been a hearer of the Word and not a doer (James 1:22).
As God brings conviction, you confess your sin to God and remember that God’s best gift is the gift of His Son. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
After confessing your sins to God, you then confess any sins committed against your child (James 5:16).
After confessing your sins to God and your child, you are able to see more clearly how to
address your child (Matthew 7:3-5).
In other words, if we are to have any hope of being the parents God has called us to be, the first and most basic starting point is our own relationship with Christ. Are we abiding with Christ through daily prayer, meditation, and Bible reading? Or do we think that our children can be rescued by us finding some new parenting technique? Are we continually running to God in prayer, relying on Him for wisdom, strength, and perseverance? Do we recognize that we are only strong when we know how weak we actually are (2 Corinthians 12:9)? God’s empowering grace is for the weak and the dependent.
The most obvious manifestation of our recognition of weakness and dependence on God is a fervent prayer life. I am convinced that prayer is the most under-utilized weapon in the parent’s arsenal to help their children. Romans 12:11-12 says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” While the context of Romans 12 is not parenting, these are significantly helpful words for parents. Rejoice in hope reminds us that there is still hope because God is with us (Philippians 4:4-5). Patient in tribulation reminds us that no one has a trouble-free life and when we love our children, God will give us the strength to be patient (1 Corinthians 13:4). Finally, be constant in prayer reminds us to pray regularly (Colossians 4:2) and persistently (Luke 18:7).
Next week we will talk about an additional foundation for biblical parenting, how the Scriptures thoroughly equip us for the task of parenting. But, can I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on the following questions as a place to begin either strengthening your existing foundation or building a new and stronger foundation?
Questions for Reflection
In what specific situations in parenting am I tempted to be more dependent on myself than God? Spend some time praying about those situations.
As I consider particular challenges I am facing in my parenting, what character qualities of God do I need to remember, mediate upon, and believe to help me fight against fear, anger, or hopelessness?
How am I doing at abiding with Christ?