Why do some kids raised in Christian homes really turn on to Jesus Christ, get vitally involved in living for him, growing in him, and sharing him with others, while other kids in the same environment seem to drop out spiritually during their teen years? The whole church routine becomes a drag to them and they couldn’t care less about the things of the Lord. This is a complicated question which Christian leaders have been grappling with for years. There are certainly many factors involved with different problems contributing to each individual case. No single answer will suffice for all. But one thing keeps coming up in both my contact with Christian families and my discussions with youth leaders, and I cannot escape the importance of it. That is the truth revealed in Galatians 6:7-8: “Don’t be misled; remember that you can’t ignore God and get away with it: a man will always reap just the kind of crop he sows! If he sows to please his own desires, he will be planting seeds of evil and he will surely reap a harvest of spiritual decay and death; but if he plants the good things of the Spirit, he will reap the everlasting life which the Holy Spirit gives him” (TLB).
Reaping what we sow applies to many areas of life, but among them will inevitably be our relationship with our children. We are going to reap just the kind of crop we sow in them. And unfortunately for us, what we sow in them involves not only how we treat them or what we say to them, but how we act before them. In other words, we cannot expect our children to excel us in spiritual stature or to be what we ourselves are not. It is our responsibility to set an example before them of all we want them to be.
This is the way the Model Parent deals with us. When he tells us what we ought to be, he sets the standard by his own example. “But be holy now in everything you do, just as the Lord is holy, who invited you to be his child. He himself has said, ‘You must be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16, TLB). His own perfect holiness gives him the right to require the same of us. We would be quite put out if he demanded more than he himself demonstrated. But instead, he sets a perfect pattern for us to follow. The Lord Jesus used this same approach with his disciples. “I have given you an example to follow: do as I have done to you” (John 13:15, TLB). He set such a high standard because he knew we could not be expected to rise above the level he established. “How true it is that a servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:16a, TLB). If we are to deal with our children as the Lord deals with us, we must set a high example of all we want them to be.
A poor example before our children will have its effect on generations to come. The Lord is merciful and forgiving, but he warns that children will feel the impact of their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generations (Num. 14:18). Does that mean that God puts a curse on three or four generations, or that something is passed on by heredity that hexes them? I don’t think so. But sin creates a certain kind of environment in the home, psychologically and spiritually, an environment that makes its contribution to the character of our children. When they marry, they will probably create the same home environment they experienced as they were growing up and perpetuate the sins and shortcomings they saw in us, with many of the same unhappy consequences.
Actually, the home they establish may be worse than ours. I can think of some professing Christian homes where the parents fussed and fought a good deal of the time. There was little Christ-like love shown to the children. The Lord Jesus was not allowed to play a very prominent role in their home life and the things of Christ were seldom discussed, except to criticize other Christians. But in front of their Christian friends, the parents were careful to maintain the “good Christian” facade. Their children saw through the hypocrisy of it all, decided it wasn’t for them, repudiated Christianity, and established a secular home when they married. I wonder how many generations will be affected by the parents’ sin? God says at least three or four. And there is no guarantee that even then someone will come to know Christ and reverse the trend. If it happens, it will be entirely of God’s grace.
It’s time to halt that kind of downward spiral, time to yield ourselves to the control of the Holy Spirit and become what God wants us to be, time to begin setting a Christ-like example before our children and repair any damage that may have already been done. The prophet Isaiah called on the people of his day to get their hearts right with God. He made this beautiful promise to them if they would: “And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places; thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in” (Isa. 58:12, KJV). He was referring primarily to rebuilding the walls and streets of Jerusalem, but we cannot miss the spiritual application. If believing parents will submit themselves to God and do his will, they and their children will be able to repair the ruins of many generations and acquire the enviable titles, “The repairer of the breach,” and “The restorer of paths to dwell in.”
We can help put an end to the decline of the Christian home. Our homes can be different. God isn’t going to accept timeworn excuses like, “But that’s the way I was raised,” or “That’s the way my father and mother treated me.” If what we are doing is wrong, we need to change it. When we turn to the Lord in submission and trust, he will help us mend what is torn apart and restore the right way to live. Generations to come will thank us for it.
There are some hackneyed old sayings that few of us have been able to escape through the years: One is, “Actions speak louder than words”; another, “What you do speaks so loud, I can’t hear what you say.” They aren’t found in the Bible, but the idea they promulgate is far more biblical than we might imagine. The Apostle Paul suggested to some of his friends, “And you should follow my example, just as I follow Christ’s” (1 Cor. 11:1, TLB). To others he said, “Keep putting into practice all you learned from me and saw me doing, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9, TLB). I wonder if we could say that to our children. Another well-worn saying may better reflect our normal approach, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Satan must have inspired that one, and if we continue to use it, we can count on our children becoming more and more rebellious.
To a young pastor, Paul wrote, “. . . in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:12, NASB). He knew Timothy’s congregation wouldn’t listen to him very long if they didn’t see in his own life some evidence that he was practicing what he preached. The same principle relates to parents and children. We should be able to say, “Do as I say, and as I do.” And the kids will be able to spot in a minute the phoniness of anything less.
For example, we want our children to be kind. We teach them to speak kindly to other people and about other people. But they may hear us tear a friend to shreds verbally, or hear us speak most unkindly to each other or even to them. They will probably do as we do rather than as we say. We teach our children to be honest. But when we’re all waiting in line to buy tickets to some interesting attraction, we may say, “Tell them you’re only eleven.” Or they may hear us discussing how we successfully padded our expense account or faked our way out of a traffic ticket when we knew we had broken the law. And we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves when we catch them lying or cheating.
We teach them not to steal. But we gloated just a bit because the clerk at the market overcharged us, and we didn’t return the money to its rightful owner. And our children begin to believe that it’s alright to steal a dollar here or there under certain conditions.
We want our children to learn that whining and fussing do not get them what they want. Yet we sometimes whine and fuss at them when they don’t please us, and we may whine and fuss at each other when things don’t go our way. So they will just keep on whining and fussing their way through their childhood and youth years. And they’ll do it when they get married, and who knows how many people ultimately will feel the misery of our poor example?
The illustrations can be multiplied many times over. We teach them that God will take care of their needs, that worry has no place in the life of a Christian. Yet we may worry ourselves sick over our latest little problem and pop our tranquilizers with addictive zeal when the pressure’s on. We try to teach them to listen to us when we speak. But we’re often too busy to pay any attention to what they are saying. Sometimes we’re shouting at them when we tell them to lower their voices, or nagging them to pick up their things when ours are strewn all over the house. One woman told me that her parents washed her mouth out with soap for saying “golly” or “gee” when she was little. But she heard them through the bedroom wall swearing at each other. As you night well imagine, her emotional problems were immense.
We want our children to keep their word, but our promises to them mean very little if something comes up we would rather do. We encourage them not to be materialistic, yet they hear us complaining about the small house, the run-down car or the styleless clothes. We tell them to walk with the Lord, but they see no evidence that we are spending time in the Word or in prayer. We teach them how important it is to be with the Lord’s people on his day for instruction and worship. Yet we stay home for trivial reasons, or maybe even take them hiking or fishing during services. As Bible-believing Christians we want them to be concerned about the needs of a lost world, but we seldom mention any missionaries or pray for them as a family.
If we want our children to be what God wants them to be, then we must show them the way. Our failure in this respect is sad enough, but there is something even sadder, and that is our unwillingness to admit it. Too often we insist that there is nothing really wrong with the way we are living or the example we are setting. And this basic dishonesty about ourselves becomes our undoing. Children can see through the sham and hypocrisy of it all, and it destroys them.
Maybe we can label the basic problem “rut Christianity.” Rut Christians may be true believers in a state of spiritual immaturity or they may only know Christian vocabulary rather than knowing Christ himself. The jargon differs from church to church, but it doesn’t take long to pick up the “in” terms. In either case, they carefully maintain the routine, religious habit pattern that is expected of them. They attend church fairly regularly--maybe not as often as they should, but often enough to maintain the proper image. They give their money to the church--maybe not as much as they could, but enough to convince folks they’re genuinely committed to Christ. They may even accept some responsibilities in the church; after all, church work is important. But they systematically and skillfully mask their faults, sins, shortcomings, doubts, inner struggles, temptations, weaknesses, tensions, and conflicts, lest they destroy the “good Christian” image they want to project. They have never really enjoyed the personal presence of the living Christ, nor do they let him control every detail of their lives. He’s a Sunday-only Savior, but they try their hardest to make folks think he’s real to them.
They may have an angry shouting match all the way to church. But as soon as they step out of the car they put on their friendly Sunday smiles and greet folks with their saintly Sunday voices. And the kids begin to think, “It isn’t real. The Lord isn’t real. He doesn’t make any difference in the way we live. It’s all a big game.” Then they may see a certain unhappiness in their parents’ daily lives, a dull, restless, dissatisfying routine all week long--work, eat, read the paper, putter around in the yard, watch TV, go to bed, over and over, day after day. And Jesus Christ is no part of it at all. They sense that their folks are plodding along through life pretty much because they’re stuck with it. They hear about the joy and peace and purpose that Jesus brings; they may even hear their parents give a testimony to that effect in church. But they know better. They see them where they live.
So the kids often do one of two things--they either throw over the whole thing, openly rebel and repudiate Christianity, or they fall into the same empty, powerless “rut Christianity” their parents practiced. A few may fall in love with Jesus Christ and become real! Thank God for them. But they’re probably in the minority. Some people say, “Why doesn’t the church do something about the situation? Why doesn’t the church show them that Christ is real, that he can make a difference in the way people live?” Maybe we should be reminded that the pastors, youth leaders, teachers, and workers in our church are the mothers and fathers from our homes. Our churches can be no more vital than our homes are.
What is the answer? Some will be tempted to say, “Well, I’ll be honest then. I’ll throw all my good habits to the wind, stay out of church when I feel like it, broadcast my sins for all to see, and let everybody know the Lord isn’t real to me.” I know folks who have just about done that, but it didn’t solve a thing. In fact, it only complicated their problems and caused greater rebellion in their children. There are at least four things that will help us:
1. Get to know Jesus Christ intimately. That is going to take time in the Word and time in prayer. But we must do it! Our Christian lives will never be more than a rut unless Jesus Christ becomes our devoted friend, unless our aim in life is to know him warmly and well, just as it was for Paul (Phil. 3:10).
2. Let Jesus Christ make us what he wants us to be. Then we won’t have to pretend anymore or calculate ways to make people think we’re spiritual giants. We will be men and women of God in all genuine humility. We must begin by yielding ourselves to Jesus Christ, then continue by consciously depending on him every minute to help us be what we should be. There is really no other way to change significantly. We can turn over new leaves and make new resolutions until we’re fed up with our failures. But when we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, he helps us make the necessary changes.
3. Let Jesus Christ become involved in every detail of our lives. This is what we want to teach our children to do (see the next chapter) but we must do it ourselves first. Christ is interested in every particular of our lives, and we need to share everything with him. He wants us to acknowledge his presence all the time, seek his wisdom in every decision, talk to him about even the smallest matters, and make him a regular part of our daily conversation. The result will be some exciting answers to prayer and some thrilling evidences of divine guidance that we can use to show our children just how wonderful the Lord is.
4. Be honest about our faults. We have an old sin nature, and there are times when it gains control of our lives. We may lose our temper with our children or be cranky and irritable with them. Don’t be afraid to admit it. If we’ve acted in a self-centered, unchristlike manner, then we owe them an apology. The command to confess our faults one to another doesn’t exclude children from those who deserve our apologies (James 5:16). Some people protest, “But it will destroy their confidence in me.” No it won’t. They already know we’ve sinned. Refusing to admit it is the thing that destroys the confidence. Acknowledging our wrongs will build confidence and respect and draw us closer together.
I can remember heatedly scolding one of my boys for something he had done, only to realize later that I had grossly overreacted. When I told him I had behaved badly, he put his arm on my shoulder and said, “That’s okay, Dad. Nobody’s perfect.” I knew that already, but the experience left an aftermath of close companionship. There have been other occasions like that with my children, but far fewer than there should have been.
Admitting our faults also encourages our children to be honest about theirs, instead of pretending they don’t exist and perpetuating the same old “rut Christianity.” And this is what we are praying for and working toward, isn’t it? May God help us to unmask our hearts before him, then honestly and openly acknowledge our wrongs to one another. It will open new avenues of communication with our children and establish strong ties that Satan will not be able to break.
One note of warning must be sounded before we leave this subject. A poor parental example is not the only reason for children going astray. There are many other factors, not the least of which is the child’s own determined self-will. We need to be very careful about condemning the parents of rebellious children. Rather than our critical glances and chilling avoidance, they need our loving friendship, sympathetic support, and faithful prayers.