When devoted Christians are parents, we have a particular passion and responsibility to share Jesus with our children. After all, he is our number one priority, and our source of hope, joy, peace, salvation and eternity. All big things! But how do you do it, and, perhaps more accurately, how do you do it along with the 373 other things you’re expected to do as a parent in today’s world?
Let’s back up. In Deuteronomy 6, God’s people are being reminded about their primary allegiance to the Lord. This is especially important at this point in their history because they have been freed from slavery, have been wandering through the wilderness, and are about to enter a new land where they will encounter and interact with many different kinds of peoples and priorities, and who have many different gods and customs. But the Israelites are to be distinct. They are to be God’s people if they are to be his light, enjoy true freedom, and share his hope, truth, love and healing not only with each other, but with the wider world.
Here is the seminal text: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
There are a lot of things going on here, but let me highlight two. First, the Israelites are commanded to love God with their whole being. In this context, “love” isn’t a feeling. Love is closer to what we think of as loyalty or faithfulness. They are to be absolutely loyal and faithful to God regardless of the circumstances. And it’s for their own benefit: a life focused on who matters most is a life focused on what matters most. Second, they are to “impress” these commands on their children. It is addressed to the entire community generally, but to parents specifically. They are to do this in their daily lives.
FAITH INFORMS EVERYTHING
In the Disney movie Inside Out, we are given a behind-the-scenes look into the brain of a young girl named Riley. In her head, she has different “islands” which represent different aspects of her life and personality. There is Family Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island and even Goofball Island! When it comes to faith, we can falsely assume that faith should have its own island. But if we follow the logic of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, faith should be an integral part of every island in our brains, not just one.
Oh boy. I think I can already imagine what’s going through your mind: “We have to remember God in everything?! I already struggle to remember which kid has which lesson on which night, to make more homemade baby food for our youngest, research the best daycare, incorporate more meatless meals into our dinnertime, schedule play dates, learn how to clean my home using only non-toxic products I make myself, and spend quality time with each of them!”
I hear you. Parenting today is different. It’s often high-stress, high-anxiety, high expectation (and low help!). That said, should we continue to prioritize these biblical teachings for our children? The answer is a resounding, yes! What’s more, taking a holistic approach, where these teachings permeate every part of our lives, also have benefits for us as parents.
In Mark 12:28-31, when Jesus was asked to identify the most important commandment, he replied by quoting that same passage in Deuteronomy 6. He also tied it to Leviticus 19:18: “love your neighbour as yourself.” He went on to tell his original disciples to teach his subsequent disciples everything he had commanded them (Matt. 28:18-20). This obviously includes the commandment he considered most important. To me, there is no greater confirmation that, for Christian parents, teaching our children to be loyal and faithful to God is of prime importance, and that we should also teach our children to love the people around them as they love themselves. As a heavenly Father, we know that God wants the best for his children; why wouldn’t we want the same for ours?
I once heard someone say that children aren’t very good at listening to their parents, but they sure are good at imitating them! That’s why we need to teach our children to be loyal and faithful to God not only by saying it’s important, but living in a way that shows it’s important. Never underestimate your impact on the life of someone who’s watching you. Oh, and the research backs it up. In Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids, Kara Powell and Chap Clark highlight the number one factor in the faith of children: the faith of their parents.
A mistake people make is to assume that church programs are the primary influence. But that’s not true. Researcher George Barna says that when the church tries to take over as the primary spiritual caregiver for a child, it creates an “unhealthy dependence upon the church to relieve the family of its biblical responsibility.” The church matters – it matters a lot; but parents are pinnacle. Martin Luther said it like this: “Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel.” You can’t outsource discipleship to a third party. And, of course, if you love Jesus, why would you want to?
So what does it look like to live out this command? It means speaking openly and honestly about your faith, even when you don’t have all the answers. It means learning, and then teaching, Jesus’ words. It means explaining the reasons for your actions so that you can help your kids make the connection. It means being the hands and feet of Jesus to the people around you in your everyday conversations, volunteering and service projects. Children know when you’re giving lip service to something, and they know when you actually mean it.
At this point, you might feel overwhelmed. I get that. I’ve felt it too. It all matters so much, doesn’t it? We certainly need to take our parenting seriously. At the same time, there are practical steps we can take and habits to establish that help us put our discipleship into action. John Ortberg says, “Habits eat willpower for breakfast.” When you establish godly habits, they start to influence how you live, even when you’re feeling unmotivated! (And that’s good for your own wellbeing, in addition to your kids’.)
Some of these steps and habits are the basics. They include daily Bible reading – both for yourself and with your children with age-appropriate resources, perhaps The Jesus Storybook Bible, The Action Bible, or the Jesus-Centred Bible. And they certainly include weekly worship and family prayer time.
There are other practical steps and habits you can take as well. One that is vital and life-giving is serving others. For children and youth, this makes an essential connection between theory and practice. A lot of families are busy, so this definitely involves purging and rearranging your schedule. It may involve volunteering at or through your church on Sundays or through the week. But it also includes regular family projects that are clearly designed to serve and bless others. You could set aside a night to pick up garbage in your neighbourhood, or make lunches for the homeless. My family’s next project is to have a baking night where we take what we make to the local hospice. As you grow together, your family can even get involved in things like writing letters of encouragement to persecuted Christians. As kids get older they should have a greater say in what you choose to do. They will be especially motivated if you engage in causes that appeal to them personally like helping underprivileged children or fighting human trafficking. Imagine raising awareness for a particular cause and getting involved together.
Earlier I said that a life focused on who matters most is a life focused on what matters most. Serving others is a tangible act of love for God and neighbour. It also gives your family purpose (another plus for your own wellbeing!), joy, and a growing, faith-based bond as you get in on the ways Jesus is renovating the world with his grace and truth as he brings heaven to earth.
Technology and music can make a daily impact as well. In our home we have limits around technology and screen use. But there are healthy and faith-based ways to strengthen everyone’s relationship with God. For example, there are some apps that are good for younger users (like a free game called “Bible For Kids” through YouVersion). The radio program Adventures in Odyssey by Focus on the Family can be accessed online, over the air, or by CD or download, and is great for listening to at home or in the car. Plus, Christian music has come such a long way.There are genres from pop to hard rock and metal which appeal to a variety of ages. St. Augustine once said that we sing the truth into our hearts. How true!
In a short article like this, I don’t pretend to cover all the bases. What I so hope to do is give us some significant things to think about as we try to apply Deuteronomy 6:4-9 to our modern, Christian lives which are so easily watered down and muted by the comforts and conveniences of a lesser life. The best way to teach your children how to love God is to simply love God. The best way to teach your children how to love their neighbours is to love your neighbours.
Finally, remember that it’s not all up to you. Phew! When it comes to parenting, we can all recall both successes and failures–sometimes more the latter than the former! But in the end, God is the author of your child’s faith, not you. I don’t think God expects parents to be know-it-alls, just know-it-somes. The best way to teach your children how to trust and follow Jesus is to trust and follow Jesus. You don’t need to be perfect. But you do need to be a disciple.