Godly parents are a challenge to the heart of a child. By godly I mean those who have more than a form of religion (2 Tim. 3:5) and know the power of Christ in their lives. A godly parent has a Spirit-quickened heart. He has heard God’s call to Abraham: “Walk before me, and be perfect.” It is not before men he walks, but before the Lord’s face. Men may laugh at his convictions, even persecute him and try to get him to change. Like Daniel, he will pray when men threaten him with death for praying. Like Pastor Yi, he will continue worshipping openly and calling upon his national leaders to repent, even when to do so means imprisonment.
A godly parent does not purchase his children’s affections with toys and games. He does not try to make obedience easier, for he knows his child is facing a life of cross-bearing. Appeasement will not work. It will either make you cross-averse or reject the cross altogether. A godly parent does not suffocate his children with rules and fear, for the Lord has wooed him with grace, melted him with love. Mercy and grace are wonderful to his soul; he never knowingly creates little Pharisees and legalists.
A godly parent speaks to his children about Christ and the gospel because this is where he has found righteousness and peace – in Christ alone. When he has a quiet moment in his pilgrim path, he remembers the cross, where Jesus Christ bore the full tally of all the strokes for his sins – and for all the sins of all God’s people. He stands amazed at Calvary. The Savior’s love, the Father’s love behind and in the Son’s love, makes love the godly parent’s song.
And his children are watching all this at a distance, but also very near. As they grow, they feel like they are beginning a book in the middle. What has happened to bring me into the home of a person like this? I hear my mother speaking tenderly of Jesus Christ – why? Who is he? There is something very attractive about free forgiveness and loving God, especially in a home whose walls drip with mercy and whose rafters are regularly raised with praise.
But the child is not there yet. While he is attracted, there is another “law in his members.” The flesh is repulsed by brokenness and divine mercy being one’s only hope. Baptismal regeneration would make this easier, but only like money-printing artificially lifts economic spirits – a false premise, a foolish remedy, deadly consequences. The child may and usually does, at least for a while, find his godly parents to be the greatest challenge in his life.
He feels the disparity to his own soul. Later, the world beckons, and he knows these two cannot go together – the faith and hopes of his godly parents with the fleeting pleasures of sin. Or, something deep within him which he does not understand keeps whispering that all his parents’ piety and even his parents’ God can never quiet this unrest in his soul or dislodge his cravings and desires. The child learns to hide them, perhaps from himself. He wants his parents’ approval, but the gnawing is there. Guilt grows in his soul, which casts a gray shade upon all his efforts at piety – are they real? Do I really mean this? Do I really know the Lord? This is hard, nothing less than a war. The flesh screams for easy.
He meets someone else with whom he can be himself, perhaps someone else on the run from the light of an imperfect but godly home. This chance encounter, which is no chance but a test, gives him hope for a little relief from being pressed so hard by the cross. Hard and narrow is the way of self-honesty, the way of chastening oneself before the Lord, the way of living with one’s self without being at war with oneself.
The Bible says that “foolishness is bound up within the heart of a child” (Prov. 22:15). Foolishness is more than the youthful desire to be free and to roam, to have less restraint and more excitement. Foolishness means a giddy, wayward heart that does not want to walk in God’s paths. It means a heart that is prone to wander, wants approval and love but loathes correction and discipline. It is a heart that may well be drawn to early piety out of self-righteousness and the desire to please parents, but in doing so greedily soaks up the praises of men. Many a child has been ruined by hearing praise for their piety – as if it were their own, or something to be learned in books or practiced to be praised. A young heart may be learning its catechisms while it is repulsed by Christ’s light shining within its dark recesses, by a parent who is broken before the Lord and pleading with him to forsake his idols and walk humbly with the Lord.
Parents, we cannot remove or curtail original sin. We cannot free the heart bound with foolishness. The Lord is the only Liberator; only he can free the child’s heart from the inner disquiet, the fear of exposure, the division that causes so much disturbance, alternating surface piety with fear and loathing, and even self-disgust (John 8:32). It can seem like demon-possession. It is actually the fight between the Spirit and the flesh, without the filters we learn to use as adults that hide the intensity of the conflict.
What can we do? First, we need to be very honest with children about sin. This does not mean telling them constantly that they are sinners; this, they learn early and well. They need to know sin’s deviousness and to expect its deceits in their own hearts. Second, be honest that you are not a godly parent because of anything good in you, books you have read (although they have been helpful!), or your own wisdom. It is Christ’s quickening grace overcoming your sins and showing grace to you in your deadness. The best book of grace in a child’s life is a parent’s book of sin honestly opened under the foot of the cross. Children need not feel lost in entering your life mid-book – tell them constantly how the book of your journey began – the mercy and grace and love of God the Father, the love of the Savior, his Son, and the love and fellowship of the life-giving Spirit. Tell them. Tell them of Christ and his love, that this is the reason for the convictions you hold, the discipline you give, and the separation from the world you seek and require. Be sure they understand and see that it has nothing to do with personal pride, cultural elitism, or self-righteousness. Each of us must sincerely feel that we are the chief of sinners.
Third, this defines how we deal with our sins – the chief of sinners must seek the chief of Saviors, the Lord Jesus Christ. Bring your children into your prayer closet, and let them hear a little of your self-probing, your seeking Christ for grace and repentance, and cleansing. Tell them about your original sin, the unrest in your heart, the sometimes seismic conflict between what you know to be right and good, and what your flesh craves, tempts, and twists. Then, your godliness will not be an obstacle to them. It will not be a cause of despair to them, when they look at you in all your holiness and think to themselves, “Well, there is no hope for me. Let me pretend a while longer.”
No, a godly parent knows and shares. No pretending is needed. He knows his child’s heart, because he knows his own. I am not good, dear son, dear daughter. I am black as soot with sin, fiery crimson bright with guilt, with the same sinful cravings and divided heart you have loathed, and the same hopelessness you have felt. Jesus Christ alone opened my chained prison cell and carried me into the light. He will do the same for you. Entrust your soul to him. Receive him as the Son of God and Savior of sinners. Rest upon his love, in his righteousness, and in his cleansing blood. The Father gave his Son to you in love. He does not hate but loves you, despite your inner struggles. Do not hide from him or them, but ask him to give you his Spirit of holiness. He cannot be vanquished. In his strength, together we will believe on the name of Jesus Christ and praise him for his wonderful grace.