Last edition, we began to explore the importance of getting to the hearts of the children and young people in our midst, so that they learn at that deep level how to love God and walk in obedience to Him. Or to put it another way, at St. John’s we want to raise children who will be authentic worshippers of God in Christ. That isn’t an optional extra. If we don’t teach them to delight in Christ, they will learn to worship something / someone else.
The problem is that all too often we settle for the much more superficial (and easily managed and measured) goal of good behaviour. Whether at home, or in Church, we want well behaved children. A complaint you might occasionally hear in the life of any Church is to do with the children’s behaviour. The plaintive cry of many a hassled parent is ‘Why can’t you just behave yourselves!’ Now, don’t mis-read me. I’m all for well-behaved children! But what I’m not for is a Church that breeds Pharisees. Pharisees are immaculately well behaved, but their heart is untouched by the beauty of His holiness. They know how to behave, but not how to worship. Our concerns must be deeper than behaviour as an end in itself – we desire the hearts of our children to be turned to Christ. A heart captured for Jesus is the key to Christ-like behaviour. And that is a much deeper vision for the children and young people in our midst.
Our families and our Church must be communities of redemptive grace in which children hear the call to faithful discipleship. We are here to be changed through our encounter with a God of grace through word and sacrament. There isn’t a different agenda for children or young people. Like the rest of us they need to be encountered by their God and redeemed through the work of the Holy Spirit. Particularly as parents we cannot be content with merely managing and controlling behaviour. We do have responsibilities here, but if we settle for that there won’t be lasting change, and as soon as our children move beyond the sphere of our influence (and so our structures of control), there will be nothing to restrain them any longer. As parents we must parent the heart and not (just) their behaviour.
Jesus captured this powerfully in the image of fruit-bearing tree in Luke 6: 43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. ... 45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.
Behind every behaviour there are attitudes and desires of the heart. Lasting change always comes through a change of heart. Authority and discipline are needed (however they articulate themselves in your family) but always in the context of getting at the issues of the heart. The danger lies in the fact that managing behaviour (often through threat, intimidation or manipulation) achieves more immediate results. It’s tempting, because we want lasting change to be instant. But it isn’t – it will be a process for them just as it is for us. It will be a growth in their understanding of themselves and in their understanding of God (on which more in coming articles). The process of touching the heart is a spiritual thing. As parents we have to recognise that it is fundamentally beyond our reach. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. That said, we do have the responsibility to set up what Paul Tripp calls ‘a transaction with God’. He suggests five questions that can structure a conversation that has the potential to touch the heart.
1. What happened?
The aim to help a child simply recall the events they have been a part of. Tripp suggests we don’t worry too much about the inevitable bias there will be in the account – after all, we all have a perspective.
2. What were you thinking and feeling as it was happening?
We want the child / young person to recognise that they were not passive, but that they interacted with, and formulated their response to the situation as it developed.
3. What did you do in response to the situation?
Help the child / young person to recognise that our words and behaviour come from the heart (what we thought and felt about the situation). Our behaviour is not formed by the situation, but by our hearts response to that situation.
4. What were you seeking to accomplish by doing what you did?
This helps to identify motives, goals, purpose, desires… what is really driving us.
5. What was the result?
Help the child / young person to recognise the consequences of their behaviour, including the fact that they are now in trouble with their parents!
The aim is to help children and young people to connect their behaviour with their heart, not with the external circumstances of their situation. Obviously the sophistication and self-awareness develops over the years. But as we prayerfully embark on this process again and again, we are looking to compare and contrast with the Bible’s teaching about what we should think and feel and how we should act. In this we are teaching our children / young people the art of repentance and of being conformed to the image of Christ.
Actually, these are pretty good questions to work on for ourselves as adults. As we do, we find we are modelling the process for our children through our own commitment to growing in Christ, and we will find we are ‘shepherding them with integrity of heart’ (Ps.78:72).