We recently sat down with CCEF Faculty Member, Julie Lowe, to discuss the upcoming CCEF National Conference.
Q. Would you share one of your conference topics and why you chose it?
Nurturing Family is one of my topics. I chose it because I think we need to consider how we can proactively pursue relationships in our family life. My goal is to talk about what inhibits that pursuit. All of us should be asking “What’s getting in the way of me communicating with my spouse or my kids or my extended family? Why is this not a priority anymore?”
The most obvious inhibitor to family relationships is the lifestyle we live and the culture we are buying into. Whether it’s materialism or success, or …fill in the blank, these things suffocate real loving interaction with people. Perhaps unwittingly, we have dismissed the need for authenticity and relationship, but for what? For things that do not satisfy—like getting ahead, having a big house, nice cars, and getting our kids into the best schools. We spend so much time and effort running after these things, that we end up living in superficial ways with each other. And after a while, it becomes the norm rather than the exception.
Q. You have a large family. Does this topic impact you?
Absolutely! We are a two-parent working family with six kids, and the demands feel endless. It’s easier to deal with the tyranny of the urgent rather than the meaningful and the eternal. To move beyond the day’s activity and the crazy schedule toward that which is long-lasting—fostering relationships with my kids—is hard. It doesn’t always come naturally. It’s easier to focus on the immediate demands that I’m facing rather than on relating to my kids.
So I’m convicted every time I speak about this topic. But when I feel this, it helps me to remember what is most important, and I hope, in some way, to pass that on to other parents.
Q. No one plans to have a disconnected family. Yet we end up there anyway. Where are we tripping up?
It’s so common now to have both parents working outside the home. Combine that with multiple activities and the belief that busier kids are better off, and you have the beginnings of the problem.
I think there is also social pressure for parents to be overly involved, whether it is at your kid’s school or at your church or in your career. We give the impression that we can “do it all.” When you value these things, it reduces the family’s time together. And how much harder would all this be in a single parent home?
Relationships are hard work. I think we want the payoff of a close family without all the little moments of effort to get there. And now, through social media, we have more and more opportunity to have pseudo-relationships in ways that require no work. It’s tempting to replace meaningful family interactions with less costly ones. Checking my Facebook page is certainly easier than engaging with my kids.
Q. How can the church be a support to nurturing relationships?
First of all, the church should be encouraging families to invest in one another before investing in the work of ministry. The irony is that when we are nurturing family relationships, we are inherently doing ministry—we are building the church one relationship at a time.
And I believe it’s also important to stop segregating groups according to their status in the church. There is a great need for singles, families, and the elderly to be involved in each other’s lives. There is so much richness each has to offer the other, but it takes time and work to cross these lines. We need the church to cast a vision that values these relationships.
Q. Is there a place in Scripture you’ve found that is helpful to the goal of working on family relationships?
In his epistles, Paul uses imagery of the body to represent the church, but it also applies to the family. For the different parts of the body to work together, they need to be in unity rather than disconnected— even though they are very different from each other. Additionally, much like every family, every church addressed in Paul’s epistles had different issues that needed to be worked through. They weren’t all called to be formulaic and uniform. They had different struggles. These examples give liberty for individuality, but always at the root is the call for us to live for others, to live beyond ourselves. In an individualistic culture, these words are all the more important to hear, as we can be a people consumed with ourselves rather than living sacrificially for others.
Q. What would you want people to take away from this time?
I hope that we all walk away with a greater conviction to evaluate our lifestyles and priorities, assess what they reveal, and then do the hard work of changing them where change is needed. My hope is each of us will be challenged and committed to the work of relationships no matter how hard it is. With God’s help, we can make changes that really matter.
We recently spoke with CCEF Faculty Member, Alasdair Groves, to discuss the upcoming CCEF National Conference.
Q. Would you share one of your conference topics and why you chose it?
I chose Family Devotions as one of my topics. I chose it for a few reasons. First off, this is an area of personal interest for me. I have three young kids, so I’m thinking through how I want devotions to look for my own family. Secondly, I’d say it’s an area of some weakness for me. I don’t feel like I’m doing it especially well. But even as I say that, I have this sense that my feelings of inadequacy make me just like everybody else. I can’t remember hearing any mom or dad say, “You know, we just have great family devotions.”
As parents, it seems we all struggle in this area. We feel like there’s never enough time and kids’ attention spans are so short. We wonder when we should do it and how to hold kids’ interest. So in answer to your question, I like to pick conference topics that will stretch both me and others, and help us answer questions that have real impact on our lives.
Q. What are some of the challenges people face in family devotions?
I think the most common challenges fall in one of two broad categories. The first is logistical and the second is emotional—a sense of guilt or burden.
The logistical concerns are kind of obvious. Who has lots of time for their personal devotions? Who has additional time for family devotions? Doing family devotions involves having different people all together at once, and so that probably means that you have various scheduling conflicts to deal with. It’s so hard to sustain a pattern when that’s going to get broken by one child’s sports practice or somebody’s work schedule. And so I think there’s just this constant sense of “How do we get it in? When do we do it? How do we make this work on a regular basis?” That sense of busyness is one logistical concern.
I think another logistical struggle is due to technology. Everyone’s wired in 24/7, so we’ve all become more “interruptable,” even at mealtimes. Someone’s phone or other device is always pinging for attention. That just makes it harder than ever to have undistracted time for devotions.
Then, there are the emotional issues. There’s this huge sense of pressure people feel when it comes to doing family devotions. We beat ourselves up by saying, “I should be doing this. This is what good Christian families do.” We want this good thing for our family and for our kids. We also tend to have over-idealized versions of what it should be. The comments I hear sound like this: “I’m not doing enough… It’s not good enough… I feel like it ought to be more.”
So those are the major challenges to family devotions, not to mention the struggle that’s most basic: it’s just hard to sustain any habit that requires initiative.
Q. Can you share a Scripture that has encouraged you in the practice of family worship?
There are two places in Scripture that I’m thinking of off the top of my head. The first place for me that immediately leaps out is the book of Judges. It’s near and dear to my own heart because of my father’s interest in that book. Judges is about what leadership for God’s people should look like. And it illustrates the problems that come when that leadership isn’t there. From my dad’s perspective, one of the most ominous moments in the entire book—maybe in the whole Bible—is where it says in chapter 2, “And a generation arose who did not know the Lord and had not seen the things he had done.” As you read on in the book, you see one bad thing after another. And there are these cascading events all the way to the final verse of the last chapter, which says, “In those days Israel had no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That’s such a sobering statement. Yet—the flip side reaction we can have is to recognize just how powerful it is to instill knowledge of God in the next generation is a high priority.
The second place in Scripture, (and this is on the positive side) is Deuteronomy 6 where there’s this call, in one sense probably the call, to practice family devotions. It says: Talk with your family. Talk with your children about the Lord. Do it when you get up and when you lie down and when you go in and when you go out.
One thing I really appreciate about these verses is the flexibility. God is not saying “Here’s exactly what you need to do. Here are the twelve laws of family devotions.” Instead, the fundamental core of the call is simply to disciple your kids as you live life. Raise them up, taking the opportunities that are presented to you to spiritually nourish your children. I really appreciate the “formatlessness” of it. I’m not arguing against structure, it’s just comforting to know that there’s not this perfect way to do it that’s right for all people at all times.
Q. Can you speak to the dynamic of engaging Scripture with children in particular?
I’ve always tried to live by the rule I learned from Julie Lowe (one of our CCEF faculty and a friend) who said that any theology that you can’t explain to a six-year-old is something you don’t understand well enough yourself. That has been a helpful barometer for me—even before I had kids.
So I try to make sure that what I talk about with my kids is really clear to me first. After that, well, this may sound too casual, but I’ve really tried to live by the idea that discipling my kids is sort of like throwing spaghetti at the wall—only some of it is going stick. You need to keep in mind that kids are often absorbing more than it looks like in the moment, even when they seem distracted or they ask some completely unrelated question. Not looking for this immediate “light bulb moment” changes everything. Instead you’re looking for a longer trajectory of spiritual growth. Sometimes you find out that they heard more than you realized, and that it was impacting them in ways you couldn’t see at first. Those are great moments!
Q. What do you hope people come away with from your time together?
Given that guilt and a sense of burden is so present here, I would love for people to walk out feeling relieved and free.
I hope that comes in two ways. First, I want to offer something personalized. I want to offer people not just a “Here’s the best way to do devotions,” but rather “Let me help you think about what the best way is for your family to do devotions.” I want to offer some tools to evaluate “Who are we as a family? Where are we in terms of devotions? What would work well for us?” I hope to give people a real sense of freedom and flexibility based on a Deuteronomy 6 mentality.
Second, I would also love people to come away with a slightly greater sense of “Oh okay, I can do this. This is attainable.” I would love for them to say, “Okay, you know what? We could try this. It’s something that actually sounds both pleasant and possible.”2017 National Conference
How do you talk to your kids about sex and sexuality? It can be an uncomfortable subject.
Here is a phrase I often use when I teach young people about sex: God creates; the world corrupts. God creates food; the world corrupts the use of food. God creates relationships; the world corrupts and uses relationships in ways that were never intended. God creates sex and sexuality; the world corrupts it and turns it into something it was never meant to be.
Unfortunately, too often we address the corruption of such things before building a positive perspective of what God created them to be. By the time we engage youth on a topic like sex, it is often packed full of warnings—”why you shouldn’t”—and do’s and don’ts. Sadly then, what comes across is that God is against sex because it is immoral or unhealthy, and a young person might draw the conclusion that it is sinful and wrong to desire it.
But God is not against sex, he is for it. After all, he is the author of it, and all that God creates is good and worthy of desiring. In a pleasure-saturated society, we have a distinct message that is more than “that’s bad; don’t do it.” We need to be willing to convey this message to our young people sooner and do so in a way that is clear, positive, and bold.
And we need to also speak more clearly about how the world corrupts sex and then wonders why it doesn’t deliver as expected. Sometimes I use an example like this to make my point.
There is a context in which anything that it is created is meant to function well. Take for example, the iphone. It is an amazing piece of technology that can do more things than I can name. Now imagine dropping the iphone off a highway bridge only to be surprised to find when you retrieve it from the pavement below that it no longer works. Then imagine blaming Apple for your phone’s corrupted state and filing a complaint that you have been given a defective phone! Do you see how foolish it would be to blame the creator when, clearly, you were provided the boundaries in which the phone was to work and it was you who chose to misuse it?
The creator of something knows how it is intended to work best. And anytime you go outside of the creator’s parameters, it is inclined to malfunction. God is not a kill joy. He made sexuality and set the context in which it is meant to thrive. We must inspire kids to have confidence that the context in which God calls us to enjoy sex is for our good.
When I convey this message, I hope to surprise young people with these positive truths about sex. Many will never have heard them before. Subsequently, we will also talk about what happens when you corrupt sex and use it in ways that God never intended. Though the world tells us that it is pleasurable and should come without archaic rules, this use of sex will not deliver what it promises. Instead, it will deliver painful consequences, brokenness, shattered dreams, and relational injury. It becomes warped and unrecognizable, a degraded picture of what it was created to be. It may deliver temporary pleasure, but it cannot provide lasting satisfaction and relational harmony.
We live in a culture that promotes a self-absorbed, sensuality-centered lifestyle. If our children are going to learn about sexuality prematurely (and they will), be the one to proactively shape a godly vision of sex. Find winsome ways to talk about it. Make it a vision that inspires confidence in the Creator, and refuses to corrupt that which he created.
We have a common crisis in our home; it is the calamity of boredom. Our children might even consider it a catastrophe. “I’m bored” is repeated so often it would not be an overstatement to say that these words echo continuously throughout our home especially during any break from school. These are children with limited media time but still children with a Wii and Xbox system, a pool outside our door, multiple games, toys, and other planned activities. Yet “I’m bored” rolls off our children’s tongues with great frequency and displeasure.
As a result, we came up with a clever solution. We told our children that every time we hear the words, “I’m bored” (and all versions of boredom: “I’m tired”, “Nothing to do”, etc.), we would assign a chore to do. It didn’t take long before the words slipped out and thereafter, my kids appeared to find ways to occupy their time. Though it is a clever solution (and a great way to get the house cleaned), doing chores does not address their more fundamental struggles.
First, young people struggle with being over-entertained. When left to their own devices, they will often turn first to technology which allows them to be passively entertained rather than actively engaged in a hobby or activity. By spending time on social media, video games, TV or movies, they are, quite literally, entertaining themselves to mindlessness. When there is a moment of silence or inactivity, the adversity of boredom descends upon them and they feel incapable of overcoming it. Assigning a few chores makes them aware of their plight, but it is only an external impetus for behavioral change. They need to learn to engage free time more productively.
Second, we need to help our children foster the neglected gift of stillness. There is something lost when we do not learn to just sit, to be quiet, swing on a hammock or take a walk without something bellowing in our ear. We all need to stop and smell the roses, experience creation, to cease striving and know that He is God. We need to learn to enjoy such moments as a delight, not a period of boredom. Like us, children need to learn to reflect, contemplate, and meditate on the things of God. How will that happen if we do not endeavor to instill this in our children?
Third, kids need to be less self-consumed by their personal comforts and desires and learn to think outside of themselves. There is a world of need, service, job opportunities, education and life to be lived and they need to be nudged (or sometimes dragged) in the right direction. Teens are not going to wake up one day and feel charitable and ask to go serve in the local food pantry. It requires cultivating generosity and a desire to serve. It means instilling in them a willingness to give of both time and resources. As parents, we have to be willing to do the hard work of steering our kids towards service and imparting within them a desire to be other-centered.
So, if your kids are bored at home, you might try the chore response. It does have a certain appeal. But recognize its limitations. It will not instill in them the godly character you really desire for your children. That only comes through careful examination of what captures their affections, and equipping them to thoughtfully steward their free time.
“Have we talked with our children this week about the delights of living more
than the disciplines of living? Have we inspired and guided them more
than we have corrected them?”
– V. Gilbert Beers
Many of you are familiar with a Netflix series that is capturing the attention of middle and high schoolers alike. 13 Reasons Why is based on a novel written by Jay Asher. After classmate and love interest, Hannah Baker, commits suicide, Clay Jensen is left reeling to understand why. He returns home from school to find a package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside, he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah. She tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.
Clay becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows along with her taped words, he uncovers the people that impacted her decision—and their secrets. Clay is conflicted with guilt, confusion, and a desire to right the wrongs that have been committed.
The haunting question left for the living is this: “Did I kill Hannah Baker?” Guilt and shame quickly wreak havoc on a group of students whose lives are thrown together by the secrets they are each trying to hide. It ends with a heart break, some secrets being revealed, and some not. If there is anything positive in the message, it is that choices have consequences (at times, very serious ones) and that we all must take responsibility for our own actions.
However, this valid message is greatly overshadowed by the graphic brutality, sexuality and corruption that is displayed as fairly “normal” for kids this age. The program reflects the underlying themes present in many other teen dramas: licentiousness, do what feels good, look out for number one, recreational sex and drug use—all with little redemptive guidance in the drama that unfolds. Parents and other adults are depicted as incompetent, ill-informed people who interfere with what teenage reason knows to be the better way. And though these activities and beliefs may be normal for some adolescents, these programs create a distorted sense of what is typical for American teen culture and set a bad precedent for the average teen/preteen who is watching.
I could rail on the reasons this series should not be targeted to young people and the risks it creates for other youths to take steps similar to Hannah Baker. However, there is something valuable I took away from this story. It is this: Kids need reasons why they should live. They need to find meaning and identity in things that genuinely fulfill. They need hope. And they need to learn how to live.
Have we given our kids 13 reasons why life is worth living? Have we fostered conversations about hard topics? Have we convinced them that no subject is too hard for us to hear, no issue is off limits, and that we can handle even the most intimate details of their lives with genuine love and concern? We must be proactive and foster connections with our young people. When they are tempted to believe what we have to say is inconsequential or inadequate, we must work tirelessly to engage them, proving our value in their lives.
Let teens know they are not alone. Be proactive in addressing hard topics when they are young, before the issues even enter their world. Be a redemptive guide speaking into the corruption they will be forced to wade through. Let them know there is One who fights on their behalf.
Here are 13 reasons you can give your children for why life is worth living:
1. You are not alone. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)
2. You have value. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” “Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.” (1 Peter 2:9; Matthew 10:31)
3. God cares about your tears. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
4. You can find help. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Psalm 46:1; Hebrews 4:15-16)
5. Your life has purpose. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
6. What you are going through is temporary. “Do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
7. There is a good way forward, even when life is hard. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
8. You are more than your outward appearance. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
9. You cannot imagine what good lies in store for you. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man—the things which God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
10. You will not always feel this way. “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9; Psalm 30:5)
11. You are greatly loved. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” “How wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” (Jeremiah 31:3; Ephesians 3:18)
12. You will not be put to shame. “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.” “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For he himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” (Isaiah 54:4; Hebrews 13:5-6)
13. God is up to good in your life. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28)
As parents, live out these 13 reasons yourself! When you talk with your kids, put these reasons into your own words, adorned with your life experience and theirs. And, as appropriate, point them to Scripture where God gives these reasons. Help them to connect the dots from God’s promises to their struggles. The goal is not to quote Scripture at our kids, but to bring truth to life in relevant words and actions. We want to help them see that the Bible speaks of far more than correction and rules. It speaks of life and freedom and personal relationship with a God who knows what is going on in their lives. The challenge is to winsomely and convincingly speak such truths into their experiences. And, when God is present, you will find that there are far more than 13 reasons life is worth living. So keep looking and listening to our living, loving God!
I’ve already told you about my dog Braille. In a blind dog, I saw the goodness of God’s care and provision for the broken things of this world. Through my own growing love and compassion for Braille, I realized that our weaknesses and neediness are not burdensome or repulsive to God. And that in fact, he uses our frailties to reveal himself to us. Little did I know that human frailty was something I was going to face in some profound ways.
In 2013, my son Andrew was diagnosed with a disease that is gradually causing him to lose his vision. When the diagnosis came, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt sick to my stomach as hundreds of implications for his life began to sink in. What dreams would he no longer be able to fulfill? He wanted to be a baseball player or maybe an astronaut. Such things were no longer possible. He wouldn’t be able to ride a bike, learn to drive, or likely live on his own. What would his future be like? Then there was the question of being prepared. “Lord,” I prayed, “I am not equipped to parent a child with this disease. I am the wrong person. I lack the knowledge, skills, and resources to help him. Lord, you’ve given this child the wrong parents. We are incompetent!”
I was quickly baptized into learning what it meant to be the parent of a child with a long term disability. I was now a member of a club that no one is excited to join. I repeatedly asked myself: How could I ever be what he needs? I am not being humble when I say I am the worst person God could have picked for this task. Days need to be spent in hospitals for tests and I am someone who faints at the sight of blood. I am also not an assertive person. Parents of special needs kids have to be their child’s advocate, to be uncomfortably assertive and tenacious. I was not up for the task. We are a large family with two working parents and limited time, energy, and resources. How and why would God think this was possible? There are so many others who are more competent to manage this than me.
And then, how could I tell him? How would I explain to my son that he has a condition that will take his vision away? I was afraid that he would question God and his goodness, and that he might become bitter and angry. I worried that the innocence of his trust in God would be corrupted by his suffering.
However, when God calls us to do something, he also equips us for it. I watched events unfold that demonstrated that he was already at work and knew exactly what he was doing when he allowed Andrew to face this affliction. As we began adjusting to the diagnosis and pursuing resources for Andrew, we saw that the way God uniquely wired him was a resource in itself. Andrew is logical and gifted with figuring things out. For a visually impaired individual, using adaptive technology is a lifeline to communicating with others and becoming self-sufficient. Andrew has a natural propensity for it and took to it easily. Educational facilities and teaching hospitals would smile when he came in because he was so much fun to work with and often showed them how to operate equipment when they forgot! They would brag about how well he was doing, and I watched him beam with pride.
But it all culminated for me on a Sunday afternoon when Andrew was recounting what was taught in Sunday school class that morning. They had discussed the passage in John 9 where the disciples asked Jesus why the blind man was born blind. I cringed as he began talking, wondering how it was handled (many did not yet know of his condition). When he finished talking about the lesson, I asked, “So, what do you take away from the story?” He replied, “Well, I learned that God can take even my disability and use it for good… for his glory. God doesn’t waste anything.”
It brought tears to my eyes. I had not yet used the word disability with him. I had not yet figured out how to help him grasp a good God while experiencing a crippling disease. While I struggled to know how I would speak to my son, God was already doing so and using my son to speak back to me! Andrew was modeling to me that God sees. God is not silent, distant, or uninvolved. He was already working, showing me the benefits of how he wired this boy, and using medical staff, Sunday school teachers, and others to demonstrate that he was present and very engaged.
God knew. He knew that Andrew’s intellect and natural aptitude with technology equipped him for the challenges he would face with this disability. God sees. He knew Andrew’s positive outlook and natural curiosity would help him to use equipment and learn to read braille. God had prepared Andrew for such a time as this.
But then there was still me. Not only did I feel ill-equipped, my thoughts still hovered around the loss I felt. As parents, we want the best for our children. We want to see them thrive and succeed and be all that they can be. I grieved, fearing that this would not be the case for Andrew, or so I thought. And I grieved for all the ways it would impact me and my parenting. I was discouraged by what I would have to learn and the ways in which my life would have to change. It brought out all of my insecurities and weaknesses. I feared that I could not serve him the way he would need to be served.
At some point, I was reminded of this verse: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). So I prayed. My prayer went something like this. “I will boast in my weakness that the power of Christ may be perfected in my life, my parenting, and my son. Though I do not want this for my child, for myself, or for our family…. Lord, let your power shine through our brokenness, and vulnerabilities.” I prayed and prayed—and I began to see God work.
God knew. He knew he would be stretching me and calling me to trust in ways I was not equipped for. He knew it would challenge me to be more assertive. He knew it would shake my confidence but he wanted to show me that can I rest in trusting that he is good and will be my provision. God is up to something good in my life, though it is very challenging. He is also up to something good in Andrew’s life and will continue to use Andrew and who he is—all for his glory.
Once again God has shown me how he sees brokenness. He is not put off by it. Instead he uses it in his plans to reveal himself to us and draw us closer to him. We do not face the future alone. Just as God gave Braille a loving family to care for him, God gives us himself. Our response is to trust him, even when we cannot see.
Some of the most burdensome moments for a parent are when it is clear to those around you that your child is defiant or difficult. What are other people thinking? What does this say about me as a parent? They might assume your child’s behavior is a result of inadequate parenting or something else amiss in your home. People may even be bold enough to share their views, without any sense of the shame they are heaping upon you. Those of you with a difficult child understand. You feel marked, and even judged, by your child’s personal struggles. You hang your head around people who “know” about the problem. You assume they see you as a failure. If you were a good parent, surely your children would be well-behaved, love God, and have good manners. After all, their children are not so insubordinate.
If this is how you feel, you may have bought into the belief that good parents produce good children and bad parents produce bad children. At times, this seems downright biblical. If you raise a child in the way he should go, he won’t depart from it, right? So it follows that if you were godly enough, wise enough and patient enough, your child would not be so rebellious. It seems that the right formula is: love plus discipline plus godly instruction = “good” kids. And because, at times, the formula does seem to work, you determine the error must be in your parenting.
I’ve heard many a parent say, “We’ve exhausted all options, all approaches, all forms of consequences… and nothing worked. I tried being calm; I tried consistent discipline; I tried appealing to their conscience and praying with them and for them. Nothing helped. Nothing changed.” What the parent means is that it did not produce the desired behavior change or a visible heart change. The assumption is that, once again, the formula was applied, and it proved useless.
But this is a faulty, unbiblical approach. Good kids come out of horrific family backgrounds, and rebellious, willful kids come out of good, Christian homes. Children do not come to us as blank slates, but with their own personalities, strengths, weakness, desires, and temptations towards particular sin. They are born with hearts that are wooed by their own desires, and they exercise volition to choose for themselves the type of person they will become. There is an active moral responder on the other end of your parenting—one who chooses whom they will serve. And there is no way a parent can ensure the outcome.
Of course, a parent does play a significant role in a child’s life, but don’t buy into the belief that assumes good parenting will produce well-behaved children. It incorrectly places all the ownership and blame on you. And the burden of it might tempt you to want to give up or resort to poor or ungodly parenting (anger, yelling, harshness, despair, backing down, or backing away completely) because it might appear to work in the short run.
What then are you to do? Let me suggest two things that might help.
First, evaluate your motivation. Though you are not responsible for your child’s bad choices, could it be that, without realizing it, you are adding to the problem? If you are frustrated, despairing, or angry because your child is difficult, you need to ask yourself: What standard do you judge yourself by? Whose agenda is dictating your parenting? Is it a worldly, self-centered agenda, or a Christ-centered one? You can desire good things that become driven by very bad motives. Do you care too much about your own comfort or reputation? Do you desire a well-behaved child with few problems, or struggles? Children that make you look good, that are productive, smart, and kind? Are you embittered because you have invested yourself in this child and see no results? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, consider confessing the desires that grip your heart. Ask God to give you the grace, fortitude, and wisdom to parent your challenging child. Ask him to show you how to respond to your child out of love and concern for his or her wellbeing, not your own.
Second, remind yourself of what God calls you to as a parent—no more, no less. He calls you to love your children, to model a Christ-like character and lifestyle, and to respond wisely and thoughtfully to their struggles. You are to foster a personal relationship with the living God, and, to the best of your ability, shape your child’s strengths and weaknesses in his image. Though God expects you to parent with consistent love and wisdom, he does not hold you responsible for results that are driven by the child’s sin or rebellion.
Stop “trying” to make things turn out a particular way and just do the hard work of godly parenting. Do not judge its effectiveness by your child’s response. Simply wrestle with this:
Is my parenting loving?
Is it consistent?
Is it wise?
That will be challenging enough. You will fail, be convicted, and need forgiveness on those fronts alone. The rest must be left to the work of the Spirit in a child’s life. You will find much freedom from judgement, less care for the opinions of others, more hope and less despair when you commit your parenting to the Lord. Let him do the rest. As Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not grow weary of doing good.”
The book of Proverbs reminds us that we are to disciple our children (Prov. 1:8). But to do that—to be good disciplers—we need relationships with our kids that are honest and open. We need to know what is really going on with them so we can help encourage godly thinking. But kids don’t always cooperate. Sometimes they don’t want to talk with us and, at a surprisingly young age, children learn they can avoid engaging in thoughtful discussion by giving the notorious “I don’t know” response to our questions.
We see this at school. When a student is not paying attention, or doesn’t have an immediate answer and says “I don’t know,” the focus quickly moves to the next student and they’ve been let off the hook.
We see this at home. “Why did you cheat on that test? Why didn’t you clean your room when I asked? Why did you lie about that?” When given the “I don’t know” response, the parent often lapses into lecture mode during which the child checks out emotionally and does not have to call heart motivations to task.
We see this in counseling. Kids say “I don’t know” instinctively, almost without thought. It also comes with an expectation that I, as the counselor, will move on to another topic, or do as many other adults and answer the question myself. Possibly I will begin lecturing as well, which simply requires the child’s ability to endure my rant.
The problem with all these situations is that children learn that such a response keeps them from having to do the hard work of critical thinking or personal self-reflection. They don’t have to stop and put any deliberation into a subject. They may even be avoiding accountability or trying to prevent being vulnerable by admitting to particular thoughts, feelings or beliefs.
But letting children get away with such shallow responses is not good discipleship. We need to find ways to get past such responses and give them insight into their own hearts. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” The question is how can we draw them out?
Years ago I attended a training session where I heard the results of some research done with youth on the “I don’t know” response. When asked the follow-up question, “Well, if you did know, what would your answer be?” kids will give a more responsive answer 50% of the time. Brilliant, isn’t it? It confirmed what I already suspected. By demonstrating genuine care, slowing the moment down, and giving kids an opportunity to really consider the question, they will often respond more thoughtfully.
Here are some specific methods I use to handle the “I don’t know” response.
Brainstorm with the child
Keep in mind that sometimes a child may not know how to answer your question. At these times, it is helpful to brainstorm with the child about what might be going on. By offering them possibilities, I’m encouraging thoughtful interaction. I’m also not letting the child off the hook. Loving well sometimes means coming alongside someone to aide in greater self-awareness. After hearing several options, a child will often say, “Yeah, I think that is it.” When this happens, it is often because I was able to put into words what they were thinking or feeling but were unable to articulate. At other times, they won’t initially voice what they think for fear of admitting what they know to be true or shameful. By offering a possibility and modeling it as an option that does not shock me, it frees them up to acknowledge it openly.
Wait them out
For those who are simply unwilling, defiant or lazy in their response, I have multiple goals. I want the youth to know that I care too much to accept “I don’t know.” What a child thinks matters to me and I genuinely want to understand, so “I don’t know” can’t be accepted as a final answer. I respond with, “Take a minute and think about it. I am willing to wait.” Then I wait silently. The pressure is on. They stare at me; I stare at them. I am open and encouraging but allow for the potential of uncomfortable silence. Silence can be a powerful motivator for those who are uncomfortable with it. I use it to my advantage—a type of positive pressure for kids to engage. More than that, I hope it truly demonstrates that they are worth waiting on. I will often encourage them by saying, “What you think and feel is important and I care. I’m in no hurry.”
By showing them that they can’t get out of the conversation until they engage, I hope they see me as a person who genuinely cares to know them more deeply. I don’t need to move on to the next topic, nor will I be put off. It may be one of the few times someone in their world slows down enough to really wait and listen. It will not be lost on them.
Gently encourage self-awareness
Then, like in my first example, I work to teach the skill of self-reflection. Once they start to talk, I urge them to consider their motives for what they said or did, and I gently challenge their responses to stimulate critical thinking and greater self-awareness. If we want to raise godly children, these skills are essential.
As adults, parents, teachers, leaders and counselors, we can become much more winsome and patient when asking kids questions, especially in response to “I don’t know.” Do the hard work of drawing kids out. There may be times when you allow them to walk away from the conversation to consider things, but give a time frame to show the discussion is not over and then follow up with them. They may challenge you, reject you, or be angered by your attempts, but you will model care by your persistence. We do not always get the privilege of seeing the ways in which it speaks of our love for them but Galatians 6:9 encourages us. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Losing a child is the most difficult and painful experience I can personally imagine. What do you say to someone who has lost a child? What can you say? And, perhaps more importantly, what does God say?
In preparing a talk about this for CCEF’s conference earlier this month, 1 I found myself praying “Lord, here is what I know: you have words for those whose children die. You have comfort. There is something overwhelmingly real and true and good that you have for those who lose a child. Help me, help us, find it.”
While I tried to draw out a number of themes from Scripture in the talk, one of the places this prayer led me was to write a letter as I imagined how our loving Father might speak to parents in their grief. Since several people have asked me to pass along the text of that letter, I thought I might make it more broadly available as a sort of open letter expressing the direct and personal care with which Scripture speaks to parents who have lost a child. My prayer is that these words will be a refreshingly personal touch point with your Heavenly Father as you struggle through this unspeakably agonizing experience.
My dear child,
I remember walking through the Garden that day toward my children, knowing what their choice to listen to the tempter was going to cost their children for generations, including the death of their own boy, Abel. I knew utterly, even then, the grief you would taste so many years later. My heart breaks for you, my child. Indeed, I sent my son, in part, so that you could see him weep at the tomb of Lazarus, and know that my heart is undone by the grief of loss, even knowing that hope is just around the corner.
Like your brothers and sisters in Bethlehem whose little ones were murdered by Herod after that first Christmas, and countless others over the centuries who found themselves burying a beloved child, you are part of the voice heard in Ramah. I hear you with Rachel, weeping for her children, rightly refusing to be comforted. So know this: I have prepared a bottle to catch the tears I knew you would shed.
And I say to you also what I spoke through your brother Jeremiah: I declare that there is hope for your future. I will yet turn your mourning into joy, and not by some trick played on your emotions! No. I will not forget your grief and tears. But I WILL comfort you and I will give you gladness for sorrow and you will be satisfied with my goodness.
My delight and joy in the redemption I am working, and my utter victory over death, is beyond expression. I am waiting breathlessly for the day when you will get to see it too. When you will be able to see it the way I do. When you will say that even this anguish does not compare with the shalom and wholeness of the way I have abundantly more than restored what now is broken. For behold, I am creating a new heaven and a new earth and I will rejoice and be glad in my people. No more shall the sound of weeping and distress be heard among you. NO MORE shall there be a son who lives but a few days or a daughter who dies unexpectedly. Instead, I will lose none of those I have given to your older brother. And I will make my home with you and with all my children — indeed I have prepared rooms already. Together with them, you will build homes and inhabit them, you will plant vineyards and eat their fruit, and none will suffer or die on my holy mountain. I am the resurrection and the life.
Be patient still a little longer. I am coming.
1 Audio available here.