Don’t tell me what to do.
Isn’t that a bit of our nature – all of us? God knows it. He says in His Word, “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase” (Romans 5) and “.. when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. “
So we find ourselves as parents in a sticky-wicket to say the least. Here we want to instill values in our children that produce the fruit of good character so that apart from us — when they are not under our watchful eye — our children will have the internal strength and compass to do what is right on their own initiative.
And, yet, we are prone to use the very means that God shows us clearly will only cultivate the inclination towards more sin in our children. We lay out the “law” so to speak. We say, “Don’t hit your brother.” And, what happens? Maybe in the moment our child stops hitting, but in the long run does this admonishment lead to real, internal heart change? And there are even those who would add, if you do not spare the rod in conjunction with these “law giving statements” you will effect greater compliance. So, in other words, if I use physical force and corporal punishment excessively enough, I will force you to abandon your sin nature. But, God’s Word shows us that this just can not be so. In His Word, in Romans and Galatians and elsewhere, God clearly shows us that the more tightly the law is laid out, the more our flesh rebels and moves towards sin — even when we wish not to do that very sin!
I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! (Romans 7:14-24)
So, what are we to do as parents? The more we impose “law” upon our children, the more they are inclined to disobey. The external setting of rules seems to run contrary to God’s way, at least in and of itself. Bear with Him (and me) a minute … There is a way out of this trap:
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
So, what the law could not do — make me or my children “behave,” Jesus did do by coming to earth and living His life in the likeness of sinful flesh (but free of sin) and then going to the cross on my (and their) behalf. Never. Never. Never will I fulfill the law. Never will my children fulfill the law. When Paul was writing Romans, he had already been saved by Jesus and was living a sacrificial, God-honoring life. Yet, he could write, “the law of sin is at work within me! What a wretched man I am!” Do you ever feel that way? I sure do. I think my children do too. I mean, we all have the light of our conscience telling us right from wrong and it grieves us to want to do what is right and not be able to live up to it on our own. And we NEVER will.
I hear all the “but, but, but” answers coming. Do you mean to say we should throw away the law and give in? Should we expect nothing but anarchy and misbehavior from our heathen children? (or even from those children who have accepted Christ as their Savior and Lord?) Should we cast all hope to the wind and let our children run rampant without discipline? That is sheer unbiblical heresy!!
Paul asks this same type of question in Romans. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” And he gives an answer: “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” This goes for us and for our children. But there is one more key element in Romans 8:
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
You see, there truly are two paths in life. There is the path of legalism, whereby I try to live up to standards on my own power and somehow within that I feel I can make myself (and even others such as my children) comply to the law and earn what the law promises. Or there is the path of abiding, whereby I plant my roots deep in a relationship with Jesus and knowing my own weakness, I lean on Him for strength and sustenance as a tree digs into the soil for its very life (or as a branch does to the vine) and through Him and His Spirit I am empowered to bear fruit — even the fruit of obedience to the law. When my eye is on the law (for myself or my children) I am a behavior-focused, consequence-oriented, rule-imposing parent. But, when my eye is on the heart, I am able to do as Jesus did and does: facilitate relationship that leads to rootedness which is bound to bear good fruit.
How did Jesus go about this process of addressing the heart? Well, that would be a good thing for each of us to explore on our own. But, for your sake, I’ll tell you what I observe. He spent time with people. He asked questions that made them think and self-reflect, and He loved despite brokenness. When you see Jesus making statements of condemnation, it is to people who claimed to know and follow God, but were leading others astray with false teaching. Otherwise His way is gentle, loving and forgiving, though not accepting of sin. When a heart was torn, He asked hard questions and left open spaces for the person to come to grips with their own lack of faith.
So, you may wonder, do I tell my one son to stop hitting the other? The answer is, yes I do. I do tell them what is right and wrong. But, honestly my direct instruction to stop a sin is the least valuable thing (and probably the least effective) that I do as a mom. What I do on my better days and more often than not is I engage my sons in dialogue about what kind of persons they want to be and whether the action they chose was one they want to continue in. I engage the heart. And, more importantly than all of that, I try to live a life that is one they will emulate because so much more is caught than taught. My sons do get consequences for poor and sinful choices. It is sometimes part of what is needed when they are willfully disobedient — to get their attention so the greater work of heart-changing can occur. Behavior is always the reflection of what is going on in a heart. And a heart not bound to Jesus has no alternative but to live for the flesh and sin. Even when right actions are chosen by an unredeemed heart, a look at the motives will show self at the center. Ultimately only Jesus can release us from this orientation towards life.
The Pharisees were notorious for crushing spirits with law. We can parent like that. From our parental throne we can set out stern laws and exact amazing behavior from our children. But, do we live as we preach? Our children know if we do. Can I ask my son to respect his father while I show that same man, my husband, a spirit of contention? Can I tell my children to lay off the screens while I sit messaging friends on my phone or checking posts on Facebook? I must live out what I want them to become. And that I do, in the same way that they will in time, by walking in the Spirit and Abiding in Jesus.
The law has a place in our lives. It is good and wonderful. The evil we see is not in the law, but in the sinful flesh that defies the law. So, we know and respect the law and yet we fix our eyes, not on the law, but on Jesus. And we don’t moralize our children into good behavior; we don’t punish them into it; we love them and we lay out food for their mind which will point them towards what is good; and most of all we focus on our own walk because they are watching what we do more closely than they are following what we say.