One of the temptations young parents face is the temptation of wanting to learn some “techniques,” some 1,2,3 tricks for sure-fire success. When you feel lost, it is easy to want to resort to easy solutions. If you already feel like you are in over your head, why would you seek out solutions that are over your head? This is why, to reapply an observation from Peter Drucker, they are more concerned about doing things rightly than about doing the right thing.
What is the right thing then? Before answering the question, it is important to note that things can be over our heads for different reasons. The obvious way is that it might be really complicated, like trying to explain advanced calculus to a third grader. But there is another kind of teaching that feels like it is “over our head.” That is the way of the Spirit when we want to operate in the way of the flesh. Turn the other cheek? What kind of sense does that make? But notice that he lack of understanding here has nothing to do with complexity.
So what is the right thing in parenting little ones?
The fundamental right thing is to see the relationships rightly, to understand what is going on. What is your relationship to God, and how can you mimic that in your relationship with your children? Therefore be imitators of God, Paul says, as dearly loved children (Eph. 5:1). We are to be children to God, and this will help us understand how our children are to be children to us. We are to learn the nature of all our authoritative relationships by imitation.
So if you look at the sweep of redemptive history, you see that our story begins in a garden, and it ends in a garden city. Our task as forgiven sinners (who have been given access back to the tree of life) is therefore — through the gospel — to rebuild Eden. You are called, fathers and mothers, to rebuild little Edens in your homes, only better. This cannot be done apart from worship, obviously, but you need to make sure you bring a coal from the altar back to your home every week.
So what was Eden like? Here are just a few initial thoughts. They are only initial thoughts — I have discovered that going back to the first chapters of Genesis is a process that repays us with new glories every time we do it.
First, don’t go into it thinking that God is looking for opportunities to crush you. If He were doing that, you would already be flat. The ways you are failing your children (in ways we will shortly discuss) are not ways in which God is failing you. And when you fail, He does not respond to your failures the same way you tend to respond to those who fail you.
Now there are those who double down on their failure, which is what we would call a refusal to repent, a hardening of the heart. There we have the plain teaching of Scripture that unforgiving people are unforgiven people, and so I want to emphasize that the doctrine of grace does not turn the kingdom into a relativistic group hug. But our common failures in parenting are precisely the sorts of things that Jesus forgives.
Secondly, note that the Garden of Eden was a garden of grace. It was a garden of yes. There was only one no in the middle of the garden, and even that one no was not to be a no forever. What was God’s central disposition? What is His basic default assumption? It is to say yes.
But you are afraid that if you say yes that much, your children will all die painful deaths. So configure your house to minimize that, and to maximize your opportunities for saying yes.
While we are here, I need to take a moment to define grace as favor that is unmerited. Demerited grace (forgiveness of sin) is our common understanding of grace, and it is certainly grace. But Adam received grace when he was created, and again when Eve was created. He did not merit these gifts, but he hadn’t demerited them either. The demerit came later, when we fell into rebellion.
Third, the fact that it was a garden of grace did not mean that it was the Big Rock Candy Mountain. It was no welfare state. One of the things that God allowed into the garden (before the Fall) was trouble. The serpent was allowed in, for example, and Adam had a great deal of trouble before he did anything wrong.
Your kids need difficulty in their lives. But here is the crucial point. They need it from you as a gift, and not as yet another example of you being selfish. God gave the temptation of the tree of knowledge and good and evil as a gift, as a test. He was not trying to trick them.
And He did not prohibit the tree because He wanted to keep it all for Himself. He could have done that by keeping the tree up in Heaven. By withholding something from them, he was giving them something. Some parents withhold things for the sake of withholding them, and other parents withhold things for the sake of giving something.
Fourth, grace is a transaction. You should not measure “your parenting” by how much you offer. You should take stock of things by how much is offered and received.
Fifth, the Lord used to come down and walk with Adam in the Garden. The center of all that was good there was relationship. God does not give stuff instead of giving Himself. He gives Himself, and because that sort of attitude has to overflow, He gives a bunch of stuff also.
We have been using the word grace to describe this. But grace is not a substance, like it was spiritual motor oil for your engine. Grace is a function of relationship; grace is personal. Notice that at the beginning of all Paul’s letters, he says “grace and peace to you from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” I don’t believe he is leaving the Holy Spirit out of this — I believe that the Holy Spirit is that grace and peace.