A family is a divinely-ordained community. It is a set of defined relationships, with obligations and privileges assigned by God accordingly. It is not an arbitrary collection of individuals, and it is not something that we get to define. God created the family—it was not invented by us in the first place, and so we do not get to reinvent it. For this reason, parents must beware of treating the family as an “assemblage” that results from “techniques” developed by “experts.”
Young parents should therefore come to the Scriptures with a true hunger and openness. This is particularly true of those young parents who didn’t see a good model growing up—God is the God of new beginnings. He breaks the cycle, blessing to a thousand generations, and cutting off disasters after three or four. Be encouraged.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1, ESV).
“The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with singing” (Zeph. 3:17).
Summary of the Text
The juxtaposition of these two passages is intended to make the foundational point that, as God treats us as His children, so also we, in imitating Him, must seek to be like Him in our treatment of our own children. As He deals with us, so also must we deal with our own children.
God has created us as reflective and imitative creatures. We become like what we worship. Idolaters do this (Ps. 115:4-8), and worshipers of the true God do it (2 Cor. 3:18). This is the way human beings are. There are few places where the ramifications of this are as important as they are in child-rearing.
In the Zephaniah passage, consider first that the Lord our God is mighty. You are much stronger than your children. But His might is deployed for the good of His people, for their salvation, and not for their suffocation. Your purpose is to be used as the instrument of your children’s salvation. You are not the ground of that salvation, but you are an appointed instrument. You obviously cannot be saving grace, but you are commanded to imitate it, and to facilitate it.
When the mighty God intervened to save, He did so at great cost to Himself. Jesus, when He took the loaf of bread that represented His broken body, He began by giving thanks. When Jesus went to the cross, He did so for the joy that was set before Him (Heb. 12:2). The sacrifices that you will make for your children should therefore be something you sing over. You are not just to sing when they are being adorable, asleep in the crib. Life is messier than that, and the whole thing should be met with a song. The delight we are imitating here is not “unrealistic.” It takes account of the world as it is, and rejoices still.
A Garden of Grace
When God created us, He placed us in a garden full of delights, and with just one prohibition in the middle of the garden. Nothing was prohibited out in the world, and only one thing was prohibited in the garden. A severe penalty was attached to that one prohibition, but then God saw to it that when the restriction was disobeyed by our first parents, the severest blow of retaliation would fall upon Himself. What kind of God is this?
So the environment of your home is grace. All that you have is theirs. There are standards within this—grace is not an amorphous, gelatinous mass. Grace has a backbone. Grace is a vertebrate. And yet when the standards are broken, the heaviest sacrifices in the work of restoration are made by the guardians of grace—not the enforcers of law, not the pointers of fingers, not the parental accusers, and not the quiver in the voice of parental self-pity.
A garden of grace can contain a tree of law. A garden of law cannot contain a tree of grace. Whatever you do, an attempted tree of grace there will turn into a tree of reward, a tree of merit, a tree of earnings.
Discipline as Structured Delight
We have a tendency—when in the grip of our own unguided wisdom—to get everything exactly backwards. We think that the gold sanctifies the temple (Matt. 23:17). We think that man was created so that there would be somebody around to keep the sabbath (Mark 2:27). We think that goat milk was created so that we would have something to cook the young goats in (Dt. 14:21).
But discipline is directed toward an end; it is teleological. And no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but the glory of discipline is found in the harvest (Heb. 12:11). Discipline and fruition occupy time, just like your children do. Bringing children up is not abstract bookkeeping, but is rather a story—from planting to harvest. Hardship in a story is grace. Hardship without a story is just pain.
When it comes to Christian living, there are three l’s to choose from. There is legalism, there is license, and there is liberty. In the home, legalism occurs when parents try to establish “traditional values” or a “disciplined atmosphere” on their own authority, or in their own name. Strictness becomes the central standard, and parental law is central. License happens when it turns out that legalism involves a lot of work, and there is not a very good return on it. And so parenting turns into a long stream of excuses and lame theories about the ineffectualness of spanking. If you have told 28 people this week that “he didn’t get his nap today,” then perhaps you should reevaluate.
Liberty is not some middle position between these two—it is another thing entirely. Liberty is stricter than legalism, and liberty is freer than license. Liberty—purchased for us by Christ on the cross—lines us up with how God made the world. None of our shifts or evasions can do that for us. The righteousness of liberty outdoes the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), and the joy of liberty outdoes the libertine.
Why Children Matter
We will address this in much greater detail in the conclusion to this series, but it will be helpful for us to take a look at where we are going. Children matter because as creatures they bear the image of God, as sinners that image is defaced in them, and as saints that image is being restored in them.
By creating the human race in one fertile man and woman, God was declaring that His image was going to grow and mature over the course of generations. When we fell into sin, the curse of our loss was extended over generations. And now that the promised seed of the woman has come, we are given the opportunity to bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). This is part of what it means to put off the old man, and to put on the new (Eph. 4:20-24). God is after a lineage.