The way to happiness is when we exchange our sin and selfishness and small dreams for something harder and better and God-honoring.
If you listen to a dash of rap or pop music every now and then as I do, you hear some interesting words and phrases: "swag," "YOLO." And one of my personal favorites: "I'm doing me now." This saying means that, though you've been forced to sacrifice your interests for others in past days, you are at present concentrating on yourself.
This is a humorous phrase but a popular worldview today. In a secularizing, narcissistic society, other people are increasingly seen as an impediment to happiness. This is true for some folks of children, for example. Once, children were a natural stepping stone to maturity, one that followed marriage. Now, they're increasingly seen as a lifestyle option that you can either opt out of altogether or buy into later in life. The common life-script among a good number of my peers (both Christian and non-Christian, surprisingly) is basically this:
- Have fun now (20s and 30s).
- Have as many relationships as you want; keep them as minimally defined as possible.
- Make lots of money, pursue your career with super-intensity; alternately, goof off and avoid pursuing anything hard.
- Eventually, in your late 30s and 40s, think about settling down. Then, maybe have a few children.
From my little pocket of the Internet, I would like to register a different opinion: Building a family is awesome. Besides the gift of a husband or wife, children are a great gift of God to humanity. Like Adam shouting for joy over the discovery of Eve, the Psalmist shouts praise to God for the blessing of little ones:
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate (Psalm 127:3-5).
How, though, do you actually build a God-glorifying family? Let me share several thoughts with you. (We're going to assume that marriage has already happened.)
1. Once married, create a strong spiritual climate before kids arrive.
When kids do come, you need to build into them. Actually, a husband and wife should themselves have already built a strong spiritual culture in the home. Studying the Bible together, praying together, talking about the sermon together, going to marriage seminars together, going on fun dates (ideally at least once or twice a month if you can), and having weekly conversations about how you can encourage one another and kill sin individually will all help to do this. It is especially important that you be members of a local church and, ideally, pursue a godly older couple to mentor you if at all possible.
2. Take time to get to know one another and figure out rhythms.
It is no bad thing for young Christian couples to take some time to figure out what life together actually looks like. It seems like some today feel pressure to get started immediately in having children. If that's what you think is best, go for it. No problem. But if you do want to take a period of time (one to two years, maybe?) to grow in your love for one another, I don't think you should feel any negative pressure for doing so. In ancient Israel, men were released from their typical duties for a year following their marriage.
During the time preceding the arrival of children, you can focus as a couple on things like the following:
- Being a good and clear communicator
- Working through conflict in a productive way
- Learning how you can love your spouse in ways they enjoy
- Getting a lot of time together to simply enjoy marriage
- Enjoying the gift of sex, which takes a lot more hard work than Hollywood leads us to think
- Serving your local church and getting to know godly couples in it so you can learn from them
Building these and other skills will ready you to be a strong parent. It won't make you perfect parents or risk-proof your life, but it will deepen your love for one another and knowledge of one another.
3. When ready, create a family.
This sounds like a big deal, and it is. But in God's providence, it is generally a simple process. You don't need a certain IQ level or number in your bank account to have children. You do need to be responsible, spiritually growing, and able to give your kids the basics that they need to survive and thrive. For men, this means owning the responsibility to provide (see 1 Timothy 5:8-14, Titus 2:5). For women, this means becoming a nurturer of your home and preparing for nurture of children.
Some couples struggle with infertility. Many couples, sadly, experience a miscarriage, some even two or three. Do not enter the "family creation" stage expecting to experience some sort of dream-like reality as a couple. Life is hard, and conception and childbearing was cursed at the fall (Genesis 3:16). If that sounds abstract, it will not be. The effects of Adam and Eve's disobedience are real. Be ready to navigate challenges, should they come. Take care not to have a blueprint that you require God to follow in giving you children, but trust Him in all things and at all times as the sovereign Giver of life.
As one application of this, you might not come into your season of parenting thinking about adoption. But sometimes the struggle to conceive a child can open the door to a whole new dimension of child-raising, one that powerfully images the love God shows for His adopted people, the church (see Ezekiel 16 and James 1:27). Russell Moore's Adopted for Life is helpful on this subject.
4. When children come, invest in them.
The more quantity of time parents spend with their kids, the greater the chance the children will feel loved, and the healthier they will be. Read Deuteronomy 6:6-9 with this in mind:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
What does this mean for us? Because of our great love for our children, we should — like our biblical predecessors — take constant responsibility for our kids. We should teach them by word and deed at mealtimes, at bedtimes, in the field, during the commute, and while walking around the park.
Godly parenting is not a work you can compartmentalize; it's a calling, a continual calling. You have to constantly trade in self-interest for sacrificial love. Fathers should take their role as spiritual head seriously (see Ephesians 5:22-33). Both husband and wife have all kinds of ways to train their children, but the father is the spiritual leader of his home.
If you haven't taught anyone theology and struggle to know where to begin, get a book like Big Truths for Young Hearts or Knowing God. Read the book with your family for 10 minutes at night, discuss it for a bit, then pray. Or you could read a chapter of the Bible each night, talk about it, and pray. Whatever you choose to do, these kinds of small acts of spiritual leadership can go a long way to creating a happy home.
5. Remember your great need for the Gospel.
As I have said, parenting is hard work. It is a great task. It calls for a big vision of what you and your spouse want your family to be. If it is not infused with the Gospel and its call to regularly repent and savor God's grace in Jesus Christ, it may swallow you whole and leave you discouraged and disaffected. You, me and every parent who has ever lived or will ever live needs the power of the Gospel in our homes.
Parenting is hard work, as I've said. It brings out our sin. Sometimes you are simply desperate for a night to yourself. Sometimes you're short-tempered. Sometimes you don't want to change a diaper. Sometimes you and your spouse both feel these ways, and it's a mess, and you just have to stop what you're doing and repent together.
As a parent, you need to regularly let God's lavish forgiveness through the cross of Christ wash over you. This transforming reality, after all, has freed you from image maintenance. You're trying to parent well, but you're not trying to convince anyone you're a SuperDad or SuperMom. It's actually better for everyone — your kids, your neighbors, you — if you acknowledge that you're not perfect, that you desperately need the Lord, and that you find your strength in Him.
Family-building is big, glorious and immensely self-sacrificial. It is a great undertaking that calls for what I call "Gospel risk." We exchange our sin and selfishness and small dreams for something harder and better and God-honoring. This is the way to happiness, in truth: being like the faithful stewards of the Parable of the Talents who, while their master was gone, exemplified faithfulness and courage (see Matthew 25:14-30).
So forget about trying to craft the perfect vacation or figuring out the perfect risk-proof life plan, one that allows you to float on a bed of ease through a pampered life with no waves. Reject a culture of low expectations that reduces you to something weaker than you are. If you do, you'll set yourself up for unparalleled joys. Sometimes I look back when I'm driving, and my two tiny kids are holding hands, totally on their own initiative. I am not kidding when I say that nothing beats such moments.
If you're called to marriage, then you can know such joy. The world can "do me." It can have its fancy cocktails and designer jeans. We've found something better. It's not club-hopping — it's family-building.
Copyright 2014 Owen Strachan. All rights reserved.