Two weeks ago I became a father for the fifth time. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on how God has used these kids of mine to teach me truth about what it means to follow Christ in this world. What follows isn’t everything they’ve taught me, but five lessons I sure wish I’d learned earlier than I did.
It’s all about the heart
After our first child was born, my wife and I surveyed the various “methods” of raising children being promoted within the Christian community. We settled on one that seemed most biblical to us, and went about faithfully applying what we’d learned. There were a lot of really good things about this particular philosophy, and it wasn’t long before we began to see the good results, as promised.
Parenting solved, I thought. The right principles, applied through the right method, produce the right results.
Everything went along just fine for a while. And then, all of a sudden it seemed, it wasn’t working anymore. At first I thought it was the addition of child number two. Or perhaps it was because we just weren’t able to be as consistent as before. And so we recommitted ourselves to the “plan.” Then I decided the problem was probably with the method itself. Our son had outgrown it, and we needed to make some adjustments.
But one day, as I saw my toddler grow rigid with anger yet again over a situation he couldn’t control, I realized what the problem was. It was as if I was staring into a bathroom mirror that had finally cleared of the steam. And what I saw was my own reflection. It turns out that no matter how good the parenting principles and methods, there isn’t a plan that removes the reality of a fallen human heart, his or mine. My method had produced results, but they were only skin deep.
Parents aren’t the only ones with plans and methods. All of us tend to have a program that we’re following. It might include personal spiritual disciplines, like regular devotional times or retreats of silence. It might involve a reading program in good Christian books, or listening to the right Christian music. We might be quite diligent in personal evangelism or church attendance. The problem isn’t the program. Some people don’t have a program, and that isn’t good either. The problem is when I think the program will accomplish what only the gospel can do.
Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Mat 23:25). If our program for following Christ is just a program — a method that we’re following and rules that we keep, but our heart isn’t being transformed by the gospel — then our hearts will eventually win out and reveal the hypocrisy within.
It’s the heart, not behavior, that matters most, because it’s out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks and the body acts. Our hearts are wicked. But Jesus Christ changes hearts. Ask Him to clean the inside, and the outside will take care of itself.
Being right is worth less than I thought
If one of my sons struggles with anger, another son struggles with being right. It’s not that he’s wrong all the time. It’s that he’s never wrong.
All children are born lawyers. But this son isn’t just a lawyer, he’s judge and jury too! During morning devotions or nightly prayers, he genuinely has a difficult time thinking of anything he needs to confess. Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. It’s not that he’s arrogant. He’s actually quite humble. It’s just that, as far as he can tell, he’s never in the wrong.
What’s the result of always being right, and never being wrong? Strained relationships. Brothers that don’t want to play anymore. Lots of play time wasted establishing the rules or appealing to parents.
When I look at this son, I’m looking in the mirror again. Ask the people I work with. Ask my wife. I have a habit of being right. But it’s not a good habit. It’s the habit of a junkie, an addict of self-righteousness. It’s not hard to do, and the more I practice, the better I get at it. My self-righteousness leaves me feeling safe and secure.
But it’s deceiving me. For while it might put me in what feels like a strong position vis-à-vis my friends and co-workers, it leaves me devastated before God.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). My son’s self-righteousness sometimes leaves him estranged from his brothers. But our self-righteousness is far more serious. First, it leaves us with the illusion that we’re healthy, when in fact we’re desperately sick. All sick people need a doctor. But only people who know they are sick seek out a doctor’s aid. Self-righteousness keeps us from the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, the one and only doctor who can heal us of the deadly disease of sin.
As it turns out, being right isn’t worth much, since all it leads to is our condemnation and death. What we all need is the right-ness that only Jesus can provide, because His righteousness reconciles us to God. It’s there for the asking, but I’ll only ask if I see I need it.
I have yet another son. He’s the first one up every day, much to the annoyance of his brothers. His goal is the Lego table downstairs. But on his way to his latest creation, he makes sure to stop and greet every other member of the family. Relationships matter to this son, and he’s constantly tending them.
But nowhere is this more obvious than when he’s in trouble, and discipline is looming. At that moment, a hug isn’t just desired, it’s necessary. He needs to be sure that discipline doesn’t mean rejection. It’s also true with this son that if I want to give him instructions, or offer correction, or even shower him with encouragement, my words will be heard and received if the relationship has been well-tended that day.
As an evangelical preacher, I spend a lot of time explaining to people that through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are justified before God. That’s a legal term, and it means that when we put our trust in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross in our place, God declares us “not guilty.” Justification marks a change in our legal status before God, a change from condemned to innocent.
But my son reminds me that the reason God forgives us is to bring us into a relationship with Him. And the reason God continues to discipline us is that he loves us, as sons and daughters.
Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17). I love the way this verse captures what it means to be in a relationship with God.
On the one hand, it means obedience. On the other hand, it means intimacy. God doesn’t just sit in heaven and demand our homage! No, he comes to us, to be with us, to lead us into obedience, and to engage and empower our hearts to love him in return. Too often we treat our relationship with God as if it was taken care of the day we were saved. But far more than even my relationally gifted son understands, God knows that relationships matter. He gives us his Spirit to tend that relationship. He’s inspired His Bible so that He can speak to us every day.
And we should tend the relationship as well — by being with Jesus through prayer and through the Word; by gathering with others each week in a local church to hear God’s Word preached; by spending time with Him throughout the day, calling to mind His promises of love and faithfulness. Then, when the discipline of trial and trouble comes along, we won’t wonder if God really loves us, if He’s forgotten about us, or ceased to care. We’ll know that the relationship is secure.
It’s what’s inside that counts
My daughter is beautiful. Of course, every dad thinks that. And in a profound sense, every daughter truly is beautiful — made in the image of God, with the potential to conceive life itself, a daughter is a precious trust.
But that’s not what I’m talking about when I say my daughter is beautiful. I mean she’s drop-dead gorgeous. Strangers stop us on the street and tell us how beautiful she is. Immediately my mind is filled with images of young men hanging around, thinking all the sorts of things I used to think as a young man. Only they’re thinking it about MY DAUGHTER! All I can say is, if her three older brothers don’t discourage unworthy suitors, I fully intend to!
What’s even more alarming, though, is that my daughter’s beginning to realize she’s beautiful. Beauty is a powerful thing. God created us to be attracted to beauty, to desire it, to cherish it. He made us this way so that more than anything else we would be attracted to Him, the most beautiful Being in the universe.
But our eyes are quickly distracted from His beauty to the more earthly kind. And a woman who possesses that worldly beauty, and the power that goes with it, is a woman who has the ability to get just about anything her heart desires.
That leads me to what really scares me about my daughter’s beauty. And that’s that her beauty is a deceitful, ugly lie. Jesus said, “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Mat. 6:28-29). The beauty of this world is fleeting, whether it’s the natural beauty of a woman’s face or a field of wildflowers, or the manufactured splendor of royal robes or a Paris runway.
We run after the beautiful things of this world, and think that if we possess them, we possess life itself. But Jesus confronts us with the vanity of such thoughts. This world’s beauty does not last. Wildflowers are “here today and tomorrow … thrown into the fire.” Today’s supermodels will quickly be replaced by tomorrow’s fashion icons.
Instead of a deceitful beauty that fades and disappoints, Jesus calls us to put our hope in God, which produces in us a beauty that God Himself finds attractive. This is how Peter (who was married) puts it: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment…. Instead it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).
The irony of it all is that there is nothing uglier than a physically attractive woman (or man) whose character is bent and warped by selfishness and pride. On the other hand, the real and lasting beauty of kindness, gentleness, generosity and self-control is undeniable. What’s more, this beauty, produced by the grace of God in us, isn’t damaged by the ravages of age and hardship. It’s enhanced by them.
As I help my daughter rightly assess her all-too-quickly-fading beauty, I’m reminded that she and I both were made to pursue and display a beauty that cannot fade. It’s the beauty of a bride adorned for her Husband — the holiness of God’s people as they await the coming of Jesus, their Bridegroom.
My plans aren’t God’s plans
By the time you read this, we’ll already be home from the hospital with our fifth child. What has this baby taught me already? Just this: that I’m not in control of my life, God is. And I can trust Him, even when His plans take me by surprise.
Oddly enough, when my wife became pregnant, we were deep in discussions about adoption. It seemed like a good plan. Knowing how difficult pregnancy had become for my wife, and how many needy children were without parents, adoption seemed like a wise and godly thing to pursue. We were making plans.
And then God stepped in with His plans. He surprised us. In fact, He absolutely floored us. Wasn’t adoption a good idea? Wasn’t a fifth pregnancy, at our age, and with our history, a bad idea? Apparently not. At least, not for us, not right now. According to the providence of God.
Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father…. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Mat. 10:29, 31). If God is giving thought to the fate of sparrows, then I can rest assured that God is giving thought to my life as well. We are worth more than many sparrows. Infinitely more. For God deemed our lives worth the shedding of His beloved Son’s blood.
I don’t know why I’m surprised that my plans aren’t God’s plans. Being a parent seems to be one long lesson on that theme. But what I do know is that no matter how good I thought my plans were, God’s plans are better. He proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt at the cross. And He continues to prove it every day of my life.
I wish I’d known these five things better when I was single and in my 20s. I think it would have made me a better husband and father when I got there. I’m glad I know them better now in my 40s.
And I’m thankful for the five teachers He gave me, so that I could learn these lessons of grace well. What a good God we have. “He does not treat us as our sins deserve … [but] as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:10, 13).
Copyright 2009 Michael Lawrence. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.