Redeeming Misbehavior for the Gospel

With undeniably strong-willed one year old twin boys, a fairly non-verbal son in the terrible twos and a three-nager daughter, we are constantly battling behavioral issues in our house. In fact, I’ve been so overwhelmed by the myriad of misbehaviors that I fell back on my education background and made objective charts for each child. Posted on our fridge written on fanciful charts are daily objectives: today, Oliver can “stand tall and not flail,” JJ can “only happy scream” (aka not scream in wild anger), Ben can “use his words and not whine,” and Emma can “say ‘ok, momma’” when asked to do something.

As I strive to consistently curb their inappropriate behaviors, I am daily reminded that their bent for sin runs deep. Their behavior manifests from unregenerate hearts that seek only to please themselves. For some time now, I’ve wrestled with this tension between reshaping their behavior versus reaching their hearts.

I often find myself chiding my children, “This behavior does not please God.” Which is true. Their sin represents a rebellion against God’s authority. And conversely, I’ve heard myself encouraging, “We act this way to please God.” Which is true for me, I behave Biblically to show my allegiance to Christ. But my children do not bear this allegiance to Christ yet, and apart from Christ, they are incapable of pleasing Him.

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6

So how do I reconcile this tension between their unregenerate hearts and a real need to require a Biblical standard, so my children aren’t hooligans? How do I avoid creating a child Pharisee who obeys from fear instead of love?

Pray for my children. I cannot cleanse my children’s hearts. Nothing I say, do or enforce will bring my children to true repentance. Only the Holy Spirit can overhaul their hearts. Of course, God can use me as an agent of change, but ultimately, it’s His transformative work that reaches the hard places. So I can trust him and pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit to open their eyes, soften their hearts and sharpen their ears to hear His amazing, unmerited invitation to become His child.

Use the “law” to reveal my children’s need for Christ. Requiring my children to strive for a Biblical standard reveals how often and how far they fall short of God’s standard. The “law” exposes their dire need for grace. And their frequent short-coming of “the rules” gives me an opportunity to point my children to the God-man Jesus Christ who (unlike them) lived a perfect life and willingly died an unjust death to pay for the penalty of their sin. If I fail to hold my children to rules, they will fail to see their brokenness. If I fail to uphold a standard, they will elevate themselves as the standard. I require a high standard to reveal their need for a Rescuer.

Magnify God to my children. While I require my children to behave, I should equally encourage them to behold God’s glory. I should strive to direct their attention to God and His greatness throughout the day: to point out God’s creativity in nature, His love through answered prayer, His wisdom in directing events, His compassion in our protection, His forgiveness extended in misgiving. When we make God big, His presence on our minds and His praise on our lips, our children get a taste of His goodness that stirs a craving in their hearts. Our children begin to see that our faith is much more than a bunch of rules, it’s an incredible relationship.

Model repentance to my children. Parenting is so humbling: my patience runs short, repeated offenses cause me to snap, prolonged crying causes aggravation. But when I fail my children (as I inevitably do), I can appropriately grieve over my sin and display my allegiance to Christ. I can admit my failure and request their forgiveness. I can invite them to pray with me as I seek repentance and strength from God to turn from my sin and follow after Him. I can celebrate His grace and forgiveness and point my children to their need for this very same grace and forgiveness.

So take heart, mamas, and hold to the course. Enforce the rules with humility and uphold the law with grace. Earnestly pray for your children’s salvation as you daily use the law to point them to our Savior. Seek to magnify God in the everyday moments and own your sin because Jesus has already paid its penalty on your behalf. Above all, rejoice in such a great salvation!

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