SOURCE: Discipleship Journal/ Stephen James and David Thomas
The way God relates to us is deeply relevant to how we relate to our children.
Parenting is a wild and unpredictable ride—full of twists and turns. That’s why books on parenting sell in the gazillions. Search “parenting” on Amazon.com, and you’ll find thousands of books offering insights on and solutions for raising children (we’ve even written one of them!). We secretly hope that if we get the right tools and practice the right techniques, our kids will turn out fine.
As we researched our book on parenting, we sought to discover a biblically-centered framework for raising children. Not surprisingly, we found many examples and concepts in Scripture that can help us become wise, mature, and loving parents. But we also found what you might consider an unlikely model for parenting: the Trinity (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). As we looked at some of the ways the persons of the Trinity relate to us, we uncovered important insights into how we can relate to our children.
GOD THE FATHER
Scripture paints a picture of a Father God who is personal and purposeful as He relates to His children. These characteristics can serve as a road map for us as parents.
Personal. God relates to each of us on intensely personal levels. How He works in one person’s life may be very different from what He does with another person. How God engages with Moses in Exodus 3 (as an encourager) is very different from how He engages with Jacob in Genesis 32 (as an adversary and giver of blessing). Similarly, if we want to parent our children well, we need to parent them as individuals.
We (Stephen and David) each have a set of twin boys. Our respective twins share the same genetic mix, the same gender, the same hair and eye colors, and yet they couldn’t be more different. Their personalities are different, and they will pursue different vocations and different relationships. Despite all that they share, our sons are unique, and we need to relate with them according to that uniqueness.
An important asset for discovering a child’s individuality is curiosity. The curious parent looks for and notices how a child is changing and being changed. Curiosity seeks more than information; it draws out a person’s heart. It encourages dialog. One way of doing this is through questions. You might say, “You’ve seemed angry lately. Has something happened?” Or “I can tell you love your new bike. What excites you about bike riding?”
Another way we relate personally with our children is by entering their worlds. We have found play to be wonderfully effective. My (David’s) six-year-old daughter is passionate about dolls. Two of them, named Jane and Caroline, dine at our table, ride buckled in the back of our car, and are kissed goodnight every evening. Because I love my daughter and want to know her, I’ll sometimes sit on her bedroom floor and ask questions about Jane and Caroline. I even change their clothes and comb their hair. It’s pretty hilarious to watch a grown man receive instruction in ponytail placement. But this is what my daughter loves. She can even put ponytails in my hair if it communicates that I love her enough to want to know who she is and what she loves.
Purposeful. Our Father God is also purposeful in His relationship with us. He acts intentionally and carries out His good plans for us. He does not wait for us to come to Him; He makes the first move. Think of God with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 after they tried to hide. Or with Moses in the burning bush (so much for hiding in the desert). God moves toward us again and again with an invitation for us to move closer to Him.
Practicing this kind of intentionality can be particularly challenging for parents with teens. How can we be proactive with a kid whose behavior seems to communicate, “Get away from me” or “Leave me alone”? In the face of teen sullenness, it’s so tempting to default to standing at arm’s length and waiting to be invited in for a few seconds.
Yet we firmly believe that behind every hand (or heart) that says, “Get away” is another that says, “Come close.” Which means you may have to get really creative with adolescents if you want to stay in relationship with them. If you’ve tried a litany of options without success, food is a good bet. Figure out where they love to eat and take them there. Whatever you do, don’t give up.
GOD THE SON
God the Son also gives us a biblical picture of parenting. Let’s consider His roles as a sacrifice and a teacher.
Sacrifice. First and foremost, Christ was a perfect offering who suffered and died for our sins so that we can truly live, both now and forever (Ro. 5:6–8, 1 Jn. 4:9–10). He willingly did for us what no one else could or would do. And like Christ, we as parents are to sacrifice—lovingly and wisely—on behalf of our children.
I (David) recently took my family to the beach. We practically crawled there. The week before we left had been intense: challenges at work, the death of a friend, missed deadlines, and a cancer diagnosis for one of our parents. By the time we reached the ocean, all I wanted to do was plant a lounge chair on the beach and not move for five days. All my kids wanted to do was build sandcastles, fish, and play 20,000 rounds of Marco Polo. Joining them was an intentional act of sacrifice: I laid down what I wanted so I could be present with them. In the grand scheme of things, this may seem a small sacrifice. Yet I believe that with such sacrifices our children are blessed and our Savior is pleased.
Teacher. Perhaps one of Jesus’ most vivid roles is that of teacher. Throughout the gospel accounts, we see Him illuminating the truth of God for His listeners. Our children need the same from us.
Sometimes teaching involves giving specific instruction. Other times, it may mean we stand back and practice the art of silence so that experience can be the teacher. The father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) provides a rich example of this type of teaching. Surely this man knew his son well enough to know that he would blow his inheritance: Wouldn’t most adolescent boys do something reckless with a wad of cash? Yet the father allowed his son to squander it all. What a wise father, and what a scary, vulnerable place his hands-off approach must have put him in. His son learned a lesson, however; experience taught the prodigal that there’s no place like home.
GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT
Now we turn to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Two primary works of the Spirit that relate to our parenting are convicting and coming alongside us.
Convicting. One thing the Spirit does in all of our lives is to convict us of our sin (Jn. 16:8). Sometimes He does that through specific scriptures, words from a wise friend, or a persistent inner voice that urges us to examine our ways. If we are to love our children like God loves us, there will be times when we must stand before our children and name their sin, especially when it involves character issues. Too many parents fail to expose their children’s character defects for fear of harming their self-esteem. But we are not talking about verbally shaming, harassing, or assaulting a child. We are talking about speaking with our children the way God engaged with Paul on the road to Damascus: metaphorically knocking them off their high horses and into the truth.
Some friends recently caught their son lying about whether he had checked his backpack (he often didn’t) to make sure he had everything he needed for school the next day. It wasn’t a “big” lie. And overall, we’re talking about a pretty extraordinary kid: an excellent student, a great athlete, the kind of kid that most parents want their kids to hang around with.
Upon discovering the lie, my friends confronted their son and took away his “life” for a couple of weeks: his electronics, sports practice (he got to sit on the bench but not play), overnight stays at a friend’s house, and so on. The boy fired back that he couldn’t believe he’d lost that much over “a stupid backpack.” He added, “I’m a good kid, and this feels extreme.”
His dad explained that the issue was not his “stupid backpack.” It was his heart that his parents were concerned about. “You are a great kid,” they told him, “and plenty of people would testify to that—teachers, coaches, your friends’ parents. Enough folks have done so that you’ve lost touch with the fact that you’re a liar.”
These parents cared enough about their son to shatter his good-guy image and to deal with the state of his heart. This is strikingly similar to how the Holy Spirit deals with us when He convicts us of sin, exposes our foolish self-righteousness, and shows us a better way to live.
Coming alongside. The same Spirit who convicts us also comes alongside us and comforts us. Yet it is hard for many parents to move from being the ones who convict to being the ones who comfort, to set aside the teaching role and focus on simply being there.
Think of it this way: No kid wants to be taught the proper technique for riding her bike when she has just flipped over the handlebars. She wants a hug and a Band-Aid. And when your son doesn’t make varsity, one of the worst things you can do is to turn the situation into a teaching moment. He needs an arm around his shoulder to help him grieve his disappointment.
The example of the Holy Spirit shows us that there is a time for parents to convict and a time for us to comfort.
EXAMPLE PLUS EMPOWERMENT
Each person of the Trinity teaches us something about parenting. We learn from the Father to be personal and purposeful with our children. We learn from the Son how to sacrifice on behalf of our children and how to teach them God’s powerful truths. We learn from the Spirit how to expose our children’s sin lovingly for the sake of their emerging characters and how to come alongside and comfort them when life is not what they had hoped it would be. But perhaps the ultimate wonder is that the same Triune God who models parenthood for us also lives in us and empowers us for this scary yet sanctified calling.