Parenting Together: Presence and Practice
This morning we continue our Together series by focusing on parenting. As you turn to Colossians 3, I want you to hear my big assumption as I prepared this sermon. I assume that I have some idea of what your desires are for your children. I’m assuming that you have a deep desire, almost an ache, for your children to thrive, to flourish, to blossom. You want to protect them from what would harm them. You want to be a firm and safe and stable place in their lives. You want their lives to be bursting with joy and gladness and wide-eyed wonder. You want them to remain innocent and pure, and you want them to grow up to fight against evil, to protect the weak, to act nobly and honorably, to serve others, to befriend the outcasts, and, for those of you that are Christians, you want them to do this as faithful followers of King Jesus to the glory of God.
And in your best moments, you ache and long for this, and you want to do everything in your power to make it happen. You want to will good into their lives. If goodness could flow from you to them, you would open the floodgates and let it pour down. And yet, I suspect that, if you’re honest with yourself, you know that you are absolutely insufficient to produce all of that good. We know our weaknesses, our failures, our sins. We know that too often we get tired and angry and flustered and frustrated and distracted, and so we don’t actually will good to them. And so you’re here today carrying both of those: that idealized version and longing for the good of your children, coupled with the guilt and burden of your failures and shortcomings as a parent. If that’s you, I’m right there with you. I’m so confident in the vision of parenting that we have as a church. It’s there in the Bible, clear as a bell, but when it comes to living it out, I’m right there with you, struggling to figure out what it means to be the smile of God to our children.
So this morning I mainly want to talk to the parents in this room. But, as Pastor Jonathan mentioned last week, every Christian man, whether single or married, can be a father (that is, a spiritual father); and every Christian woman can be a spiritual mother. So if you’re unmarried, or if you’re married and God has not blessed you with children yet, don't check out. You’re going to want to hear this.
Two other notes before we get down to business. First, I’m deeply aware that there are men and women here for whom parenting is a deeply painful subject. It’s painful because you desperately want to have children and aren’t able to, or because you’ve have lost children, whether through miscarriage or early death, or because you’re a single parent who is facing this task without the aid of a spouse, or because you’ve raised children and they’re not hoping in God. So I just want you to know that you’re not forgotten or overlooked. I’m still going to talk about the joys and challenges of parenting, but I know you’re here.
Finally, a note about language. I’m going to talk about parents and parenting. But like Jonathan did last week with the term “single,” we need to be more thoughtful about our language. There is no such thing as generic “parenting.” In truth, there is mothering and fathering. That is, moms and dads aren’t interchangeable versions of the generic category “parent.” Even when we are doing the exact same activities (playing, disciplining, helping with homework), we do so as a Mom or a Dad, so that whatever commonalities exist are always colored and mediated by the fact that we are men, and not women, or women, and not men.
I want to begin by connecting this sermon to the Marriage Together sermon from two weeks ago. There I said that Marriage is a Home. Marriage is a Dance. Marriage is a Garden. Now, I want to fill each of those images out, by making explicit how Jesus fits into each, and how children fit into each.
First (and credit goes to my wife for correcting me on this one), if Marriage is a Home, Jesus is the foundation, Dad is the walls that protect the house, Mom is the warmth within the house, and children are the residents. If Marriage is a dance, then Jesus is the music, Dad is the lead partner, Mom follows that lead in order to shine, and the kids are seeking to learn the steps of the dance. If Marriage is a Garden, Jesus is the sun that shines and the river that waters the garden, Dad is the gardener, Mom is the earth, the fertile soil, and children are the fruit. So much for the images.
I’ve got one main point that I want you to get, everything else will be an attempt to unpack and display that one truth. And I think and operate on the belief that if you get the One Thing right, you can get all sorts of other things wrong. And if you get the One Thing wrong, it doesn’t matter how many of the other things you get right. So here’s the One Thing:
Parenting is fundamentally about Gospel Presence with your Family.
By gospel, I simply mean the good news that as sinners, we are embraced and accepted by God because of what Jesus has done for us. He lived the life that we couldn’t live. He died the death we should have died. And God raised him from the dead, triumphing over sin and death. Outside of Jesus, there is no hope. In Jesus, we have a living hope. By “presence,” I mean that there’s a way of being, an orientation to life and parenting, a fundamental attitude that emanates from the core of who you are that shapes and colors everything that you do. The way that you carry yourself. The aura that you display. The impression that you give. That’s presence. And I’m saying that Gospel Presence is the One Thing. So let me try to unpack Gospel Presence from Colossians 3. Here are six ways that it shows up here.
Gospel Presence is a setting of the mind on Christ (Col. 3:1). Set your mind. Set your affection. Orient your life by Christ. He’s the sun; everything in your life orbits around him.
Gospel Presence is putting on the new self, or the new man (Col. 3:9-10). The fundamental contrast is between the old man (Adam) who rebelled against God, and the new Man (Jesus) who fully trusted, obeyed, and imaged God. Gospel Presence means that you “put on” the new Man, that you “clothe” yourself with Jesus. You wear him, like a cloak. And notice that there are practices that flow out of this presence. There are practices that come from and accord with Adam; and practices that come from and accord with Christ. You can’t do the practice, if you don’t put on the presence.
Gospel Presence means that you are fundamentally defined by God’s love in the gospel. “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…” (Col. 3:12). There are characteristics and qualities that you put on and practice because you are holy and beloved by God. He defines you. “By the grace of God I am what I am.” His grace is what makes you who and what you are. Gospel Presence means that his love and grace defines you, and you know it in your bones.
Gospel Presence means you are ruled by the peace of Christ (Col. 3:15). You are firm, stable, steadfast, unshaken. You’re not tossed to and fro. When storms come, you’re planted on a rock. When chaos erupts, God’s peace still reigns in your heart. There’s a kind of stability and security that comes from knowing that you’re loved by God, defined by grace, oriented by Christ, clothed with the New Man.
Gospel Presence means that the word of Christ dwells in you richly in all wisdom (Col 3:16) Not just that you read your Bible, but that there is a richness and fullness and potency to the word in your life. The Spirit of God hangs on you, and there’s a felt sense that “here’s a person who has been with God.”
Gospel Presence means that all of your practices are done “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). Your actions bear his name. They testify to him and point to him and draw attention to him.
Let me try and make this a bit more clear. If parenting is fundamentally about Gospel Presence with your family, then we ought to think of parenting as setting the tempo, setting the tune, for your children. If the family is to make music together, and if Jesus is the tune, then Dad should set the beat and lay down the bass, Mom should pick up the beat and add the harmony that makes it soar, and then the kids should step in time and fill out the harmony and display its richness. I’m not musical enough to make the metaphor work, but I hope it gives a bit of a picture. As with marriage, Dad’s leadership is less about giving orders and issuing directives and setting down rules, and more about being on rhythm, keeping in step with the Spirit, walking rightly with the truth of the gospel. In short, having a Gospel Presence.
Change the image, and then I want to get practical. Making Gospel Presence the fundamental reality of parenting means that you’re trying to cultivate a certain kind of atmosphere in your home. You want your children to breathe life and joy and peace and gladness in the air, because you’re pumping high quality Gospel Oxygen into your home. And in this metaphor, the way to breathe out life and joy and peace in your home is for you yourself to breathe in the gospel, to stand in grace, to inhale the good news of Jesus and then to breathe it out for the benefit of others.
Practicing the Presence
Now to fill out the picture, I want to extend this idea of Gospel Presence through the command in Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Don’t provoke or embitter or exasperate or aggravate your children, lest they become discouraged, listless, sullen, faint-hearted. So I’ve got six ways that I want to push this into the corners of parenting. All of them are structured the same: “Parenting with Gospel Presence means don’t embitter your children by __________.”
Making your ultimate happiness, salvation, and significance depend upon your children. Children become provoked, resentful, and embittered, when you load them down with the heavy burden of your own ultimate happiness. You cannot save yourself through child-rearing. It’s easy for parents to make the success of their children the basis of their ultimate happiness and significance. In this horrible irony, we embitter our children by putting them first in our lives, by shackling them with heavy load of our deepest desires. Gospel Presence means that Jesus is our Savior and Significance and Ultimate Happiness.
Making them depend permanently upon you for their ultimate happiness, salvation, and significance. Some parents want their children to remain permanently dependent upon them. They don’t want them to grow up, and it’s because they have a deep need to be needed, and they’re willing to sacrifice their growth in maturity on the altar of their own needs. This is what is typically underneath mollycoddling, babying, and stunting the maturity of your kids. Let them grow up, so that even though you will lose them as children, you will receive them back as peers, friends, mature adults, who stand shoulder to shoulder with you.
Let me say a bit more about this, because this temptation will afflict moms and dads a bit differently. For dads, our temptation will be to stunt the growth and maturity of our kids so that they never surpass us in anything, so that we’re always bigger and stronger and smarter and wiser than our kids. We embitter them because we want to keep them under our thumb, rather than longing for them to stand on our shoulders so that they surpass us in every way.
For moms, this temptation takes the form of trying to avoid all of the breaches and separations of motherhood. Motherhood, in many ways, is a repeated pattern of encircling and separation. A mother’s body is a baby’s home during pregnancy, and then at birth, the child leaves, often resulting in post-partum depression. In many cases, a mother then envelopes the baby again through breastfeeding, until it’s time for the baby to be weaned. The pattern continues as the child grows up in the home, and then heads off to school, and then later when the child leaves home for good. For a mom, each of these is deeply felt as a loss in ways that is distinct from dads. This came home to me recently when we sent Sam off to first grade. My attitude was basically, “Good luck at boot camp, Son.” My wife’s was “Get back in my belly!” For me, it felt like we were sending him off. To her, it felt like he was being torn away.
Now some of you moms are saying, “I was sending my kid away.” But there’s a big difference between sending away and sending to. When we make that joke, and laugh at that joke, we need to be clear about what’s happening. And what I want to suggest is that the difference between sending away and sending to is fundamentally Gospel Presence. When you send, are you saying, “Get out of my hair?” Or “I’m giving you a gift (whether play, education, etc)?”
Taking parenting too lightly. We’ve been entrusted with the care of souls. What our children view as good and true and beautiful, what they view as normal, will be given to them by us. We’re the first and most important ambassadors from God that they ever meet. We are representing what he is like. This is why, when we’re with our kids, we really must be with them. We must be present. Not distracted, but attentive. What are we communicating to them about God, when our time with them is spent looking at Facebook and Twitter and texts? It grieves me, when I catch myself distracted from my boys when I ought to be fully present, physically and mentally, for them. I hate when I snap out of my techno-fog and realize that they’ve been clamoring for my attention, and I’ve been ignoring them. I feel the weight of the unspoken question that hangs over all of my interactions with my sons, “Daddy, what is God like?” They don’t even know that they’re asking it. But they are. And I don’t want to be telling them with my distraction and absentmindedness and thoughtlessness that God isn’t that interested in you. He probably has more important things to do. We embitter our children when we take our calling as mothers and fathers lightly.
Taking our parenting too seriously. There’s a way of feeling that weight (What is God like?), of taking parenting seriously that is oppressive to our children. And there’s a way of taking parenting seriously that has a certain kind of lightness to it. And it has a lightness to it, because we’re practicing Gospel Presence, and so Jesus is bearing the load. We don’t save our kids. We aren’t their ultimate joy. We bring Joy. But we aren’t Joy Himself. And knowing this, knowing that God is God and we are not, and knowing that he forgives us for all of our inattentiveness and outbursts and parenting failures, liberates us from the wretched oppression of the weight of parenting. A heavy parent is often not a fruitful parent. When life is hard, Gospel Presence means you know what to do with the burden: you carry it to Jesus and cast it on him, because he cares for you. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
Enforcing harsh discipline. One of the fundamental ways that we embitter our children is through unjust, erratic, and harsh discipline. One of the surest ways to exasperate them is to be exasperated by them. One of the surest ways to provoke them to anger is to be provoked to anger by them. When we spank in anger, when we react and speak harshly, when our tone of voice communicates that we’re a bit out of control, we are sowing seeds of bitterness into little souls. When we respond to our children’s defiance by bowing up ourselves, by showing them “who’s the boss,” we’re not practicing Gospel Presence. We’re not clothing ourselves with the New Man. Look at Colossians 3: Clothe yourselves with compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. Now all of you are capable of having a compassionate heart with your children. There are times when you look at them and your heart swells with tender mercies and love and affection for them. It’s called naptime. And there you laughed again. And I’m going to analyze our humor again. I don’t think it’s wrong to joke this way; but it’s important to know what the joke is. We think that the joke is saying something about our kids: sometimes they’re little angels, and sometimes they’re not. But the joke is really revealing something about us. Sometimes we put on the new man. And sometimes we don’t. That’s the contrast, the incongruity, that matters. We’re the joke, not them. Children are children, whether awake or asleep. The immaturity, the childishness, the inability to control their emotions: that’s baked into the cake. They’re children, and they’re sinners. What’s surprising is our immaturity, our childishness, our inability to control our emotions. We’re supposed to be the adults. We’re supposed to absorb the toddler tantrum, not return it back on their heads. But the only thing that can cheerfully absorb toddler tantrums is Gospel Presence.
Failing to discipline. In Colossians 3:13, Paul exhorts us to bear with one another, and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other. And the reality is that some of us have complaints against our children. And those complaints are festering in our souls. Here’s how this works: your child, the son of Adam or daughter of Eve, acts like the old man with its passions and desires. Fussing, complaining, whining, defiance, whatever. We fail to discipline them and show them how to repent. Therefore, the sin festers in their little soul. Meanwhile, because they’ve not repented, we’ve not forgiven them. And so now it’s festering in our soul. And so we carry around bitterness at our kids all day, until we’ve finally had enough, and it erupts in erratic anger and “discipline.” And that erratic discipline further embitters our kids so they begin to be discouraged.
This is why consistent, firm, cheerful discipline, within the context of a glad-hearted, joyful home that breathes gospel air is so important. Children need boundaries in order to flourish. God gives us boundaries so that good things can run wild. And your calling as a parent is to faithfully, lovingly, and gladly enforce those boundaries. Not reacting. Not lashing out. Stable, secure, with peace ruling in your heart, knowing that when you discipline your kids, you’re giving them a gift.
I’ll close with this exhortation. In the book of Proverbs, the father says to his son, “My son, give me your heart.” As parents, your children are always giving you their hearts. Always. The only question is what you will do with their hearts while you have them. Will you crush their hearts, so that they lose heart and drift into discouragement? Will you neglect and ignore their hearts, so that they become sullen and embittered? Or will you strengthen their hearts and enlarge their hearts, so that their hearts swell with joy and life and wonder? Will they take heart because they’ve given you their heart? In your possession, will their hearts shrivel or swell, grow bitter or grow fat?
To circle back once more to Gospel Presence, the most distinguishing mark of Gospel Presence in this passage is gratitude:
And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17 ESV)
Gratitude is the posture of the soul that receives the grace of God and then prepares to pour it out in service for others. Gospel Presence means doing all of our mothering and fathering, whether we’re changing diapers, or cleaning up a mess, or preparing dinner, or playing with blocks, or leaving for work, or coming home, or disciplining, or reading the Bible—whatever we do as moms and dads, we do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks for our children always and in all circumstance to our God and Father.
Gospel Presence is only available for those who have trusted in the gospel, who have embraced Jesus as their only hope in life and death. We are weak, lost, inadequate, sinful, broken, rebellious. We’ve got nothing. When we stand before God, we ought to stand before him as condemned. He’s the Righteous Judge; we’re the guilty criminals. That’s what ought to happen. And yet, because Jesus died for our sins, and because God has raised him from the dead, we have peace with God. More than that, God is for us a happy Father—attentive, joyful, patient, forgiving. This table reminds us that there is no gospel presence without the forgiveness of sins. If you know that forgiveness, if you know and trust and follow Jesus, then you are welcome to the Father’s table.