There has seeped into the church culture a “new normal” with regard to children “growing up Christian.” I say “new normal” because I can only imagine it has not been this way in past generations of believers. Nothing in Scripture seems to support the idea that children growing up in a Christian home will “graduate from God when the graduate from high school” and return after they are married with children of their own. That is the “new normal.”
The “new normal” is not supported by Scripture. Instead we find the opposite expectation:
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God. (Ps 78:5-8)
Our teens and twenty-somethings have a “new” view of things relating to God. The church, study of the Scriptures, growing in faith are mostly irrelevant because this generation does not see the connection to things that matter. More immediate concerns matters: self-sufficiency, financial independence, achieving identity. Not necessarily wrong; just primary. Religion is all about the old “dependent child” they used to be.
Our children have grown up breathing the air of the American Dream and expect to pursue that way of life. Breathing this air has its dark side; it may fill their “spiritual lungs” allowing nothing else in. If they come to feel their soul’s desperate need, there is hope. It is still true – somewhat less than it used to be—that marriage and family responsibilities may bring some evangelicals back to the church for help. However, this return does not mean that genuine conversion has taken place. It does mean that they may have a sense that the American Dream was not answering their soul’s need.
The Content of the Command: Love God (Deut 6:4-9)
When God gave his commands to his people in the wilderness, he gave it to them in the context of families living together in a unique society. God expected them to obey his commands, no matter how difficult. There was a great deal at stake for God’s people in obeying God’s commands. Obedience meant the difference between a long and fruitful life in the land; disobedience meant the curse of exile from the land. So, it is not hard to imagine that the next question on their minds might have been: “OK. Where do we start and what do we do?”
Notice that the new life of this new generation doesn’t begin in the law courts, or the civil government, or the king’s palace. The life of the covenant begins in every individual Israelite home. The new life will flow from homes that obey the first of the commandments: to love God with an exclusive devotion of heart, soul and might; and Jesus added the whole mind.
The command to love God is central to understanding the spiritual formation of the home. All the legal stipulations of God’s law were filtered through this love relationship. It is fundamental to this covenant that God is not only Israel’s king and teacher, he is also their Father. God will treat Israel as a father treats a son and expects his son to respond with respect for God’s authority, familial loyalty and childlike obedience. As a good father, God has standards for his children which define their relationship. God says, “You are the sons of the LORD your God . . . For you are a people holy to the LORD your God” (Deut 14:1, 21). Out of the Father’s tender love and merciful acts, the centrality of the command to love God shapes the kind of relationship God desires: family.
Therefore, it only makes sense that when we come to verses 4-9, we come first to the family setting. It is in the family that the greatest commandment is taught, learned and practiced. The divine image of the Father-son relationship not only shapes the nation’s response to God, it simultaneously teaches earthly fathers how they are to lead in their homes, to relate to their wives and to train their children.
God: the foundational truth for spiritual formation
We can see how important it is to have correct view of God for faith-training at home: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” This is not only a theological statement; it is also practical for living. The Lord is saying that he is unique. Moses wrote a song about God so that God’s people could have a quick way of remembering what he is like:
Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them. You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. (Exod 15:11-13)
The Israelites discovered the uniqueness of God when he acted to redeem them from Egypt; an act that inspired their love. They learned that when God spoke, there was no one to contradict him and say, “No, that’s not right.” When God promised something, they learned there was no one to invalidate the promise – not even Pharaoh, the most powerful leader on earth at the time. When God warned them about something, there was no other place to find refuge except in him. They learned that God was not merely “the first among equals;” he was the one and only God; he was worthy of all their affection and obedience.
Fathers and mothers as contagious modelers of faith
Fathers and mothers were to be the primary and contagious carriers of this love and knowledge about God. Parents were to live lives of holy affection for God in front of their children. Moses said, “You shall love God . . . and these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (vv. 5, 6).
Have you noticed that our children catch our manners, our ways and our attitudes. Children are “mini-me’s” reflecting their parents. They receive impressions from their parents like clay. Parents need to remember that their example will be copied by their children. They will seldom learn to love what you despise or ignore or walk in a way that you don’t. Living an authentic Christian life in front of our children ratifies the things they are taught about God both in the home and at church. A parent’s authentic Christian life makes the gospel truly credible. If our children hear one thing in church but see it’s opposite at home, we communicate to them that God’s authority is irrelevant. One pastor said, “To give children good instruction, and a bad example, is the same thing as pointing out to them the way to heaven, while we take them by the hand and lead them down the road to hell.”
Parents’ first obligation to the spiritual formation of their children is to live Christianly, authentically, and growingly in the love of God.
Get out your whetting stones
The word that Moses used for “teach” can be translated “sharpen.” The sharpening he has in mind is the action of sharpening a knife on a whetting stone. It is also used figuratively to mean using words in a cutting way. That is probably how Moses is thinking here: using words, specifically God’s word to etch his commands into the hearts of children.
It is through words of instruction that God’s word is inscribed onto our children. And notice the formal and informal settings for this activity. First, instruction in God’s word is to be “diligent.” That points us to formal times of instruction, like during family worship. But there are also informal times: “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” In other words, daily and routinely, systematically and with regular unpredictability.
It is through this means that God brings our children to acknowledge their need for a Savior. Our words of instruction, in the formal and informal times, are like the kindling used to build fires. Over time this kindling around their hearts receives a spark from the Holy Spirit who fans the flame of love for God. The only thing that will tamp down that fire is parents who don’t continue throwing the kindling along with the good dense logs of biblical truth on the fire.
So, parents: in order to love your children into the kingdom of God, love God supremely in front of them!
Be of good cheer,
Christian Smith, Souls in Transition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 78.
Matt 22:37. For which I am grateful!
Deut 8:5; Hos 11:1.
Compare Deut 5:7 with Jesus’ comment in Matt 22:38.
The Hebrew word is sanan; a verb meaning “to whet.”