“And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” (Isaiah 58:11 ESV)
Have you ever wondered why people who live ten minutes away from a supermarket take on the challenge of growing their own vegetable or herb garden? Perhaps God placed a love for cultivation in our hearts. After all, the first charge God gave to the first man was to work and keep a garden (Genesis 2:15).
Gardens need cultivating; human hearts do, too. Ever since Adam and Eve first ate the fruit, the human heart—mine, yours, and your children’s—has been in rebellion against God. The soil of our hearts is full of rocks of rebellion, weeds of distraction, and the hardened soil of rejection. The soil of our children’s hearts can be hard to cultivate in normal circumstances, and this 2020 pandemic landscape has only made it worse. Each family member has experienced loss after loss, canceled event after canceled event, and restriction after restriction. Uncertainty and anxiety abound.
Still, we have this desire to cultivate the fruit of a joyful and flourishing family. One where both we and our children know, believe, and experience God’s love and our love for them. And in turn express and show their affection and love to God and each other. The following are five steps of faithfulness that my wife and I regularly remind each other of as we cultivate the hearts of our kids.
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV)
Though the gardener can till the soil, plant the seed, and water the ground, only God can make things grow. The same is true when it comes to the hearts of those in our family. While we know that prayer ought to be a central piece of our parenting, the tyranny of the urgent often sucks us away from this important step in cultivating our children’s hearts. Make no mistake: we are at war, and the battle isn’t against our teens and their eye-rolls. It’s not about what they should or shouldn’t be allowed to watch or do. No, this battle is ultimately a spiritual one for their hearts (Ephesians 6:10-12)! Let’s start by acknowledging God and crying out to Him in prayer, seeking and asking Him to produce the fruit of His Spirit in and through our families.
“And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 18:2-4 ESV)
The power of play and having fun with our children is often missed. Our kids are not primarily projects or problems to solve. They are people to be in community with! Let’s follow the example of Jesus, who humbled Himself and entered our world in order to reconcile us to the Father. We must enter the world of our children—we can’t expect them to climb up into ours!
“Before you can teach children, you must get the silver key of kindness to unlock their hearts, and so secure their attention … if a boy has a teacher who talks to him about Jesus, but who always wears a sour look, what does the boy think? ‘I wonder whether Jesus is like you, if so, I shouldn’t like Him.’” (Come Ye Children, Charles Spurgeon)
God has blessed my wife and I with three uniquely wired kids, and what they enjoy playing or doing for fun is often very different. For my oldest, it’s experiences like concerts. Our middle child loves adventure and problem-solving games. My youngest loves movies and video games. As I enter into their world in each of these different ways, I see that the quantity of time together creates a quality bond. I learn more about my kids as I see them enjoy the things God has made them to enjoy, and I see our bond grow stronger as we have fun together.
Find what your kids like to do, and do it with them!
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” (Psalm 19:7-11 ESV)
What good is it to pray for our kids, and to play with them, but neglect to tell them the truth of God’s Word? Yet, how often as parents do we miss the opportunity to speak God’s truth and tell our children the better story because we fear it will ruin the moment?
When we see an opportunity to speak truth, but worry that it will “ruin the moment”, we must ask ourselves, “Do we really believe the truth that God’s Word is the better story? Do we really believe it is good news?” I believe parents fear sharing the truth of God with our kids for two main reasons. First, many of us feel too much shame in how our lives don’t measure up to the way God has instructed us to live. Yet, it’s our brokenness and our mistakes that provide the best backdrop to demonstrate and declare the shining good news of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace! Second, we place the burden of reaching and changing their hearts on our shoulders rather than trusting God and His Word to do that work. All of us want to see our children’s faith catch fire, but we act like it’s up to us to strike the match. The command we’ve been given is simply to place the firewood of God’s Word down and trust God and His Spirit to set the blaze. God has promised us that His Word will not return void, so cast away (Isaiah 55:11 ESV)!
“Teach children that the Bible isn’t merely about them and what they should be doing. It’s about God and what He has done. The Bible is the story of how God loves His children and comes to rescue them. And in spite of everything, no matter what, whatever it cost Him—God won’t ever stop loving His children.” (Sally Lloyd-Jones, Jesus Storybook Bible author)
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:1, 4-7 ESV)
Love is what drove the father in the parable to continue to look on the horizon for the prodigal son. Love is what compelled Paul to continue to share the gospel city to city despite multiple beatings and hardships. Love is what motivated Jesus to journey to and through His death on the cross. And love is what will enable you to continue to pursue your kids through their eye-rolls, their cries of “unfair!”, and their proclamations that they don’t care what you think.
Several months ago, my wife and I were having a hard season with one of our girls. Every conversation led to tension and disagreement. She wanted freedoms we just weren’t ready to give, and our reasons just weren’t good enough for her to understand. I could sense the gap growing in our relationship. My wife and I prayed. We tried to speak the truth in love. Still, I couldn’t see how to fix it.
And there I was, in worship on a Sunday, singing “You Keep Coming After Me.” And out of nowhere, these words jolted and filled me with an overwhelming sense of God’s love,
“My sin cannot outrun
The fury of your grace
You chase me, and you’ll keep coming after me
Cause I belong to You
And this will never change
I am Yours, You’ll keep coming after me”
At that moment, I experienced what God means when He says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV). And I realized that this was exactly what God was calling me to as a father of three amazing—and sometimes frustrating—children. I should keep coming after them, just as the Father keeps coming after me.
The path to winning our kids’ hearts is not in the perfect argument, but in the persistent, steadfast pursuit that invites them into the perfect love of their heavenly Father.
“Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” (Psalm 127 ESV)
And we’re back to where we started—prayer. Faithful parenting starts and is sustained by prayer—prayer for our kids and prayer with our kids!
Is there anything better we could teach our children than to commune with, listen to, and talk to God? As a parent, I can’t count how many times I’ve found myself sitting in front of an overwhelmed and anxious child. I’ve seen eyes filled with tears and hearts broken in two because of unkind words spoken to them by a close friend. I’ve seen my kids at a crossroads unable to decide which way to go. I often feel I don’t have the “right” answer or even the right words. What then?
Even if I did always have the right words, the truth is, I won’t always be there to give them a hug of reassurance. I won’t always be able to be the shoulder to cry on when it’s just too much. And I won’t always be there to process the pros and cons when deciding which direction to go. But I know the One who will be there. The best thing I can do, time and time again, is lead my child to Him, in prayer. Only in Him will they find the comfort that surpasses all understanding. Only in God will they find the care and grace they will need to forgive. Only in God will they find the wisdom to take that next step of faith.
“Prayer is where I do my best work as a husband, dad, worker, and friend. I’m aware of the weeds of unbelief in me and the struggles in others’ lives. The Holy Spirit puts his finger on issues that only he can solve. I’m actually managing my life through my daily prayer time. I’m shaping my heart, my work, my family—in fact, everything that is dear to me—through prayer in fellowship with my heavenly Father. I’m doing that because I don’t have control over my heart and life or the hearts and lives of those around me. But God does.” (A Praying Life, Paul E. Miller, Chapter 33)
Let’s stop trying to produce the fruit that only God can! Instead, let’s lift our children up to God in prayer, engage with them on their level through play, encourage them with the truth, love them with perseverance, and teach them to pray to the One who will always love them and who is always with them. And in faith trust God to open their eyes and hearts to His love and create in them a love for others.