Being authentic about sin and grace

No effort is more worthwhile than raising our children to love and trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And there is no other parenting task that makes us realize how much we need Jesus. Children learn primarily by example, and they’re always watching us. I never feel my sin so keenly as when I hear my ungracious words and sharp tone of voice mimicked from my children’s mouths. That is not what I wanted to teach them, but that is what they learned from me.

Showing children the right way to act is only half the battle. It’s just as important that we show them unwavering Christlike love when they fail, just as God shows us. To help our children understand this concept of law and gospel, we must be honest about our own sinfulness. One of the most meaningful examples of law and gospel we can show to our children is being willing to acknowledge our own faults when we sin against our children and ask them to forgive us.

But that hurts our pride. We don’t want to admit to our children when we’re wrong. We want them to think that we’re strong and unflappable and that we don’t make mistakes. But that’s not true. We’re sinners, just like they are. We need God’s grace and forgiveness every day of our lives, just like they do.

When we’re authentic with our children about our sinfulness and weakness and our need for a Savior, we give them a powerful lesson about what it means to live as a Christian.

Our children are sinners too, and we need to expect that they are going to sin—and often against us! When they do, we must be careful not to make matters worse by adding our own sin to the mix with responses that

• take their sin personally (“How could you do this to ME?”),

• overreact (“You’re grounded for life!”),

• heap excessive guilt on them (“Do you realize just how badly you behaved?”), and

• shame them (“You’re so stupid! What’s wrong with you?”).

We simply show them their sin, encourage repentance, guide them to better choices and actions, and assure them of their forgiveness. Younger children may not fully understand what’s happening in this process, and older children may not appreciate what the process involves, but the consistent example we set for them will be powerful.

But above all, we LOVE them—not just when they’re easy to love but especially when it’s difficult. Just as God loves us unconditionally, we reflect that same love to our children, not because they deserve it, but because “he first loved us.” Our children are our youngest brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are walking together along the narrow path to heaven. We want our children to know not only how much we love them but also how much God loves them.

When we’ve taught them that, we’ve taught them what’s most important.

Emily Gresens Strey and her husband, Johnold, have four children ranging in age from 2 to 13.

Using law and gospel in everyday situations

What a privilege it is for us as parents to use God’s law and gospel with our kids. It’s a blessing that the Holy Spirit has called us to faith and given us the motivation to delight in God’s law and look for ways to demonstrate our love and thanks. Law versus gospel . . . what a balance as we parent our children at any age!

I have to admit that my natural tendency is a more law-based parenting approach. I thought I’d never use the line, “Because I’m your father and I said so,” but I have. Whenever I get to that point in a conversation with one of my kids, I stop and ask myself if what I am requiring is because of my own selfish desire to have things a certain way or if I am really providing a way for my kids to demonstrate their thankfulness for Christ.

Here’s an example. As a child, I grew up eating at the kitchen table with my family for every meal. When my kids wanted to eat in the family room together, I had a litany of responses.

“No. We eat at the kitchen table because that’s where people eat.”

“No, we’ll spill and stain the carpet.”

Then after these and other responses didn’t seem to satisfy anyone, I pulled out, “Because I’m your father and I said so”—as if that response instantly created satisfaction. It was more like forced obedience.

Obeying parents is a great way for children to show their love for God. I have also found that too many moments like this can frustrate kids, and their delight in the law can fade.

Let’s face it. Eating at the kitchen table is really my own desire to do things the way I did in the past. Can we eat together in the family room? Yes, of course—and we now do. Sometimes we even eat outside on the patio. Where we eat is no longer the requirement, but my kids understand that what I appreciate is the time together. Being together is a way they can demonstrate their love for me and for God. The rule itself is gone, but their understanding of the motivation behind the rule is what brings me joy.

My natural law-way-of-thinking can easily show itself in my parenting. Teaching responsibility quickly can become another selfish rule on my part and cloud the opportunity for gospel-motivated behavior.

As a parent of two awesome kids, I rely on the example of how my parents balanced the law and gospel with me when I was a child. You may recall a previous article when I shared a story from my childhood about driving our new garden tractor into a clothes pole. The grace-filled reaction of my father was imprinted on me. I recently had the opportunity to pay that forward.

My 14-year-old daughter asked if she could pull our car into the garage. It was literally only 15 feet. What could go wrong in 15 feet?

After a complete lesson on driving safety and the rules of “right pedal is go; left pedal is stop,” she sat in the driver’s seat and slowly moved the car forward. Just at the point where the pedal on the left should be used, the pedal on the right was selected instead. Thankfully she only hit the gas slightly, and the car managed to stop after crushing our garbage cans against the front wall.

My first inclination was to get angry. I just told her which pedals to use! However, I knew she was scared. I knew she felt bad. What she needed right then was not a healthy dose of the law and a stern reaction from her dad. It was a mistake; it was not intentional; she was sorry. My reaction was the same as my dad’s reaction when I was her age—nothing but encouragement. The law part of my parenting was done already. Now it was time for the gospel.

Are the muddy boot prints tracked along the kitchen floor an accidental act of a child on her way to an emergency bathroom trip? Or are they an intentional expression of disobedience that expresses an attitude that she doesn’t care about the rules in the house? Each has its own opportunity for the parent to emphasize the law in one case or the gospel in another.

Here’s my personal formula for balance:

1. Remember my natural tendency. I know I lean more heavily on the law, and I know I don’t always put the best construction on an act. Because I know this about myself, I hit my STOP button so I don’t get angry right away.

2. Communicate. After I pause, it’s time to find the facts. It’s time to communicate with my child and find out what happened.

3. Law. Is the particular situation in need of a more law-focused approach? Reinforce the rule? Time for a consequence? Do I need to emphasize the law to have a better appreciation of the next step?

4. Gospel. Is the particular situation prime for a grace response? Perhaps the child already knows she is wrong and already knows consequences will be coming, but she just needs to know you still love her and is forgiven because Christ forgave us.

5. Repent. The last step is to ask God for forgiveness when I skip one of the other steps above and blow it! When I miss the chance God gives me to demonstrate law and gospel in my parenting, I remember the undeserved act of love he showed me by sending his Son to satisfy the requirements of the law for me and by giving me the free and perfect gift of grace.

Let’s delight in our opportunity as parents to demonstrate our love for God by using the law and gospel as we handle everyday situations in our home.

We are helping our children understand the need for their Savior and bringing them the assurance of their salvation and the knowledge that they are loved by us and their heavenly Father.

Shaping responsible behavior takes time

Shaping responsible, Christ-like behavior in children takes time.

Somehow my father added several hours to his already busy day to drive me around to selected classmates’ homes. The trips were made so I could render apologies to them and their parents. I had shared something inappropriate with several students and been caught. Part of making the situation right involved my dad giving up his valuable time to make sure I followed through on my tour of atonement. Later that night I gave the eighth-grade valedictory speech at my grade school. I’m pretty sure I had a red face as I shared “The value of a Christian education.”

This is only one example of how my parents were tasked with trying to raise children who would behave responsibly. There were five of us, but I’m pretty sure I gave them the most practice.

No matter how hectic the pace of their daily lives, they not only addressed irresponsible behavior but gave us opportunities to foster responsibility. There was an assumption that we were competent beyond our own expectations—and most of the time we lived up to them.

Take three city buses to get to school? You can do it! And we did.

Go to college and pay for it yourself? Sure, why not?

Travel abroad on your own dime and come home in one piece? Piece of cake!

Shaping responsible behavior takes the kind of faith that realizes our children are just on loan to us from their true Father.

My own children were tasked with daily chores that were part of their preparation for real life. Self-esteem starts with knowing you are a child of God, and conquering skills is an important addition.

Responsible behavior grows when responsibility is given to a child. In my years in the classroom I observed well-meaning parents cripple their children’s growth by assuming responsibilities that could have been given to their children. I was reminded of this myself when I was about to pick up my grandchild’s breakfast dish. My son said kindly, “Never do for a toddler what a toddler can do for herself.”

Follow-through on responsibilities is important. Very early on our children knew that bringing needed books home from school was their responsibility. The first time our daughter forgot a book she knew that even though we lived next door and had a key to the school, we weren’t going to go and get that book for her. It was a hard pill for all of us to swallow but one that would help achieve the desired effect.

At one of the Lutheran schools in which I taught, a very basic lunch was provided for children who forgot theirs. We knew something about the parents when we saw a child pick up that unglamorous lunch without a request to call home. And we saw the growth in responsible behavior as that same child remembered to bring his own lunch in the future.

The motivation for this never-ending job of raising responsible children is simple, powerful, and comes with a promise. Children in our care are a gift from God, and they actually come with instructions: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

“Response-able” kids

“The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14).

My mom will laugh when she sees that I’m writing an article on parenting responsible kids. I don’t think a single school day went by when I could find both of my shoes before mom was in the car backing out of the driveway. I wasn’t known as a very responsible kid in the traditional sense of the word. She used to joke that if my head weren’t attached I would probably lose it. And she was probably right.

But I once heard that being responsible really means that one is able to respond. You might think of it as being spelled response-able. I like this definition. This is, after all, what I really want for my kids. I don’t just want them to know where their shoes are, and, someday, where their keys and wallets are (though it would be nice if they were more responsible than I was . . . okay . . . am). But what I really want for them is to be able to respond to situations they find themselves in throughout their lives in a God-pleasing way.

I want my kids to be able to respond to God’s law and own up to their sin and their mistakes when the mirror of the law exposes them for the sinners that they are. I want them to be able to respond with genuine contrition and repentance. And I think that ability is fostered the more they come to know and believe and appreciate the gospel. They can own up to their sin knowing that Jesus will forgive it and erase it every time.

I want my kids to be able to respond to the consequences of their actions. I want them to know that God isn’t punishing them for their sin—he already punished Jesus in their place. But I want them to know that God (and sometimes their mom and I) allow or send such consequences to teach them to make a better choice next time they are faced with similar temptations.

But most of all I want my kids to be able to respond to the gospel as they rejoice in the full and free forgiveness that is theirs through Christ. He offered his life for them and then rose up again in victory for them and for the world. I want them to be able to respond to that gospel victory by letting it fill their hearts and minds with peace as they put their trust in Jesus more and more. No matter what the situation in which they find themselves, I want them to be able to respond by living lives that are pleasing to him in their attitudes and in their actions, in the way they treat others, and in the way they look to serve those around them.

To me, this is the kind of responsibility I really want for my kids—even if they can’t find their shoes or leave their backpack at school or leave a coat out in the rain. This kind of responsibility will last—not just for a lifetime but for eternity.

What can I do to foster such responsibility in my kids? I can model it and be responsible myself as I respond to the law and gospel in the way God desires. I’ll make both a part of my life every day and strive to be more and more responsible to God’s Word. Finally, I’ll pray that God works this responsibility in me and in my kids, because neither can happen without him. With his help and blessing, our family will be responsible in all that we do.