Parents ask a lot of questions about their children: Did they get enough to eat today? Are they spending too much time in front of the screen? What type of schooling is best for them? While these sorts of concerns are important, making them the top parenting priority can cause them to be like packing foam—they’ll fill whatever box they’re set in, leaving little to no room for the most important question of all: What kind of spiritual heritage will I leave to my children?
If you have ever followed a Jewish friend or neighbor into their house, you may have noticed something that looks like an ornament on their doorpost, called a mezuzah. It’s a decorative case containing a piece of parchment, and it’s meant to be a constant reminder of the legacy God has commanded His people to instill in their children. It’s there to remind its owner that there is not a car one could buy, not a degree one could confer, not an heirloom one could give to one’s children that could ever take the place of impressing on them the radical importance of the word from God—known as the Shema—that is written inside the mezuzah:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:4–9)
Many Christian parents are familiar with these verses as a mandate for parenting, and they are often read at dedication services for infants. Their message is clear: parents are to provide a spiritual framework of instruction. Without this gift, all other provisions will eventually fail our children. Yet these verses also raise four questions that will help us succeed as we diligently seek God’s presence in our children’s lives.
1) “Have I Known God Myself?”
“These words that I command you today shall be on your heart.”
As Israel stood at the threshold of the promised land, Moses commanded the parents of Israel to use the experiences of God’s redemptive work in their lives to explain faith to their children. In Moses’s day, they were to speak of their liberation from the bondage of Egypt. On the first Passover, parents had painted blood on their doorposts so that their households would be saved from death (Ex. 12:7–13; 26–27). Those parents had experienced the reality of a sacrifice sparing them from God’s wrath, bringing them into His family and under the lordship of His commands.
Children listen with big ears and look with open eyes. They notice the things we say and the things we do. They will soon learn whether the things we say about God are simply notions we are repeating or convictions born out of our own encounter with God’s Word. If we would proclaim God’s redemption that brought us into the family of God through the blood of Christ shed for us, then we must be people who are ourselves redeemed.
Without that experience, we have nothing of eternal value to offer. We can introduce our kids to religion as a system, and we can introduce them to bright ideas on how to put their lives in order so that they will be “moral” people. But unless we have drunk at the fountainhead of the Living Water, we cannot offer them lasting satisfaction. Unless we have eaten of the Bread of Life, we cannot say to them, “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8). And that’s exactly why Moses asks us to consider: Have I myself had an experience of God that is grounded in the truth of His Word?
2) “Does My Life Show a Yearning for God?”
“You … shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Children can pick up on the difference between a heartbeat and a hollow routine. They know our hearts, because they hear our words, and out of the abundance of our hearts our mouths speak (Matt. 12:34; Luke 6:45). Children see what we spend our money on, where we spend our time, and who we associate with. They can tell whether “Say your prayers” is simply a nighttime routine or an expression of a yearning to know and love our Creator and Savior.
Unless we have drunk at the fountainhead of the Living Water, we cannot offer our children lasting satisfaction.
Children benefit from seeing parents, whom they admire and model in many other areas of life, giving themselves up in genuine worship of God. If we routinely seek after God from a longing to know Him, then our children might also begin to develop those habits and—more importantly—that desire. When God’s commands spring from our hearts and are readily on our lips when we sit, walk, lie down, and rise, our children will learn that God is the Master of all our ways and that His commands are good. Moses thus urges us to ask: Do my daily actions reveal a heart that yearns for God’s ways?
3) “Am I Willing to Teach My Children Obedience?”
“You shall teach them diligently to your children.”
Much of parenting is about indoctrination. Many of us may recoil at that word. We may choose to use a different word. But it is important to recognize that we do, in fact, indoctrinate our children in all kinds of things. For example, in something as simple as singing, “This is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth, brush our teeth,” we are instilling deep within them the necessity and benefit of dental care.
The Christian parent must reject the foolishness that suggests that influencing the choices of our young, malleable children is somehow wrong. Instead, we should recognize that as surely as we need to make our children understand certain physical habits, like dental care or looking both ways before crossing the street, so we should impress upon them the wisdom of God and obedience to His commands. In taking our children to church, studying Scripture as a family, praying together, and more, we are imprinting them with God’s Word and His ways so they may be guided by God’s wisdom throughout their lives.
Our children are not naturally bent toward thinking and talking about God—yet doing so is, of course, vital. How we respond to the difficulties and resistance they may give us is ultimately a question of whether our love for our children is like Christ’s, who is more concerned about them coming to Him than about anything else in life. Our children often will not want to learn about spiritual things any more than they’ll want to learn other responsibilities. And so Moses encourages us to ask: Will I neglect the spiritual training I’m called to provide my children, or will I take up this God-given responsibility and teach them about the loving rule of Christ?
4) “Will I Offer My Children to God?”
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Loving God with all our being—heart, soul, and might—is our most fundamental goal, for ourselves and for our children. This pursuit of absolute love for God will lead us to sacrifice other desires that are anything less than this ultimate purpose. Hannah is a wonderful illustration of a woman who took seriously the privilege and responsibility of raising children with the goal of wholehearted love for God. When she prayed for a son, she promised to give that child back to God all the days of his life. And when God gave her a son, she dedicated him to the Lord as she had promised (1 Sam. 1:11, 24).
God has given parents a strong attachment to their children—so strong, in fact, that many parents struggle to let go. They can be unhelpfully worried about them becoming missionaries to far-off, dangerous places or pastors in a difficult occupation that pays little. They struggle to imagine them living lives of simplicity and generosity amid all the world offers. They’re hesitant about them living in a “rough” neighborhood for the sake of the Gospel. They don’t want them to be rejected by friends or neighbors because they love and obey Christ. Such concerns are often understandable—yet over and against them stands the truth, and the promise, that Christ is a better gift to our children than all the “cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14).
Loving God with all our being—heart, soul, and might—is our most fundamental goal, for ourselves and for our children.
It takes a selfless surrender and a vision for wholehearted love of God to say, “God, here he is, my son. Here she is, my daughter. You choose her life for her, because You’re the only one who knows her future, and You’re the one who loves her most.” And so Moses’s words cause us to wonder: Am I prepared to offer my children to God? And have I done so?
Children are not a shrine at which we worship. Undoubtedly, they are gifts from the Lord (Ps. 127:3), perhaps among the richest of blessings—but even so, they are given to us in order that we might nurture them “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). We receive them so that we might prepare them to leave us, to be lights in this fallen world, and to live with their minds set on eternity.
Christian parenting requires boldness in the conviction that in His Word, God has provided a perfect framework for our parenting. It also requires courage to go against cultural currents that would have you believe otherwise. Whether you are changing an infant’s diapers, about to send a young adult out into the world, or watching your kids raise their own kids, the question remains the same: What kind of spiritual heritage will you leave to your children?
This article was adapted from the sermon “Biblical Principles for Parenting” by Alistair Begg.