The Bible tells us that earthly fatherhood is derived from divine fatherhood. The apostle Paul bows his knee before the Father, “from whom every family [literally fatherhood] in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15). One implication of this basic fact is that earthly parents are to imitate the fatherhood of God. He is the model for our own fathering (and mothering).
In considering God’s fatherhood, parents do well to reflect on the relationships and rules he established in the garden of Eden, and especially on how he uses yes and no.
God’s World of Yes
Recall that God planted the garden in Eden and filled it with trees that were pleasant to the sight and good for food (Genesis 2:9). Then he put the man in the garden to work it and keep it (Genesis 2:15), assigning him a priestly guardianship of God’s garden sanctuary. And then God gave to Adam the moral design of this garden:
The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16–17)
Note three features of the rules God established in the garden. First, there was one no in a world of yes. Second, the yes came first. And third, the no was real.
All three of these features are crucial. God did not create a world of no, filled with prohibitions and restraints. He made a world of yes and gave it his enthusiastic endorsement. God provided Adam with a garden of delights, filled with beautiful trees and tasty fruit, and his first rule was “Eat from every tree (except one).” There is one no in this world of yes. For our purposes, let’s call this “The Father’s Way.”
Learning Parenting from Lies
We see the significance of the Father’s Way when the serpent assaults it. The serpent’s first question is “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). In other words, the serpent asks, “Did God make a world of no?” In doing so, the serpent shrewdly turns the single prohibition into a total prohibition. He turns the one no into a world of no. This assault on the Father’s Way is why Paul describes those who forbid marriage and require abstinence from God’s good foods as liars who are devoted to the teaching of demons (1 Timothy 4:1–5).
At the same time, we must not forget that there was in fact a no. The serpent also assaults this aspect of the Father’s Way. When Eve rightly notes that there is only one no in the world of yes and that violation of the one no will lead to certain death, the serpent replies, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). Whereas the serpent formerly blew the single no out of proportion, now he shrinks the real consequence out of existence.
In sum, the serpent sought to depict God as a miser who makes idle threats. But our Father is not a miser who makes idle threats; he’s a giver who always follows through. That’s the Father’s Way. So what might moms and dads learn from God’s good design in the garden? How might we seek to imitate the Father’s Way?
Lesson 1: Limit Your Noes
First, it is good and right for us to limit the number of noes we place on our kids. While we will surely need more than one (after all, we do live in a fallen world), it’s noteworthy that the foundation of Israel’s life was the Ten Commandments, and that in the New Testament, Jesus captures the Ten with Two: love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–39).
In each of these cases, the noes are limited and focused on the big things. One way to apply this approach is to ask yourself, “What rules must my children always remember?” In our home, following the advice of some wiser friends, early on we established two basic rules:
- Always obey Mom and Dad — all the way, right away, with a happy heart.
- Always tell the truth.
As our kids grew in maturity, we added a third: Treat others the way that you want to be treated.
Now, clearly the first rule encompasses a lot. Every day as parents, we give instructions, commands, and expectations to our kids. But we don’t expect them to memorize every instruction, every house rule, every command that we’ve ever mentioned. Instead, we expect full, immediate, and cheerful obedience when the instructions come.
POINT OF PARENTING
Fewer rules puts the accent in the right place. The moral order of your home, like the moral order of the garden, is fundamentally about trust and relationship. The fundamental thing that we are asking of our children is this: trust the goodness and wisdom of your parents, and express that trust through full, immediate, and cheerful obedience. Having fewer (and wiser) rules orients them to the right issue.
“The moral order of your home, like the moral order of the garden, is fundamentally about trust and relationship.”
Having fewer rules also reorients parents. A small number of good rules keeps us out of the “If I’ve told you once . . .” trap — expecting children to remember every rule that we’ve ever laid down for them. “Billy, why are you standing on your chair? Didn’t I tell you last month never to stand on your chair?” We become frustrated when we have to remind and correct and exhort our children concerning all of the various house rules (and basic courtesies of life). This fundamentally misses the point of parenting.
Teaching, correcting, instructing, reminding — these are the basics of the Father’s Way. This is what we as parents are called to do, and we must do so all the way, right away, with a happy heart.
To press on this practically, let’s say that Billy stands up on his chair at the dinner table (again). The first step is instruction and a reminder. “Billy, we don’t stand up in our chair at the dinner table.” If he sits down, all is well. But sometimes Billy gives you a look that says, “Who’s going to make me?” In that situation, we move to discipline — not for standing up on the chair, but for open defiance. Billy has broken rule number 1, and there must be consequences.
Or perhaps Billy bounces on the chair for a moment, and then sits down. Or he sits down with folded arms and a scowl on his face. In other words, Billy obeyed, but not “all the way, right away, with a happy heart.” This is an opportunity for further teaching and practice. Remind Billy of the full rule, and then have him stand back up in the chair. Give the command again, and watch for full, immediate, and cheerful obedience. And if you receive it, lavish praise and excitement because Billy has preserved the relationship of trust and joy by responding rightly to the Father’s Way.
Lesson 2: Say No to Protect Good
In addition to limiting the number of rules we expect our children to remember, we might also consider how the Father’s Way uses prohibitions. Put simply, in the Father’s Way, each no protects some yes. The noes in the Ten Commandments are designed to guard good things. “You shall not murder” protects life. “You shall not commit adultery” protects marriage. “You shall not steal” protects property. And so on. These noes act like walls around a city, ensuring that the good things within the city can flourish and thrive.
Applying this to our own parenting, we regularly ask ourselves, “When I say no to my kids, what good thing am I protecting? What gift am I guarding?” Often, we say no not because we are guarding some good, but because we are saving ourselves some inconvenience or hassle. This brings us to a third application of the Father’s Way.
Lesson 3: Say Yes to Something Better
When we say no, we ought to look for an opportunity to say yes to something else. Jesus tells us that, when we ask God for bread, he will not give us a stone. When we ask him for fish, he will not give us a snake (Matthew 7:9–11). In other words, God gives us what we ask, or something better. If we ask for bread, he gives us bread — or cake. If we ask for fish, he gives us fish — or steak.
“When we say no, we ought to look for an opportunity to say yes to something else.”
This “something better” must be broadly defined. We might say no (or “not yet”) because we are giving our kids the gift of patience (which is better than indulging their every desire). We might give them a task because we are giving them the gift of diligence and a faithful work ethic (which is better than allowing them to grow up lazy and slothful). We might say no to more screen time in order to say yes to more game time with Mom and Dad (since the long-term value of real relationships far outshines the temporary dopamine hit of our devices).
But in all of these cases, we are seeking to imitate God’s fatherhood, and to follow in the Father’s Way. As parents, real noes are unavoidable, and they are good, like the walls around the city. But we must remember that, as parents, the main thing we are offering is a city of yes, a home of yes, filled with joy and life and gratitude for the abundance of all things that flow to us from the God of yes.