Learning to Parent in the Crucible of Discipleship

My seven and almost-four year old want the same things at the same time. This reality is the single-biggest shalom destroyer in my family right now.

Last night it was a small, purple, plastic dinosaur/duck something-or-other that had been rolling around on the floor of our minivan, dodging discarded cheerios and forgotten scraps of trash, for the better part of twelve months.

And there it stayed, lost and forgotten among the toddler rubble, until a moment of passing curiosity caused my son to grab it as he entered his car seat. My daughter witnessed the phoenix-esque rising from the floorboards and lo and behold: the toy instantly became the paragon of pleasure for both of my kids at EXACTLY the same time.

Within ten seconds, as we drove to our church gathering, the toy bickering devolved into a full meltdown. Screaming, arguing, yelling, crying, threatening. I flipped unthinkingly into command-and-control daddy mode:

“Work it out!” Dad says. Nothing changed.

“That’s not how you speak to your sister!” Mom says. Nothing changed.

“Use kind words, please!” Dad sa…

The words themselves aren’t even heard over the rising cacophony of #allthefeels in the back seat.

Parents, you know this scenario? There’s only one way to handle this: POWER UP. Double down on the command-and-control posture and yell LOUDER THAN THE INSANE PEOPLE IN THE BACKSEAT. The full arsenal of ‘The parenting power up’ is before us: threats, bribes, punishments, so-help-me-gods…Whatever it takes to get things under control so our family can travel to the church gathering and worship Jesus for the love of God!!! (ironic pun intended)

Here’s the thing about powering up – whether with an almost-four year old daughter or a friend making bad choices or an employee underperforming or as a pastor confronting a member – It gets results. It makes things happen. You (re)gain control of the situation. Powering up is so damn effective, but it is in direct conflict with the lordship of Jesus. Powering up is so damn effective, but it is in direct conflict with the lordship of Jesus. Click To Tweet

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you must be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22.26)

Powering up is all about efficiency, control and effectiveness; that’s the point of Gentile leadership. The point of Jesus leadership is love. We want to power up with fear, threats, punishments, and bribes; Love is how Jesus powered up. 

We want to power up with fear, threats, punishments, and bribes; Love is how Jesus powered up. Click To Tweet

Love is the entire deal here as a parent: how do I love my kids when they’re acting like ill-tempered orangutans?

Duh, Love. But, How?

At 5’10”, I know how to make my kids afraid of me; I’m still a giant to an almost-four and seven year old. I hold the keys to the technology (ipods, ipads, TV) so I can punish them where it hurts. My arsenal of exasperating parenting techniques is second-to-none.

But what of love? What does love live like in a minivan on the way to church ? 

My conversations with parents and other Christians reveal this same dilemma: we assent to love, sings songs about love, lead bible studies about love but have a woefully underdeveloped imagination for how it is embodied in the granularities of our actual lives. 

Powering up “works” in the short term- get the behavior under control so we can go to church- but it won’t make my kids wise (able to make good decisions), and it won’t lead them to love (making good decisions as a surrender to love). And that’s what I’m after as a parent: to see my kids become wise and loving humans

If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, God’s love is how this wisdom matures. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but God's love is how this wisdom matures. Click To Tweet And for our kids, the dynamic is similar: fear of a parent is the beginning of wisdom, but it’s our love that will make their wisdom mature. 

If I never learn to truly love my kids and only trust in my ability to power up, I may get them to sin less out of fear of punishment, but here’s the deal: Fear of punishment will not lead to mature love because perfect love casts out fear. Love, not fear, is the only power strong enough break the bond of sin: both for me and my kids.

But how does this work “in the minivan”?

Obedience is a Trusting of Love

So I slammed on the breaks, our minivan skidding to a halt right in the middle of our neighborhood.

Putting the car in park, I slowly turned around and said in a barely audible voice:

“This is not how we love each other.”

They both were quiet for a split second before my seven year old launched into his best Perry Mason impersonation, accusing his sister of egregious behavior and exonerating himself of all wrongdoing.

“You will listen to me now.”

Honestly, a volcanic river flowed inside my chest, fueling every POWER UP impulse in my body. I WAS SO DONE.

And then- as I looked in their eyes- I prayed silently, “Help, Dad. I don’t want to power up, punish, threaten. What do you want me to know about being a good dad right now?”

Not sure how long the prayerful silence lasted. But what came out of my mouth next was, I believe, God’s Spirit giving voice to my groans. The words came, deliberate and quiet:

You will never find a person who wants your good more than I do; I love you so much that I will not allow something like a toy to rob you of the joy God wants for you.

Remember what we always say: when you listen to your daddy that’s how you demonstrate you love me? Yes?

I’m asking you to listen to and trust me right now. Can you do that? 

I want each of you to take 10 deep breaths.

We took 10 breaths together.

Ask God, “What do you want me to know right now about this toy and my brother/sister? What good news do you have for me in my anger and sadness?”

Listen – God’s Spirit wants to bring peace to your heart. God’s Spirit wants to give you good news about who you are and who God is. Listen – what is God saying to you?”

The next 10 minutes or so are sacred: too much to type here and too precious, perhaps, to divulge publicly. Both my kids are learning to listen to God’s voice in their lives. But by the time we were done, each received good news from God about who God is and who they are because of who God is. (To learn more about this kind of proclamation, click here for a discussion I led on “Recovering a Resurrection Imagination for Proclamation” on the Theology on Mission Podcast). 

As I parent, I’m learning that in order for obedience to mature into wisdom it must flow from a deep surrender to love. Fear of punishment will get me behavior modification in the short term, but not wise loving kids in the long term. This is what God wants for his kids: wise and loving kingdom agents who are able to bear his Spirit in Christ’s authority.

This is what God wants for his kids: wise and loving kingdom agents with his Spirit. Click To Tweet 

What my kids need from a dad, I need from my heavenly Father.

Parenthood is discipleship, and discipleship is learning to submit to a heavenly parent whose love is strong enough to vanquish the deepest sin, the darkest anger.

God is discipling each of us into mature love full of wisdom. And he is finding parents who will do the same with their children.