Dr. John A. Huffman Jr.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
I once read the comment, “The modern home is where switches control everything but kids.” This tongue-in-cheek bit of whimsy captures a myriad of questions about the modern family.
Pollsters are constantly at work, studying American homes. My four decades of pastoral ministry, from l962 to the present, have been carried out in an environment of constant change. And I have been reflecting recently on the most noticeable changes I have observed during these four decades. The top four are as follows, not necessarily in order of intensity.
One change is the substantial increase in the percentage of couples who end their marriage by divorce. Another is the increased number of couples living together prior to marriage. A third is the substantial decrease in parental authority, with the peer group of friends having taken over some of the influences on behavior once held by parents. A fourth is the substantial decline in the percentage of meals families have together with everyone at the table.
In response to these changes, I want to make two simple but highly important points. The first is a biblical, philosophical principle that can undergird all of your parenting. The second is a list of the practical biblical gifts you can give your children.
Wise Parents Give Their Children Something to Rebel Against
No, I am not calling for rebellion on the part of children. The Bible instructs children to obey their parents. The apostle Paul wrote, paraphrasing one of the Ten Commandments, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise—‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’” (Eph. 6:1–3).
In addition, the Old Testament book of Proverbs is filled with instructions for children to learn from their parents. Wise sons and daughters accept the counsel of their father. God’s Word instructs children to obey.
I would not encourage rebellion among young people. At the same time, it leaves an optional opening. They are free to disobey. They can become rebels. We must objectively face the fact that every young person has the opportunity and the right to rebel. It is against God’s very creation of the individual to expect the child to be a carbon copy of the parent. It is natural for the young person to want to get on his or her own two feet, independent of the parents. But rebellion often is carried out at great risk.
To avoid having their child rebel, all too often parents will take a relaxed, hands-off attitude. For example, a parent recently took me aside and informed me that he would never influence his child religiously. He said, “It is unfair to a young person to try to mold his religious thinking. Every child should make up his own mind.”
I agree that every young person has the right to make his or her own moral, spiritual, and personal choices. I agree that God has created human beings with the freedom to make choices. However, let’s not kid ourselves. If we do not influence our children, someone else will. You can’t adopt a hands-off policy without somebody else putting his or her hands on your child. Then it’s often too late. If you abdicate your leadership role in the home, you will lose your influence. There are plenty of people who are, for their own economic and personal gain, prepared to step in and fill any leadership vacuum you have left.
A father shared with me his agony of having a son who is involved in the drug scene. This father wanted some quick principles to extract his son from this problem. I couldn’t give him any easy answers, for there are none. However, I did make one suggestion. I suggested that the father get his own life straightened out. The minute I began to talk to him about his life, he became quite defensive and resistant. I talked to him about Jesus Christ and the forgiveness and new beginning he offers through his life, death, and resurrection. The dad was turned off. His response was “I’m not religious.” No, he’s not. That’s part of the problem. His son, who feels the vacuum of life, looks to a father whose life is also a vacuum. So why not turn to drugs?
I talked with another father. This man is busy. Business is front and center in his life. He doesn’t want to pay the personal price of following through on a commitment he made to Jesus Christ. His kids are growing up pagan. They know little of the sincere childhood commitment this father made years ago but has not fleshed out in any visible, concrete fashion. This man doesn’t want to pay the price of Christian growth.
These three parents have abdicated their responsibilities. Two are already reaping what they have sown. The other one will bring in the harvest soon. Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre wrote their observations about life and its emptiness, in essence saying, “What is there to life? Does it have any meaning? Why are we here? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”
These three fathers, two with no faith, and the other without a willingness to flesh out his faith, have taken the hands-off policy and have left their children in the existential vacuum so personified by Camus and Sartre.
In contrast, God’s Word commands us to provide strong leadership as parents. The Bible says in Deuteronomy 5:32–33:
So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.
In the next chapter, Deuteronomy 6:5–7, we read these words:
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
This leaves no room for wishy-washy relativistic parents. Yours is to be a life of affirmation. Your children have a right to know where you stand. Give them something to rebel against. This is not simply good biblical teaching; it also squares with today’s insightful, contemporary psychological insight.
The late Jewish psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim was best known for his innovative studies of children’s emotional development based on both his private practice and his work on the faculty of the University of Chicago. His considered conclusion was “American parents and American society have not given today’s youth the emotional equipment for engaging in rational, constructive protest.”1
During the student revolts of the l970s, Bettelheim stated that the political content of student revolt was most of all a desperate wish that parents would have been strong in the convictions that motivated their actions. He noted that many of the radical students embraced Maoism and chanted, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh,” in their demonstrations in the revelation of a deep yearning for strong fathers with strong convictions.
The fact that their fathers had abdicated the role of imparting positive, affirmative input into their lives, leaving them in a vacuum, produced a willingness to attach themselves to strong, totalitarian father figures who filled this yearning for direction.
So here we are, sitting back, determined not to present too strong an image for fear of losing our children, and we all too often end up losing them. Every child craves to know what his or her parents believe. It doesn’t mean that the child will buy the total package. However, that child wants to see some absolutes against which to measure his or her own values.
I challenge you to integrate the timeless truths of God’s Word into the very core of your holistic faith commitments. Let them be evident to your children. Then lovingly, caringly, prayerfully, in the spirit of unconditional love, you can release them to ultimately accept or reject the claims of God’s Word as they have seen it operative in your life.
I beg you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to give your children something to rebel against. Here are six practical, biblical gifts you can give your child.
I’m not talking about just a belief in the Savior. I am talking about a personal relationship that transforms your own life. Moses commanded the people to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5). Do you love the Lord? Your child can tell. He or she can detect whether it is genuine emotion.
We can sing the hymn “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” That little one standing beside you knows whether or not you love Jesus. Children can detect the hypocrisy of a Sunday-go-to-meeting type of Christianity that doesn’t carry the personal friendship of the Savior into the other six days of the week. We can blithely sing, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise,” and we don’t use the one tongue we have to speak a good word on his behalf the rest of the week.
Do you love Jesus Christ? If he’s truly your Savior, you ought to. If he’s your Lord, you have to. It wouldn’t hurt us one bit to have a healthy portion of good, old-fashioned piety. No, I’m not talking about fake piety. I’m talking about a healthy, vital, up-to-date love for Jesus. Are you involved in a romance with the Lord? Is there an excitement in your relationship with him? Are you trusting him to follow through on the more than eight thousand promises he makes to you in his Word?
Let your child see your healthy love of Jesus.
What do you do with your money? That reveals most about who you are as a person. Do you tithe? This lets your children know that first things are first in your life.
What do you talk about? Is gossip, the running down of other people, normative in your life? Your children will pick up on that if it is. Are you addicted to alcohol? Some of us who are absolutely opposed to drugs forget that alcohol is our nation’s most abused drug. Frequent government studies all conclude that, directly or indirectly, alcohol-related problems affect the lives of tens of millions of men, women, and children. Yet we go blindly ahead with this particular kind of drug abuse, holding the tiger by the tail, cursing our children’s experimentation with other kinds of drugs. It is all the same problem.
Do you respect your body? The Bible talks about your body as God’s temple. His Holy Spirit resides there. You and I have an investment responsibility to use our bodies the way they were created to be used, free from addiction to anything. This isn’t only God’s way—it’s the smart way. That’s because you and I were created to function, not to be impaired.
Now, I’m not talking about setting up some “don’ts” we all have to follow—that doesn’t work. Nor am I talking about developing some negative standards to follow and enforce. I am talking about a positive lifestyle. Set the standard high. Where the Bible is clear, live by it. Where the Bible is unclear, with your own conscience, before God, decide how you are going to use your body and the freedoms God has given you in terms of habits of life. And then let your kids know how you came by your decision.
When they begin to be exposed to experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sex, they will know where you as their parents stand and why you stand there. Where you have failed, let them know that as well.
I am convinced that one of the reasons so many parents are afraid to give sex information to their kids is that they are afraid the kids might ask, “Dad, did you go all the way before marriage?” or “Mom, were you a virgin on your wedding day?” Thank God if you as the dad can say no, or you as the mom can say yes. But if you can’t, have the guts to admit where you were wrong and share how you have received the forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ, which filled the gap between who you are and what you know you should have been. Let them see, worked out in your life, an integrity that will turn them on in their faith, not turn them off.
You don’t have to go it alone. There is much relativity in the world today. Yet there are some absolutes that you can know and trust. The Bible tells you some absolutes about yourself, the nature of humankind, the constant struggle we have between good and evil in this world. The Bible gives you an ethical system by which to live. Grab it. Run with it. Let your children see you put it to work in your own life.
The challenges we face today are nothing new. The middle of the eighteenth century in England was marked by enormous social upheaval. In many ways, the institutional church was striking out as it is today. Along came a man named John Wesley. We could use thousands like him today. His Christian faith was not something spontaneous, something that happened all at once. For a period of years, he searched for truth until finally, through the witness of a group of Moravian Christians and through an encounter at Aldersgate in London, his heart was “strangely warmed.”
Now a converted man who had repented of sin and put his trust in Jesus Christ alone, Wesley didn’t simply move on the emotional high he received. He became a man of the Book. With a Bible in hand, he traveled all over England. God touched that man who believed in the authority of his Word, and, in spite of the secularistic cynicism of that day, Wesley was God’s instrument of revival. He was a man armed with the Word of God and who spoke with authority because he had the authority of the Bible.
Do you have this kind of trust in the Word of God? Is this book a constant companion? Are you exposing yourself to its teaching? Or is it stiff and dusty, lying unused on the shelf? Do you have an implicit trust in what it has to say? Unless you discover the Word of God, “the only infallible rule of faith and practice,” your life has no authority. Perhaps you are committed to a vague, humanistic concept of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, the great principle extracted from the Word of God, but follow it void of the full counsel of God’s Word, divinely revealed.
The Bible tells us to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18). I have already noted the exponential increase in divorce in our society. Please know that divorce is not the unforgivable sin. There is life after divorce. Our God is in the business of offering forgiveness and new life. At the same time, divorce is not the answer.
One of the most recent changes we are seeing in our society is the notion of a “mini-trial marriage.” This is a tentative step into marriage by two people who are frightened by the commmitment, so they give it a go for several years without children with the thought that they can break up and start over if it doesn’t work.
An increasing number are not even choosing to get married. A friend of mine recently said to me that she used to go to a lot of bridal showers for her friends. Now she is noting there are few bridal showers that precede the baby showers she’s invited to. Her friends have chosen simply to live with a partner, to do what comes naturally, without the benefit of marriage or any long-term, legal commitment.
This is the logical outgrowth of the past decade in which we have trivialized marriage, minimized the meaning of commitment, and offered casual, no-fault divorce. We have produced a couple of generations of children who are scared of marriage and fearful of long-term commitment. After all, you could have your heart broken.
But as followers of Jesus Christ, we can model what it is to make the commitment “till death do us part.” We can work through the tough stuff with the help of the Lord. We can grant space to our partner to be who they are in their differences from us, and still love them and be nurtured and nourished by those differences while remaining faithful and even fulfilled by the synergy that comes when two people so different have blended themselves in a lifelong commitment.
Back in the l970s, I was invited one day to be the teaching resource guest in a sociology course at one of the local high schools. I asked the students in that class to tell me about their families. I discovered that 80 percent of those teenagers had been raised in Newport Beach and that their parents had divorced. A number of their fathers were living with a new live-in or a new wife and her children in Newport Beach. Their mothers were trying to raise these kids in scaled-down economic conditions in nearby Costa Mesa, a more affordable community. That was a quarter of a century ago. And we wonder why that generation is so scared of long-term commitments.
Perhaps God is in charge of your life. You love Jesus Christ. Your habits are under his scrutiny. You have an honest trust in the Word of God. You are living in deep commitment to your marriage partner. But maybe all of these things have never seeped through to your attitude toward other people.
Kids notice when you are critical of others. I know one woman who is blind to her own shortcomings but is quick to see every speck wrong in the life of a fellow Christian. Her children, and many of those around her, can see the hypocrisy in her attitudes. And your kids will see it in you, if it’s there. Even those who don’t accept Christ are to be loved in his name.
The Bible says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1–3).
There is one major complaint the younger generation levels against the older. It is that we fail to practice the love that we preach. What a loveless crew we are. It is so hard for us to love one another, much less those who are not our brothers and sisters in Christ. The world whispers, “Hypocrites!” and our own children, if they are honest, may very well be saying the same thing about us. We need to practice loving others, whether we agree with them or not.
In the same way, you and I don’t have to agree with everything our children do. But we dare not withhold our love from them. Our love must be unconditional love. That’s the kind of love God has for you and me. It is his unconditional love that has wooed us back to himself when we’ve strayed. It is that kind of love reflected in us that, ultimately, God will use to win our children, both to him and to us.
Did you notice the instruction given to us in that great passage in Deuteronomy 6? Moses charged parents, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:6–7). You are to be a teacher in your home. That’s where your children will learn the most. They are crying out, “Teach me of Christ—by your words and your everyday life.”
An attractive college woman recently paid her mother the supreme compliment when she said, “My mother is the best Christian I have ever known.” Your children want to hear something from your lips. And they want to see it backed up by your life.
A young man shared how he remembers only one time when his parents ever prayed with him. He called it one of the most significant days he could remember from his childhood. How long has it been since you last prayed with your spouse? When was the last time you prayed with your children? Perhaps you are missing one of your finest opportunities for bringing unity into your home.
Begin to pray together as a family, joining hands on those occasions when you are able to have meals together. Initially it will be difficult. There may be some embarrassment. Richard C. Halverson once said, “Pride is at the bottom of this—we all tend to shy away from situations we aren’t sure we can handle—and this pride needs to be disciplined.” Personal humiliation is a small price to pay for raising godly children. A few verses read from the Scriptures along with a discussion over the table will gradually bring growth.
There is also the teaching that comes through the church. Are you faithful in attendance? Do you go out of your way to take, not send, your children to Sunday school? Do you support, with your work and money, Christ’s church? Your children will learn from your clear-cut identification with God’s people. It’s important business!
God’s Word promises that if we bring up children in the way they should go, when they are old they will not depart from it. Raising our children this way means we must give them something to rebel against. Do it lovingly, do it prayerfully, do it humbly. Then let them go as God has let you go. And trust him and the Holy Spirit to do his work in their lives, in his time, and in his way.
I remember at the age of seventeen stalking out of the living room, flinging at my folks the words, “You don’t understand. I can’t stay around this place anymore!” And I slammed the door shut behind me. Inside that house, I was an uncontrolled giant of passion and rebellion. Outside in the night I was a tall, skinny, scared kid who ran down the street away from home, tears streaming down my face.
Thank God I had something to rebel against. I was a kid who was running away not from nothing but from something. I was running away from parents who loved Jesus Christ, whose habits backed their life, who were faithful to the Word of God, who were committed to each other, whose attitudes toward other people, to the best of their ability, reflected their faith—parents who had been faithful in teaching me at home and going with me to church.
Show me a kid who has not had the urge to run, and I’ll show you one who hasn’t got what it takes to live. Show me the parents who, with God’s help, have done their best, and I’ll show you a kid who, no matter how far away he runs, has something and someone to whom he or she can return. It is Jesus Christ who can redirect the rebel in us all.
1. How do you think your children would evaluate the quality of your marriage? Could you possibly discuss this with them to see what observations and suggestions they might have for you?
2. What evidences might your children see of a healthy love of Jesus in your life?
3. Are there times when you may unintentionally convey a hypocritical lifestyle by the unloving attitude you express in front of your children toward people who are different from you?
4. Are you giving your children something to rebel against? If so, what? Be specific.
Caldwell, Elizabeth F. Making a Home for Faith: Nurturing the Spiritual Life of Your Children. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000.
Cline, Foster W., and Jim Fay. Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility. Colorado Springs: Pinion Press, l992.
Worthington, Kirby, and Everett L. Worthington Jr. Value Your Children: Becoming Better Parental Disciple-Makers. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995.
Yorkey, Mike. The Christian Family ANSWER BOOK. Wheaton: Victor Books, l996.