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176 pages
Jul 2006
Crossway Books

Courageous Parenting

by Jack & Deb Graham

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It Takes Three to Make Parenting Work

According to a famous quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

With apologies to Mr. Lincoln, we want to edit his statement into this important word to fellow parents: “You can fool some of your children all of the time, and all of your children some of the time, but you can’t fool all of your children all of the time.”

In other words, the only way to make parenting work the way God intended is to keep it real! Our desire in this book is to help you accomplish this in two major ways: first and foremost, by sharing what God’s Word has to say about the demanding and immensely rewarding task of being a parent; and second, by sharing the successes, mistakes, and observations we have accumulated along the way in this wonderful, and often frightening, task of parenthood. We promise to share our hearts with you at the most real and transparent level we can achieve.

We are not experts, but we have learned some things from being parents and serving in the pastorate for well over thirty years. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to the home and family. This includes many wonderful and successful marriages and families, from whom we have learned valuable and positive lessons. And we have observed many families in trouble. So we know something of the downside as well as the upside of parenting.

We were married on May 22, 1970 and have raised three children. (We offered to include a fold-out section of photos of our grandson in the book, but the publisher politely declined!) We made a commitment early on to apply biblical principles in our marriage and childrearing, and God has blessed us incredibly. Our two sons and our daughter love the Lord and are serving Him faithfully. We can say with the apostle John, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).

Becoming a parent is relatively easy. It doesn’t require any prior education, qualifications, skills, or experience—or even the cost of a marriage license in some cases. But there is a huge difference between becoming a parent and successfully parenting the child we have brought into the world. Here is our bottom-line conviction and the basic premise of this book: God designed the task of bearing and raising children to be accomplished in the power of His Holy Spirit within the bonds of a faithful, loving, lifelong marriage. This has to be the place to start, even though it is obvious that many marriages do not last a lifetime. Trying to be a marital partner and parent without understanding God’s intention is like trying to cut a photograph to fit a frame without knowing the dimensions of the frame.

If you are reading this book as a single parent, we want to encourage you in your difficult task. But regardless of your current marital status, if you are a Christian, the power of the Holy Spirit is available daily to help you raise your children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

This goal is within the reach of every parent or prospective parent— regardless of background, education level, social status, or economic condition. This truth should give all of us hope that we can be successful parents and raise children who become mature, responsible adults and committed followers of Jesus Christ.

One wag said, “Love at first sight is nothing special. It’s when two people have been looking at each other for years that it becomes a miracle.” Well, we have been looking at each other for over thirty-five years now, and it is still getting better and better. We like what we see in each other because of the Lord’s presence in our lives and marriage. He is the One who has enabled us to build our marriage and family on the fundamentals of His Word.

Every winning team in any sport majors on the fundamentals of the game. They keep going back to the basics. They go to training camp every year, even if they won it all the season before, because you never outgrow your need of the basics. These are the things we want to present in this book.

A Great Marriage Requires Three People

It is highly unlikely that a husband and wife who are unhappy and completely at odds in their marriage, or are indifferent and content to let their marriage deteriorate, can then turn around and become an effective set of parents doing a dynamic job of raising their children. Family life doesn’t work that way. So we want to begin where God’s Word begins, with a man and a woman coming together to form a marriage and a family.

God Himself performed the first marriage, as recorded in Genesis 2:22. The Bible says, “And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” Then God blessed the union of Adam and Eve: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (v. 24).

This was not simply the first marriage ceremony, but a picture of the three people it takes to make a great marriage. Two people become one flesh in marriage, but then those two people also become one spiritually when they are joined in spirit to God in the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the third Person at the center of a great marriage.

Jack: Guys, let’s get real for a minute. Many men spend more time working on their golf game, hobby, or profession than they do working on their marriages. But marriage is not a 50-50 arrangement in which all you have to do is kick in your half of the deal. Marriage demands a 100 percent commitment from both spouses. And since God wired women to be responders, when you give all of yourself to your wife, she is going to respond in kind, and you will begin to enjoy a fulfillment in your marriage you never thought possible!

But it starts with you, because you are the thermostat that regulates the temperature in your marriage. Your wife is the thermometer that records and reflects either the warmth or the frigid conditions in your home.

Marriage Is God’s Idea from the Beginning

Let’s not forget who invented marriage and the family. This was God’s idea! Therefore marriage is not a human contract that can be broken at will but a divine covenant established by God to be supreme over all other earthly relationships and complete in its commitment. And since God created marriage, He has given us the “manual” to make it work in the pages of His Word.

We can even find helpful marriage principles in the most unlikely places in the Bible, as in these verses from the Old Testament:

    Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Here is the cord that can tie married life together and keep it strong even when the world tries to topple it. Those three cords are you, your mate, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

God Wants to Be Part of Your Marriage

Please don’t misunderstand. Simply being Christians by itself does not guarantee that a man and woman will have a happy marriage. Perhaps you heard about the pastor who went to a fourth-grade class to talk to the children about home and family. At one point the pastor asked those nine-year-olds, “Can any of you tell me what God says about marriage?”

There was a long, quiet pause before a little boy raised his hand. “All right, son,” the pastor said. “Tell us what God says about marriage.”

The little boy responded, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

We have to admit there are too many marriages even between Christians in which one or both partners would echo that little boy’s honest reaction. Someone has said that marriage is like a three ring circus: there is the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and suffer-ring. It’s possible even for believers to have a three-ring circus marriage. But God’s ideal and will is a “threefold cord” marriage in which Christ is the center and heart of the relationship.

God Put His Blessing on the Marriage Union

A marriage like this is possible in Christ! You can’t spend enough money to buy it, which is good news for most of us. J. Paul Getty, who was one of the richest men in the world, once said, “I would give my entire fortune for one happy marriage.”

But great marriages are not built on fortunes. They are built on the blessing of God when two people bind themselves to Him as they bind themselves to each other. Outside of a person’s relationship with Christ, there is nothing on earth more precious and valuable than the relationship between a husband and wife.

Remember, it was God who blessed the first union between a man and a woman. Again, the Bible says of Adam and Eve:

    So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28, emphasis added)

The blessing that God built into marriage is not only evident in the spiritual realm but in the physical as well. Research has now shown that a strong and happy marriage is profitable emotionally and physically. For instance, we now know that married people live longer than unmarried people and report a higher degree of happiness and satisfaction in life. They also go to doctors less often and make less use of health care services.

Someone even researched mortality records dating back to the nineteenth century and found that the highest suicide rates occurred among the divorced, followed by the widowed and the never-married, while the lowest rates of suicide were among married couples.

We could cite many examples that agree with these findings, both on the positive and negative side. Many of us had a front-row seat and watched first in awe and then in sadness as the famous marriage between Britain’s Prince Charles and Lady Diana unraveled in front of the world.

Literally the whole world watched as these two were united in a storybook royal wedding in 1981. The pomp and circumstance were incredible. It was a never-to-be-forgotten wedding.

But the royal marriage itself was another story. It soon became little more than fodder for the tabloids and then ended in tragedy when Diana was killed in a car accident.

God Wants Us to Work at Our Marriages

Sometimes people say, “I believe our marriage was made in heaven.” Whether that’s true or not, one thing is sure. Marriages are worked out on earth—and it takes a lot of work to make a marriage work. When some people’s marriages start to go sour, instead of working on the relationship they say, “Well, I guess I missed it on this one. Maybe God will bless my next marriage.”

That kind of thinking is not only unbiblical but ignores the truth that marriage is a day-to-day growth process between two people who are committed to stay at it and enjoy the immense rewards of a fulfilling marriage. Our salvation is free, the gift of God to us (Ephesians 2:8-9), but a great marriage comes at the price of diligent work.

Here’s something to think about in that regard. The apostle Paul wrote: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). We just said that salvation is free to us. But even this marvelous grace-gift has to be worked out—nurtured, cultivated, given careful attention—as we apply it to our lives on a daily basis.

And notice that Paul told us to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling.” That’s a reminder that the great salvation God purchased for us at the cost of His dear Son’s blood is not something to treat casually or take lightly, like a stroll in the park.

So here’s a logical question. If something as divine and supernatural as the gift of salvation—something definitely made in heaven—needs to be worked out, how much more does the gift of marriage need to be worked out? The answer suggests itself! Marriage is God’s gift to us, and our diligence to make a home and family that brings Him glory is our gift back to God.

God Supplies the Power That Makes Marriage Work

The reason we can make marriage work is that we are not working alone. Paul provided this truth as he continued in Philippians 2: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13). The apostle was speaking of our salvation, but the principle applies to marriage. It is God’s will that marriage be lifelong. Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). God will supply His power to those who seek Him. But without this, our efforts won’t get us anywhere.

This is why it is so important to understand that marriage is truly a threefold cord. Solomon was not just being poetic in Ecclesiastes 4. Without the third cord, the Lord Jesus Christ, to bind a relationship together, it can quickly unravel as a married couple starts using the “D” word.

Divorce Doesn’t Solve Anyone’s Problems

Divorce has become a tragedy of epic proportions in our culture. We’re living in a time when more and more people throw away their marriages with the idea that they’ll start over with someone else. And perhaps most tragic of all, this idea that marriage is disposable has crept into the church. Divorce statistics for Christians have caught up with those of the secular world, and there seems to be no letup in this trend.

Jack: The Bible says that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Yes, there are certain very restricted cases of unfaithfulness where divorce is permitted. But it is not commanded. Our culture seems to love divorce. People view divorce much like they view abortion—as a way to escape the consequences of their choices.

But divorce doesn’t solve anyone’s problem. My experience as a pastor is that most marriages are abandoned for no good reason, by which I mean for no biblical reason. I have seen far too many marriages end in divorce that could have been saved. Most marriages that fail do so because of a lack of obedience to God and a lack of commitment to one another.

Even adultery does not have to be a cause of divorce if the guilty party repents and is forgiven, and if the marriage partners earnestly seek restoration and the rekindling of their love. Biblical love is an act of the will, a matter of obedience to God, which is why the Bible can command us to love one another.

Deb: We hear people say, “I just fell in love.” This is often the romantic ideal presented to girls and young women by music, movies, and popular culture in general. There is no denying that two people may feel attracted to each other even at their first meeting, but that is not love. You don’t fall in love the way you fall over a chair or fall into a hole, suddenly and without warning. People speak of love as if it is such a strong emotion there is nothing we can do about it once it takes hold of us. Love certainly involves the emotions, but at heart it is a commitment of our will to seek the other person’s best interest at any cost.

Marriage is a lot like a mirror. When you see yourself in a mirror and realize you need some work, that’s not the time to break the mirror and walk away. Marriage is a very accurate mirror of what is really happening in a person’s life. So if your “marriage mirror” reveals some things that need attention, don’t break the marriage and walk away. That’s the time to deal with the problems—to get back to the fundamentals of God’s Word.

We’re Losing Our Families

The importance of getting marriage right reaches far beyond the four walls of our houses. The breakdown of the God-ordained institution of marriage should be a serious concern to all of us, because as we look around it is obvious that we’re losing our families. And as the family goes, so goes the entire culture. It doesn’t matter how much the social engineers talk about a new paradigm of the family. None of the unusual, or even bizarre, “family” arrangements we see today can replace God’s plan for one man and one woman to raise their own children in the context of a loving, committed marriage and nurturing home.

Jack: I will never forget the day one of the ministers at our church broke down and wept at a staff meeting. He works with young marrieds and was telling about several couples with problems who were talking about divorce after just a few years or even months of marriage. This man has a tender heart, and it was breaking as he saw these couples drifting apart. We prayed as a staff that God would do a mighty work in their lives to heal their marriages and keep them from breaking their covenant.

Let me say again that marriage is not a human contract but a covenant—a promise—made before God. Human contracts can be altered or nullified, but the promise that marriage partners make is “for as long as [they] both shall live.”

The statistics on family breakdown are startling. One million children a year in America are negatively influenced by divorce. The divorce rate has gone up so astronomically that the numbers are staggering. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the divorce rate was about 12 percent. Now it’s up to around 50 percent—half of all marriages.

God Can Restore a Marriage

So how do we go about restoring marriages and rebuilding homes? The same way we would eat an elephant, one bite at a time. It has to be done one marriage, one family, one victory at a time. Rather than accept things as they are, we can move forward to things as they ought to be because God can restore any marriage that has been torn by conflict or withered from neglect.

Many Christian homes used to have a little plaque or cross-stitch on the wall with this declaration of faith: “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). We baby boomers and Gen-Xers don’t hang slogans like this on our walls anymore, but maybe we should! What a wonderful daily reminder of the commitment God wants and expects from us. If each of us, one couple at a time, will take a stand for the Lord, we can gnaw away at the “elephant” of divorce and family breakdown.

During the early days of World War II, as England was being besieged by Nazi air raids, many of the people were ready to abandon their homeland. That’s when British leader Sir Winston Churchill is said to have declared, “Victory is not won by evacuation!” And the people stood their ground. We want to make the same statement about marriage.

Victory is not won by evacuation—by abandoning our commitments, giving up, quitting—but by persevering by the grace and power of God.

When All Else Fails, Read the Directions

A soldier who begins a march on the wrong foot will be out of step the entire way unless he recognizes his mistake and makes a conscious effort to shift his feet so he can follow the drill sergeant’s marching orders.

One problem with many marriages is that they get started on the wrong foot. That is, many couples don’t really understand the purpose for which God created marriage. So they get married for all the wrong reasons—for sex, money, or status, to fulfill an infatuation, or perhaps worst of all, because everyone else was getting married and it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

Marrying for the wrong reasons is bad, but the good news is that even couples who started their marriage on the wrong foot can pull it together. Because God is the Restorer of marriages, these couples can have wonderfully satisfying, God-honoring marriages and can become great parents.

Actually, all of us need to be reminded what marriage is really about, which is why it helps to go back and read the directions in God’s Word. In Genesis 2 we learn why God created Eve and brought her to Adam.

The order of events in this chapter is very interesting because God wanted to teach Adam his need for someone else. So after announcing, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for [or, comparable to] him” (v. 18), the next thing God did was not to create Eve, as we might expect, but to create the animals and bring them to Adam so he could name them.

God did this to show Adam that He had provided a mate for every animal. And as Adam named each one, he also learned that none of the animals was his type. He named everything from the aardvarks to the zebras but did not find “a helper fit for him” (v. 20). And even though Adam had a good life in a perfect environment, he suddenly realized something was missing. He felt alone for the first time.

God already knew that Adam’s aloneness was “not good.” But it wasn’t until Adam realized it that he was ready for Eve. That’s when God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib and united the two in marriage with this instruction: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to [or cleave to] his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (v. 24).

The foundational purpose of marriage is that both the man and the woman find their completion in one another, so that together they can fulfill God’s design for their lives. When the Bible describes Eve as “fit for” or “comparable to” Adam, it means she corresponded to him. Adam was incomplete without Eve. He needed a helper to complete him and to complete the human race. Woman was created to be man’s completer, not his competer.

We noted above that the verb “hold fast to” in Genesis 2:24 can also mean “cleave,” as it is translated in the King James Version. This is a great word that means “to cling to, to stick to” like glue. Jesus even quoted Genesis 2:24 when He warned us not to try and tear apart a marriage that God has glued together (Matthew 19:5-6).

Eve was the cure for Adam’s aloneness and incompleteness. The two of them were like two pieces of a puzzle that fit together perfectly and completed the picture of marriage.

Put Your Marriage Before All Other Relationships

Giving marriage its proper place in our relationships is a challenge we face today that Adam and Eve didn’t have to deal with—at least not at first. Marriage changes every other human relationship. Some previous ties are severed, and others are moved down a notch on the priority list because a new Number One is in town.

This seems so patently obvious that some may wonder why we even mention it. But we all know there’s nothing automatic about this process. God knew it too, which is why He told the man to “leave his father and his mother” in Genesis 2:24 before He told him to cleave to his wife. Some couples spend a lifetime trying to get the leaving part right.

As both parents and parents-in-law, we know how hard it is to cut those parental strings. But we also understand from our own experience, as well as from Scripture, how important it is for young couples to leave their homes and establish a home of their own.

We were just kids when we got married while in college. Our parents helped us with our school bills, but we were committed to make it on our own. Sometimes young couples decide they will move in with Mom and Dad until they get on their feet. But that can be a conflict waiting to happen. There’s a reason they make television sitcoms out of arrangements like that! It can be very funny on the screen, but very unfunny in real life. No one has ever improved on God’s plan.

Friends can also be a challenge. Some men marry with the mentality that they are just adding one more buddy to their group—a nice addition to the gang who’s prettier and smells better than the rest! A new husband will often be teased by his single friends about being “out of commission” or “ball-and-chained” because he doesn’t hang out with them as much anymore.

But the jokes and teasing can’t obscure the fact that a husband who understands God’s design for marriage knows that his wife is his new best friend as well as his life partner. It works the other way too. Today’s women generally have a much wider circle of friends and acquaintances than their grandmothers had because most modern-day women live in much larger communities and also work outside the home. Those relationships also have to be subordinated to the marriage partnership.

A friend told us about a young family that once lived next to him in the Dallas area. The couple began having problems, and it wasn’t long before the husband left. During this time the wife almost nonchalantly told my friend that the women she worked with were encouraging her to divorce her husband, telling her she didn’t have to put up with him. They even offered to help her find a divorce attorney who could make sure she got a good settlement. Unfortunately, she made it clear to our friend that she was taking their advice, and this couple eventually divorced.

Now to be sure, there were serious problems in that home. But this illustrates the undue influence friends can have if these relationships are allowed to supersede the marriage bond. Thankfully, many of us can also point to godly friends who are a great example, encouragement, and blessing.

Don’t get us wrong. It’s great to have friends. But marriage is sort of like it was when we were kids. Remember how you could have lots of friends but only one best friend? And you had to let that other kid know he or she was your best friend so he or she wouldn’t become someone else’s best friend. And you had to stick with each other, at least until one of you changed his or her mind.

Well, husbands and wives have a one-and-only best friend in each other. And they need to stick with each other. Being best friends as well as lovers is a great way to build a marriage. It’s one thing to divorce a spouse, but it’s much harder to divorce your best friend.

Put Another Log on the Fire and Fan the Flames

As husbands and wives we need to ask ourselves, “Am I doing whatever it takes to strengthen my relationship with my mate? Am I engaging in any attitude or action that is detrimental to my marriage? Is there anything in my life that’s driving us apart rather than bringing us together?”

The fire of love and commitment in your marriage may be burning low right now, but it can be rekindled in Jesus Christ. Just because the flames in a fireplace have died down to glowing embers doesn’t mean the fire is out. Just put a fresh log on those embers, fan them a little, and the flames will rise.

Your marriage can burn brightly when you commit your lives to Jesus Christ and then determine to rekindle the love and devotion you once enjoyed in your marriage. Great parents are prepared and nurtured in great marriages!