When we brought Jude and Sophie home—before we could even speak the same language—we had two simple priorities: show them we loved them, and teach them to obey.
The first one was easy. We said “I love you” non-stop in English and Amharic. We gave lots of hugs and kisses and smiles of approval. We bought new clothes and books and bikes. We took them sledding (a first!) and played legos and put together puzzles. We made it clear, through our actions and attention, that they were every bit as much our children as our biological son and daughter.
All these things were hugely important. In hindsight, though, I think they felt our love most of all through our gracious authority.
It didn’t feel that way at the time. To train them to obey we started with a few simple guidelines that were easy to understand: No TV until right before dinner (4:45 pm to be precise), no getting up from the table until being dismissed, and no hitting or biting.
They fought back at first—pouting about no TV or sitting at the table with their legs stretched out to the side, poised to bolt. Some days we were tempted to give up. Were we being to strict? Would they grow to hate us forever? What was the harm in letting them watch a little extra TV? But a well-timed word of encouragement from Mom always strengthened our resolve.
So we kept telling them “I love you” and put the remote out of reach.
A funny thing happened. Instead of becoming more resentful toward us and unhappy with the rules, Jude and Sophie became more compliant and obedient, and what’s more, they grew happier by the day.
Recently it dawned on me. One of the main reasons Jude and Sophie seem to have bonded with our family so quickly (in addition to the sheer grace of God!) is because the clear boundaries helped them feel like they belonged. They know the rules, the way things work around here. And so they feel comfortable because they aren’t on the outside trying to understand how this family works. They are “on the in” of the Whitacre family. Because they know what is required of them, they can relax and concentrate on other important things such as soccer and coloring and learning to read.
Don’t get me wrong, like every family, we have plenty of areas that need work. But this morning, as I write, Steve is downstairs going through our Advent devotional over breakfast. And tonight we will be able to sit down at the dinner table and talk and laugh as a family.
Now that they understand our words, and can sit still long enough to listen, we can tell them the greatest news of all: through Jesus Christ, they can join the family of God.
Obedience is the gateway to understanding the gospel.
“‘For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:6-11 ESV).
Mike, our children’s ministry director, made a discordant sound with his guitar to emphasize to our church’s four and five year olds the mistake in his song.
“Nooooooo” they all gigglingly corrected him. “The Lord is COME!”
The Lord is come.
Maybe it feels to you like he has left. Maybe you feel abandoned by God. You don’t sense the Holy Spirit’s presence. Or maybe you don’t see God’s loving and wise sovereignty at work in your situation or in the world as you would like.
But the Lord has come. God became man to save sinners. If we have put our trust in Christ, God has come into our hearts in the person of the Holy Spirit. And because he has come we know he is coming again. Because he has come we have hope and joy.
May we honor our Savior, come and coming, with child-like faith this Christmas.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name ‘Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” Matthew 1:23
As moms, we may be so afraid of raising little heathens of the self-righteous, legalistic, variety that we neglect to teach our children how to obey.
Perhaps we grew up in a home that was as unloving as it was overbearing, or maybe we have known children who conformed to certain outward standards but who were also arrogant and rude. Or we may fear that to be firm with our children is the same as being ungracious and unloving.
But here is where we have to be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. In (rightly!) trying to throw out the bad motive of raising children who meet a certain external standard for the sake of our ease or reputation, we have to be careful not to throw out the biblical mandate to raise children who know what it means to obey, who can come to understand the gospel and live in submission to its claims on their lives.
Throughout Scripture, from the Pentateuch to Proverbs to Paul’s letters (e.g. Deut 5:16, 6:1-9, Prov. 6:20, Eph. 6:1-4), God couldn’t be more clear about a parent’s priority: we are to teach our children to come under the authority of God’s Word by coming under our loving authority. It is what Tedd Tripp so descriptively calls “the circle of God’s blessing.”
Lovingly teaching our children to obey, “right away, all the way, and with a happy heart,” is not legalistic, moralistic parenting. It is obeying God’s Word—if, and only if, we are doing it to please the Lord and not men. Obedience is the gateway to understanding the gospel.
“With her children she was a model disciplinarian, exceedingly strict, a wise lawmaker; nevertheless a most tender, devoted, self-sacrificing mother. I have never seen such exact obedience required and given, or a more idolized mother. ‘Mamma’s’ word was indeed law, but—O happy combination!—it was also Gospel!” (from The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss by George Lewis Prentiss)
Here was a mother who was lavish with her affection as she was insistent on her children’s obedience. The fruit was found in her children’s love and in their receptivity to her gospel words. May our “Mamma’s word” be loving law and gospel grace to our children. O happy combination!
I spend all day saying stuff like this to my two-year-old son Hudson—simple sentences that rarely get above three words together. That’s why, when I brought up the topic of gospel-centered parenting back in October, I admitted that I can find it overwhelming at times.
You see, we’re just trying to survive around here. If I can keep Hudson out of the pantry, get my afternoon nap, and keep the highchair tray wiped clean, it’s a successful day. Because Hudson’s behavior demands my constant training and discipline, the thought of trying to deliver mini-sermons on the wonders of the cross is enough to send me back to bed.
That’s why I’m so grateful for my mom’s encouragement. (Another reminder to me of why God’s Word in Titus 2 instructs the older women to train the younger women—we need it!) She has been faithful to provide a freeing and biblical perspective to her exhausted and sometimes guilt-ridden daughter: if I am faithfully disciplining and training Hudson to obey—with the ultimate goal of preaching the gospel to him—then I AM practicing gospel-centered mothering.
As Mom reminds me: Obedience is the gateway to understanding the gospel. An obedient child is a receptive child, a child who is prepared and positioned to receive the good news of the gospel.
For although it’s not intended as an explicit promise, this maxim of Scripture does hold true: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).
My two and three word sentences aren’t an evidence of my mothering failure (although there are plenty of those!). My efforts to consistently train and discipline Hudson are preparing him to one day (soon, I pray!) understand the demands of God’s holiness, the depravity of his heart, and the astonishing mercy of God.
“Just wanted to say thanks for Janelle’s post yesterday,” wrote one mom:
“I just got home from an outrageously awful trip to run errands with my 5 and 3 year old. There was complaining, arguing, rude talk, mean faces (probably from me too, I didn’t have a mirror), a couple of “in your face” disobedience moments, a small melt-down, and a moment when I started praying for help because I literally thought my 3 year old had been taken at the post office, but no she was just hiding behind something because she didn’t want to come when I asked. On my way home I kept thinking, “what is wrong with me?” “Why am I failing at parenting?” We got home, I fixed everyone a snack, let the kids have a little TV time and sat down to read your blog. And that was when I read the post from yesterday for the first time. Thanks for being real and speaking DIRECTLY to my situation today!”
Oh my, can I relate! I can still vividly recall some of those “outrageously awful” errand runs when my girls were little! Those are days as a mother that you don’t easily forget.
As moms, we are quite familiar with the meaning of our Lord’s words in Matthew 6:34: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Scripture tells it like it is. It doesn’t present some kind of happy-go-lucky picture of the Christian life. No, it says we will have trouble. And each day will have enough of it’s own. In other words, “outrageously awful” errand runs are to be expected.
There may be a massive dis-connect between my own expectations of motherhood and what happens in real life, but there is no disconnect between Scripture and reality. The harder life and motherhood gets the more we see how relevant Scripture is.
And because an “outrageously awful” errand trip is just about as much as we can handle for one day—not to mention that it may be on top of other, more significant, trials we are facing—Jesus warns us not to do something that me, this mom, and most all of us are prone to do at a time like this: worry about the future. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Mt. 6:34).
Here’s a rule to live by: Never evaluate your mothering after an “outrageously awful” errand run. Oh I broke this rule a thousand times when my kids were little. Just like this mom, I asked questions like “What’s wrong with me?” and “Why am I failing at parenting?”—questions that draw all kinds of conclusions but offer no answers.
But in these motherhood moments we need the realistic perspective of Scripture. These things will happen. They are to be expected. And they do not mean that I am a failure as a mother or that my children will never receive the gospel and follow Christ. They are simply what Scripture says: the daily allotment of trouble.
And so my first job is not to be anxious about tomorrow or predict my children’s future based on one day’s difficulty. Why? Because I know that my heavenly Father cares for me. If you too had an “outrageously awful” day of mothering today, read Matthew 6:25-34 and rejoice in the God of today and tomorrow.
My son, Hudson, will be two in November, and while he brings his family tons of joy, his sinful nature is on full display. He has mastered the art of screaming and throwing himself on the floor when he doesn’t get his way. And when he’s really angry, he tries to hit me and pull my hair. Good times.
Caly and MJ—my two girls—are 6 and 4. They are at that really fun age where we can create family memories and build relationally. But they both struggle with emotional self-control and sometimes it feels like they cry all day long. Many days I just want to cry too.
Then I hear the phrase “gospel-centered parenting” and I want to crawl into a hole and never come out again.
It feels like yet another thing I’m not doing very well. Am I really supposed to explain God’s righteous wrath toward sin and the wonders of substitutionary atonement to MJ as she wails in despair because Caly won’t give her a turn with the toy cash register? Does gospel-centered parenting mean I have to remind Hudson of his desperate state as a sinner before a holy God, helpless to change without the power of the Holy Spirit, while he screams on the floor with one eye cocked to see if I’m taking in the performance?
Not to mention these things are happening all day long. If I am preaching the gospel to my children every time they sin, the health inspectors will soon be showing up at our door, because nothing else is gonna get done around here.
Please don’t misunderstand. I believe that all our parenting must be gospel-centered. But I think sometimes our idea of what that should look like gets muddled (at least mine does!). We can easily add on all kinds of additional and frankly unrealistic practices that aren’t in Scripture and then we feel overwhelmed by guilt that we are not “doing it right.”
But God’s commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). Sure, motherhood is hard work—the hardest job around. But if motherhood becomes a burden, it may be because we have added our own requirements to God’s commands. And thus, in our attempts to practice gospel-centered parenting we unintentionally miss out on grace.
We have a few more thoughts on this topic, but right now I gotta go. Hudson is throwing a fit.
My son Jude asks lots of questions. As I understand it, this is common for children who have been adopted when they are older, and I totally get it. New country. New language. New parents. I would ask a lot of questions too.
I am eager to answer Jude’s questions about his new world—as best I can anyway. Occasionally he stumps me with questions about how stuff works (“I haven’t a clue, Jude, ask your Dad!”) or like the other day when he asked me why people put up “yucky” Halloween decorations: “Honestly, Jude, that’s a great question, Son, but I have never been able to understand that myself!”
As much as we want to satisfy Jude’s curiosity about his new life, we are also trying to teach him that he can trust us, his parents, to faithfully meet his needs. So sometimes, when he asks the same question over and over again, or asks about insignificant details he’ll find out in a few minutes anyway, I’ll provide the answer my parents often gave to me: “You’ll see.”
“Mommy what’s for dinner?”
“Mommy, what store are we going to next?”
“Mommy, how many more minutes until break time?”
We have worked really hard to be consistent and predictable in our parenting; so while imperfect for sure, Jude knows by now that we will always feed him dinner, we will always come home after going out, and we will (almost) always take a break from school in the mid-morning.
But as I seek to teach Jude that he can trust us, I have begun to see, sadly, how little I sometimes trust my Savior. Jude’s incessant questioning is understandable for an eight-year-old boy nine months into a new life, but so often I ply my Heavenly Father with anxious questions, having nothing like Jude’s excuse.
“What are you doing next, Lord?”
“Where are you taking me?”
“When will this be over?”
I don’t just ask these questions once. I ask them over and over and over. And more often than not, God replies with the same answer I give Jude: “You’ll see.”
To be honest, I don’t always like that answer any more than Jude does. And yet when I grumble about God’s response, I fail to see the massive mercy behind it. “You’ll see” is a promise! A glorious promise, secured for me at the cross! I will see! Because I have been adopted into God’s family, through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on my behalf, I will one day see God.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2 ESV).
I may not see everything today, but I see the Father’s love. And I have this confident and sure expectation that one day I will see Him as He is. And I will be like Him. Because of adoption, I see. And because of adoption, I will see. Oh joy!
So Jude, my Son, I pray that one day you will see the love of the Father and rejoice in His answer to all your questions: “You’ll see!”
Every mom of young, active, children (especially boys!) needs to take a minute to read these excerpts of letters from CS Lewis. The way he describes the whirlwind of these parenting years will bring a knowing smile to your face. So “fling yourself into a chair” for a moment and enjoy:
My brother and I have just had the experience of an American lady to stay with us accompanied by her two sons, aged 9 1/2 and 8. Whew! Lovely creatures — couldn’t meet nicer children — but the pace! I realize have never respected young married people enough and never dreamed of the Sabbath calm which descends on the house when the little cyclones have gone to bed and all the grown-ups fling themselves into chairs and the silence of exhaustion.
To all the kids around here, Janelle and her husband Mike are affectionately known as Mr. and Mrs. B. The kids know that whenever Mr. and Mrs. B show up, there is sure to be lots of fun and laughter and learning about Jesus. Recently, Caly joined her parents for a little Christmas singing and talking. “Are You Ready for Christmas?” is the first installment of our brand new kidtalk series. Check back for more episodes in the days leading up to December 25.
And this first show calls for some audience participation—from your kids! So listen and have them contact Mr. and Mrs. B. They might just hear their ideas read on next week’s episode.
We hope you and your little ones enjoy the very first kidtalk Christmas!
My little Claire is now over three months old—hard to believe! She has been such a sweet blessing to our family. This girlie is very loved (albeit a little roughly!) by her brothers, and returns their attention with lots of smiles.
For me, re-entering the newborn season after seven years has been delightful, but its also been an adjustment. It’s added a new layer of complexity to my life of caring for my three active boys. In addition to herding them all into the car to go somewhere, I’m also dragging the carrier (with baby inside!), the diaper bag, stroller, and other assorted gear. I’ve got to fit nursing in between carpool, lunch monitoring, homeschooling my youngest, making dinner and church meetings. I’m absolutely loving it, but I’m also having to adjust my expectations of what I can get done each day.
My quiet times have also changed. It is harder to get a quiet time, much less a quiet moment to meet with God. If Claire doesn’t sleep through the night (like last week when she had a cold), it is difficult to get up early. This unique season means I have to improvise in order to feed my soul. In the words of Jean Fleming, I need to “do what I can.”
Some days this means reading my Bible over Claire’s nap. It means putting worship music on while I work around the house, or listening to sermons online. I also try to read good books with short, simple Scripture meditations to give me a quick “shot” of truth. John Piper’s Godward Life volumes, and Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening are great resources. This time around, I’ve been blessed by Paul Tripp’s Shelter in the Time of Storm. His thoughts on Psalm 27 have provided just the daily refreshment I have needed.
So, if you have a newborn like me, may you too be encouraged in the grace of God as you do what you can.