The sights & sounds of family devotions

Christians have grown far too comfortable with social media’s call-and-response liturgies, many of which you can find in your help menu filed under the subject heading “Pride & Envy.” As such, I’d hate for a recent allusion to family devotions to (a) feed my animal pride or (b) leave others with a false impression of our family life.

So in the interest of creating a more complete picture of Merritt family devotions¹ I include here a sample list of the sights & sounds experienced during these holy times:

  1. Dad: call for family devotions
  2. Kids: pre-devotion moaning & groaning²
  3. Sit down!
  4. Sit up!
  5. Sit still!
  6. Be quiet!
  7. Pay attention!
  8. {icy glare from parent(s)}
  9. Leave that alone
  10. Leave your sister alone!
  11. {post-devotion lecture from parent}
  12. Put that away
  13. Take the blanket off your head
  14. Speak up
  15. Speak clearly
  16. Put your feet down
  17. Focus!
  18. Dad/Mom: post-devotion discipline (infrequent but sometimes necessary)
  19. Wife: offer much-needed advice to husband on how to communicate with his kids
  20. Dad/Mom: wonder if the kids are “getting it”³

¹My better half reminds me that while our devotion time is primarily for spiritual formation, social graces are acquired during these times, too (i.e. sitting still, giving someone else your attention, conversing, etc).

²‾³Their complaining and/or apparent confusion may signal the need for a change in our communication. More likely, it’s a reminder that kids don’t know what’s best for them. Be a responsible parent and feed them like their life depends on it (Deut 8:3; Jn 6:48, 50).

Good medicine for parents

I was skimming a sample from a new small group study, The Gospel-Centered Parent, when I came across some good reminders about how the gospel–rightly understood and applied–shapes our parenting. [theological terms added]

[Justification] Since we are declared not guilty, gospel-centered parenting means…

  • We let go of the pressure of trying to prove ourselves through good parenting and right kids. We’re free simply to love our children because our worth comes from Jesus, not them.
  • We are humble, openly admitting our sins, deeply aware that we too are big sinners (just like our children) and are righteous only because of Jesus.

[Adoption] Because we are God’s children, gospel-centered parenting means…

  • We aren’t consumed with building our family’s reputation or image, but instead find joy in being part of God’s family.
  • We are dependent and child-like parents, praying often as we trust our own heavenly Father for every family need.

[Sanctification] Because we are growing to be like Jesus, gospel-centered parenting means…

  • We are confident and patient with our children, even when they persist in disobeying. We keep teaching them God’s ways and humbly showing them his love.
  • We use the Spirit’s tools with our children—prayer, the Word of God, and the gospel message—rather than our own wisdom or nagging.

[Resurrection & Reward] Since we have eternal life, gospel-centered parenting means…

  • We don’t live for our children’s success or worldly happiness, and we teach them not to live for it. Our hope is in Jesus.
  • We are not undone by suffering or family disappointments. We know these will not last.

Let them cry

I don’t doubt that legalism is a genuine threat to the Christian life. “Work out your salvation” can easily degenerate into “work for your salvation.” But we’re imbalanced creatures given to violent swings from one extreme to another and as such the fear of legalism can be just as dangerous as its true form. Speaking from personal experience, Christian parents are particularly susceptible to oscillating from legalism to laxness as they wrestle to lay hold of the elusive “law of liberty” (an oxymoron for the culture and, sadly, for many in the church) on behalf of their children.

But wrestle we must. Scripture doesn’t afford us the opportunity to choose law or grace as we raise our children–it must be both. Precisely how law and grace can coexist is a discussion for another time but I take it that Paul speaks of this paradoxical harmony when he commands(!) us to bring up our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4) yet not in such a way that we cause them to “lose heart” (Col 3:21). In the words of one commentator, “There should be firm guidance, not servitude.”

On this notion of firm guidance I came across a great quote by B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) in a piece entitled “Is the Shorter Catechism Worthwhile?” (ht: Voddie Baucham). The passage concerns the Westminster Shorter Catechism but that’s not the reason I offer it here. My interest is the larger point behind the statement which is that parents shouldn’t shirk religious instruction just because the learning involves work:

No doubt it requires some effort whether to teach or to learn the Shorter Catechism. It requires some effort whether to teach or to learn the grounds of any department of knowledge. Our children – some of them at least – groan over even the primary arithmetic and find sentence-analysis a burden. Even the conquest of the art of reading has proved such a task that “reading without tears” is deemed an achievement. We think, nevertheless, that the acquisition of arithmetic, grammar and reading is worth the pains it costs the teacher to teach, and the pain it costs the learner to learn them. Do we not think the acquisition of the grounds of religion worth some effort, and even, if need be, some tears?

Requiring our children to carry the “burden” of religious instruction isn’t legalism. Be faithful to your calling. It’s OK if it makes them cry.

You can (and must) lead a lion to straw but you can’t make him eat

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought… The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. -C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

I would highly recommend Give Them Grace to any Christian parent. The book’s strengths are numerous: the counsel is rooted in Scripture; the mother/daughter co-authors (Fitzpatrick & Thompson) evidence a godly, humble wisdom gained through personal experience in child-rearing; the talk is sober but encouraging; and “grace” is understood to be both a disposition and a power. I could go on but you’re going to read it for yourself (right?).

But because the book so convincingly shows grace-based parenting to be the only true, Christian parenting the reader may be tempted to lose sight of the indispensable role of law in promoting grace [I think this is especially true for parents of young children]. To be fair, this danger isn’t lost on the authors & they address it in a number of different ways, but striking the right balance in practice is easier said than done.

The truth is that we are most godly in our parenting when we follow the Father’s example. Remember, God Himself (always gracious, always loving) first established the Law to prepare his children for a later, greater grace (Gal 3:24). Our “little human animals” must still be made/trained to like/do what they otherwise would not. The difference is that while a human animal may be trained to love vegetables & exercise he can’t be trained to love righteousness & the pursuit of holiness. You might as well train a carnivore to graze. Nevertheless, the little animal must be shown the Law’s righteousness in the hope that one day a gracious Creator will re-create him with a new appetite (Isa 11:7).

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 3)

The “rod of discipline” isn’t a comfortable shepherding analogy in Prov 22:15 [see #1 in “A time to coax…” pt. 2]. That the rod is meant to be painful is confirmed by the stated objective (i.e. to drive away folly) and by the other uses of “rod” in Proverbs most notably in verses like 10:13, 23:13, and 26:3. Two broader observations should be mentioned:

(2) The broad context of Proverbs asserts that physical discipline is a necessity. Christian parents will find greater motivation for loving, faithful discipline when they consider the alternative(s) detailed in Proverbs. Folly that freely festers in a child’s heart will corrupt him into a fool. The failure to draw the Proverbial connections between folly and fools obscures the indispensable role of parental discipline. We wield the “rod of discipline” because abdicating this God-given charge is a catalyst for moral & spiritual disaster. Even a casual examination of what Proverbs has to say about the condition and fate of a fool Proverbs depicts the battle with folly as a matter of life and death.
5:23 He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray.
19:3 When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.
26:11 Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.

Ironically, some corners of Christian culture will recoil at the sight of vomit-slurping, godless rebels destined for death even as they proclaim their aversion to spanking.

(3) The broader context of the OT only affirms the place of corporal punishment in child rearing.
When the remedy for the evil of a rebellious son is public stoning (Deut 21:18-21), a spanking seems like a bargain! Small wonder that the OT people didn’t balk at the notion of corporal punishment during the child rearing years. But the bigger issue is whether or not we’re able to discern and emulate the Father’s heart in discipline. On this point I would turn to several OT passages where God employs corporal punishment on His children (Deut 8:5; 2Sam 7:14; Isa 10:5; Jer 2:3) and follow those passages by the acknowledgment that divine discipline is still a model for parental discipline in the NT era (Heb 12:4ff; Rev 3:19).

Make no mistake, godly discipline is as unpleasant as it is necessary. But until He comes we affirm the goodness of painful discipline even though we flinch (Heb 12:11-13).

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 2)

The previous post acknowledged a growing disagreement in Christian circles over the value and necessity of physical discipline for children. Proverbs 22:15 was proffered as a focal point in the debate, specifically in how we should understand “the rod” of discipline: is this an allusion to corporal punishment or not? I think an honest evaluation would answer that question in the affirmative for three reasons: (1) the use of “rod” in Proverbs implies a striking that produces pain (2) the broad context of Proverbs asserts that physical discipline is a necessity (3) the broader context of the OT only affirms the place of corporal punishment in child rearing. For the sake of time I’ll expand on #1 now and return to #2-3 in a post to follow.

1) The use of “rod” in Proverbs implies a striking that produces pain.

First, the OT Hebrew word for “rod” in Prov 22:15, shebet, has a variety of uses depending on the context: rod, staff, club, scepter, and even tribe. However, in the 191x that shebet occurs in the OT only twice(!) does it clearly refer to a shepherd’s staff (Lev 27:32; Micah 7:14 – both verses speak of shepherds and sheep). Further, shebet occurs 8x in Proverbs (see below) and none of these occurrences contain a shepherding analogy. “Rod” is a better English rendering than “staff”.

Second, occurrences of shebet in Proverbs leave little doubt that the rod is a fearful thing:
10:13 On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense.
13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
22:8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail.
22:15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
23:14 If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.
26:3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.
29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

Third, in 22:15 the rod doesn’t coax and draw in. It strikes and drives away. Even if a shepherding analogy was to be seen here the fitting analogy is a shepherd fighting off dangerous predators that will harm the sheep, not a shepherd trying to draw a sheep in. As will be demonstrated later, Proverbs portrays folly is a predator that kills. If folly isn’t killed, the child is. How then will folly be destroyed: with coaxing or cudgeling?

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 1)

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. {Proverbs 22:15, ESV}

I take it as a truism that a generation (or two?) ago the Christian consensus on Prov 22:15 understood “the rod of discipline” to mean corporal punishment (i.e. spanking). I don’t know whether we could point to a Christian consensus today but I do know that, for various reasons, spanking is not as prevalent as it once was. My father use to tell us how my grandmother would send him outside to requisition the switch she would then use for his painful correction, and can I still remember a paddle hanging on my (maternal) grandparents’ wall in Maryland with a rhyme that went something like: Appeal to the intellect, Appeal to the Pride, When all else fails, Apply to the hide.

But times change and the spirit of the age incessantly seeks to shape the Christian mind. The serious Christian knows he must respond to verses like Prov 22:15 if he is to abandon the prudence of physical discipline with any legitimacy. The only recourse for such a conscientious objector is to demonstrate that phrases like “the rod of discipline” are misinterpreted by advocates of corporal punishment which brings us to the point of this post.

A young mom who, along with her husband I’m sure, is “not considering doing away with the belt” has questions about how to defend the position that spanking is biblical. The counter-argument that she’s encountered runs something like: (a) “the rod” in Prov 22:15 refers to a shepherd’s staff or stick (b) the rod/staff was used to pull/direct/coax sheep back into position but not to inflict painful punishment and/or (c) the rod/staff was used to strike and fend off predators but never to strike the sheep themselves.

Coax or cudgel–which is biblical? I’ll try to address this on multiple fronts (in multiple posts) but let me conclude here by observing that even if we limit ourselves to Proverbs, the Bible has more to say concerning discipline than just what we find in 22:15. How might these additional proverbs shape our understanding of the intended meaning of 22:15?

13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

19:18 Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.

23:13-14 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.

29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

A day in the life: from meth addiction to Christ’s impeccability (pt. 3)

“Did Jesus not sin because he couldn’t or because he didn’t want to?” Not the kind of question a parent anticipates while the family is zoned out on a movie. As an aside, I’m increasingly of the opinion that while almost every question asked a parent should be answered, a little lag time between the Q and the A is not always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes a postponement is more profitable. You get time to think through the answer and you determine a time/place fitting for the subject matter & the attentiveness you need from the child(ren) who’ll be receiving he answer. But I digress.

So, was Jesus not able to sin? The present concern isn’t the answer (although I would affirm that Jesus was not able to sin) but the delivery and result. I take it from Deut 6 that parental instruction is more than just cramming biblical data into a young skull full of mush but that the godly parent strives to teach their kids to know and love the truth so that they love the Author of truth. When Christ’s impeccability is questioned the answer is critically important but so is the effect of that answer on the heart/mind:

1) Will my answer solicit greater awe and wonder over the mystery of the God-man, Jesus Christ?

2) Will my answer promote Jesus as the only Savior from the penalty & power of sin?

3) Will my answer reveal Jesus as a perfect and merciful & sympathetic high priest?

All of this comes from the pages of Scripture but I want my children to want a Person more than a page (even though the Person comes by means of the page!).

A day in the life: from meth addiction to Christ’s impeccability (pt. 2)

Questions like my son’s question concerning meth (and the ensuing discussion) are challenging because meth isn’t cited in Scripture. However, Scripture does speak to matters pertaining to meth use and/or addiction. I list five in (what I think is) an ascending order: 

1)      stewardship of the physical body

2)      use of the mind

3)      futile/foolish or worthy/wise

4)      slave: of righteousness or unrighteousness

5)      pleasure: righteous; unrighteous; and the ultimate, unending Source

 If you don’t know how or where Scripture addresses these matters, don’t be discouraged but don’t be complacent either. Get the Word in your mind and on your heart. Make a practice of speaking the truth of Scripture to yourself and your kids in every question, answer, and decision.

 The random questions that come from your child are God-given opportunities to stimulate growth, not just for your kid but for you, too. When I’m stumped by a “gotcha” question I should consider that some part of my life and/or thought hasn’t been sufficiently saturated by the Word.  

A day in the life: from meth addiction to Christ’s impeccability (pt. 1)

“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged… “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up…”
{Deuteronomy 6:1-2, 4-7}

A few observations followed by a real-life illustration:

1) Fear of the Lord & love of God is nurtured through biblical instruction. The ultimate goal of God’s instruction is to move His people to love Him with heart/soul/might.

2) The best parental instruction is an outworking of God’s words on the parent’s heart.

3) An all-consuming love for God is what Christian parents are called to reproduce in their children through instructing them in His word.

Not every day is like last Saturday. In the car running some errands my oldest saw a billboard advertising the dangers of meth. After the obligatory “What is meth?” followed questions on the production of said drug and it’s abuse. The knee-jerk, superficial answers aren’t always so difficult–drugs are bad, drugs can harm or even kill, don’t use drugs. But superficial instruction falls short of the biblical job description for a Christian father.

Later that evening our 2nd oldest was watching a movie in which a young girl confessed a theft she didn’t commit simply because she saw no other way around the protracted stand-off between herself & the accusing authority figure. That scenario prompted the following query: “Did Jesus never sin because he couldn’t or because he didn’t want to?”

How will a Christian parent answer these “childish” questions? What chapter & verse addresses drug addiction or the ability/inability of Jesus to sin? And should I find relevant Scripture will my explanation(s) stimulate a love for law, theological trivia, or God?

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