Are We Masters or Stewards?
(This is the second part of the "The Will is a Blessing" series. You can find part 1 here.)
Caroline and I had so many needless struggles with our first born son. Last week I mentioned the targets we were aiming for as we raised Mosiah and how it seemed like we were missing all of them. According to the material we were gleaning our goals from, at certain (very young) ages he was supposed to be doing certain things (like sitting in church and coming to us when we called etc.) and we were failing, or nearly failing, in almost every area. To make matters worse, it felt like most of our friends were practicing the principles which the parenting doctors were preaching almost perfectly.
Their children sat quietly in church. Their children exhibited first-time obedience. Their children were fasting and regularly studying their scriptures by the time they were 3. Ok, so that last one is a stretch, but if you're familiar with any of the material we were consuming during that time you know it's not that much of a stretch.
The point is, based on everything we were being told in books and tapes and even in discussions with many of our friends, we were losing the battle for our son's soul. Yes, it was just that serious. His consistent refusal to instantly obey us displayed a serious lack of respect for our authority and if we allowed it to continue the unthinkable would happen. According to the doctors, as he grew older his spiritual immune system would shut down and we would lose him to the world.
We were terrified, so much so that the more obstinate he was the harder we pushed him. As we saw it, we were locked in a struggle which would determine who held ultimate sway in the life of our son and we were determined that it be us. However, in all our efforts to force him to yield to our authority we lost sight of a crucial truth regarding our relationship with our children – we're not in charge; we're responsible.
No Magic Formula
Children are not programmed. You don't always get out of them what you put into them; sometimes it's much less or much more. As I mentioned in my last post there is, in fact, no a+b+c formula to be employed which guarantees parental success. In the end, all we have to offer our children is ourselves and as much of the life of Jesus Christ as is wrapped up in us – let that draw them if it will. Mind you, this requires a sacrificial love on our part that is most difficult to come by and particularly difficult to sustain, but even at that it can offer us no guarantees concerning our children's response to that love.
Of course, think how much less of a guarantee there is for those children who never or rarely experience this love. I am in no way implying that the lack of a guarantee absolves us of our responsibilities towards our children. What it does do (if we'll allow it to) is dramatically alter the nature of those responsibilities. We do not draw them back to God – God draws them back to God. We're merely instruments to assist in the drawing (admittedly among the most important instruments, but there are others).
Put it another way – ultimately, proper parenting has nothing to do with securing a child's submission to his mother or father and everything to do with securing his submission to God. What's beautiful about this (and it's the very thing that we often do not have the patience for) is that if you have a child who has willingly submitted himself to his heavenly Father, he'll have little difficulty in submitting himself to his parents. In the end, they're not accountable to you, they're accountable to Him. Actually, we hold that in common with our children.
A Seismically Subtle Shift
At first glance this is a very subtle shift in the way we should approach parenting, but it can produce seismic effects not only in our ability to reach the heart of our children but in the totality of our relationship with them. In short, the main problem with a parenting philosophy which emphasizes bringing children under our subjection is that the process is completely backwards.
This philosophy seems completely plausible at first. The idea is that children learn submission to God by first learning submission to their parents but, as I said, this is getting the cart far ahead of the horses. Parents like to harp on the 5th commandment or Colossians 3:20 ("Children, obey your parents in all things...) but if you stop and think about it, can children obey us without first obeying God? No – it's impossible. The only reason they ought to obey us is because God told them to, not the other way around. Are you starting to feel smaller?
Just because you've broken a child's will does not mean you'll be able to bring them to God on a leash. Sure, they might come to you at will, but that doesn't mean they'll come to Him. Children are not slaves and we ought not to behave ourselves as their masters, else we should be judged as masters (and no one should want such a judgement).
We should rather view ourselves as being temporary stewards. We have a solemn responsibility to direct our children's hearts to the one who ultimately owns them, but the road back to God does not run through us, it run's under us. We're on that same road and if we're serious about our parental responsibilities we'll do everything we can to help our children along but we can in no way force their progress. Far from breaking their will, we should use our influence to encourage the submission of that will to God. He's in charge; we're responsible.
Our Stewardship as Stewards
If you think I'm making the case that your children should be entirely self directing you're missing the point. No mother or father who views themselves as being accountable to God for how they steward the life of their child would release themselves from the duty they have to train them. No doubt we do have and should exercise authority over our young ones, but we must always keep in mind that it's delegated authority and that in the end we are answerable to the Father for how we've wielded it.
Looking back, this is where I drove off the tracks. Sure, back when Mosiah was young I would confidently proclaim to anyone who would listen that my whole intent in following the rigorous guidelines set forth by the parenting doctors was to raise my son to love God with all his heart; but it was an idle boast. What I really wanted was for him to obey me with all his heart.
I wanted to be the bit in his mouth or the rudder of his ship and to steer him "whithersoever I would" and (please mark this) I wanted the glory for it; but God showed me how that, at best, I'm merely a hired hand who is only occasionally permitted to hold the reins or take the helm. I'm not the driver nor am I the captain.
God gave us children for a very special purpose, a purpose that perhaps someday we'll more fully understand. For now it should suffice us to know that he expects the use of all the care and influence we possess to assist in directing their hearts back to him. In so doing we discharge one of the most important duties of our lives, one that I believe we'll give an account of in the day of judgement; and what will the verdict be, then, on our stewardship over the lives of our children? Will we be judged as stewards or masters?
(Look for part 3 soon!)