Some of you saw the picture in the July 23, 1992 Oregonian where myself and several others were shown praying together in the Multnomah County Courthouse, just prior to our court case with the ACLU. It was weird to have three television crews beaming their lights in our faces and sticking microphones in front of our mouths, while a newspaper photographer took flash pictures. One of the reporters, with an excited voice asked, “Is it legal for you to be praying here?”
The words have stuck in my mind, because they capture the essence of the world in which my children—and yours—are growing up. Where equal access and free speech seems to apply to every hostile and immoral group, but not to Christians; where AIDS is devastating our society but those who oppose the lifestyle that spawns AIDS are at best dismissed as irrelevant moral dinosaurs, and at worst labeled bigots; where babies are being mercilessly killed and when someone shows a picture of the killed baby it is he—not those who favor the horrible killing the picture depicts—that is considered the cruel fanatic. America, where a man’s probable adulterous affairs are called “irrelevant” by the media (what does a man’s character and honesty have to do with whether he fulfills his marriage vows?), and his commitment to the right to kill innocent children gains him applause and adulation, while a man who supposedly misspells potato (the truth is he just followed the incorrect spelling on the classroom flashcard that was handed him) is thereby disqualified for leadership. An America where values, morality and spiritual integrity are mocked, mimicked, and shouted off the floor.
The fact is that our children will not stand up and resist this tide unless they become men and women of character, courage and spiritual vitality. We are to pass on to them the baton that was handed us by a previous generation of Christians. But their leg of the race is already proving more difficult than ours—largely because we fell back on our leg, leaving them to pick up the pace and try to regain the ground our generation has lost.
So what qualities does God want us to develop in our children? No need to guess. Scripture tells us specifically—”And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to have mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:9). These three requirements are a basis for evaluating our children’s character development:
1. Are my children learning to act justly? That is, to deal honestly and fairly with others, and to respect, care for and intervene on behalf of the weak, vulnerable and oppressed? (Or are they compromising in matters of morals and integrity, and passively accepting society’s mistreatment of those for whom God says we should speak up?)
2. Are my children learning to be merciful? That is, to discern with sensitivity the personal and spiritual needs of others in family, school, community, society and world, and reach out to them in love and compassion? (Or are they part of a clique that snubs the non-cool, or so absorbed in their own activities, interests and possessions that they don’t see or care about the hurting people around them?)
3. Are my children learning to walk humbly with their God? That is, to know him personally, to have a consistent daily time devoted only to Him, and to exercise a humility that recognizes His lordship and their servanthood for Him and others? (Or are they too busy to spend time with God, and too self-proud and self-sufficient to realize they desperately need God’s help to do all that is worth doing?)
Teaching our children the truth is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient. The solid foundation for a life is not just hearing the words of God, but doing them (Matthew 7:24-27). By our own example as their parents, we must teach our children God’s truth, demonstrating it in application and obedience. The truth that time must be spent with God must be demonstrated by the time we spend with God. The truth about Christ’s forgiveness must be shown as we seek and grant forgiveness in our home. The truth that evangelism is important must be demonstrated by our efforts in evangelism. As parents, we must model our stated convictions with courage and devotion. Otherwise what we do will speak so loudly they won’t hear a word we’re saying. Sometimes our children will fail to listen to us. Seldom will they fail to imitate us.
If parents teach children truth with their mouths, without setting the example of righteousness, devotion, wisdom and courage, then children will learn to scorn, disregard or abuse the truth. They will end up as rebels (rejecting the truth), nominal Christians (superficially recognizing the truth, but living like the world) or legalists (treating the truth as a sterile set of rules by which to pass judgment on others).
Wisdom is the ability to skillfully apply truth to the situations of daily life. There is one book of Scripture written for a child by his parent, specifically designed to help him make wise and character-building decisions. That book is Proverbs. The study, discussion and application of Proverbs should be a central part of training our children. It is filled with hundreds of practical moral guidelines for living life. It teaches not only what is right and wrong, but shows that what is right is also smart, and what is wrong is also stupid. This provides a double motivation for our children—and their parents—to live righteously.
At the dinner table, read a verse or passage in Proverbs focusing on a central truth. Then ask your children to try to put it in their own words, and come up with a specific application or illustration of it. Discover what it means as a family. Then ask each person to actually apply this truth within the next twenty-four hours and report back to the family what he or she did. Their discernment and skill in application will dramatically develop with practice—as will their love for the truth they are living, and the Lord they are serving.
Run the race. Don’t drop the baton. Pass it on with care and enthusiasm to your children and grandchildren. So that at the end of the course, at the beginning of the wonderful new life in the presence of God, we—and they—will hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servants.”
“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 your get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7)