“Am I doing this right?” I was holding a diaper, looking down at the tiny squirming newborn who wouldn’t keep still. Little did I know how often I would ask myself that question in the years to come—and that diapers were only the beginning.
When I brought my newborn home from the hospital, I brought home a bundle of needs—needs for food, protection, and comfort. Those physical needs were daunting enough. But as he grew into a toddler, I began to see spiritual needs for shepherding, guidance, and teaching. It doesn’t take long for us as parents to see that our children need more than physical care. They need discipline for their hearts.
Discipline is exhausting and emotional. It calls upon every ounce of our love, patience, and diligence. But the most frustrating part of discipline is not knowing if our kids really understand it. The goal of discipline is to point our kids to the gospel. Do they get it? How can we help them make that connection? What reasons can we give our kids to obey? “Because I said so,” might be the easiest answer, but here are three reasons that point our kids to the gospel.
1. We obey because God is holy
“Mom, how much does God weigh?” My kids are constantly trying to figure God out. They want physical dimensions, which I can’t give them. But I can show them his character; and discipline is the perfect opportunity. When my kids disobey, I explain to them that we are to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). God paints a picture of himself through his law. When we teach our kids not to steal, they learn that God is just. When we teach them not to hit, they learn that God is kind. God’s character is communicated through the righteousness he requires of his people. When we require our kids to obey, we show that God is worthy of our obedience. We also show them how far short we all fall from that worthiness. That brings us to the second reason.
2. We obey because of what Jesus did
My oldest son loves to earn money. Recently, he’s been holding out his hand for payment for every little task. We’ve had to talk about doing some tasks just out of joy and thankfulness for being part of the family. When it comes to obedience, kids naturally hold out their hands. “I obeyed. Now what do I get?” That’s because kids are naturally legalistic. They are wired to hyper-focus on themselves and their own good works. Human logic says it makes more sense to earn God’s favor than to receive it freely through grace. That’s why the greatest joy of gospel-centered parenting is pointing our kids away from themselves to Christ. We don’t obey to earn God’s favor, but because his favor has already been earned for us by another.
When our kids disobey we can say, “What you did was wrong. Do you know who never did anything wrong? Jesus! He lived a perfect life for us because he knew we could never do that. If we trust in him, his perfect life takes the place of our sin. Now we obey to thank him for everything he has done for us.” What a joyful reason to obey.
3. We obey to receive blessing
Do we ever get rewards for obedience? Yes, but the rewards might be different than our kids would expect. Recently my six-year-old told me, “When I tell the truth, I feel happy inside.” The greatest blessing of obedience is living in joyful harmony with our Creator. Repeatedly in Scripture we see a connection between obedience and blessing. God told his people, “If you keep my commandments you will be blessed” (Deut. 11:28). God told the children of the Israelites that if they obeyed they would “live long in the land” (Ex. 20:12). Does this mean if we obey we will always have worldly wealth and success? We know from examples such as Job and the martyrs in Hebrews 11 that that is not the case. So what blessings can we promise our children?
I love the way my pastor, David Graves, puts it:
As opposed to health and wealth, this promise is along pragmatic grounds. If you obey your parents, then you will learn the wisdom of how to make it through this fallen world with as few scrapes as possible. The child who habitually disobeys does not learn the necessity of hard work and the prudence of how not to be taken advantage of. It is not a promise of wealth, rather it is a promise of learning how to navigate.
We can assure our kids that God’s laws provide protection and peace—sometimes in a physical way, sometimes only spiritual.
Discipline is not something we do to our children, but for them. When we teach them to obey, we equip them to live lives full of blessing. It takes time to help little hearts understand what discipline is all about. In 1887, hymn writer John H. Sammis put it best when he wrote the beloved words: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Check out Sara’s book, For the Love of Discipline: When the Gospel Meets Tantrums and Time-Outs.