By / Feb 3

Several years ago, one of our children had developed a pattern of lying whenever he was caught doing something wrong. My wife, Judi, asked me, “What are we going to do about this?” I immediately retorted, “I’m going to ratchet up the discipline and put a stop to this!” Then she said, “Sure, we have to discipline him for it, but what positive steps can we take to address it? I think he lies because he lacks courage. Why don’t we focus on positively training him toward courage and bravery?” After I had contemplated how much more perceptive her thoughts were than mine, I was struck that what she was saying made perfect sense. So we began a plan to teach and train him toward courage and bravery, and we saw quick results.

Judi’s thoughts were in line with what C.S. Lewis said about courage when he wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” You would think that books on parenting would be replete with helpful information on how to cultivate courage in your children. And for Christian parenting books that are at least 50 years old, that is true. But in recent Christian parenting books, raising courageous children is rarely mentioned. In fact, good manners, mild behavior, good grades, and above all safety, have become the preeminent contemporary parenting virtues.

“I would rather learn that you perished at sea than that you dishonored the missionary society you are going to serve,” are the words William Knibb’s mother shouted from the window as the twenty-one-year-old left his home in Kettering, England, and headed toward the port to board a ship for Jamaica. Knibb said the words of his mother instilled in him the courage to fiercely preach the gospel and fight the slave trade during his tenure in Jamaica as a missionary. As I read older biographies of men who left for war, those kinds of sentiments were almost commonplace. Mother’s would tell their sons, “I would rather you die with courage on the battlefield than for you to live as a coward.” Those kinds of words sound strange, irresponsible even, to modern ears where self-protecting safety is seen as the highest virtue.

In parenting seminars, I will often ask parents to estimate how often in a year they tell their children to be careful and safe. Once they settle on an estimated number in their mind, I ask them to also estimate how many times in a year they challenge their children to be courageous, brave, bold, or to take an action for the sake of someone else that might put them in harm’s way. The response is almost always the same; they tell their kids constantly to be careful and safe, and rarely ever tell them to be self-sacrificially courageous and brave. There are enormous deleterious consequences in raising a generation of people who believe that there is nothing more important than their personal comfort and safety.

Many parents are aghast by thought of teaching their children that there are times they should put themselves in harm’s way and consider it inherently reckless. The distinction between recklessness and courage is an easy one to make. Recklessness has no higher purpose than the danger itself, whereas courageousness is self-sacrificial for a higher, others-centered, good. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is acting on the premise that there is something more important than fear. Or as the great American theologian, John Wayne, put it, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” and I would add, saddling up for the self-sacrificial good of others.

Here are some simple suggestions for parents to help in raising courageous kids:

1. Start early

A toddler who hides behind a parent’s leg when someone speaks to them, or looks at the ground, may not simply be shy—it might be that they are selfish, lacking in others-centered courage and thinking more highly of themselves than they ought. As you discern this in your child, make it an issue—a discipline issue, if necessary. Train toward courage, and celebrate courageous actions, from the very beginning of child training.

2. You are not  special

Do not saddle your children with empty, yet feel-good, flattery about their inherent specialness. Teach them, that, yes, they are made in God’s image, but like you, they are ordinary, they have some strengths, and they have plenty of weaknesses as well. The real question is what they do with their strengths and weaknesses. Tell your children that inherent giftedness and intellect are overrated and overvalued. It is self-sacrificial courageous actions are truly special.

3. Courage is more important than your safety

Paul tells Timothy, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Simply put, if the gospel is true, a safety-first, safety-centric worldview is a lie. A world where nothing is worth suffering and dying for is a world in which it is difficult to discern what is worth living for. Teach your children that love itself is an aggressive act that is often costly and demands courage. Defending the defenseless, speaking truth in love, and helping those in need, will often put them in harm’s way.

4. Just fight theory

Though this might seem disagreeable to some, I tell my sons that I do not only believe in just war theory, I also believe in just fight theory. For instance, if one of my sons is walking down the street with his sister and a boy walks up and tells her, “You are ugly, and I hate you,” and my son punches him in the nose, I would never say, “Don’t you ever hit anyone again, and I mean ever.” He may have overreacted to the situation, but his instinct to defend his sister is a good and right one, and it is my job as a parent to clarify both the good and the bad. I teach my sons to turn the other cheek when it involves them, but if someone harms their sister or mother, they need to be God’s instrument to turn that person’s cheek.

5. Celebrate courage and bravery

Make courage and bravery a major part of your family vocabulary. Read about and talk about courageous people in history. When your child does something that demands courage, celebrate it with a special meal or treat. Train toward courage. If your child does not naturally talk to people, assign them to initiate a conversation with five people at church each week, and hold them accountable to do it. At the end of the week, ask each family member to share something they did that week that they did not want to do in their gut, but they did it anyway because it was right and helpful to someone else.

To live as if nothing is more important than personal safety is to live an empty, selfish, and ultimately dissatisfying life. That kind of entitlement mentality only leads to self-referential pride and discontentment. Jesus is our model and embodiment of true self-sacrificial courage. His meekness was not weakness, his humility was not moral feebleness, and his courage was costly. No one can be both safe and large-hearted.

We often complain about the selfish culture, while at the same time teaching our children that nothing is more important than them and their safety. As C.S. Lewis observed, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of the virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are ashamed to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” We dream about our children leading noble and courageous lives, while we train them daily toward cowardice.

By / May 29

“I would rather learn that you perished at sea than that you dishonored the missionary society you are going to serve.”

William Knibb’s mother shouted these words from the window as the twenty-one-year-old left his home in Kettering, England, and headed toward the port to board a ship for Jamaica. The words of his mother instilled in him a courage to fiercely preach the gospel and fight the slave trade during his tenure in Jamaica as a missionary.

Knibb said of the slave trade, “The cursed blast of slavery has like a pestilence, withered almost every moral bloom. I do not know how any person can feel a union with such a monster, such a child of hell.” 

Of the struggle for the emancipation of slaves Knibb said, “I was forced from the den of infamy and from a gloomy prison, with my congregation scattered, many of the members of my church murdered, and multitudes of the faithful lashed.” 

After emancipation, Knibb was back in Kettering to preach and asked his friend Stovall to go with him to visit his mother’s grave during the short time he was there. Knibb pointed, “See that window?” and explained that that was where his mother had yelled out to him. “I never forgot those words—they were written on my heart,” he said. Stovall would later write, “[In his] great and daring actions the main spring lies in the sensibility of his heart, kindled by domestic piety.”

In other words, his faithful Christian mother had kindled the flame of Knibb’s fierce bravery and gospel courage.

Self-sacrificial courage, not self-focused safety

Some today will cringe at Knibb’s mother’s parting words. But it was not uncommon to hear maternal calls for a child’s courage in Knibb’s day nor has it been in Christian history. Faithfulness to Christ and service to those in need were characteristics of Christian character valued more than self-referential safety and comfort. But we live in a different day. In our context, we hear more talk of self-focused safety than of courage.

In fact, Christian courage is often portrayed as foolish in our context. Who can forget Ann Coulter’s vitriolic description of Dr. Kent Brantly’s mission trip to Liberia as idiotic. She pointed out that the first risk factor for Ebola listed by the Mayo Clinic is a trip to Africa. Then Coulter mockingly asks, “Can't anyone serve Christ in America anymore?” Sadly, many American Christians resonate with Coulter’s logic. After all, would not anyone with good sense stay where it is safe and urge their children to do the same? Is that not what a good mom would do? I have had leaders of Christian mission organizations tell me that Christian parents and grandparents are often the primary obstacles in getting young missionaries to the field in dangerous and difficult places.

Gospel moms, not good moms

In 2 Timothy, Paul addresses the problem of fearfulness and apprehension in young Timothy’s life. He urges Timothy, whom he calls “my beloved child” (2 Tim. 1:2), toward courage: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). One of the primary ways Paul addresses this struggle in Timothy’s life is by urging Timothy to remember the faith of his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (2 Tim. 1:5).

Let that sink in. Paul believes that reminding Timothy of his mother and grandmother will cause him to recall the gospel courage they longed for him to possess as a faithful servant of Christ—no matter the cost. Paul did not believe that Timothy’s Christian mother and grandmother had taught him that nothing was more important than his comfort and safety.

“I just want to be a good mom,” is a common refrain in our culture today. But what exactly is a good mom in our culture? Typically, a good mother is one who raises well-mannered children and whose children who attend good schools, get good grades, and have all their needs and desires met. And most importantly, a good mom tells her children that nothing is more important than their safety, comfort, and happiness.

What is the problem with this approach? Simply put, if the gospel is true, it is a lie. Paul tells Timothy, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8) and, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

A world where nothing is worth suffering and dying for is a world in which it is difficult to discern what is worth living for. We do not need more good moms; we need an army of gospel moms. Understanding the difference is key. Gospel moms know that the values of the kingdom of Christ will always be out of sorts with the values of this world. A gospel mom will provide her children a framework for understanding the world, which helps make the gospel intelligible. Such an approach will inevitably include teaching her children self-sacrificial courage.

Raising soldiers, not civilians

Life is hard. It’s a battle. A gospel mother knows she is raising soldiers and not civilians. Spiritual warfare is not a specialized ministry of a select few. Rather, simply living in the world as a Christian is spiritual warfare. As Martin Luther observed, the truth that “God is for us” implies “the devil is against us.” After calling Timothy to remember his mother and grandmother, Paul urged him to face the battle ahead as a faithful soldier: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:3-4).

What would you think of a military officer tasked with training soldiers for war who coddled them and permissively let them do as they pleased? What if the officer simply wanted his troops to think he was a nice guy, so he instilled little discipline, required nothing difficult of his troops, and just appeased in the moment. Is he a faithful officer? When the war comes and the soldiers are dropped into the heat of the battle, will they praise their commanding officer or curse him? In preparing for battle, permissiveness is not love; it is its opposite, and its concern is not the troops but the emotional neediness of the officer. It is selfish, shortsighted, and dangerous in a non-noble way.

The root of many of our problems can be traced back to this reality. We live with a comfortable peacetime ethic and parent that way in spite of what the Bible says. Too often, we train our children as if they will be civilians, not soldiers. But the biblical reality is that moms have a vital and unique role in training good soldiers—not good civilians. Life is a battle, and no one is exempt from the fight. Moms are on the front lines of training spiritual soldiers for the kingdom of Christ.


Missionary Triumph Over Slavery: William Knibb and Jamaican Emancipation

Mothers of the Wise and Good

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil

By / Apr 27

A recent study on the origins of narcissism in children concluded, “narcissism in children is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents believing their child to be more special and more entitled than others.” The abstract of the study further explains, “children seem to acquire narcissism, in part, by internalizing parents’ inflated views of them.” Unfortunately, the “you are so special, so smart, so beautiful, so talented, so gifted—you can do anything you want to do and be anything you want to be—mantra” is often believed, and our children suffer because of it.

Counterproductive praise

The study dovetails with New York Times bestseller Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Their research concluded that heaping praise on children detached from achievement in an effort to boost their self-esteem is counterproductive. They assert that the result of this “self-esteem above all else” approach to parenting has produced a generation of American young adults who feel better about themselves though they achieve less and fear challenges.

Every Christian parent ought to know there are grave implications for nurturing children in this type of self-oriented flattery culture. Yet, Christian parents who possess a nice-centric worldview are often the worst offenders. Above all people, Christian parents who understand the gospel of Christ should know that a smiley-faced sentimental approach to child rearing is an impotent placebo for preparing their children for the spiritual war that is life. Over-praising children detached from achievement encourages them to live based on an image and makes them fearful they might be exposed as not being so special, smart, talented, beautiful and gifted. Such parenting makes children inordinately self-conscious and frequently discontent.  

Purposeful parenting

Above all else, a Christian parent’s job is to create categories in their children’s daily lives that help make the gospel intelligible as they prepare them for adulthood. Foundational to a Christian worldview is the truth: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5). Parents must exert authority over their children, not for their own sake, but for their child’s sake. Teaching your children to live under appropriate authority is a gift that leads to contentment. A gospel-centered approach to parenting that cultivates a biblical worldview will not abandon honest conversation about the child’s strengths (appropriate praise is vital) and weaknesses.

Children are created in the image of God with a responsibility to honor and obey God—and parents. Christian parents must love God and their children enough to demand obedience and honor from their children (Exod. 20:12, Eph. 6:1-3). No child is helped by a parent who cultivates Gnostic-style categories of assessment that sever the child’s actual behavior from who they are. For instance, the parent who thinks the proper response to a child’s act of rebellion is to try to raise their self-esteem (you are such a good person) has lost touch with biblical reality. Some parents go so far as to give positive names to rebellious acts. I knew a parent whose child got out of bed during naptime, opened the window and threw toys outside in the yard. When this mother found out what he had done she exclaimed, “He is so creative!” which was not the descriptor that came to my mind.

Below are some simple suggestions on how to raise non-narcissistic children who have been taught the value of humility, submission and hard work. I do not offer these suggestions as though they carry “Thus saith the Lord” authority but as sanctified Christian common sense.

  1. Tell your children the truth. No really, tell them the truth. Do not tell them the empty delusional clichés like, “If you believe it, you can achieve it.” If they are not very good at something say, “You are not very good at __________. so here is how you can work hard to get better, and if you don’t get better, here is how you can serve others or help your team.” After all, most people are not the best at anything, but they can strive to be their best at what they do and value their contribution as a role player. Sounds a lot like Paul’s description of life in the church (1 Cor 12).
  2. Say “no” often and mean it. Saying “no” is a gift; maturity cannot take place without it, and it also makes it meaningful when you say “yes.” A parent who rarely says “no” to his or her children or only does so apologetically is cultivating an entitlement mentality and setting them up for failure as adults. Winston Churchill famously and insightfully said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Humbly hearing “no” from someone in authority and resourcefully pressing ahead with eagerness is a foundational life skill. Such ought to be obvious to a people who say, “Jesus is Lord.”
  3. If they play sports, always support the coaches’ decisions about playing time. When the familiar family drama of playing time in the child’s athletics arises, it is easy to react with all priority given to the child. It may even be that your child is better than the kid who is starting in front of him or her. But, so what? The real question is how he or she responds to the situation. What good will it do to tell your child they should be playing more and to talk to the coach about them getting more playing time? Tell them, “Most coaches want to win, and if they thought you gave them the best opportunity to win, they would be playing you. If you want to play, then work harder and make it clear to the coach that you are the best option, and do not sit around and whine about it.” What a great opportunity to learn to be an adult employee to the glory of God.
  4. Teach them their teacher is always right (even if they are wrong). Teach your children that it is not the job of the teacher to adjust to them; it is their job to adjust to the teacher. The teacher is the authority in the room; not your child. That means that unless the teacher does something immoral or unethical (and you need to have those discussions with your children as well), then their authority should be honored in the classroom. The teacher may make arbitrary decisions in the classroom, and they may unfairly grade an assignment—I call that great life preparation. Children who grow up as fairness policemen of others rather than focusing on their own effort are generally unproductive in culture and the church.
  5. Require that they use honorific titles. Doing so cultivates a basic respect for authority and a willingness to recognize hierarchal structures and roles that God has wisely ordained. Demanding your children use Mister, Miss(es), Doctor, Officer, President, Governor and so forth is a consistent theology lesson. Few things are more detrimental to shaping a biblical worldview than a child walking up to an older man and saying, “Hey, Bob.” Or, as is often the case in my conservative evangelical circles, children who call the president “Obama” with a sneer, and parents who approve because they disagree with the president’s political positions. Parents, do we really want to teach our children that they do not have to show respect for those in authority because they disagree? What about when they disagree with you?

I could offer countless other suggestions, but I hope these five will provide a helpful trajectory. If Christian parents desire their children to say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3), take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), and to count others more important than themselves (Phil. 2:3), then the empty, self-referential, flattery model of parenting must be abandoned in favor of a cruciform worldview.

By / Nov 19

There was a time when little boys and girls grew up and dreamed of getting married. It was a goal of most people in American society. I’m not much of a nostalgic, take-America-back type of guy, but you don’t have to be a sociologist to realize that marriage as an institution is changing. This means Christian parents must teach the next generation about marriage. We can’t assume our children will automatically understand God’s creational design for men and women and why this venerable institution represents Christ and his Church.

While this isn’t cause for fear or alarmism, but it does call for a redoubling of our efforts as parents toward what we should have been doing anyway. Here are three keys to remember:

1. We must teach our kids what marriage is. Every generation of parents must teach their children, from the Scriptures, exactly what marriage is and why it was created by God. We must pass down a fresh, gospel-shaped view of manhood and womanhood.

Christians have imbibed some false views of marriage. The Human Rights Campaign offers a distorted view of marriage, and the bridal magazines offer another. Both are distortions. Marriage is more than a relationship between two people who fall in love with each other. Marriage is a vivid image to the world of the love Christ has for his bride and the opportunity for two sinners to live out the gospel through lifelong rhythms of repentance and forgiveness. Angela and I have found that the best opportunity for these lessons are not only in family worship time, but in random teachable moments.

2. We must model for our kids exactly what marriage looks like. Part of the reason so many are disillusioned with marriage is because very few have actually seen, up close, what a good marriage looks like. Followers of Christ must not only teach their kids why marriage matters, they must model why marriage matters. And this has to be in a more than simply “staying together for the kids.”

The welfare of our children is a good motivation for a good marriage, to be sure, but love for Jesus is a better motivation. You can’t fake intimacy. Do our kids see that we love to spend time with each other? Do they see visible displays of affection? The best apologetic for marriage is a good one.

3. We must equip our kids with a gracious apologetic for marriage in a fallen world. The danger in being intentional about teaching and modeling marriage is that we can raise up little finger-pointing, angry marriage Pharisees without realizing it. There are broken marriages and broken relationships all around us. Christians are not here to simply model the sexual ethics of the Kingdom, but to be on mission in the world, a world crushed by sexual and relational sin (John 17). The Great Commission is Jesus sending broken sinners into a broken world to point other broken sinners toward a loving Savior so that they, too, can be a part of the Marriage that all other marriages point toward. Our desire should be for our kids to live out the gospel on mission in a fallen world.

By / Apr 30

Well, I mean I think that one of the things that some evangelicals want to do is to say let’s just keep our children completely sheltered from everything, and then they are not going to have to face these things until they are adults, and then they are spiritually formed, and they are ready to face it. I have seen this with some really rigid, legalistic parents in every era really. I remember I had some friends in the neighborhood whose parents didn’t believe in letting their children watch television because they were afraid of all of the, as they put it, the “pornographic influences” that were coming from Laverne and Shirley. I have not seen the pornographic influences in Laverne and Shirley, but apparently these parents did. And so they are saying let’s just keep the television totally away. And so as long as our kids don’t know that there is Laverne and Shirley out there, we are going to keep them protected from that.

What happened is that those children, when they went to anyone else’s home are immediately in front of the television, and they are just glued to this because it is this sense of the forbidden that their parents won’t even talk to them about, so they think it must be great. And you know, we are saying we want to play outside, and this is just the information channel giving you what’s on the other channels; this isn’t even anything to watch. But it was something they really were driven toward. I think the same thing can happen here.

I think we are living in the sort of world where keeping children from understanding what is going on in the outside isn’t going to be possible. What you have to do is to come in and educate in age-appropriate sorts of ways as to what’s going on, doing two things: You are communicating what your family believes about a Christian sexual ethic without turning your children into Pharisees. Those same kids in our neighborhood that really were driven toward that television also their parents didn’t do Santa Claus with them—they were the children who were coming around telling all the rest of us there is no Santa Claus. This is a pagan myth that you all are taking up, and your parents really don’t love Jesus as much as mine do. You do not want to create that in your children.

And so to create the sort of children who recognize what the scripture teaches, what we believe as a family, while also loving people in their neighborhood, not being harsh or condemnatory toward people in their neighborhood. I had to deal with this last night, not about the situation you mentioned, but one of my sons, my younger sons came to me and said I have a friend in the neighborhood, and his dad is an atheist. What’s an atheist? Well, I suppose I could have said we will talk about that when you get older. But I don’t want atheism to be an allure for him. I explained to him what an atheist is. He said does this mean that I shouldn’t be a friend anymore to Ronnie? And I said absolutely not! I said you should be completely a friend to Ronnie. I said Jesus has already told us how to live in this world, and he says we are to live with people and to love people who don’t know him; to seek to win them to Christ, but even if we don’t win them to Christ, we still love them. And yes, you should be friends with Ronnie.

I think we have to do the same thing, and every congregation is going to deal with this with cohabiting parents, with everything else. I remember the first time that one of my children came in and asked me what’s divorce—very, very young—because a friend in the neighborhood had parents who had divorced. And that was probably a more difficult issue for me than the one that you mention because I wanted to explain this to him without him having the fear that somehow this is going to happen to him. But at the same time, I didn’t want to communicate well, that will never happen to you because your parents are better than Johnny’s parents, which isn’t true.

So you have to spend a lot of time carefully walking the way of Christ in order to do that. And sometimes you are going to mess up, and sometimes you are going to fail, and that’s why we need counsel—a multitude of counselors is wisdom—it’s why we need the power of the Holy Spirit to do that.