We’ve all seen the stereotype play out in movies: a young man wants to join the military, so he enlists at a local recruiting center. Soon, he is whisked off for basic training, leaving virtually all of his earthly possessions behind.
At boot camp he gets a head shave and the same drab uniform that every other recruit has to wear. Then a leathery drill sergeant (one who drinks SAE 40 engine oil for breakfast and hates puppies) begins the slow, grueling process of erasing the recruit’s former individuality and establishing a value system that fits with his unit’s core beliefs. Sarge doesn’t want excuses; he just wants obedience and conformity.
When it comes to training soldiers for war, there’s value to that kind of system. If a soldier makes a misstep in battle, it could prove to be deadly.
But sometimes we tend to parent like this. We all want to develop character in our kids. Godly character is a good thing—the Bible consistently commends it. But too often, our natural tendency is to veer toward behavior modification. We try to get our kids to conform to a set of rules without addressing the heart.
Don’t do that!
Sir, yes, sir!
Drop and give me twenty!
Left . . . left . . . left-right-left!
Okay, I’m employing a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the point. What starts as a good, simple desire to help our children display godly character can quickly devolve into a spiritual-drill-sergeant mentality and striving to produce results that we’ve predetermined to be acceptable. God doesn’t call parents to churn out good little boot camp recruits who have been reprogrammed to fit our standards of proper conduct and morality. He calls us to faithfully proclaim his glory and his amazing plan of salvation for lost sinners.
Look at what Psalm 78:4 says: “We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders” (NLT). Of course, the mightiest wonder God has accomplished is the redemption he provides us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
We cannot produce godly character in our kids. Godly character is a matter of the heart, and the heart falls under the jurisdiction of God’s Spirit. We all want our kids to exhibit the godly character of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc., but there’s a reason these are called the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22) and not the fruit of well-meaning Christian parents!
Where, then, do we come in? God sovereignly and graciously uses us to train the next generation (look again at Psalm 78:4). As you seek to fulfill this calling, here are five key action items for you in relation to your children:
1. Reveal God’s glory to them.
Want to develop godly character in your children? Then faithfully tell them about the character of God. Your children will only imitate their Creator’s character if they know what they are to imitate—not out of rote duty, but out of joyful, loving obedience.
2. Lead them consistently into Scripture and prayer.
Prioritize time together as a family in God’s Word and prayer—make time every day, if possible. Be open to your child’s questions as you read. Let this be a creative time of fun learning where the Bible comes alive to them! Teach them to pray and seek God.
3. Constantly remind them of the gospel.
Never assume that your children have heard the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus enough. As Romans 1:16 says, the gospel “is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes” (nlt). The more they understand and trust in Christ’s atoning work on the cross for them, the more their faith and character will grow.
4. Pray for them daily.
In your own quiet times, constantly bring your children before the Lord. Lift up their spiritual well-being, knowing that your Heavenly Father desires it even more than you do (Matthew 7:9-11).
5. Pray for yourself!
Remember, as a parent, you are both your children’s spiritual leader and a sinner in need of God’s grace. You will need the Lord’s help every day to perform the task at hand. Ask God to strengthen and equip you for the journey, and watch how he answers in mighty ways.
Joshua Cooley is a New York Times bestselling author and the kids minister at Chapel Hill Bible Church (NC). You can learn more about Joshua and his books on his website, www.joshuacooleyauthor.com. You can also follow Joshua on Facebook and Twitter.