We are exploring the wonderful and trepidation filled process of helping our children to develop noble character. In the first post we looked at what a character is and the process God has highlighted as the means for developing character. The process is grounded in God’s love for us while we are sinners. He died in our place and demonstrates His love on the Cross – so that His love is given to us at the right time when we are yet powerless. Then, as life goes, we encounter trials and burdens and we can rejoice in the trials because they bear the fruit of perseverance which develops our character which makes us the type of people who can hope in the trustworthy God – because He proves His love as He transforms us through trials and we grow closer to Him and resemble Him more as we endure.
So, what does all this have to do with our children and their character development?
I think there are several important things we can look at and apply well and confidently:
First of all, we can see that character development starts with love – God’s love. He gives that love, not according to our merit or worth or performance or conduct. He loves us while we are sinners. As a matter of fact, He doesn’t just love in a touchy-feely, “I love you” type of way. He actually goes to the lengths of ultimate self-sacrifice while we are powerless sinners. We all have heard of this unconditional love and we give it a good Christian head-nod. How long has it been since you sat in His presence and pondered the depths of truth contained in this all-too-familiar story of sacrifice? God’s love is not a love that says, “Did you clean your room?” “Ok, then, come give me a hug and we can do something fun.” His love is given – freely, fully and with great cost to Himself – before we ever do anything worth loving. Unconditional, sacrificial, holy love is the ground upon which character-development begins. Always. Real and meaningful heart-transformation, below-the-surface changes come from being rooted and grounded in His love.
Consider our role as a parent. The children in our care will look to us for leadership and guidance and Jesus has said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” When you think of parenting do you see it this way? Do you imagine emulating Jesus and serving those in your care – even to the point of giving your life? Do you do this when they are powerless and still stuck in sin? That is the foundation of the love that develops character. Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve. We are encouraged by His example to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Can we parent like that? Can we, in humility consider our children as more important than ourselves and look to their interests instead of our own? This is the high calling of motherhood. Real transformation occurs when God’s love moves through us and the reality of His care is transmitted to our children while they are powerless sinners.
We cannot muster this humility nor can we muster the love and delight God has for us. But, we can access it, be transformed by it ourselves and then we can be vessels by which He reaches them and they come to know the truth and security of His deep and eternal love for each of them. That brings me to the second key to character development in our children.
The passage in Romans talks about gaining a proven character as we persevere through trials rooted and grounded in God’s unconditional love for us. And the result is that we have hope that doesn’t disappoint. We must focus on our own character development. Don’t miss what I am saying here. It seems to me, that once I had children, this shift took place in me wherein my focus became about them instead of about me. Now before you give me the Nobel Peace Prize for altruism, know that self was still at the hidden center of this shift. I was, of course, in love with my sweet boys and I wanted to care for them and give them all I could. But, side by side with this pure mother’s love was this desire to see them be perfect accompanied by a fear of all the things that could go wrong in their lives. That's a Molotov cocktail for parenting. In the early years of motherhood I saw my child as a reflection as myself and their behavior as a statement of my worth as a mother. I wasn't consciously aware of the depth of this skewed outlook, though I had glimpses of it. If my two-year-old was throwing a tantrum at someone’s home, I felt a tad mortified that I didn’t have “control” of my child. I was concerned that his normal (albeit sometimes sinful) behavior would make me the brunt of judgment and rejection. What happens? We moms (and dads to a lesser extent) become susceptible to the temptation to make our children into little projects. We seek to control them and control the variables that we think impact their lives. We stop trusting God and we start playing God. When you read through the Romans passage, you don’t see God expressing his desire to fix us and make us whole so He will look good. He gives love – He gives Himself – before we do anything to deserve it.
So, we have to be aware of this insidious urge to see our children as a project and then to “work on them” all the time. God expresses His relationship to us in words of delight. He says we are the apple ofHis eye ; He says He delights in us ; and He doesn’t just say it, He shows it. He is mindful that we are dust and doesn’t expect us to do what we just cannot do without Him. And if you will remember here, without Him we can do nothing of value. How would we expect more of our children?
The proverbial saying that more is caught than taught is true. How many times have you heard your children speaking to one another using a phrase or tone of voice either you or your spouse use? The modeling we do as we live life is a large part of what will shape their personality and character. God asks us, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” When we focus on our children and their conduct, we can end up exacting behavior from them without even mastering that behavior in ourselves.
As parents, we need to look at our own lives and our own character. We need to focus on ourselves at least twice as diligently as any correcting we do of them. And, likewise, we need not view ourselves as some project of God’s. He surely says we are His workmanship, but He makes it abundantly clear that His love is unmerited and everlasting regardless of our behavior or progress. He also makes it clear that we are His workmanship – as we abide in Him we will bear fruit. He will do that in us as we abide. Yes, we do participate in our own sanctification, but His love preempts any transformation and is never contingent upon our conduct. He is in the business of "cleaning us up" but it isn't so that He will find us lovable.
I’ll share a story here. I have a dear friend from England and she is a delightful person to be around. She is calm and sweet and very loving. Long before I had my own children, My husband and I were with her family one day. Her four-year-old at that time was worn out and as she was getting him into the van, he turned to her and vehemently said, “I hate you!” She turned to him and said, “Oh, dearie, I love you. I am sorry you feel you hate me right now. How can I help you?” I have to confess that I was in shock. As my husband and I got in the car I told him that I, for one, was never going to have children who said, “I hate you” to me, and if they did, I would not allow it (you will remember I had not yet had children and I had a LOT of growing to do). I still loved and admired my friend, but I just couldn’t imagine that she would answer such defiant and ugly behavior with such a tender and loving response. I thought surely she was only permitting this behavior to go on and get worse. Well, a number of years later (after I had my second son) these same friends were in the States and we all got together. All three of her children were so calm, sweet and very loving. They were the picture of her and her husband. They carried themselves in much the same ways as their parents. Each of them was unique, but they all bore a mark – a character – which was strikingly alike to their parents. More had been caught than taught. And since my friend was not one prone to raising her voice, expressing resentment or retaliation, but instead offered sympathy, care and concern for her children, they showed the mark of that care and gave it readily to others without any thought. It was a part of who they were to act with sincere tenderness, as she did. It had become their character. She didn’t “work” on building this up in them. If she “worked” on anything it was her own humble relationship to God and her ability to grow in Him and His love and to reflect His love to her own children despite their failings. There were consequences in her home, but they were never primary and they were based in love, and they were given when needs had been factored in and security and love had been conveyed.
So, for now, I’ll leave you with these two thoughts:
Character development is rooted in love – God’s sacrificial love for unworthy, helpless sinners. We can demonstrate that love to our children. We’ll not muster it, but we can be the vessel by which He pours His transforming love out into their lives and hearts as we cling to Him and allow Him to work through us.
More is caught than taught. Our children will emulate our example and our hidden value systems and our quirks and so much more. They will certainly learn from experience and from many other factors around them as well. When it comes to character development, developing our own character is paramount to ever helping them develop their own. We must resist the urge to turn our children into a project and instead embrace them and delight in them as we focus on our own abiding relationship with God.
In my next post I’ll be discussing the role of consequences in character development …