As I thought and prayed about this post, I really spent time thinking through my own experiences – what has brought around significant change in my character throughout my life? And I thought about my two sons – what areas do I see strength (even nobility) in their character and what seems to have brought that to pass? These are really interesting questions to ponder. I encourage you to think them through.
One thing that has become evident to me as I have been thinking through character and conduct is that I think we tend to confound two different aspects of parenting. One aspect is the necessary role of discipline or instruction of our children and the other aspect is the cultivation of character. I think there is a good reason that we mingle these two together – at least the more I looked at my own tendencies, I found out some things which were important to see. If I believe that something I do is bound to produce a lasting character change in my child, I feel more of a sense of control. Parenting is a wild ride to say the least. From the moment of conception we are profoundly connected to another human being and that person is dependent upon us in a way that is truly overwhelming and precious. From birth onward their lives are intimately woven into our souls. Now, top that off with some normal issues like the need to have others like and approve of us or the need to feel like we can keep our children from harm, and we have a formula for needing a sense of control. The more fear we feel, the more we need power over them and their lives. So, we are tempted to grasp onto parenting beliefs and methods which help us quell those fears and give us a pseudo-comfort. One of the things we are bound to do is to tell ourselves that the discipline approaches we choose are invariably going to lead to positive outcome in the character of our children. And, when we see immediate results in their conduct, we feel better. We tell ourselves that this compliance is good fruit.
Discipline (instruction) is necessary and I am sure I will go into that further in future posts, but for our sake here, I want to sort of set it aside because the more I look at it, the more I see that we will never create good character through discipline alone. There are several good reasons this is so.
For one thing, outward conformity (conduct) is not a proof of inward transformation. We ask our children to practice certain habits and demonstrate certain behaviors, but those habits and behaviors in themselves (though very good) are empty, according to Jesus if they are not rooted in a relationship with Him and fueled by our love for Him and His grace and love for us. Remember the Pharissees? They were called "white-washed tombs" because they were perfect in their conduct, but they lacked character to support the conduct. No one wants to be in the business of instilling a Pharisee heart in their own child, but too much emphasis on conduct will do just that – it is legalism plain and simple.
Dallas Willard said we must become the type of people who would easily do the things that Jesus commands us to do. That is character: when our knee-jerk reaction is to bless and not curse or to tell the truth or to give and sacrifice. And, as Dallas taught (echoing teachings of the wise Jesus followers from many previous generations) character like that comes by practicing spiritual disciplines in an abiding life. As we dwell with Jesus, He leads us into an ever deepening relationship with God and from that relationship comes the power to be the people He wants us to be. This is true for us, and it is true for our children.
We desire a deep and pervasive goodness in our children and we must know that much of that territory is not ours to touch. Just as the internal organs are "out of reach" and "protected" from the direct touch of a human being, God has placed the character of our children out of our direct reach. We can touch the "skin," but not the essence. That territory is His alone.
"Eternal living is an interactive relationship with God that touches us to the deepest core of our being and gives us the strength not only to envision what is good, but to live for it. Walking in that relationship transforms the inner dimensions of human personality. That’s what is called integrity. Integrity is a matter of all the dimensions of yourself being integrated with one another so that they function together because you have brought your will to trust in God and through that, every dimension of your personality—your mind, your body, your feelings, what your body is ready to do, and the depths of your soul, which is normally fractured by sin—is healed." ~ Dallas Willard (quote via Elane O'Rourke)
Our children are fractured as we are. We all have sin in our hearts. Nothing – no great parenting approach, no educational method, no group of godly friends and perfect environment – will ever heal that fracture. The only restorative agent in the entire universe is the love of God at home in that same fractured heart. And, when a person does allow Him in, the healing begins and persists because it is for freedom that He sets us free and He just won’t settle for less than that. He is relentless about our character development. It is His very will.
As Charlotte Mason wrote, “… character is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education, by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Spirit, even when that agency is little suspected and as little solicited … character is not the outcome of a formative educational process; but inherent tendencies are played upon, more or less incidentally, and the outcome is character.”
I hear this: character is a part of God’s original design and we don’t have to pour it in or train it up as much as we have to draw it out. He already created character within your child and mine. It is in His image and yet uniquely them. Yes, it is marred by sin, but it is also present and alive. And it will be impacted by circumstances, and expanded – yes expanded – by education, but ABOVE ALL the Holy Spirit will act upon the character of a child in a subtle and imperceptible way over time. God breathes through us, so completely and so gently we hardly feel it. And, hear this, what I heard: the process is not overt and formulaic. It is somewhat nebulous and unseen.
God is at work at every level to transform us once we are His. And this is true of our children as well. We are given the privilege of partnering in that process, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking our contribution to be greater than it is. God is at work in our children to will and do His good pleasure. It is not our parenting which will render a character, but His good and perfect will and His loving touch.
Character development is much like cultivating a garden. We till and amend the soil, we plant good seed, we water, nourish, weed, and in due season we see fruit. The fruit of child rearing may not be in the season of planting and tending. It may come much later. And, as in gardening there are all sorts of variables which will bear influence on the process and the outcome.
I'm harping on this fact -- the fact that so much relies on being in right relationship to God (the child coming into that relationship sincerely and then growing bit by bit in an interactive relationship) because I know the temptation to take a more prominent role in the process than is right or good. Character development in a child may be boiled down to trust. It may simply come down to our abiilty to entrust our children to their loving God and then to fix our eyes on Him and on our own walk with Him. It involves by way of practice the allowance of natural consequences -- with no need on our part to enhance, highlight nor diminish those -- and it must be bathed in prayer.
If you are like me and after all this talk about letting go and knowing it is God at work you still crave some marching orders, I would say this: if you want to develop a noble character in your child, abide in God's love yourself; keep your eyes on your own walk; love others (including your spouse and your children) despite their failings; allow natural consequences to have their impact unhindered; and pray.
I truly intended to talk about consequences, and yet, God took me down this trail instead. I am relatively sure my next post (and final in this series) will be about the role of education in character formation and what we can do (oh, how we want to do something!) to help shine a light while the fruit of character is growing in unseen places. Join me here for more in a few days if you will …