(A sermon based on Mark 12:28-33 and other texts)
[The first sermon in this series can be read here.]
How’s your love life? I’m not talking about romance. I’m focusing the question in these two ways: (1) How is your Christian love? and (2) How is your family love? We’re able to combine the two questions because we are addressing parenting in the context of a Christian family. The best family love is based on an already-present Christian love. That is because Christian love is the best kind there is. Why? To answer that, we will look at two general truths about Christian love.
First, Christian love is based on love of God. Once a scribe asked Jesus what the greatest commandment of all was. Jesus gave a double response: (1) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and (2) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Have we nearer neighbors that those who live in our home with us? Then, we should love our children with Christian love. But notice again this important emphasis: love of God comes first. Full love of human beings follows closely on its heels.
Second, Christian love is practical. Paul lists some characteristics of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Henry Drummond (The Greatest Thing in the World, pp. 24-25) has listed them using these words:
Note that all of these are practical, down-to-earth things. Moreover, note that this great “love chapter” is part of a discussion by Paul of spiritual gifts. What Paul is thinking of is what will do the church the most practical good. He concludes that it is self-giving, self-denying love, which is the eternal, divine element in the church. Love is practical in that it gives us a code by which to live; it is practical in that it works.
Let us consider a few things to which love should lead and then consider how those consequences of love can be useful in parenting.
Love leads to sacrifice (John 15:12-13)
Jesus told his disciples that after he went away, his command to them was to love one another. Then he described the kind of love of which he spoke: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Such was the love that Jesus had for his friends, including us. As parents who are also Christians, do we love our children that way? You might say, “Given the choice, I would gladly give up my life for the life of my child.” But do we exhibit such a sacrificial attitude in our day-to-day dealings with our children?
For example, do we give sacrificially of our time to our children? The American author Nancy Friday has said, “Mothers may love their children, but they sometimes do not like them. The same woman who may be willing to put her body between her child and a runaway train will often resent the day-to-day sacrifice the child unknowingly demands of her time…and self-development” (Parents, May 1988, p. 87).
One day you will turn around and that three-year-old scamp you have at home now will be graduating from college. Trust me on that one. Or that high school junior of yours will be the middle-aged parent of your teen-aged grandchildren. Those thoughts are frightening enough, I hope, to make us realize that time is a precious commodity. Often we operate at one of two extremes: either we let our children dominate all of our time or we give them far too little time. Most often the latter is the case.
To love our children with Christian love is to give of ourselves to them and that includes giving our time. Spending quality and quantity time with our children lets them know how important they are to us. That requires effort. Let us note three typically difficult situations.
First, the two-career family. When both parents work outside the home, it becomes difficult for them to muster the energy to play, with read to, or talk with the children. Such time must be scheduled, however. A decision may even need to be made to sacrifice material comforts in order to parent the children adequately. One spouse may need to consider a part-time career, for example.
Second, the single parent. A single parent may find herself working much overtime or working two jobs just to make ends meet. If children are younger, room must be made in the schedule for them. If they are older, sacrificial effort in contracting may be required. In other words, contract with your child for him/her to take on some of the home work load so that some extra time for togetherness can be made.
Third, the mother at home, father at work household. It is a mistake for such a father to let all the basic child-tending chores fall to the mother because “she has time and that’s her job.” With babies, for instance, where does real bonding and closeness develop? In the simple tasks that take time: the feeding, the bathing, the changing, the playing. Fathers, show your children you love them by taking the time to help them.
Love leads to action (1 John 3:18)
Personally, I like a home where the members freely express their love to one another. It is important that we say that we love each other, but Christian love is expressed finally in actions. John speaks here especially of meeting the needs of people as a way of expressing love. Remember that our children have many kinds of needs.
Spiritual needs. Do we show our children we love them by praying with them, by reading the Bible with them, and by coming to church with them? Are we willing to discuss their serious spiritual questions, as uncomfortable as they may make us?
Physical needs. I speak here not of just meeting their basic needs of food and shelter but of providing the best, most healthy environment possible for them.
Emotional needs. The psyche is a fragile thing and especially vulnerable is a child’s self-esteem. Are we aware that our children are always growing and changing and are we sensitive to their particular needs at each stage of their lives?
Love leads to accommodation (1 Corinthians 8:9, 12)
I mean this in the sense of adapting oneself to another’s way of looking at things. Now, you may wonder what these verses have to do with parenting. After all, Paul is addressing a particular issue and not one with which we deal today. In Corinth, much of the meat for sale had been offered as sacrifice to pagan idols. Some so-called “weak” Christians felt guilty about eating such meat while other so-called “strong” Christians had no such qualms. Paul expressly says that eating or not eating makes no difference. Liberty is a wonderful thing and Christ has set us free. But Paul lays down an important principle by which the behavior of a Christian should be controlled: “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (v. 9). He then makes specific application: “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (v. 13).
So what have verses to do with parenting? Simply this: they provide us with a principle to govern our behavior in light of the presence of our children. Perhaps today, as in Paul’s day, there are issues the “sinfulness” of which we could debate. When deciding our participation in such activities, we must remember that others are watching us, not the least of whom are our children. So sometimes we must accommodate our ideas or our actions in order to protect and insure the spiritual and moral development of our children. You might object, “But I am a more mature Christian and therefore I have the right to make my decisions based on my liberty.” That’s true. But our liberty must be tempered by our love. Love thinks of the other, in this case our child, first.
Love leads to faithfulness (Romans 13:8-10)
Here Paul states that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (v. 10b). He says further that the commandments can be summed up in the sentence “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 9). Drummond has commented on these words:
Take any of the commandments. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” If a man love God, you will not require to tell him that. Love is the fulfilling of the law. “Take not his name in vain.” Would he ever dream of taking His name in vain if he loved him?....
And so, if he loved man, you would never think of telling him to honor his father and mother. He could not do anything else. It would be preposterous to tell him not to kill. You could only insult him if you suggested that he should not steal—how could he steal from those he loved? (pp. 15-16)
I believe that we can say that love leads us to fulfill our covenant obligations toward God and toward our fellow human beings. It leads us to be faithful in our relationships.
Let us look at one example of how this truth applies to parenting. You might say, “I love my child—obviously, that means I would never kill him.” But remember that there are subtle ways of taking away a child’s life, at least that part of his life that we call self-esteem. We must stop and think before we say or do things to our children that might take away their healthy view of themselves. The Christian parent should never use words that will damage our children’s self-image. It is a skill, to be sure to shape and to protect the ego simultaneously. But we must be faithful to our children in not undermining their basic humanity.
Love leads to forgiveness (Ephesians 4:30-5:2)
How important these words are: “God in Christ has forgiven you” (4:32). And how challenging these words are: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (4:32). It is our privilege to receive forgiveness; it is our responsibility to offer it.
Here is an indisputable fact: our children will make mistakes. There are two kinds of very dangerous parents: (1) The kind who think that their children can do no wrong and (2) the kind who think that their children should do no wrong. Mark it down: they will do wrong. The only real variable is our reaction. What will we do when they do wrong? We will talk about discipline in another sermon. But remember: at the end must come forgiveness. Love accepts and embraces a child even after the wrong has been done and the judgment has been meted out. Forgiveness must be the final word when wrong is done.
In Christian parenting, love must be the final word. I close with these words from Kate Samperi, an Australian social worker: “Before becoming a mother I had a hundred theories on how to bring up children. Now I have seven children and only one theory: love them, especially when they least deserve to be loved” (Parents, May 1988, p. 6).