Discipling Children on the Body, Shame, Sexuality, and the Good News of Jesus
Raising kids is always difficult. At a basic level, parenting is a conflict of wills--the will of a parent and the will of a child. This tension is enough to produce countless premature gray hairs, sleepless nights, and heated conversations. However parenting is more difficult still. After all we do not raise children in sterilized vacuums of culture, we raise them in a maze of cultures and social complexities. Therefore every day as moms and dads we are battling the genuineness of our own will, the development of our children's will, and the prevailing pressures of a surrounding world whose collective will rarely seems to make our jobs any easier.
Sunday at our church gathering we shared a powerful video. It was a personal story shared by one of my friends and fellow pastors at Park. His is a story with abuse and shame. He shared candidely about his story of molestation as a young child which led to an addiction to pornography and piqued in a bout with suicide. By God's grace his story of pain did not end as many regretfully do. As he contemplated jumping in front of a train, a verse was brought to his mind and heart ... Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." A gospel hope washed over him and has been transforming him, cleansing his heart, renewing his mind, and guiding his ministry ever since. God saved his life through the Word of God. For that I am deeply and eternally grateful.
Every month our older kids sit in service with us. It is an important rhythm for us as a community as it provides an avenue of acute discipleship for our families. Kids get to see mom and/or dad interacting with others, praying, taking communion, sitting underneath the authority of the Word, and singing songs of worship to Jesus. And in my kids’ case, they get to hear daddy preach the gospel. Over and over again this sparks conversations with my children that help Laura and me shape a deeper sense of truth and beauty of the gospel of Jesus in our family.
This past Sunday provided a significant opportunity for such discipleship; amid that familiar tension between my will, my children’s will, and that of a prevailing brokenness in our world. My five-year old daughter watched and listened to Pastor Nathan share his story of pain and salvation. She heard him speak in a way she had never before. To be sure, she did not comprehend the magnitude and evil of what happened to my friend, nor did see fully grasp the power Jesus displayed in saving his life. However she could feel the heaviness of the moment. And so after the church gathering my wife took time to talk with her. Laura also spoke with my three-year old son. My wife has done a fabulous job shaping our children's understanding around the beauty of God's creation (including their bodies), acknowledging the realness of evil in the world, the importance of obedience, and the hope and peace we always, always, always have in Jesus.
Laura and I spoke after her conversations with our two eldest. I have learned much from my wife by way of discipling our kids even through the darkest of themes. We have together learned much from the moms and dad who have not only gone before us but who have raised us with a keen acknowledgement of the realities of this world and the power of the gospel. And so I felt compelled to put a simple list together of practices of discipleship Laura and I have learned. It is obviously primarily for my own church community, whose kids watch this video on Sunday, but I trust the lessons will be broad enough for others to benefit when raising their children to be transformed by the renewing of their minds ...
- Model healthy affection and touch in your marriage. The primary disciplers of our children are their parents. And one of the most powerful tools of training anyone in anything is modeling. Seeing mom and dad display loving and selfless affection for each other builds a foundation for intimacy and cannot be overstated in its power. Having a picture of honorable and joyful romance sets the tone in a child’s psyche for healthy intimacy and affection (Ephesians 5:22-33).
- Speak early and often about the goodness of the body. Laura started talking explicitly about the privacy, specialness, and goodness of our children's bodies, much, much (much!) earlier than I was comfortable with! However in introducing these ideas early, my five-year-old and three-year-old already have a language for speaking to us about what they are feeling and thinking about their bodies, and each conversation helps us to shine light on truth and dispel lies. And since they are having these initial conversations with mom and dad we can help care for the most intimate of concepts with love, truth, and safety (Genesis 2:25).
- Speak early and often about the evil in the world. Along with promoting the good, Laura and I are trying to regularly speak to our kids about the rejection of both the specialness and the goodness of the body we see in our world and how that might manifest. Sometimes this is talking our children through scenarios in which someone touches them or any of their friends inappropriately and reminding them that is not loving and they is more valuable. This is an attempt to shape a divinely crafted understanding of the image of God within our kids so that when that image is not fully acknowledge by another person, they recognize that as inappropriate disregard (Psalm 8:3-8).
- Regularly communicate the difference between shame and guilt. We've also realized even at a very young age our kids feel shame. They also feel a ton of guilt. However they regularly confuse the two (as we adults often do). From one perspective the difference between guilt and shame is victimhood. Guilt is something we bear when we have done wrong. Shame is what we often bear when something wrong has been done to us. In making that distinction we're learning to teach them that if they feel shame they are not wrong, they didn't do anything wrong, and they won't get in trouble at all for telling us what happened. Making a distinction teaches them how they will be received when they step into the light. Jesus welcomes us into the light by his grace where we have unity with each other and are made pure by his blood (1 John 1:7).
- Teach the gospel not merely as an idea to believe but a power that shapes. Woven through all this discipleship of our kids is the gospel. However it is not merely the gospel as a message--”Jesus died for your sins,” or saying something like that. Rather we believe the gospel is the way in which our kids are being shaped as whole people. Therefore when they feel shame, we tell them Jesus covers your shame and makes you clean. When they are guilty, we remind them Jesus paid your forever consequence on the cross so when you ask for forgiveness there will be peace and love again from God. And should the worst happen to them, we will remind them that Jesus love and righteousness is greater, bigger, stronger, and lasts forever and ever than any sin you have done or any sin done to you (Colossians 2:6-15).
- Believe that perfect love drives out fear. Around these sensitive themes fear often runs wild within the hearts and minds and moms and dads. It can easily be overlooked that all this teaching, discipling, and training can produce a deep fear of abuse or damage could befall our children. That’s why before and as we disciple our kids in the gospel we must believe Jesus and loves Jesus more and more each day. You see it is the love of Jesus which drives our the fears of mine or my kids imperfect wills or the power in this world overcome my kids with evil and pain. But in Christ not only do we have an all-sufficient king who protects and keeps us in his own hand, but we have a great high priest who makes us new even when sin temporarily prevails (Hebrews 1:3-4, 4:14-16).
Parenting is very hard. Raising kids within the context of this world is nearly impossible. But thanks be to God, in Christ we are more than conquerors. After all, as followers of Jesus we are made sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father who loves and keeps us with eternal perfection. Our confidence as moms and dads do not come from our ability nor the ease of our particular context, rather our confidence comes from the power and grace of our Heavenly Father, “who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).