8 Ways to Cultivate a Godly Child

by John MacArthur

An old Chinese proverb says, “One generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade.” You and I are still benefiting from the shade provided by trees planted by our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. We are shaded, to some degree, by their moral standards and spiritual commitment.

Now the spade is in our hands and the question facing us is, “What kind of trees are we planting to shade the future generation from what may well be the blistering heat of an Antichrist-dominated world?” Are we leaving our children totally exposed? It’s obvious that the morals, values, and ethics of our culture are disintegrating. The very systems on which we base our lives are convoluted, skewed, and out of sync with God’s divine order. To show you how warped our society has become, our country facilitates the massacre of millions of unborn children, yet will sentence a man to six months in jail for killing a hummingbird. An article in Reader’s Digest on animal rights quoted one authority who extolled the equality of all created things by saying that a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. The article also stated that some people claim the killing of six million roasting chickens is the current equivalent of Hitler’s Holocaust.

Today there are more people in law schools in America than all other graduate programs combined. It is unthinkable what the future holds for a society that will litigate itself to death without any moral standards to gauge what is actually right or wrong.

Where are we headed? What kind of morals and values are we planting to give shade to the next generation? Scripture is certainly clear when it speaks of our responsibility to our children.

The first birth in human history is recorded in Genesis 4:1. Adam “had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, ‘I have gotten a manchild with the help of the Lord.'” Notice that the Lord was the source of this child. When Eve gave birth to Seth she said, “God has appointed me another offspring” (v. 25). She saw her children as gifts from God.

When the Lord blessed Leah with children because she was unloved by Jacob, she recognized His gracious blessing. Of Reuben she said, “The Lord has seen my affliction” (Gen. 29:32), and of Simeon, “Because the Lord has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also” (v. 33). God gave her children so she could enjoy their love even when she had none from her husband.

Proverbs 23:24 says, “The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice, and he who sires a wise son will be glad in him.” But how is it that in spite of God’s design for children to bring joy, happiness, contentment, satisfaction, and love to their parents, they so often become a heartbreak instead? Marriages and families that ought to be filled with peace, joy, and contentment are more often characterized by conflict, intimidation, and estrangement. Homes tend to be war zones rather than havens. We are raising a generation of people exposed to an evil sun, unprotected by any kind of proper, God-ordained standard of living.

Delinquent from Birth?

What can we do to give our children the proper shade? The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:4. But before he gives us our responsibilities, he gives the children a few commands: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (vv. 1-3).

God calls all children to be obedient and respectful. Obedience is the act; honor is the attitude. Neither come naturally, however. The Minnesota Crime Commission acknowledged that when it issued this report appointed by the governor back in 1926: “Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it: his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toys, his uncle’s watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He’s dirty, he has no morals, no knowledge, no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children but all children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, given free rein to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.”

Scripture teaches that children develop in four areas. Luke 2:52 tells us Jesus grew in wisdom (mentally), stature (physically), favor with God (spiritually), and favor with mankind (socially). When children enter this world, they are undeveloped. They have to be taught to obey simply because it is right to do so.

God added the promise of long life to obedient children if they would have the right attitude toward their parents, which is honor—a spirit of obedience. But before your children will honor and obey you, you have to train them. The key to that, of course, is for them to love the Lord Jesus Christ and be under the Holy Spirit’s influence. It is your responsibility, therefore, to teach them how to yield their lives to God. If you don’t teach your children to honor and obey you, they will break your heart.

The book of Proverbs is a priceless guide on this subject. It says, “My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord, or loathe His reproof, for whom the Lord loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights” (3:11-12). The father and mother who truly love their children will discipline them. Here’s how: “A rod is for the back of him who lacks understanding” ( 10:13 ). In this situation it’s not that the child doesn’t have the correct information, but that he or she refuses to apply it. When your child is young, gently but firmly spank him or her on the backside so you can nip that rebellious spirit in the bud. Doing so will make you and your child much happier in the long run.

Proverbs 19:18 gives this warning: “Discipline your son while there is hope, and do not desire his death.” One day it will be too late: Your son or daughter will be too old for the rod to do any good. Do you realize that if you don’t discipline your children, you actually desire their deaths? Why? When children are left to their own devices, anything could happen. Your son might grow up to be a drug addict and die of an overdose. Maybe your daughter will grow up to be an alcoholic and drive her car into a tree and kill herself. Your son could grow up to be a homosexual and die of AIDS. Or any of them could grow up to be a criminal and end up shot in an alley by the police. Discipline your children while there’s still hope. The alternative is death.

Proverbs 23:13-14 provides this encouragement: “Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol.” When you use the rod to discipline your children, you do more than save their lives—you save their souls.

Proverbs 29:17 says, “Correct your son, and he will give you comfort; he will also delight your soul.” If you discipline your children and lead them to live obedient lives, they will delight your soul. It’s not that complex. Set the standards, live by those standards, require your children to live by those standards, and in your old age they’ll love you, support you, and bless you.

Taking Up the Spade

How do you guarantee that your little child—as cute and cuddly as he or she might be right now—will end up being a joy to you? What kind of shade-providing tree will you plant to protect that precious life from all that will seek to exploit its weaknesses? Ephesians 6:4 says this: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” That’s it, and it isn’t complicated. You don’t have to be a child psychologist, attend a thousand seminars, or buy every child-rearing book on the market to do it.

You might think it was easier to raise children in Paul’s day—that life wasn’t as complex or difficult then. Hardly. When a child was born into Roman society, it was placed before its father’s feet. If the father stooped to lift the child, that meant he acknowledged the child and wished to keep it. If he turned and walked away, the child would be thrown out. Unwanted children were commonly thrown on the dump heap or left in the forum and collected by people who raised them to be slaves and prostitutes. Their world wasn’t much different from ours; we just have the medical technology to do away with children before they’re born.

While such abuses are unthinkable, may I suggest that one of the greatest abuses is to leave a child alone so he or she cannot develop physically, spiritually, socially, and mentally as God would desire. Are you really so different from the Roman father who threw away his unwanted child when you don’t spend time with your child—and don’t bring him or her up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord?

It’s not uncommon in our day for children to be dispatched to a babysitter, day-care center, or school so Mom and Dad can do their thing without cramping their style. A Newsweek article related the following: “Parents’ lives are so hectic that schools often can’t find them when problems arise; one mother informed a Chicago school that she didn’t give her unlisted telephone number to anyone. With so many parents working, one third of all elementary students return to empty homes…. Some kids reach kindergarten without having been read to or even talked to, and can interact with other children only by hitting them” (“Where Are the Parents?” September 1990, p. 55).

The same article quoted these alarming findings from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics: “73% of mothers with school-age children work outside the home. Nearly one fourth of all children under age 18 live with a single parent, and only 7% of school-age children live in a two-parent household where there is only one wage earner” (p. 56). Raising a child is a fulltime responsibility. That’s how mothers in the past put up the trees that shaded us.

You may have noticed that it appears as if Paul issued his command only to fathers (Gk., patera).That term usually was reserved for the male head of the family, but sometimes it is used in Scripture to refer to parents (Heb. 11:23 ). It brings together the father’s headship with the mother’s partnership. Both mother and father need to be involved in the mental, physical, social, and spiritual development of their children.

In their study Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency , Harvard University sociologists Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck identified four crucial factors in preventing future delinquency in young children:

1. The father’s firm, fair, and consistent discipline.

2. The mother’s supervision and companionship during the day.

3. The parents’ demonstrated affection for each other and for the children.

4. The family’s cohesiveness—time spent together in activities where all participate.

The Bible says the same thing.

Don’t Provoke Your Children

By saying “don’t provoke your children,” Paul was referring to the kind of behavior that exasperates or discourages your children so they become frustrated.

How do parents provoke their children? Here are some of the ways:

1. Overprotection. If you want to really frustrate your children, fence them in, don’t trust them, and don’t give them enough opportunity to develop any independence. When you prevent your children from taking any risks, you’ll create in them an angry mood, especially when they consider what their friends are allowed to do. Don’t forget that your children are people who need to learn to face life on their own. Give them some slack and they’ll learn the best way kids learn: by hitting the wall now and then. But if you overprotect them, you’ll exasperate them.

2. Favoritism. Don’t compare your children with each other. Each is unique. Each is a gift from God. When you compare, the less-talented or less-popular child will be devastated. He or she will tend to become discouraged, resentful, withdrawn, and bitter.

3. Overemphasizing achievement. If you continually push them to excel, your children won’t have a sense of having accomplished anything. Nothing ever seems good enough: if they get C’s, you demand B’s. If they get B’s, you demand A’s. And when they get A’s, you still aren’t satisfied. Such parents always find something to complain about.

4. Overindulgence. Give them everything they want. But the one time you don’t, they’ll have a fit. That attitude will carry on into adulthood, only then they’ll be on the job. What will happen when they don’t get the promotion or perk they think they deserve?

5. Discouragement. Tell them all the time that they’ll never amount to anything, that they’re useless and always in the way. Don’t give them any rewards, any approval, or any honor. Eventually you’ll either destroy their initiative or drive them to seek approval elsewhere.

6. Failure to make personal sacrifices. Leave them alone all the time. Make them fend for themselves. Make them fix their own meals, buy their own food and clothing, provide their own transportation. Don’t take them places because you can’t be bothered. Turn them into slaves around the house to do all your work. When you don’t make any sacrifices for them, they’ll resent you.

7. Failure to allow for childish limitations. Have you ever been at a table where a child spilled some milk and you thought the parents had just seen the Holocaust? Or the child makes a fanciful suggestion, and the parent tells him his idea is stupid? Let your children share some of their ridiculous ideas without criticizing them. Don’t expect perfection, just progress.

8. Neglect. A youth pastor overheard his little boy in the backyard talking to a friend next door. The friend said, “I gotta go now—I’m going to the park with my dad.” The little boy replied, “Oh, my dad doesn’t have time to go to the park with me—he’s too busy with other people’s children.” That comment shattered the pastor’s heart, but it changed his focus. Don’t neglect your children; be involved in their lives.

9. Physical and verbal abuse. Verbal abuse may not be as obvious a problem as physical abuse, but realize this: Your tongue is much sharper than a child’s. With your superior vocabulary you’re capable of using ridicule and sarcasm to slice up the poor child, just like you can beat him up because of your superior strength. The result of either will provoke your child to anger and resentment.

Parenting by the Book

We’ve touched on the negative aspect of Ephesians 6:4, “Do not provoke your children to anger.” Here’s the positive: “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” “Discipline” implies training, which involves rules and regulations enforced by rewards and punishment. You set the standard, follow it, then hold your children accountable to it. If they meet it, you reward them. If they violate it, you punish them. That way you’re helping them see the consequences of their actions.

“Instruction” (Gk., nouthesia) is literally a “putting in mind” and also includes the connotation of correction. It refers to the type of instruction found in the book of Proverbs, where, as we’ve seen, a primary focus is on the training and teaching of children. Such training and teaching doesn’t have as much to do with factual information as with right attitudes and principles of behavior.

The key to right discipline and instruction of children is its being “of the Lord.” Everything parents do for their children is to be of Him—according to the teaching of His Word, by the guidance and power of His Spirit, and to His own glory and honor. The husband is to love his wife dearly, the wife is to respect her husband, and the two are to be sensitive in raising their children in the things of Christ. If you do that, your children will be the blessing, joy, comfort, and consolation that God intended.

One wise father said, “My family’s all grown and the kids are all gone. But if I had it to do all over again, this is what I would do: I would love my wife more in front of my children. I would laugh with my children more—at our mistakes and our joys. I would listen more, even to the littlest child. I would be more honest about my own weaknesses, never pretending perfection. I would pray differently for my family; instead of focusing on them, I’d focus on me. I would do more things together with my children. I would encourage them more and bestow more praise. I would pay more attention to little things, like deeds and words of thoughtfulness. And then, finally, if I had to do it all over again, I would share God more intimately with my family; every ordinary thing that happened in every ordinary day I would use to direct them to God.”

God wants our families to reach their full potential and not be forced into the mold of the world. God desires that Christian families not fall apart. Wouldn’t it be great if we had children who were happy, homes that were Christ-centered, where all these things were working out as God designed them? It is possible because it is promised by God! And when it really begins to happen, the world will take notice of us and of our Christ.

gty.org. Used by permission. 

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