‘If You Love Me, Obey Me!’ Law, Grace, and the Book of Proverbs for Parents

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“If you love me, obey me!” my scrappy toddler declared. My first born was not pointing directing his command at me, he was actually quoting his first memory verse, John 14:5, from the Bible that we had chosen for him. He would march around the house saying it over and over again. He was proud of his accomplishment learning a verse, but maybe more excited about the Skittles which would come as a reward.

Not long after came another memory verse: “God sees me.” (Psalm 139:7) What a comforting thought, isn’t it? But as new parents, we did not have him recite this verse for his comfort. You see, he was quite the mischievous one. From finagling his way out of car seats, to climbing out of his crib, to (probably) holding the record for the most poison control calls involving one particular kid, he kept us on our toes.

So this is parenting, we thought. This actually was our first rodeo and we were desperate to do it right. Teaching him to recite these memory verses was an attempt at controlling his behavior. Sure, we wanted him to hide God’s Word in his heart, but unfortunately there was also some manipulation on our part. “If you climb too high in the tree (like we have told you not to do), then God will see you and not be happy with you.” You get the point.

When I look at the book of Proverbs in light of parenting, memories of bringing up that scrappy little boy haunt me a bit. You don’t have to go very far down the parenting path before you realize how little control you actually have over these tiny people God has entrusted to you. The book of Proverbs is filled with directives, order, rules, and regulations. It holds hundreds of brief and wise statements about how to live a godly life, with many cause-and effect statements. If you _______________ then ____________ will happen. It can be so tempting to use Proverbs as the perfect “Moralistic Handbook for Kids.”  If only…

Relating to my first born taught me that Christianity does not mean that if you do “A” then God will do “B.” Our kids will not respond as we might hope when it’s all about the rules. I once heard it said that “rules without relationship often leads to rebellion.” Most likely our kids can spot a “good parenting agenda” a mile away. For kids like my firstborn, agendas can be repellant. We parents have to be continually aware that we are teaching our children God’s Word so they will know God, not so we can control them (which usually comes from our own fears and idols anyway).

While the book of Proverbs seems to be a book of rules, it actually informs us about our relationship with God. For example, during my own preteen years I remember many of us young girls had decided our life verse would be Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He make straight your paths.” I interpreted to mean that if I trusted in the Lord and not myself, and if I would acknowledge him in a respectful sort of way, then he would show me the path that I should travel down. This felt like so much pressure to honor, respect, and glorify him so that he would show me what to do. I turned this verse into a rule to follow rather than an invitation into a relationship to rest in and enjoy.

Looking at Proverbs 3:5-6 in light of relationship instead of rules brings entirely new meaning to this verse. When we live aware of God’s presence, it becomes easier to accept and rest assured in the path that he’s already laid out for us. Communing with him changes my will to conform with his plans for me regardless of my emotions, which often wax and wane.

Even as an adult at times I am tempted to make rules for myself: “Have a devotional time in the morning and you will have a better day,” or “The reason you don’t feel blessed is because you aren’t praying enough.” It’s so hard to fight the illusion of control that obedience seems to promise.

Our challenge as parents is to teach the Proverbs without turning God’s Word into a tool to control our kids. We model for our kids a balanced relationship with God, teaching them to apply the wisdom of Proverbs while also saturating them with his grace. It’s tricky sometimes, like trying to walk down a narrow road with a deep and dangerous ditch on each side. There is danger in stepping and falling too heavily towards grace or too heavily towards the law.

When we look at the life of Jesus we find some answers to this struggle. It’s not whether we should stress law or grace; Jesus applied law and grace in His ministry on earth. Notice the order in which He often communicated these truths to those He loved, healed, and taught. Much of the time he related to them first with grace. He drew people in with grace. When they were changed by his acceptance, he then would give them a directive.

With certain people Jesus knew that building a warm and inviting relationship would give them a natural desire to go and obey. Others received Jesus’ stern rebuke. He didn’t always lead with grace first.

So which is more important in the life of a wayward kid, law or grace? Obviously the answer is both. But when to apply one or the other is the struggle for parents. Here, as in so many of life’s challenges, is an opportunity to stay tethered to the Father in dependence on him to give us moment-by-moment parenting wisdom. Each hour, with each child, we have an invitation to call out to the Father to reveal what is best in that moment with that kid. What he might lead you to do one day may be completely changed the next day. Parenting is an opportunity to see God’s strength and provision in new ways we could have not known without these emotionally strenuous opportunities.  Ultimately though, our peace comes when we recognize that we won’t make the right decisions every single time but God even uses our mistakes as parents for the good of the children. This providential, redemptive characteristic of God is beautiful.

Parents can hope, after seasons of growth when our kids come to understand how much God loves them, they will desire to respect and submit to him and apply the disciplines laid out in his Word. It is our prayer that our children will become humbly reliant on God as they  embrace the fact that His Word is intended for their good even when obedience feels hard. Only in His power will we be able to keep a consistently open relationship of grace with our kids, balanced with the wisdom and truths we find in the book Proverbs.

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