I would like to suggest that the doctrine of the image of God is neglected in books on parenting. I cannot remember any emphasis given to it in my thirty years as a pastor. Yet it shapes everything I see and do as a parent.
The Bible is not a list of things to do. It is a way of seeing. When I get inside the Bible and it gets inside me, it is a way of seeing life.
When I pick up my Bible I am given a lens through which to view life. It is a lens colored by major themes: God the Creator, Man the image of God, Sin that corrupts the image, and Christ who redeems and ultimately restores man to his created glory. This is the storyline of the Bible: Creation. Fall, Redemption, and Glorification. Through that lens I view all of life, including parenting.
Parents, including myself, tend to miss part of the lens. We lean toward certain perspectives. We often view all problems with our kids in light of sin. We are tempted to miss redemption, and to view all solutions to sin in terms of morality and moral pressure (as in, “How many times do I have to tell you to clean up your room?”).
We may also see our believing children with inappropriate expectations. We want glorification NOW!
My friend Elyse Fitzpatrick, with her daughter Jessica, has written an exceptional book on bringing the Gospel to our kids. It’s called, Give Them Grace. They will help you see your kids in light of redemption in what is one of the clearest treatment of this subject I have seen.
But the Gospel is rooted in creation. And I think we tend to miss the view of our kids as image bearers. And that is not a minor matter.
They are image bearers. They are creatures, made by God and for God. They are given glory and honor by God. They have inherent value, of greater worth than animals. How we treat the image of God is how we treat God. The dignity of humans is built into the Law and the Prophets and the Gospel. And we must see our children as image bearers.
Let me suggest a few things we see when we see them as image bearers.
First, we see them as utter equals in creation and redemption. I may be Dad and a parent and have a responsibility to raise them in the nurture of the Lord, but that child is my equal in dignity. They are, in creation, crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8).
Sin makes us despise people, especially people beneath us in power. Religion forms crazy rules that excuse cruelty or apathy to needs. Jesus faced this each time he healed on the Sabbath.
Parents can be bullies by treating their children with dishonor. That is sin. The way we treat the image of God is how we treat God.
This means that any act of parenting which demeans, dishonors, shames, or humiliates my child is an assault upon the image of God. Therefore it is an assault upon God. (I would apply the same rigorous test to all exercise of authority, by the way). I wonder if we, as parents, are tempted to use humiliation as a powerful tool to motivate our kids? I wonder if we treat our kids as less than us?
Alongside of this is the evil of the old adage, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” While that may sound like the height or order in the home, it can be applied in a way that despises the child and m,marginalizes them until they have something adult-like to offer.
Second, it means my child is an individual and has the right to some measure of individuality. Part of being in the image of God is simply: We are individuals well. Children are not an extension of me. They have likes and dislikes that are distinct to them. Parents are to cultivate the child as an individual. I do not mean in the silly self-esteem kind of way, but in a respect for the designs of God in their personality and gifts and preferences. I have to recognize that when my child is someday glorified in Christ, they will be a distinct individual, and not just like me.
My wife has been the one to help us see this. Many years ago, after a “dinner time battle” (over one of our children not finishing their food because they did not like it, and my insisting they do so or be disciplined) my wife inquired, “I was wondering if there are foods you do not like?” I assured her there were and she knew what those were. She then asked, “Do you suppose that our kids being individuals and image bearers have a right to say they do not like certain foods?”Ouch!
She was right. I treated them as extensions of me. I was telling then they had to like and dislike. They are not extensions of me, but image bearers, individuals.
Oh, I know all about the starving children in Africa argument for why our kids should finish their dinner — but that is another example of making everything into a moral issue, of oppression by abuse of power. It creates a moral issue where there is none. Is there a command in the Bible for people to eat everything on their plate?
The fruit of that discussion was simple: we established a policy in our home that we could each have a short list of foods we did not have to eat. My wife cooked around those preferences. One of our kids wanted to change their list every day, but that seemed a little over the top!
Third, they should be given room for self-determination, and increasing room for this as they mature. The goal of parenting is a mature adult, with the ability to make wise decisions in the adult world. Parents, tempted by fear, over-control their kids. We make all their choices for them. We refuse to let them test and learn the path of wisdom by mistakes. We are afraid of mistakes. When they move toward adulthood, we interpret their desire for self-determination in any thing as rebellion. I am not so sure.
For us, we sought (unsuccessfully some of the time) to allow them every occasion possible to make up their own minds and choices. This was fenced by biblical holiness and wisdom. But really, it was not all that hard. If we went out to dinner, they could order what they wanted. That was not so easy given our commitment to healthy eating. They could decorate their room as they wanted, they could buy the clothes they wanted, and they learned to manage their own budget for clothes and snacks when they were able to — even if they made bad choices. Of course, there were budget guidelines (no, you cannot build an addition on the home for your room) and moral guidelines (no, that piece of clothing with those words on it are not pleasing to God). But we cultivated them as image bearers.
More subtle than this was appreciating their individuality. There was a distinct temptation as parents to shape their personality. We tried to make the introvert more extroverted. We tried to make the easily excited child into a zen buddhist with superior self-control. Granted there are matters of sin and sanctification in all areas, we appreciating their individuality was honoring the image of God, and remains so to this day when they are all adults.
Obviously there are areas where a child cannot be self-determined. Families must be led from biblical principle. Principle limits the “self-determination” of all. There may be rules as to family meals, church participation — rules that everyone lives with because we are not just a collection of individuals under the same roof, but we are a family.
But I would guess that, if people are like us, the accent for many Christian parents is on unnecessarily restricting self-determination. Perhaps this is a reaction to the lack of order and principle we see around us.
There are other implications.
Last of all, it also helps me see what I am up against: sin. There are times when I saw the image of God clearly in my kids and praised the God of wisdom who made us that way. Really, think of watching your child learn a language. It is a wonder. Think of how they respond to music. It is a reflection of God’s glory.
But sin is present. My child in sin is a distorted version of what they would be apart from sin. As a parent we can see the gifts God has given our kids. We envision what those gifts will look like when they flourish. But we also see the power of sin in their lives. We see the distorting and corrupting influences of sin. The tragedy of sin is on display before our eyes (and also before their eyes in us).
My only hope is for a power great enough to break the rule of sin. That power is in Christ alone. The law will not change their hearts. I cannot lecture them out of their selfishness or humiliate them out of rebellion. I cannot discipline them out of them either. The tough and deep root of sin is only extracted by the blood of Christ applied by the Spirit of God. And that application happens when I tell them of the grace of God won for them at the cross.
Christ died to restore us to being full representations of God’s character. That is what we were made for. That is my real power for parenting. In Christ the image will begin to be restored in this life and glorified in the age to come.
But meanwhile, look at your children as image bearers of God. Treat them as your equals. Treat them as individuals.