Have you ever packed everything into the car for a vacation, pulled out of the driveway, accelerated up on to the freeway, and suddenly realized that you had remembered everything except for. . . the children? Have you ever bought a used car only to find out after signing the paperwork that the engine was missing? Sometimes with all the details, it is easy to forget about what is essential. In some ways, this is what has happened in our parenting in this modern civilization. Sometimes, it seems that we have remembered everything, except for what is vital.
The book of Proverbs in the Bible is dedicated to the subject of training the young man or young woman. It is full of character lessons communicated to a son by his father and mother. Actually, there is far more in this book than character lessons. It presents a penetrating and powerful methodology for education. It is education rooted in a relationship, carried from the heart of a father to the heart of a son. The father’s teaching is caring, intimate, open and honest, even desperate and demanding at points. He instructs, warns, encourages, admonishes, exhorts, pleads, and reasons with his son.
But the core of this relational method of education comes out Proverbs 23:26, where the father bursts out with something of a plea, a demand, and heart-deep desire. “My son, give me your heart! Let your eyes observe my ways.”
It is plain from the context that this is the boy’s father speaking. He does not merely seek his son’s attention. He is after his son’s heart. He wants his son to come close enough to listen to his heart. He wants his son to be close enough to him to observe him and follow him. This, of course, assumes that the father has a heart for God and a vision for his kingdom. He tells his son, “Follow me as I lead you to God. Go with me, son! Follow me as I show you the truth.”
The son whose heart is bent towards his father does not recoil from his father’s standards and directions, assigning it to the uncool and the weird. He adopts his father’s values and standards. He respects his father and follows his father’s teaching, especially as his father teaches and applies God’s Word. How easy it is for the peer group or some small group of media or cultural elites to set a young person’s values, standards, and loves. When this happens the peer group becomes the authoritative mentor, displacing the father. The peer group is honored and loved, over the father. This is seen when the younger generation throws off the counsel of their fathers, especially in the area of cultural standards, language, and faith.
There is probably no better example of a father-son relationship described here than the father of the greatest missionary of the 19th century, John Paton. Repeatedly throughout his autobiography, John referred to his father’s influence on his life, with statements like, “Once more I commited my future to the Lord God of my father.” For almost 60 years of his life, his father led family worship twice a day. In this son’s words, “How much my father’s prayers impressed me, I can never explain, nor could any stranger understand. When on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in family worship, he poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the heathen world to the service of Jesus, and for every personal and domestic need, we all felt as if in the presence of the living Savior, and learned to know and love Him as our divine Friend. As we rose from our knees, I used to look at the light on my father’s face, and wish I were like him in spirit, – hoping that, in answer to his prayers, I might be privileged and prepared to carry the blessed Gospel to some portion of the heathen world.” Here was a man who successfully passed a vision to the heart of his son. In so doing, he passed a vision on to the world through the influential missionary work of his son, John Paton.
The son who has given his heart to his father can receive instruction such as what you find in Proverbs 6:20,21: “My son, keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother: Bind them continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck.” This son accepts the godly instructions of his father and mother, because it is the truth conveyed through his parents that God has given to him. He embraces these commandments and ties them continually about his heart and around his neck.
Losing the Hearts of Our Children
To some of us this sounds a little like a fantasy world. We have drifted far from the moorings of a biblical culture. But that only makes the issue even more relevant. Our hearts cry out again for the hearts of our children. For we sense that these relationships have drifted apart. There are two ways that the hearts of parents and children are separated.
First, the hearts of the fathers (or mothers) may be cut away from the hearts of the sons. This occurs when parents do not have the time to invest in their children. Or they may have time to spend, but the time is hurried. Their minds may be disconnected by lack of margin and by running all directions after all of the screaming exigencies of modern life. This may also occur when we have delegated the discipleship and education of our children away. Or it may occur when we, as parents have given way to habitual sins such as anger, impatience, and selfishness.
The only other way that relationships between generations are severed is when the hearts of the sons are removed from the hearts of the fathers. The peer group and the cultural authorities of the day (eg. MTV) often join to form an almost irresistable force to pry away the heart of the child from his parents. Young men and women are easily drawn to the “flakiness” or, as Proverbs puts it, the foolishness of the immature, rather than to the wisdom of their parents. Richard Baxter, one of the greatest Christian writers of the 17th century, wrote, “Bad company is the first undoing of a child.” Not much has changed since Baxter penned those words.
Capturing the Hearts of Our Children
Have you ever had the sinking feeling that something precious to you is slipping away? It’s the feeling you get when your wedding ring slips off at the beach, and you watch in horror as a retracting current pulls it back into the surf, lost forever. There have been moments in my life where I sensed that I was losing the heart of one of my children. Times like these call for action framed in wisdom. Here are a few thoughts that I have found helpful to capturing or re-capturing the hearts of our children.
1. Start early. There is a critical timeframe where we must grapple for the hearts of our children. Generally this is between the ages of eight and fourteen years of age.
2. Re-assess priorities. The modern age presents to us painful choices between such values as relationships and materials, between complexity and simplicity. There is some intuitive truth in that 20th century adage, “When you’re lying on your death bed, chances are you will not be wishing you had spent more time at the office.” May God help us to turn our hearts toward home.
3. Integrate. There are ways to integrate our children back into our lives. Even if it is as simple as driving together to the grocery store, attending meetings together, cleaning the house, or fixing the car. It only requires the desire, the will, and a little creativity to re-integrate our children. It may be harder for fathers. But many a son has been saved a world of heart ache and rebellion by a father who did everything he could to fit his son into his life.
4. Pave the roads. Work to establish meaningful conversation with your child. Communicate with him on the things that matter most. Speak to his heart from your heart about your faith and what the Lord has been teaching you from His Word. Establish a regular time in the Word together.
5. Re-pave the Roads. You may need to re-pave the roads of communication. One of the most powerful ways to do this is by simple, heart-felt confession. If you are convicted that you have not been doing something correctly, be honest and open in laying that before your children. Ask for their forgiveness.
6. Pray and Trust in God’s Grace. We are always challenged as parents. We are humbled. For even on our best days, we come up short. My two year old offers me her little drawing of scribbles. “Wook, Daddy, wook!” she says. My reaction is not to throw it back at her in a rage, “What is this? Just a bunch of scribbles on a piece of paper? Take it away.” No. I take her up in my arms and say, “Thank you sweetheart! You drew this for me?” I post it over my desk. She gave me a little piece of her heart. She wanted to please me with the drawing, and she is pleased when she sees that I am pleased. Similarly, when we parents, as the adopted children of our heavenly Father, present our hearts to the Lord in prayer and in humble obedience to his Word, he accepts us. When we present our parenting work to God as scribbles on a piece of paper, we must believe that He will accept it and that His grace will cover us. We must believe that when God posts our grubby, blotchy artwork, He really can turn it into something great. It is only then that we realize what we really mean when we cry out to our children, “My son, give me your heart!”