The Bible compares our time to the days of Noah (Matt. 24:37-39), when the number of people faithful to God dwindled to only eight out of millions. The millions who turned away from God died in those awful moments when the rising waters of the great Flood swept them away. The eight who walked with God escaped the Flood by riding above the waters in a huge ark.
In our day also, we live on the verge of great judgment. God is about to vent His wrath upon all the wayward and defiant. Before judgment falls, Christ will come to take away the church. But what is the church doing? Is it so energized by the prospect of Christ's imminent return that it is advancing to claim great victories over the kingdom of darkness? No, it is in retreat. We see apostasy on every hand. Some well-respected Christian organizations have abandoned old-fashioned convictions and adopted more liberal views. Others have decided to put profit and self-preservation ahead of principle. Of those reared in Christian homes and churches, more and more are drifting away from a safe harbor in the truth and becoming embroiled in godless lifestyles. As in the days of Noah, fewer and fewer remain who truly seek after God.
In my lifetime of observing Christian homes, I have seen their success in producing godly children diminish from decade to decade. Less than half of the young people who grew up with me in my home church back in the 50s remained in a good church throughout their lives. Many forsook Christ as they pursued education and career. Research looking at the state of the evangelical movement in the late 70s found that 70% of a typical youth group disappeared from church within two years after graduation from high school. I believe that at present, only ten to twenty percent of the children from Christian homes and churches will retain a believable testimony of salvation when they reach adulthood. Yet I do not mean to be negative and gloomy. I mean to be positive and helpful. I firmly believe that children become spiritual casualties only if their parents do not give enough attention to their proper upbringing. After all, the Bible says,
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
I admit that parents cannot be absolutely certain of success in child-rearing, for they might not adopt correct methods soon enough, or they might not be consistent enough, or their efforts might otherwise be undermined by human failings. On the basis of this promise in Proverbs, however, I am confident that parents who create the right childhood environment can rear children resistant to apostasy. I will discuss five measures in particular that are essential to establishing a spiritual center to the home.
The father must exercise spiritual leadership.
Scripture needs only a few simple words to define a father's responsibility.
And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
No comparable verse is written to mothers. God respects the chain of command that He Himself ordained. Because the leader within a home is the father, God tells the father how to rear children. In judgment before God, the father, not the mother, will be primarily answerable for the kind of children their home has produced. Generally as the father goes, so goes the family, especially the boys. Research on the practice of religion supports this conclusion. An adult's choice of religion and his degree of involvement in that religion depend more on his father's example than on his mother's.
It is possible for a mother to rear godly children without a father's support. The outstanding example of a child whose faith was instilled by his mother is Timothy. But Timothy was a rare exception. If only because of the influence that a father wields over his children, a girl must be careful about her choice of a mate. The husband she chooses had better be a sincere Christian if she wants children who will follow the Lord.
A father who wishes to exercise spiritual leadership should examine his own spirituality. What are the real roots of his profession of faith? Unfortunately, many fathers attend church for poor reasons. They are basically hypocrites. Some go to please their wives. Others want to help their business. Others think that a little religion is good for keeping people in line. Yet others are concerned to keep their eternal life insurance paid up. But if a father attends church for any reason other than a heart's devotion to Jesus Christ, he will not succeed in passing Christianity on to his children.
Today, when life outside the church is so appealing, young people will leave the church at first opportunity unless they feel sure that Christianity is true. What determines their view of Christianity? Of primary importance is the testimony of their elders. They must not doubt that the faith animating their elders is genuine. For boys and girls alike, a father's influence may be critical. An older teenager who senses that his father is masquerading as a Christian will probably forsake the church and never return.
A father's Christianity must not only be genuine; it must look genuine. It will not look genuine if there are besetting sins in his life. If you are a father, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have ungodly habits?
- Do I have an ungodly mouth?
- Do I have an ungodly temper?
- Do I indulge in cynical or skeptical remarks that cast doubt on the accuracy of the Bible, or on the justice of God, or on the sincerity of fellow believers?
If you have fallen into any of these sins, you must, for the sake of your children, eliminate it promptly. Stop making excuses. Stop putting off repentance until tomorrow.
Another proof of genuine faith is zeal for the things of God. So, ask yourself some more questions.
- Do I frequently speak of Jesus Christ as a person I know and love?
- Do I set an example of the Christian life in such matters as having devotions, witnessing, and taking responsibility in the church?
- Do I take the lead in urging my children to love and obey God? Within the home, the chief instructor on all spiritual matters should be the father.
The whole family must be faithful to the church.
We dare not ignore the writer of Hebrews when he says,
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
One startling implication of this verse is that it is possible to see "the day" approaching. From the teaching of the Word of God, we know that the day of Christ's return has nearly arrived. Why does God permit us to see that we live on the verge of Christ's return? He shows us our place in history neither to satisfy our curiosity, nor to promote escapism, nor to divert us from the work of the gospel, but to warn us against the special dangers that beset us.
In the verse quoted above, He tells believers in our day that it is becoming ever more important to meet and exhort one another. Why? Because we are surrounded by much falsehood and deception, even in Christian circles. Our only protection from the snares of corruption and apostasy is the truth, which we find in a good church, among God's people.
Going to church regularly, whenever the doors are open, is essential to the spiritual welfare of your child. Every time you stay home except for a serious illness or dire emergency, you are teaching your child that church does not have priority. When he grows up, he will remember all your excuses for not going to church.
One caution here. Dogged persistence in attending a church where the pastor is a hypocrite is extremely unwise. A child must believe that his spiritual leaders, for all their human foibles, are basically upright and sincere. Yet I have often seen parents close their eyes to serious moral lapses in their pastor. They seem to think that their children will not see these lapses, or will be willing to view them as the privilege of a great man. But a child, especially a young teenager, is very keen-eyed in spotting phonies, and he understands perfectly well that a phony does not belong behind the pulpit. So, if parents constantly drag him to sit under the teaching of a man he distrusts, the child is likely to decide that his own parents are hypocrites too. Else, why are they not scandalized by the hypocrisy of the pastor? Why not indeed? Upon sensing the bad odor of hypocrisy in his church and in his own family, a child may turn in either of two directions that will quickly lead him away from Christ.
- He may openly rebel. Why should he submit to values and standards handed down by men who do not practice what they preach?
- He too may become a hypocrite, following the example set for him by his elders. The child's inner drive to become an adult causes him to copy the ways of those about him who are most attractive and successful.
The life of the family must include a family altar.
Moses admonished the people of Israel,
4 Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord:
5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
Some claim that these verses were meant only for the nation of Israel—that God insisted on Israel remembering Him every day, all day, because they were always tempted to forsake Him in favor of the idolatry of their heathen neighbors. Yet look at verses 4 and 5. Are these only for Israel? No, Christ said that they state the first and greatest commandment for us all (Matt. 22:37-38). The purpose of the succeeding verses, verses 6 and 7, is to illustrate how we make our love for God real. It is not real unless we place Him at the center of our lives. God knows that talk is cheap.
Every parent, for example, claims to love his children. I once dealt professionally with a mother who punished her little boy by immersing his hands in scalding water, leaving hideous lifelong scars. Yet she said she loved him.
Most people say they love God. But it is not love in God's eyes unless words are backed up by deeds. According to Jesus, how do we prove our love for God? By keeping His commandments (John 14:15). By keeping them, we show that we desire God's approval, a sure sign of love. Another sure sign is given here in Deuteronomy 6. If we love God, we are always mindful of Him in both our talk and our thinking.
This passage has many critical applications. In another lesson, we show that they demand Christian education. For now, we will consider what they mean for family life. The consensus of believers has always been that to keep a spiritual center to the home, a family should gather at least once a day for devotions.
In our family, the traditional time for devotions is 9:00 P.M. After coming together, we spend from ten minutes to an hour in Bible study and prayer. The reading during devotions need not be confined to Scripture. Simplified Bible stories are good for little children. The book my parents used was Egermeier's Bible Story Book. Since the language is a bit challenging for today's children, my older son has used the same resource in a modernized, simper version. Older children may profit from interesting commentaries or devotional books or study guides. But parents should not rely on supplementary materials to the exclusion of the Bible itself. Even little children should hear at least one verse straight from the Bible.
When I was in the first grade, I started reading a few verses every night in family devotions. I thought the Dick and Jane stories we read in school were dumb by comparison. How many of you remember those? They gave us one of the most memorable sentences in the English language. "See Spot [can you finish it?] run." This was the first generation of readers using the look-say method. I was fortunate that I learned to read from older sisters and from a first-grade teacher (an older woman) who were old-fashioned in their approach, giving me the phonetic values of letters so I could sound out the words. One benefit of regular reading from the Bible was that by the time I reached third grade, I was ready for Robinson Crusoe.
The best supplement to Bible reading is not printed materials, however, but discussion of the text. As the father leads the discussion, he should supply both interpretation (making the text understandable) and application (making it practical). Faithful teaching of the Bible to his own family might prepare him for a teaching or preaching ministry in the church.
Our devotions in years past had yet another ingredient. After Bible study and before prayer, we opened the floor to discussion of any question that the children wanted to raise. Sometimes the discussion was lighthearted, or even uproarious, but always my wife and I steered it so that we could articulate and emphasize Christian values. If you want your children to think as you do, you had better take time to fill their minds with your thoughts.
Each member of the family should have personal devotions.
It is important for a family to have devotions together, but it is also important to teach children to have personal devotions. Let me tell you one way not to do it. Do not wake a child early and say, "Okay, time for your devotions." When you come back, what will you find? The child asleep. This is especially likely if you have a child like my youngest when he was a boy. The only way to get him out of bed was with dynamite. Early devotions were never an option for him. Many great saints in the past have met with God every morning before breakfast. But for most of us ordinary mortals, it works better if we rise and wash and eat first so that we are wide awake when we have our devotions.
How do you lead children into the regular practice of devotions? You must take three steps.
- Example. Set an example for them by being faithful in your own devotions. When you have them, you should enter your closet, as Jesus says (Matt. 6:6). That is, you should sequester yourself in a quiet place and close the door. Yet although your conversation with God is private, it should be no secret that you are having this conversation. The children should know what you are doing. When they see the closed door, they should say to themselves, "My daddy [or mommy] is talking with God, and I should not interrupt." Of course, mother and father must normally stagger their devotional times so that the children are not left unsupervised.
- Precept. Here is a job not just for parents, but also for pastors and workers in children's ministries. We must teach our children that if they wish to know God better, they should spend time with Him each day. To have such fellowship will naturally be our desire if we love Him.
- Supervision. Parents disagree on whether they should make devotions compulsory for children. Are they like going to church, which indeed should be compulsory, because we want our children to grow up with the ingrained habit of going to church? Or are devotions like accepting Christ? That is not compulsory. We teach our children that they must be saved to escape God's wrath, and we strongly encourage them to accept Christ, but we do not demand it. We do not force a decision before they are ready. Indeed, we help them make that decision only when we see that their desire for salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit. If we sense that they are merely copying somebody else, or merely mouthing words beyond their understanding, or merely seeking attention, we commend them for wanting to be saved and we explain the gospel further, but we do not necessarily lead them through a sinner's prayer. We wait until we are confident that a decision for Christ is their heart's real desire and free choice. Nothing else is valid. Nothing else is real love.
So, should we make our children have devotions? Just as you cannot force somebody to accept Christ, so you cannot force somebody to have fellowship with Him. You can make a child sit in his room with a Bible on his lap. But even if he reads a few verses and mouths a brief prayer, that's not fellowship with God unless the child's heart is engaged in what he is doing. Devotions empty of any real devotion are worthless and probably harmful, because the child cannot possibly enjoy anything so meaningless, and he will grow up to hate devotions as a tedious exercise that his parents made him endure.
The remedy is to convince a child to enter of his own free will into the practice of devotions. First, persuade him through example and precept that he should have them. Then when he comes forward and expresses an interest in starting devotions of his own, persuade him that they need to be a regular habit. Tell him that he needs to start each day with God so he will have the strength to do right and to refuse wrong. He should plan to have them every day at a certain time and place. Then persuade him that the way to become consistent is to make himself accountable. He should agree to let his parents check up on him. If they find him faithful in meeting with God, they will commend him. If they find him slack, they will rebuke him and exhort him to do better. So, the way to supervise devotions is to draw the child into an accountability that he accepts of his own free will.
God must be a constant theme of talk in the home.
The portion of the law in Deuteronomy 6:4-7 demands more than personal and family devotions. The whole life of the family should revolve about discussion of spiritual matters. A recurring subject of their conversation should be God Himself. They should never use His name flippantly or irreverently, as people do when they turn it into an expletive—that is, into a word you spit out in a moment of dismay or disgust. God need not be the subject of every conversation, yet His name should surface whenever problems arise. Then the family should speak of seeking God's will and help. His name should surface also whenever there are disappointments. Then the family should speak of trusting God. His name should surface again whenever good things happen. Then the family should give God the praise.