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Grace Rules!

How we brought God into our discipline style

As the father of four, I've seen my share of bad attitudes. Yet for some reason, I'm still caught off guard when one of my children responds to a parental request with a sarcastic remark or a roll of the eyes. Take the other day, for example. I asked one of my children to help me with a simple household task. But instead of doing what I asked, my child replied with some smart-mouthed remark. And so the battle of wills began.

Now I'm an intelligent guy. I spend a lot of time talking to parents about biblical discipline and how they can guide their children's behavior. But there I was, standing in the kitchen with my own child, mentally reviewing my arsenal of disciplinary techniques: "when-I-was-your-age" stories, scowls, frowns, expressions of disappointment, the trusty "angry father" routine. I was actually stumped about the best way to discipline my child.

Then it struck me—I was thinking of everything except God. I was focused on what I should do rather than God's role in the discipline of my kids. I was expecting my child to respond to my discipline because I used the best technique, not because God is at work in me "to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13). If I truly believe that childhood discipline is at its heart a spiritual issue, shouldn't God be my starting point rather than an afterthought?

I must admit, I like rules and regulations; in my unredeemed heart I'm a Pharisee. And honestly, a great deal of the parenting information available today is based on the idea that parents can correct wrongdoing with a formula, rather than with faith. Frankly, the if/then approach to discipline is awfully appealing to most parents. It gives us a sense of control, a belief that we can get our children to obey us if we simply follow the steps laid out by some book or seminar. I know for certain that it's easier just to lay down the law than it is to offer grace.

However, in my grace-touched heart, I want to be more like Jesus—acknowledging the rules but looking to the heart. Jesus came to set us free from the law by giving us his grace (Rom. 6:14). His approach was not about making and enforcing laws, but about helping sinners grow into deeper relationships with God. If I want to parent my children as I am parented by God, I must look at them through the eyes of grace, rather than solely through the eyes of law.

When I talk about parenting with grace, there are moms and dads who bristle a little. To them, "grace" sounds like "permissiveness." They think I'm advocating a style of parenting where even the gravest wrongdoing is brushed off with a gentle reminder to "try a different approach next time." But that's not at all what grace is really about. In Titus 2:11, the apostle Paul notes that God's grace "brings salvation." He goes on to say that it is grace that "teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age" (v. 12). In other words, my children need grace to learn how to choose not to sin and instead choose to obey God.

That's the target of what I call "spiritual discipline," which begins with a bigger understanding of biblical grace. When you correct your child, you want to know that you are working on both the external behavior and the internal understanding. With grace, you are reaching your child's heart and opening the door for God's Spirit to work in your child.

In the evangelical Christian tradition, we often talk about three channels through which God's grace comes to us: God's Word, prayer, and fellowship. We open a channel for God's grace to flow into our lives when he speaks to us (God's Word), when we speak to God (prayer), and when God speaks to and through us with other Christians (fellowship). Part of our role as we discipline our children is to help open up these channels in their lives so that God's grace can pour in.

Open the channel of God's Word

Your children need to see that you believe the Bible is more than just a religious rulebook. Of course, they need to know what is right and wrong, but they also need to see that the Word of God is "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12). My wife, Sally, and I talk to our children about God's Word a lot—what it says about pleasing God, avoiding sin, having right attitudes, loving others, and being like Christ.

But we also talk about what we, Mom and Dad, are learning from Scripture—insights about practicing self-control, patience and longsuffering, seeing the good in our children, being under the control of the Holy Spirit in our discipline, loving our kids without expectations, and offering grace. We want our children to know that their parents are hearing from God on a regular basis. Our children see that we are listening to God because he is disciplining us, through his Word, to help us grow in the same way we are disciplining them to help them grow.

Just as we try to show our children that we rely on Scripture for guidance, we also want them to see that we trust in its promises. When we're faced with a choice, we want to show them that we believe the promises of Scripture, not just about salvation and heaven, but about issues like seeking wisdom (James 1:5), trusting that God will provide for our financial needs (Phil. 4:19), and knowing that God will right a wrong (Rom. 12:17-19). When children see parents believing in the promises of God's Word, the Scriptures become "living and active" to them.

Perhaps the most grace-giving approach to opening the channel of God's Word is praying Scripture with our children. When your child acts out or misbehaves, pray a promise with your child, or apply a specific verse to that child: "He who began a good work in you, [name of your child], will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6). It has been incredibly meaningful to our children to hear Sally and me remind them of God's words to them as well as our own.

Open the channel of prayer

Perhaps one of the most important acts of discipline I can do for my children is to pray for God to work in their hearts. Prayer is an act of faith that affirms I believe there is a God who is personal, who loves us, and who cares about our choices. The grace brought into our children's lives by our example of prayer can be a powerful influence over how they relate to God.

Sally is a pray-about-it-now person who interjects lots of prayers into our family life. I'm not just talking about prayers at meals, but morning devotions, during-the-day petitions for whatever comes up, times of praise and thanksgiving, and, of course, at bedtime. Sally pours grace into our children's lives many times each day by stopping to pray with them. Her ears are open to issues that can be brought before God, so she is always initiating prayers with and for our children as well as responding to requests from them.

But many parents, myself included, forget to take discipline issues to prayer. Think about it: When you correct your child, if the matter is not taken into the presence of God it will be nothing more than an act of parental discipline. When your children need discipline, make prayer your first response. Pray aloud for God's wisdom, patience, and grace. Then, think about how you can handle the situation in a way that not only corrects the behavior, but also encourages your child to choose more righteous behavior next time.

Let's say you've just asked your 10-year-old to take out the garbage and he snaps back, "I don't want to. It's too hard." Before you explode, take a deep breath and ask God to calm your heart and your tongue. Ask God to guide you as you discipline your child. Then, move on to telling your child what behavior you didn't like before doling out consequences for that behavior—the loss of his allowance for the week, an added chore for the day, whatever you've set in place. But rather than ending there, sit down with your child and talk about what happened. Ask your child why he responded that way and explain why it bothered you. Talk about appropriate, respectful ways to talk to others and make a plan for how he can handle a similar situation in the future.

Finally, pray with your child about the matter at hand. When you pray for your children to be convicted of a sin and to respond to God's correction, it sets the stage for them to confess their sin and to ask for forgiveness and new resolve. It makes the sin not just a mistake but a serious matter of the spirit. When you place a matter of discipline before God, even if your child doesn't fully understand the correction, he still becomes accountable to God. It is a reminder to your child that "nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Heb. 4:13).

In your regular prayers for your children, remember to ask God to give them responsive spirits, soft hearts, and willing minds. Pray that God will remind them of Scriptures, that they will feel convicted when they sin, that they will say "no" to sin on their own. Pray that God will protect them from evil. Pray for godly friends to spur them on to good deeds, and for growing insight about following God. And here's the important part: Tell your children about your prayers for them. Let them know it thrills you to see God at work in their lives.

Open the channel of fellowship

When children sin, their natural response is to hide the sin and to separate themselves emotionally and spiritually from you. You might even find yourself pulling away from your child emotionally when he's done something that really bothers you. But God intends for us to "carry each other's burdens" (Gal. 6:2), to "spur one another on toward love and good deeds" (Heb. 10:24). This is yet another reason grace is an essential part of the discipline equation; it turns discipline into a relationship issue, rather than a behavioral issue. In walking alongside your child as he confesses his sin and seeks forgiveness, you'll be guiding his heart—not just his actions—toward righteousness.

Fellowship is also essential for showing children that all people sin and feel guilty, that God forgives them, and that other people still love them. When your child misbehaves, resist the urge to walk away in disgust or add to her shame with discouraging words ("I knew you'd end up fighting with your sister."). Instead, touch them gently while you correct them, look them in the eye, hug them when you've worked through the issue and are ready to move on. If they need to apologize to a sibling or friend, hold their hand or stand beside them during the apology to show your support for this move to make amends. Use positive words to let them know you believe they will make a better decision in the future ("You're usually so kind to your friends. I think that you'll be able to control your temper next time.").

Your child will also benefit from sensing fellowship with God during times of discipline. When you correct your child, talk about the ways God can help him make better choices. Emphasize God's desire to work in your child's heart so he can live the life God wants for him. Stressing God's role as a helper doesn't mean we take God's judgment of our sin out of the picture, but rather that we include grace as God's primary response to sin. When children sense God holding them and loving them in the midst of their sin, they'll be more inclined to turn to him for help.

Strengthen your fellowship with your children by setting aside one-on-one time with each child throughout the week. Use this time to encourage your child's spiritual growth and share your prayers and special Scriptures with him. When the time comes for discipline, you'll have an indispensable foundation of trust and understanding to build on.

The next time your child acts up, remember to invite God into the process of shaping your child's character. When you do, you'll find that what was once a battle of wills has become a time of real growth and deepening faith—for you and your child.

Adapted from Heartfelt Discipline (WaterBrook) by Clay Clarkson. Clarkson is the executive director of Whole Heart Ministries, an outreach dedicated to restoring biblical patterns of parenting and family life.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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