Maaaaaaaaaaama, Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaama . . . Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeshush, Jeeeeeeeeeeshush!" My youngest child, just two years old, called out to me.
I paused in my work to look and, sure enough, she was on the couch flipping through our children's Bible and pointing at the various drawings of bearded men on its pages.
"Yes, honey," I said with surprise. "That's Jesus!" How does she know that's Jesus? I wondered.
Then things got delightfully weirder. She folded her arms across her chest, gave herself a big hug, and began her own rambling and babbling rendition of "Jeshush wuvs me."
What in the world?!
Though she and I sing "Jesus Loves Me" at bedtime and she's watched as I've read short Bible stories to her two older siblings on school mornings, I'd never pointed at its pictures and told her they were Jesus nor had I ever paired the song with the images.
Someone else helped her make that connection. It was one of those special moments when I realized, again, God has a relationship with my daughter. God himself is at work in her life.
Our Job Description
Many Christian parents have similar moments with their kids—times when they observe a spiritual habit, a growth in virtue or character, a sense of conviction that leads to an apology, a moment of wonder, a growing sense of confidence or self-worth—and when we simply realize this has nothing to do with us. This isn't something we can take credit for; this is about God at work, growing or changing or connecting with our children.
While it's an awesome realization that God is at work in our children's lives, that doesn't let us off the hook. Deuteronomy 6 fleshes out God's vision for parenting in powerful terms:
"Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:5-9).
This describes a relationship in which a parent's profound, whole-person love for God is evident, bold, and naturally obvious to her children. Driven by this love, she's committed to a life of obedience—and she speaks freely to her kids any time, anywhere, about God. Her life and her home are characterized by this desire to love and obey God—and this love, obedience, and mindful awareness of God shape the habitat her children grow and live in.
In this passage (and repeatedly emphasized throughout the Bible), parents are clearly charged by God to raise their children to know and love him. It's a tremendous job description and a responsibility that ought not be taken lightly!
But it's crucial that parents have a proper perspective on what this job description really is. God isn't saying it's our job to create a relationship between our kids and God; God isn't putting the onus on us to carry all the weight. No, God is calling us to do our part as parents—while God does his own work in our children's lives.
This requires a mindset shift for many of us as we consider our profound spiritual role as parents. Ultimately God doesn't "need" our assistance; we certainly have a crucial part to play, but God himself is the Maker of our kids. He profoundly loves our kids, and in his miraculous way he is making himself known to our children.
In ways we may not see or recognize, God is at work inviting our children into a relationship with him and beckoning them ever closer. They see evidence of him in the wonders of creation (Romans 1:20): they hear his whisper in the flowers, see his power in the lightning, sense his love in the awe of a peaceful night sky. In their own little kid ways, they can sense him, get to know him, and respond to his invitations.
Jesus invited little children to come to him; he touched them, blessed them, and spoke with them (Matthew 19:13-14; Mark 9; Luke 18:15-16). In a spiritual sense he does the same with our children. Though Jesus isn't physically present with a lap to sit on and a shoulder to lean on, God is still the welcoming God who, with a smiling and inviting love, beckons little children to come. God delights in our kids even more than we do; he knows and understands our kids better than we ever can.
One of the most stunning miracles in the New Testament is Jesus' interaction with a man named Jairus and his family (Mark 5:21-40; Luke 8:40-56). Jesus is delayed in his arrival to Jairus's house to heal his dying, preteen daughter. But then Jairus, the disciples, and all who hear about it are awestruck when Jesus miraculously brings the little girl back to life! Yet there's more to this story than this resurrection.
Consider, from the little girl's perspective, what happened. She moved from horrible sickness into death and then somehow back into life. Luke describes Jesus holding the girl's hand, calling her "my child," and immediately making sure she was given food to eat. The tender care—along with the miracle—gives us a powerful sense of Jesus' compassionate ministry to the hurting.
Jesus is still in the business of healing and ministering to children. Though he may not perform a literal miracle like this one, Jesus' love for your child is this same compassionate and tender love he showed Jairus's daughter. Your child's Creator compassionately cares for her hurts and ministers to her needs.
In the background of the story of Naaman's healing in 2 Kings 5 is a "young girl." She's been captured by Aramean raiders who'd invaded Israel and enslaved her, then given to Naaman's wife. Somehow, miraculously, this young Jewish girl finds it in her heart to extend kindness rather than hatred to her new "master" as she chooses to point ailing Naaman toward the prophet Elisha for healing.
How and why did this young girl become so compassionate, so strong, so forgiving? Scripture doesn't offer the details, but I'm confident she at one time had parents who set an example of God-honoring character. And I'm even more confident that she loved, honored, and obeyed God—and it was God himself who shaped her character, who led her into the way of truth, and who enabled her to apply that truth to her life in a bold choice of generous kindness.
As our children grow to know and love God, God is at work in their lives shaping and transforming them. God even equips and empowers young children for pint-sized ministry! God does this inner work we parents cannot do: we may be able to discipline, but it is God who convicts; we can set examples of good character, but it is the Spirit who bears the fruit in our child's life; we can train up our children, but God is the one who transforms.
Our Influence, God's Work
God's active work in our children's lives in no way negates the tremendous calling we have as parents. It's our example, our own love-driven relationship with God, and our feeble but best efforts to parent in wisdom and character that lead our children in a God-honoring way of life. The ideal described in Deuteronomy 6 is enough to challenge and inspire us each moment as parents—this is a big job!
As we trust that God is at work in our children's lives, Scripture assures us that our efforts and example will have a powerful influence on our kids (Proverbs 22:6). But this isn't a direct cause and effect formula. Our children have a God-given free will, a unique personality, and a propensity to sin (just like us!). Our children make their own choices and ultimately they have their own "story" to live with God.
Sometimes these stories even involve a period of distance from God or a rejection of faith, which is heartbreaking for parents. But even in those situations, we can remember that God is still at work in their lives: God continues to invite, minister, and even transform wayward children in ways parents cannot. Even in heartbreak, we can continue to love God with our heart, soul, and strength, and to love our children with a committed, empathetic, and unconditional love.
As the nursery song goes, Jesus loves our kids; our little ones do belong to him. As we seek to parent them the best we can, we can find profound confidence, reassurance, and comfort in the reality that God is miraculously and actively involved in their lives, beckoning them to come to him.