In my seven years of being a mom I’ve spent a lot of time working on teaching my kids “the rules.”
Don’t throw food on the floor.
Say please and thank you.
And from the parenting books and blogs I’ve read, it seems most of us are worried about getting the rules right: How can we motivate our kids? What consequences should we use?
Ever since our parenting seminar with Dr. Tedd Tripp, I’ve been trying to approach these questions differently. Rather than focusing on our children’s behavior, he encouraged us to engage their hearts.
To be honest, I haven’t been quite sure how to do this. Then I happened to read Psalm 78, and I realized — this is God’s way with his children. This Psalm shows how God’s children sin, and how he invites them back into obedience. It’s not about rules, but relationship: their hearts trusting his heart. He calls us to remember and trust, and we can invite our children to do the same.
Psalm 78 recounts Israel’s history, from the Exodus through their wanderings in the wilderness and arrival in the promised land. It describes how God “appointed a law in Israel” and commanded his people to teach it to their children. Then, it describes how Israel broke the law, again and again.
Why do God’s people keep sinning? The Psalm doesn’t give the answer we might expect. It wasn’t that they hadn’t tried hard enough. It wasn’t that they had the wrong set of consequences. It wasn’t that they forgot the lists of rules. It was a failure of memory, but a different kind. They forgot who God was. Over and over, Psalm 78 shows that God’s people disobey because they forget all he has done for them. They forget he is a loving Father who delights in his children.
“They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them.” “They did not remember his power or the day when he redeemed them from the foe.”
Israel disobeyed because they didn’t remember.
Because they didn’t remember their Father’s goodness, they didn’t trust him. And because they didn’t trust, they wouldn’t follow.
And the same is true of our children — and of us. I forget God’s goodness and provision in my sin and unbelief each day. Like the Israelites, I ask, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” when I give in to fear and anxiety, or become angry over my circumstances.
Our children are the same. Rather than trust our rules and trust that we will care for them, they are quick to forget our love, how we feed and clothe them each day. They prefer to go their own way, to provide for themselves what they think they need.
When faced with these rebellious little hearts in our homes, our tendency, and the advice our culture gives, is to find a better set of consequences, or more effective rewards. Or perhaps we can get our children to obey by drilling them on the rules until they memorize them.
But Psalm 78 suggests the remedy for disobedience is quite different.
If Israel wanted their children to keep God’s commandments, they were to teach them to “not forget the works of God.”
The rules alone wouldn’t keep them from straying. They had to remember the rules came from a Father who had delivered them from slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey; a Father who had not cast them aside when they disobeyed but had forgiven them, again and again. They needed to recite these stories so they could remember and trust, even in moments of doubt and fear.
Our children are the same. They need to hear all the same stories the Israelite children heard, and the stories of God’s goodness in our own lives.
Then, when our children sin, instead of reminding them only of the rules they have broken, we can remind them of God’s love. And we can connect God’s love to our love: You can obey me because I love you. Most of all, you can obey me because God loves you, and he has given me to you as your parent. He cares for you and you can trust him, even when it is hard.
I need to be reminded of this daily, since like the Israelites I so quickly forget how my Father “struck the rock so that the water gushed out and streams overflowed.” Not only has he provided once and for all through Christ, the Rock, but he daily sustains me.
We are all invited into this work together, so that we may remember, rejoice, and return to him when we stray: “We will not hide them from our children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.”