When my daughter was a toddler, she did something to warrant discipline and though I have long forgotten the offense, I will always remember her response. Sensing from the tone of my voice she was about to face the consequence of her disobedience, she protested. Her defense? “But everyone sins!”
While I had to stifle a laugh at my daughter’s gross misapplication of theological truth, she was right. Everyone sins. And as a mom of three young children, I find this to be the most difficult reality of parenting. Yes, there’s the exploding diapers, sleep deprivation, and overall physical exhaustion. But the most taxing part of day-to-day life is dealing with angry outbursts, impatience, unkindness, complaining, bickering, and disobedience. And I’m not just talking about the kids.
A biblical understanding of sanctification in the Christian life and how God works to make us more Christlike sheds much needed light on how we think about and deal with sin — both our own hearts and our children’s. One pastor describes godly parenting as a “school of sanctification.” Parents are in the upper grades becoming more like Jesus in the presence of their children who, in lower grades, are also becoming more like Jesus.1
The analogy of parenting as a “school of sanctification” is a helpful one with many practical applications, especially for how we understand and respond to sin as we raise our children in the Lord. Here are a few implications:
1. Not “you”, but “we.”
Ed Welch has said that breakthrough happens in counseling when the counselor learns to say “we” and not “you.” In other words, there is a tendency to see other people’s problems as abnormal (to say “you”), but a necessary and drastic shift occurs when we are able to walk alongside another person and see that at the root of it, we have similar struggles (saying, “we.”)
When we learn to say “we” and not “you” as we deal with sin in our children, we acknowledge the temptations they wrestle with in their little hearts are also our own. I may not throw myself on the floor in tantrums, but am I ever angry when I don’t get my way? I may not persistently repeat my requests in a whiney voice, but do I ever complain or grumble? It isn’t socially appropriate for me to hold onto my things and yell “Mine!” but am I ever selfish with money, time, or possessions? I no longer pout when someone else gets a bigger piece of cake, but do I sometimes covet what others have? And can anyone else relate to screaming, “Stop screaming!”?
It is easy for parents to look at our children’s wrong behavior at times and impatiently shake our heads, thinking, “Why would they ever do that?” or “Is it really that hard to just obey?” Even if we do not explicitly say these things, we often stand as judges over them, looking incredulously at their behavior and attitudes as if they were completely foreign to us. This leads us to frustration, impatience, and harshness toward our children even as we try to correct them. But when we remember we are also students in the school of sanctification, not yet graduated onto perfection, we can discipline and instruct with sympathy and in humility.
While the fact that “everyone sins” does not excuse our children, recognizing that sin is an issue of “we” and not “you” means that I keep in mind my own sanctification– that I have been where my children are now and in many ways still deal with the flesh as they do. It may mean saying, as my friend did to her daughter who was working on sharing, “I know it’s hard. We all want to be selfish and keep everything for ourselves.” Or it may mean softening our tone because as we correct, we can also sympathize with their weaknesses.
The way I discipline, the content of my prayers, and the words I choose will change when I remember sanctification is not easy for me either. I of all people ought to understand that it is hard to deny myself and submit to doing what is right, that obedience does not come naturally and easily. And saying “we”, even if it’s just in my own mind, reminds me to correct and instruct my children patiently and in humility
2. Not excusing or being discouraged by sin, but disciplining with hope.
When children sin, parents may be tempted to either justify them or become despondent. We hinder our children’s progress in the faith when we make excuses for their rebellion. And while there is a place for godly grief over sin, we also hinder our children if we grow overly discouraged by their need for correction. Proverbs 19:18 gives us the better alternative when it says, “Discipline your children, for in that there is hope.”
A few years ago, after a particularly tiring day, I was disheartened by how I needed to constantly correct and discipline my daughter. Then, it hit me: this is what parenting is all about.
Children go to school because there are subjects they have not yet mastered. In the school of sanctification, disciplining our children is not a surprising or burdensome task. Rather, it is a means intended by God for us to employ with hope to bless our children. As the psalmist says, “Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord, the one you teach from your law” (Ps. 94:12).
Our children will sin. Addressing and facing their sin is not easy, but we don’t need to be taken off guard by it. We don’t have to lose heart over our children’s need for correction because parenting is all about walking with our children in their sanctification. While they are in our care, we have been charged with bringing up our sons and daughters in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Therefore, each revelation of sin in their lives is an opportunity for us respond in hope that God will use our words and actions to help them grow in Christlikeness.
3. Not expecting perfection, but looking for progress.
Our sanctification is an ongoing process lasting until we see Jesus face to face. Though Christians are declared righteous before God and he no longer holds our guilt against us, in this life we will fall and struggle with our flesh. Or as Luther said, we are simul justus et peccator — at the same time righteous and sinners. If I expect there to come a time when my children and I no longer need correction in this life, then I’ll be constantly discouraged when I see our sin or worse, be constantly angry and given over to fear and despair.
Understanding that we are in the school of sanctification means that instead of focusing only on how much further they have left to grow, we can look for signs of growth and grace in our children’s lives. Rachel Jankovic writes about this in Loving The Little Years,
If you have been faithfully disciplining your children, I guarantee you that there are many, many problems that they no longer struggle with…Oftentimes we don’t even notice that they aren’t doing it, because something else has replaced it. Try to notice these little mile markers on the path of sanctification. If the sins have changed, it can be a sign of growth. It is not as though our children are going to emerge from their current problems into perfect holiness only if we give them enough swats. They are going to emerge from one set of problems into the next, and that is good. That is the way of the Christian walk. 2
As we pursue Christ in our families, we can look for evidences of his grace in the progress made in sanctification. We can rejoice when our sons and daughters are no longer struggling with the same sins they did a few months or years ago. Paul instructed Timothy to immerse himself in obedience to God’s commands in order for all to see his progress (1 Tim. 4:15). As our children grow in Christ, we can look for the same.
4. Not mommy or daddy, but Jesus.
Many of us resonate with my friend who said, “I thought I was patient, until I had a kid.” Through the difficulties of parenting, the Holy Spirit reveals our hearts and convicts us of sin. This discipline from the Lord is done in kindness to make us more like him. But our sins still have consequences and it can be frightening to think of the ways they affect the people we love and want least to hurt— including, and maybe especially, our children. Just as there are no perfect children, there are no perfect parents.
But there is good news— Jesus did not come for righteous parents, he came for sinners. He did not come for the healthy family, but as a doctor for the sick. The school of sanctification is not made of students who’ve gained admission by their exceptional performance or promising credentials. We are in this school purely because of God’s grace and are continually kept in it by God’s grace. What great hope there is in Jesus for the sinful mom, dad, son, and daughter! He has promised forgiveness to those who repent and power to change when we run to him.
Along with instruction and discipline, our younger schoolmates need us to show them what it looks like to live in light of the gospel. Our children need to see the gospel transforming us as we grow in gratitude for Christ’s redemption and forgiveness of sins. They need to see the gospel when we correct them and they need us to teach them the language of repentance, helping them say sorry and turning to Jesus for power to change. They need to see mom’s remorse in asking for forgiveness from them and from God when we lose our patience. And they need to see that where there is sin, grace abounds much more in Christ.
As much as we love our children, mom and dad are not the heroes here, Jesus is. Jesus died for their sins and for ours. Jesus rose again and broke the power of sin over their lives and ours. And by God’s grace alone, having been washed clean by his blood and kept by his power, we will stand before him on graduation day presented blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 24).