Parents (of Little Children), Require Obedience…But Not Because John Piper Told You To (2)

So, true story, I wanted to get Jack’s view on this whole “obedience” issue. I decided to interview him and this is that exchange, almost word for word. It was a little convicting, a little funny and pretty insightful. I suspect that Brenn’s interview would have been vastly different, probably with lots of rabbit trails and blank stares. Still. This was helpful.IMG_2911-002


“Hey Jack, why do I discipline you if you disobey me?”


“So that I will stop disobeying.” Duh, Mom.


“Yeah, but why do you need to be disciplined in order to stop disobeying?”


Pause. “Well…I really like it when you give me mercy, buuuut, I remember the times that you took away my legos or my video games more.”


“Uh-huh. Ok, so are there any other things that you think about when deciding whether or not you should disobey?”


“Yeah, I wonder if you are watching. I think about whether I want to play video games that day.”


“Uh-huh. Ok, is there anything else that you think about before you decide whether or not to sin?”


Pause. I continue because I’m getting a blank stare.


“Like, anything other than just ‘will I get caught?’”


Jack raises one eyebrow and says in a slightly uncertain voice voice,


“Ummm, well. I think about God sometimes.”


“What about him?”


“Like, will he be angry with me if I do this?”


“Why would you think that? Have I told you that God would be angry?”


“NO. You say that he will be sad. But I know that YOU get angry and I think that maybe he will be angry and make sure that I get discipline.”


Well, that’s sad. But I keep going,


“Hmmm, ok. Is there anything else that you think? About me, or God or anyone else?”


“If I remember, I think that maybe you will be sad if I sin. And sometimes I think that the Holy Spirit will be sad when I sin.”


“Why do you care what I or the Holy Spirit thinks?”


“Well, I love you. And, I guess I love God, I think. I don’t want him to be sad.”


“Do you ever feel like God is happy with you?”


Eyes big, he starts getting worked up as he tells this tale,


“Yeah! Like that time when I wanted to punch [boy at school] in the stomach because he told me that I was ‘out’ but I WASN’T. I WASN’T Mom. But I didn’t punch him because I thought about God and I just walked away. I didn’t even tell the teacher that he was SO WRONG about me being ‘out.’”


“Yeah, that makes me happy too, Jack! That means that you were acting more like Jesus acted when he loved people who were unkind to him.”


With a goofy grin,


“Yeah, well, I REALLY wanted to punch him. I was SO MAD. Buuuuut, the Holy Spirit was poking me [our term for when the Holy Spirit needs to get our attention] and I listened to him. And I think that God was happy that I listened.”


“How do you know that God was happy?”


“Because I did what he told me to do?”


“Which was…?”


“Not punch people.”


“Can you think of why we shouldn’t punch people?”


“Because we’d hurt them??”


“Yes, Ok, but Jack, why shouldn’t we hurt people?”


“Ummm, because we’ll get in trouble?”


Arrgh. At this point I stopped trying to feed him clues that I was, in fact, searching for “God tells us to love people!” I’m not sure that we would have gotten there. Anyway, I give you that dialog so that I can use it as a reference for this post.

Again, the reason I am writing these three (yes, it’s morphed into three; here is the first one) posts is because of a short post on parenting that John Piper wrote a few years ago but which is periodically circulated through social media. [As an aside, I think this is one of those articles that you could share for good reasons and bad reasons. The good reason is that you felt convicted and wanted to share what the Holy Spirit taught you, or because you just really appreciated the author’s points. However, I wonder if some people who share this type of post are secretly hoping that that one friend, you know, the one with the “bad children,” will read it and become super convicted and start making their children obey when they are at the park, or church, or school or wherever. I can see it being shared because (frankly,) those children annoy you.  If you shared this post (or any others for that matter) for this reason, may I encourage you to either lovingly confront the sin that you see in your Christian sibling or lovingly cover over that sin. We need to refrain from being passive-aggressive towards people, but rather “speak the truth in love.” And, if you received this post from a friend, maybe go and ask them why? Maybe they see something in your life that you are missing. Either way, move towards people, not against them sneakily. ]


So, if John Piper listened in on my conversation with Jack, he’d probably say, “Bravo! See! That behavioral condition worked it’s magic. Jack doesn’t sin because he knows that he will get disciplined!” If my grace-based friends listened in on my conversation they’d be deterred by the first half but would probably love the second half. “Bravo! See! The Holy Spirit IS the one who changes people. The painful discipline wasn’t what he thought about! He thought about God’s love! Woot!”


But honestly, I think that there is room for both of these “methodologies” in my parenting toolbox. In fact, I think they are both needed. Why do I think this?


In his article Piper said,

“Children need to obey before they can process obedience through faith. When faith comes, the obedience which they have learned from fear and reward and respect will become the natural expression of faith. Not to require obedience before faith is folly. It’s not loving in the long run. It cuts deep furrows of disobedient habits that faith must then not infuse, but overcome.”

I thought about this a lot. At first I was ready to pitch the paragraph as legalistic and behaviorally motivated (I mean really, “deep furrows”?) But the more and more I thought and read and talked, the more I liked what Piper said and led me to believe this; As parents we are responsible for the spiritual well-being of our children, thus it falls to us to teach our children the whole counsel of scripture, beginning with the foundational concepts needed to understand God and his truth. These concepts include things like trust, love, concern, and yes, obedience.


So, what does this look like in real life, when your children are little and you are frazzled? Well, from the time Meg was about 12 months old and her language skills were just emerging, I began to associate the word “obey” with the action of doing what I told her to do. I couldn’t “require” obedience (like Piper insinuated) because she didn’t have the language/reasoning skills needed to make that kind of choice! But it was my job to teach her this concept. At first I would give her commands and then I use hand-over-hand instruction to help her fulfill the command all the while saying, “Meg, you need to obey Mama.” Once she demonstrated that she knew what “obey” meant I would seek to cement the value of obeying by giving her age-appropriate feedback, both positive and negative. A big hug and maybe a sweet treat when she correctly follows a command to obey (stop, come, sit, stay, give etc) or a quick bit of pain, restraint or loss of an object if she failed to follow the command. For instance, I might hold her in my lap to restrain her if I am saying “Meg, you need to obey Mama and stay here.” If she gave me her cup after I asked for it I’d say, “Thank you for obeying! Here, let me give you some more juice.” I might slap her hand if she is about to touch the stove, the electrical outlet, a curling iron and say, “Mama said ‘No,’ you need to obey. This is HOT” (another concept that needs teaching.) Her anger does not deter me from teaching her the same things over and over (though I’ll be honest and say that it has recently made some of my days seem really long and exhausting) but neither do I see that anger as “sinful rebellion” quite yet. She is learning concepts and learning is tough, regardless of your age. I understand her frustration. I no longer scream out loud and kick my feet when God, via life, teaches me a hard lesson, but there still tends to be some hollering going on inside my head : ) When I am confident that Meg has the foundational understanding of basic obedience (a month or two perhaps?) I will start expecting her to make choices based on that knowledge. Knowledge that was gained by repetitious instruction with memorable (positive and negative) training.

I swear that this series of moments happened organically and was not provoked! Titled, "Anger at Being Denied the Use of a Sharpie Pen"

I swear that this series of moments happened organically and was not provoked. Titled, “Anger After Being Denied Use of Sharpie Pen”

Can you see the difference between this and pure behavior modification? I don’t want mindless responses to stimuli, I want mindful choices based on knowledge gained from hearing and experiencing the same facts over and over and over. I’m teaching foundational concepts. Once the basic concept of “obey” is learned, I can continue building on this foundation as Meg’s age increases along with her ability to comprehend harder concepts. For example, “Obey” is followed by “Obey Parents” (heaven knows what would happen if she obeyed her brothers!) which is follow by “Obey parents because God said too,” and then, “Obey Parents because God said that they are your authority just like God is their authority” then “Obey the people that God puts in your life as authority figures; like the government, pastors and teachers at school” to “Obeying people in authority is just a part of the way that we obey and trust God and his authority over us as our creator and sustainer” to finally, “Obeying God is right because he created us, but he wants us to obey him because we love him for giving us salvation, and that type of obedience brings him great joy.” You could use this paradigm for the concepts of love, trust, sin, concern, thankfulness, etc and it is best to do so concurrently (e.g., the “love” concept is learned at the same time and in the same “style” as “obey”). Starting with the milk of the Word, the very basic concepts needed to understand the gospel, we then move on until they have as much of the gospel as we can teach them while they are under our influence.


Does this make sense? I’ve been struggling through this idea of basic-level obedience for a week now and, after many different discussions with Paul, I feel that this idea most closely represents the biblical ideal of parenting very young children. When you read Proverbs (about foolishness being our natural state and how correction/instruction is one of the ways we weed out that foolishness; Prov 22:15, Prov 29:15, Prov 13:1) and you read Moses’s instructions to the Israelites (to make the spiritual training of children and all-day, every-day practice; Deut 6:7-8) and even when you listen to the writers of scripture talk about the need to move from basic truths to more complex truths (spiritual milk to spiritual meat; I Cor 3:1-2, also Heb 5:14,) you see the idea of building spiritual knowledge slowly, over time and in the context of everyday life. Combine this biblical paradigm with the way that children develop mentally (something I had to study when obtaining my graduate degree) and you’ll see how I came to this strategy for parental training/disciplining young children.


Are you helping your child learn the foundational truths (like love, trust, obedience etc) via consistent (i.e. not off-the-cuff commands without any follow-through, but thoughtful, deliberate commands with a clear follow up), loving (not motivated by anger or frustration) interactions? If not, you risk them struggling later on to fully comprehend the more abstract and theologically complex issues that make up the Christian life. So in this instance, ask yourself, does your three-year-old understand what it means to obey? Do they understand the concept of authority (someone who has the right to give them rules). Do they choose to obey appropriate requests made to them? If not, have you incorrectly taught them that authority figures can be disobeyed without consequence? Or that obedience is optional or not really very important? How will this impact their future understanding of the gospel? And perhaps more to the point, is this the way that you view your obedience to God? That it is optional and not really very important to him rather than a meaningful expression of love to him. Does this square with scriptures teaching on obeying God or obeying the other authority figures in your life?


Again, parenting means that while you work to disciple your child, you are constantly checking your own heart for that gospel gap: the inconsistencies between what you say that you believe and what you actually do. Paul Tripp, in his book “Instruments in the Redeemers Hands,” insightfully wrote,

“We confuse growth in knowledge and insight with genuine life change. Insight is not change and knowledge should not be confused with practical, active, biblical wisdom. In fourteen years of seminary teaching, I have met many brilliant, theologically astute students who were incredibly immature in their everyday life. There was often a huge gap between their confessional and functional theology.”

Your children are watching you (as evidenced by Jack’s assumption of God’s anger based on my anger). As you teach these core truths you must be certain that you are facilitating the closing of that gap in both their life and in your own. Teach them to obey you and show them that you obey God.  This is real life and not just a training exercise that will end when your child turns eighteen and leaves your house.

PHEW. Now that I got that out of the way, Monday I will finish up with this crazy long review of that very short blog post by Piper by looking at the other things that I agreed with in his post (and giving some idea about grace in our parenting.) This study has been good for me, and hopefully, it is helpful to all of you who are taking the time to read my lengthy disquisition! If you have any thoughts about this post (other than, “it’s long” : ), please let me know. I’d appreciate feedback of any kind. And though I haven’t been posting them to FB, we are putting up a new reworked playlist each Tuesday as well, so take some time to check those out. Have a wonderful weekend!

1 Comment

  • Rebekah Markham says:

    Wow, this was great. I appreciate your honesty and faithfulness to biblical concepts. Thanks for writing this series!

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