Parents, Require Obedience from Your Children…But Not Because John Piper Told You To (1)

A few weeks ago an article began showing up repeatedly on my Facebook feed. The comments that accompanied the article seemed to fall into two camps. There were a number of “amens” along with not a few “this was so great!” And, there were an equal number of comments like, “where’s the grace?” or “why is He so judgmental?” The “he” was John Piper, and the infamous, polarizing article was titled, “Parents, Require Obedience of Your Children” (an article which, if he ever turned it into a sermon, would be declared with an impassioned voice accompanied by dramatic gesticulations for emphasis and an air of finality. Gotta love Piper.) After two different friends asked me what I thought of the article, I did end up reading it….and since then I’ve been thinking about what he said.

As parents, we encounter the disobedience of our children on a daily, recurring basis. I think that the monotony of sin, that “over and over and over” nature of spiritual failure and growth, is what beckons me to forget all of my righteous zeal for tackling the ministry of motherhood.  In the seven (almost 8!) years since Jack was born I can see instances of how my parental responses have slipped from intentional discipleship to knee-jerk reactions.  If nothing else, reading Piper’s article forced me to look with a critical eye at the way that I interact with my children. Was I handling disobedience correctly? Did I need to stay the course or  did I need to readjust my trajectory . . . again.


So I pulled out a few of my favorite parenting books (all marked up and notated), had a few long conversations with Paul (long because, not shockingly, we disagreed on a few key issues), and then set myself to write down my thoughts on the subject of “requiring obedience.” Bare with me as these two posts might be a little dense, but I’m in too deep to back out now. I am posting something tomorrow (today is Thursday), come hell of high water (or whiny children or a massive household disaster.)

I’ll begin with some of the ways that I disagree with Piper’s “reasons.” Remember, I am only working off this one particular article. If you argue that Piper’s opinions need the full body of the rest of his work to truly comprehend his position, I would counter with the observation that people who require such background research shouldn’t write short mercurial posts and expect people to take them the “right way.”

In general, it seemed to me that Piper pushed alot of outcomes, both negative (they’ll get shot by the police) and positive (you will be much happier, they’ll be good citizens, etc.) as primary motivating factors for demanding obedience in children. Here are a few that he mentioned. 

“The mother did nothing. I thought to myself, she is training him to be shot by police.”

First, we shouldn’t require obedience simply because we are scared of raising the next generation of criminals. Piper’s ominous prediction that allowing disobedience now will lead to my son’s untimely death at the hands of law enforcement unless I change my parenting habits is hardly the strongest or most respectable way of convincing me to change. My guess is that a quick look into the lives of people who have defied police officers would reveal many felons (dead or alive) who grew up in homes (even Christian ones) where obedience was “required.” Pushing his advice to parents a little farther (because, what’s good for parent’s must be good for children, right?), is there a place for “fear-based” obedience in a Christian home? Sin certainly hurts (as I wrote about here), but God doesn’t use sin’s painful consequences as a primary means of convincing us to to obey his commands. Maybe it is means (especially in the proverbial sense; it’s clear that fools suffer [Prov 18:7] and hurt their mother [Prov 15:20]) while wise children reap the benefits of living an upright life [Prov 14:18]) but it is not a main one. The Bible is not a gun that we wave around when our children defy us and we shouldn’t turn it’s stories into threats to compel our children to obey. Want to get kicked out of a beautiful home like Adam and Eve? Disobeying will do the trick! Want to end up a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife? Try disobeying God! In her book “Give Them Grace,” Elyse Fitzpartick writes,

“I took every story in the bible and made it about what my children were supposed to be doing. I took every story of grace and mercy (like Jonah’s) and made it into law and morals: ‘You better obey. There are whales about!’”

We shouldn’t require obedience because there might be roving whales (or armed policemen) nearby. Cultivating the “fear of the Lord” (a respect for God’s power and a mindset that regards his words as true and trustworthy) is vastly different than continuously encouraging our children to be fearful of a God who apparently walks softly and carries a big stick. I’ve written alot more on the topic of guilt because we misunderstand our God here, here and Paul wrote about grieving God here. (Ooooo, it gets me fired up!)

“The work it takes to be immediately consistent with every disobedience bears sweet fruit for parents, children, and others.”

Second, we shouldn’t require obedience simply because it will make our lives easier in the end. Undoubtedly, my life is much less stressful on those days when the boys obey me, and I am grateful whenever I notice spiritual or mental maturity in my boys. But sometimes the boys haven’t matured spiritually, they’ve just learned how to sin in ways that won’t cause their Mama to wig out and put them into painfully long time-outs. They learn to follow my “household rules” and in doing so they lull me into the false sense that I must be doing a good job parenting because my life seems more tranquil. Rachel Yankovic put it this way in her book, “Loving the Little Years,”

“Its easy for parents to fall into this sort of lifestyle [very well behaved and organized] because cleaning and sorting makes you look and maybe even feel like you have your act together, even if you seriously don’t. What you are doing is finding a way to contain your children, control them, and keep their sin from making you look bad.  …The fact that your children have learned to go with the household flow…does not in any way offset the fact that they spend all their available free time sulking in their room. Christian childrearing is a pastoral pursuit, not an organization challenge.”

If comfortableness is my goal, I will be happy with good behavior. I’ll forget to look past their actions and check on the state of their hearts. God said that a man’s character is based on his heart attitude and not his outward deeds (I Sam 16:7).  He also says that eventually, the thoughts of our children’s hearts will influence the actions of their hands (Luke 6:45). “Good” children can develop very toxic hearts. Hearts left untended by parents who are happy with the calm routine that they’ve established and maintained with a firm disciplinary hand.

“Children whose parents require obedience are happier.”

Third, we shouldn’t require obedience simply because it will make our children happier (in the end.) Obedient children might be “happy” (read-not rebellious, not bratty, not stubborn) or they might just be mindlessly obeying because that’s the easiest way to live! I love Gary Thomas’s book “Sacred Marriage.” The reason I love it so much is because of his thesis; that marriage was designed by God to make us holy more than happy. Shine this premise on parenting and I believe that it will change the way that I judge my child’s spiritual health.  I’m not trying to raise “happy” children, I’m trying to raise children who love God more than they love their own comfort (Luke 10:27, Rom 12:1). Tedd Trip writes in his book “Shepherding a Child’s Heart,”

“Our culture sees a parent as an adult care-provider. Quality time is considered having fun together. Fun together [happiness] is not a bad idea, but it is light years away from directing your child in the ways of God. …Being a parent means working on God’s behalf to provide direction for your children. Directors are in charge. It means teaching them that they are sinners by nature. It includes pointing them to mercy and grace of God shown in Christ’s life and death for sinners.”

If happiness were my goal then my time would be spent investing time and effort into making my child’s dreams come true (in the best sense of the phrase.) I would try to give them the best education, the best social opportunities, the best diet, the best schedule, and (if Jack has anything to say about this right now) endless video game time with large helping of chicken nuggets and french fries. I might even require obedience simply because it will smooth out the pathway towards their aspirations! But their happiness (right now or in the future) isn’t my ultimate goal. This isn’t to say that I won’t try to make wise choices regarding their hopes and dreams, but those things can’t be my north star. Rather my focus should be on my children’s holiness, their true and honest relationship with God. Again, Tedd Tripp writes,

“If your objectives are anything other than, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” you teach your children to function in the culture on it’s terms. How do we do this? We pander to their desires and wishes. We teach them to find their soul’s delight in going places and doing things. …We give them material things and take delight in their delight of possessions. Then we hope that somewhere down the line they will see that a life worth living is found only in knowing and serving God.”

The convicting thing about this quote is that I can easily read myself into it. How often have I taken delight in things or experiences more than in knowing and loving God? He has given me so many undeserved kindness (I’m thinking of all the amazing places that I’ve visited), but I am pretty quick to forget him in my enjoyment of his gift. I can say to Jack and Brenn, “Oh, loving God is the more important than anything else” but do my attitudes and actions back this claim up? You can’t fake this stuff. Kids are smart, and they can spot hypocrisy. So if you say that you love God, then truly, LOVE GOD. I hear this message in Jesus’s scathing review of the Israelite in Matthew 15.

You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[c]

Sigh. Parenting; it’s conviction in a bottle.

“Little children, under a year old, can be shown effectively what they may not touch, bite, pull, poke, spit out, or shriek about. You are bigger than they are.”

Fourth, we should expect obedience from our children because God implies that it is possible BUT not in the way that Piper explains it. Sure, it’s possible to make Meg do what I want her to do by physically forcing her to “obey.” But that’s not heart level obedience, the kind that Jack or Brenn should be displaying.  Elyse Fitzpatrick calls this “initial obedience.” She writes,

“Every responsible parent knows that there are certain things children must be taught. …They need to know, understand and respond immediately to the command no. They need to be taught about the words stop and come to me, for the same reason. When a little child begins to dash out into a busy street, her life may depend on whether she responds to your voice. These are simply concepts that will protect them from harm and enable them to begin to function within the family and society.”

Yes, sometimes it is necessary to use my physical power to help my infant learn a life skill (like not sticking their fingers into electrical sockets) but again, that type of hand-over-hand compliance isn’t really the same thing as spiritual obedience. True obedience begins when a child can reason, when they hear a commands and decide to follow it. Opting not to do a certain action because the result is painful is known as conditioning, or behavior modification. Parents can use all sorts of consequences (painful or positive) to condition a child (negative vocal tone, positive vocal tone, restraining, rewarding, swatting, high-fiving etc.) and I have no problem using these methods for life skills (or “initial obedience.”) In fact, it is fairly essential to parenting (or teaching, or coaching etc) that a child learn to stop when commanded too, listen when spoken too and physically respond correctly when told to do something that is age appropriate. It’s not just a spiritual issue – it’s a social/physical/mental issue so the need for repetitious behavior modification is somewhat warranted. But I think that this type of parent-child interaction should fade as a child’s reasoning skills improve.  Continuing to merely use physical or mental strength to manipulate those smaller or weaker than ourselves is generally known as bullying.  Parents aren’t supposed to win obedience battles by bullying or threatening. It might work with dogs, but scripture never commands parents to take on the role of “Alpha Male” when teaching their children to love and obey God. Rather a true parent takes their authority with a good dose of humility. My children aren’t puppies. They are small image bearers, designed in God’s likeness and possessing the ability to think and reason. My goal is to challenge their thinking, not just condition their behavior. This is what Hannah Andersen speaks to in her book “Made for More.”

“As image bearers, our identity is so fundamentally flawed that no amount of metaphysical therapy of healthy living [behavior modification or law keeping] can heal us. Like the caterpillar, our old selves must die. And this begins when we hide ourselves, when we cocoon ourselves in Him. … When we repent of not honoring Him as God.”

She went on to say later in the book,

“Ultimately, the only way to find identity [as] imago dei is to have our hearts shaped after God’s own heart. To love what he loves so we will do what He does. God did not intend for us to be actors performing roles [keeping all the rules] but to be people living in intimate relationship with Him and others. This happens as our hearts are changed by His love and then kept desiring the right things by dependent union with Him through prayer, meditation, personal study and communion with others. Through these spiritual graces our hearts are shaped after his and we are then able to desire the right things.”

This is my goal for my children. It goes so far beyond good behavior! Yes, it is absolutely necessary to train your children in those important life skills that are needed for health and safety. And if you aren’t training them in these areas, then you may be delinquent in your job as a caregiver. But don’t confuse behaviorist training with spiritual discipleship. The one isn’t a substitute for the other.

These are my negative reactions to the article. PHEW. Thanks for sticking with me. I feel like I crammed a whole lot into a small space. I’ll finish with my positive reactions in my next post (haha! I bet you are praying that I learn some brevity between now and then : )

If you haven’t read some of the books I mentioned, I would highly recommend them as invaluable assets while parenting.  Beginning with the ones that I’ve found to be the most helpful; “Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus” by Elyse Fitzpatrick (currently just 2.99$ on Amazon Kindle!!),  “Made for More:An Invitation to Live in God’s Image” by Hannah Anderson, “Loving the Little Years” by Rachel Yankovic, “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” by Tedd Tripp,  and “The Ministry of Motherhood:Following Christ’s Example in Reaching the Hearts of Our Children” by Sally Clarkson.

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