Have you heard the saying, ‘Do what I say not what I do’? It seems to be a favorite phrase of parents everywhere. The problem with this is that children are born imitators. That's how God created them. They hear us repeat words before they attempt to join in. They watch us toss a ball and mimic our motions. In fact, we encourage children to watch how we do something before trying a new skill for themselves. But when we don’t want our behavior or bad habits to show up in the next generation, we fall back on sayings and excuses for why it’s okay for us but bad for them.
This is one of the challenges of motherhood, especially as children get older. They observe how we react to someone cutting us off, they listen to us complain about long lines in the grocery store, they repeat phrases they've heard us use dozens of times. Becoming a mother forces you to listen to your own advice and realize you aren't doing what you recommend. It is the greatest opportunity to be a role model, for better or worse.
When we allow the gospel to filter through every aspect of our lives, we can turn everyday moments into teaching opportunities. We also hold ourselves to a higher standard because we are seeking the same thing we want our children to emulate: Christlikeness.
Modeling the gospel to our children requires more than a ‘do what I say not what I do’ attitude. Our goal is to point them to Christ as the ultimate source of our imitating. Moses reminded the children of Israel that they needed to repeat truths about God to their children continuously throughout the day.
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.’ (Deut. 6:4-7)
Diligent is defined as a constant effort to accomplish something. So to teach diligently gives the idea of continual instruction from us to our children. This goes beyond words to actions as well.
Paul understood the importance of being an example in the life of a Christian. When he wrote to the church in Corinth, he stressed in two different chapters, ‘Be imitators of me.’ But he knew he wasn't the prime influence these people needed. I Corinthians 11:1 clearly states, ‘Imitate me as I imitate Christ.’
With each of his instructions to the church Paul reminded them that he was not the top authority the body needed to emulate. The goal for this life is to be like Christ. And because Paul sought to follow Christ in word and deed, the Corinthians could look to his example as one of Christlikeness.
Many times our excuse for not being the gospel focused example we are called to be in Christ comes down to one thing: we know we aren't perfect so why should we want our children to imitate us? We think it's so much easier to simply tell them what we expect than to actually live it out on a daily basis ourselves. But that's taking the easy road. That's not holding ourselves to the same standard we expect of our children.
And they might keep all the rules and do what we say for the short term but it won't make a lasting impression on their lives or create any real change. The truth of the gospel is that it can take our sinful nature and work change in us and in our children. The grace we have received is available to them also.
But that requires us to show the gospel to our children, even at the earliest ages. Proverbs 22:6 says ‘Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.’ The Hebrew word for train here is also translated as dedicate in three other passages. Our role as mothers is not passive or one of expecting our children to just turn out well. We are to actively show them the gospel and dedicate them to following the Lord. There's no better way to train children for a task than to show them an example. And we are the closest example God has put in their lives.
Asking our children to imitate our example is a huge commitment. It means when we fail, we seek forgiveness. It requires that we live in the light of grace everyday and show them the grace we ourselves need.
When we watch our children, their sin is so obvious to us and our response is equally cut and dry. We remind them of biblical truth, emphasize why it's important to follow God, explain why their behavior was a sin, point out that God is always ready to forgive when we ask, and so on.
However, we are not always as quick to call our failings sin. We stress the importance of relying on God to provide for our needs but try to plan everything ourselves. We tell them to apologize for yelling at a sibling but excuse our own raised voices as frustration. We quote, ‘Do all things without murmurings and disputings’ (Phil. 2:14) when they complain about chores but gripe every time we have to clean the bathrooms.
If we want our children to grow in gospel grace we must show them that the same truths we apply to their lives apply to us as well. We know we will never be perfect examples but we can point them to the Perfect Example. By allowing the gospel to be our source of hope and help, we model what they should be trusting as well.
Photo by S&B Vonlanthen on Unsplash