We need to be like God to our kids, full of love and discipline and justice and mercy. But mercy without judgment is not grace, and that’s why rules and consequences for breaking them must be in place. I can’t help but think that some kids never really come to Christ simply because they have never been held to any rules and have wrong concepts about mercy and justice. Paul wrote, “The law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).
Rules can never make us right with God, but they show us how we are wrong so we can come to Him honestly, asking for mercy from Him who is so willing to give it. If we constantly let our children off the hook, they assume God will do the same. He will, but only on His terms, and as parents we need to do our best to lead our kids to Christ, who will care for them when we no longer can.
When she was a little girl, my older daughter loved riding her bike. She and I would sometimes travel for miles, me peddling steadily on my big 26” bike, and she cranking furiously on her little 20-incher from which I’d only recently removed the training wheels. She just loved riding with her daddy, and I often rode farther than I really cared to, simply because she delighted so much in the simple joy of being with me and traveling on a bike. If I couldn’t be with her, there were very limited areas where she could ride. Of course, these rules were mostly for her safety. We didn’t want her getting hurt, and nearby were dangerous roads only to be traveled at certain times with her father.
One day, she grew bored with our restrictions and rode beyond where she was told to go. It was fun for a while, but by the time she returned, the poor girl was wracked with guilt. In tears she confessed to her mother that she had disobeyed us. Wisely, my wife forgave my daughter and did not spank her for this offense; our little girl had suffered enough and knew that she was wrong, but my wife also pointed out that she had also offended God, and my daughter describes this event as a pivotal moment when she in reality came to Christ to be forgiven for her sins. God used the rules given by her parents to bring her to Himself.
I want my kids to understand that obedience is ultimately about submission to God. If I’ve only trained them to obey me, I’ve failed miserably because I cannot always be with them, but if they understand they also have a heavenly Father who sees all they do and, more importantly, loves them and desires their obedience to His wishes and wisdom, they may well make right choices when far from me. Above all else, they must know that God loves them, enables them to be righteous, and forgives their inevitable failures.
I have frequently confessed rather than excused my faults before my children. They know I am in need of His mercy, and when I have dealt with them wrongly, caused them offense, or made them stumble because of my behavior, I have asked them for forgiveness. Parents need not worry about losing credibility if they admit their faults. Children are sharper than we think, and when they see our inconsistencies, they are not fooled.
On the other hand, when they see me as a flawed man obtaining grace, they are less likely to dismiss my religion as a crock of rules given by a hypocrite. Oftentimes, I have come alongside my children, especially as they became adolescents, and I have conceded that my own struggles are much like theirs. I have admitted freely the sins of my youth and of my later life, explained how damaging those lapses have been, and shown them the Savior who forgives and empowers me and can do the same for them as well.