Shaping the Lives of Children

If you are raising children, you want them to grow up strong and beautiful.  You long to see your kids become “fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.” Ephesians 4:13   You want them to be a light to the world, mirroring the love of Jesus to those around them.  

Raising children can bring joy, but mostly it’s slow and difficult work.  Let’s face it. We are in way over our heads.

Our children can tax our nerves and drive us to exasperation.  They behave in ways that baffle us. They resist guidance. They make bad choices.  When they are small, that may be annoying. When they get older, they may put themselves and others at great risk.  We realize, sooner or later, that we need all the help we can get in raising children. We need help from God.

This verse from one of David’s psalms places raising children squarely in the realm of prayer.

May our sons in their youth
    be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
    cut for the structure of a palace. Psalm 144: 12

If we judge by what we see on television, Americans dream of their sons becoming successful in sports, entertainment and business.  They dream of their daughters growing smart enough to become lawyers, professors or doctors, tough enough to be combat marines or members of an anti-terrorist swat team and pretty enough to win the Miss America pageant.  

The prayer of the psalmist moves in a different direction.  He prays that sons may be like full-grown plants, strong and fruitful.  He prays that daughters may be like carefully cut corner pillars, beautiful and strong, serviceable to play a key role in supporting a palace fit for royalty.

People in agricultural societies know that you need to work hard to cultivate crops to maturity.  You must prepare the soil, water during dry spells, remove weeds that compete to take nutrients from the plants, protect them from predators such as insects, wild animals and from diseases.  All this requires knowledge with careful attentiveness.

The same is true when shaping a pillar to serve in a royal palace.  A pillar must be sturdy enough to hold up the structure, as well as well shaped and polished to appeal to the eyes.  This requires on the part of a craftsman a deep understanding of the raw materials, skill in the use of the proper tools and long hours of careful, patient labor.  

This little prayer verse suggests two things.  First, being a parent is not for wimps. It’s hard and slow work. Secondly, we are not going to get very far with our children without prayer.  God is the potter. We and our children are the clay. If we are going to shape them well, it will only be with God’s help.

John Chrysostom was a priest and later a bishop, serving in Antioch and Constantinople, two of the major Christian centers of the fourth and fifth centuries. During his lifetime the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Prior to this, being a Christian was a life decision involving some risk. Under the emperor, Christianity became political correctness.

Although he was a monk, and never married, John had a deep concern for families and taught that the family was to become a little society reflecting the love and communion of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

As bishop of Constantinople, John saw many Christian parents neglecting the spiritual nurture of their children.  Instead of training their children in faith, they pushed for an education that would help their children rise up in the ranks of business and government leadership.

John often compared the work of parents to the work of artists and sculptors.  He wrote, “To each of you fathers and mothers, I say, just as we see artists fashioning their paintings and statues with great precision, so we must care for these wondrous statues of ours.  Painters when they have set the canvas on the easel paint on it day by day to accomplish their purpose. Sculptors, too, working in marble, proceed in a similar manner; they remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking.  Even so must you proceed. Like the creators of statues so you give all your leisure to fashion these wondrous statues for God. (from The Ecclesial Family: John Chrysostom on Parenthood and Children, by Vigen Guroian, in The Child in Christian Thought, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 69.)

This shaping process cannot be done by parents slouched in an Easy Boy chair playing video games while their children wander about the house.  It cannot be done by parents shouting at each other. Parents need to be active in reading God’s word, energetic in prayer, active in serving one another and others in their communities.  Parents set the tone in the household by their own habits. Children who see their parents reading God’s word and praying, practicing hospitality, sharing resources with their church community and those in need, know these are things of the highest value.  Out of parents’ reading of God’s word and prayer will arise many conversations with their children to teach God’s ways and correct bad behavior. This happens around the dinner table, on the way to serve in a soup kitchen or to help a neighbor, on road trips and in bedtime conversations.  God uses parents to shape children. But we can’t do it without asking for his help.

The famous sculptor Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.  I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” This reminds me of the work of parents – carving until the true character of our children is set free.   We need God’s help. God gives us help. And while we are at work shaping our children and praying for them, God is also shaping us for his purposes in his kingdom.   

Donald Marsden

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