A Renewed Theology of Children

By: Kelly Tarr

Recently, I felt battered and weary in my parenting journey. Can you relate to this glimpse into a normal day in my house with one particular child? Stumbling to the breakfast table, when told what would be served, a complaint is muttered. A rote adoration prayer with no heart to it is mumbled. A meltdown occurs during chore time over a slightly challenging task.  A little while later as another day of school begins, a bad attitude oozes over school books. Opportunities for blessing a sibling are instead used for unkindness at just about every turn.

I had been asking the Lord for insight, understanding, wisdom, and HELP!!!!  So gently, and in His perfect timing, He sweetly answered my cries. Here’s what He made clear to me: my children are not angels. They are pagans and little devils, to borrow Jonathan Edwards’ description of them. My theology of children was wacky without me realizing it, and my expectations were totally off.

A Renewed Theology of Children

My husband and I have sought, from before we had children, to learn what the Lord teaches about children in His word.  We knew and had come to understand that children are a blessing and a gift from the Lord. We studied the Proverbs to see what He had to say about discipline; we listened to countless Bible teachings; and I even did a word study through the Bible about nursing. We wanted a Biblical theology as we thought about and approached parenting.

As I’ve fleshed out my new insights with the Lord, He has gently shown me another area of life in which I need transformation by the renewal of my mind.  I could tell you that I know my children are sinners and that the Bible describes them as ones who fall short of the glory of God.  But not all of my actions have been aligned with what I say I believe. For the past six years of my parenting, I have expected regenerate heart behavior from my children. 

Is anyone else laughing? Isn’t this ridiculous? Oh, but isn’t it so common?

So, while I recovered from the shell shock of realizing that I have probably contributed to making my parenting journey harder on myself than it’s needed to be, I also experienced relief.  The Lord brought deeper revelation– real understanding– as to the serious, depraved nature of my children’s hearts. The absolute truth of the matter is that our children, even our infants, fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). They are in desperate need of a Savior, and until His love has penetrated their hearts, they will act like the devil (John 8:44).

Unwittingly, I had bought into the lie that our culture—even our church culture—tells us. Children are good, sweet, innocent little people. Anyone that has ever had a 14 month old can laugh at that sentence. But think about it for a minute—when your unsaved 14 month old, two year old, or four year old has disobeyed or acted out in public, have you become exasperated with him?  Why? I know that my answer is because my expectation of conformity to a Biblical heart posture of obedience to parents has just been shattered.

Great Expectations

Expectations. We all have them. Before we were married, my husband had us both write down a very detailed list of expectations we would have of one another once married. I was shocked by some he had written for me. “That you won’t smoke,” was one. If there is anyone who detests smoking, it’s me. But, it was an expectation, so he wrote it down. His aim was to do as much work on the outset of our marriage, to make the road smoother once we said “I do.” And it worked. We did not experience many of the conflicts most newlyweds experience, simply because we talked a lot about everything beforehand. (If you know my husband, you may get a chuckle out of this)

James 4:1 explains that we experience conflict because of our desires that go unmet. In most relationships, conflicts are usually the result of unmet expectations (desires), most unspoken.  I was able to see recently, that I have held expectations for one of my children that are totally unrealistic. The thing is, I neither realized that I had them, nor that they were unrealistic until the Lord gently pulled the veil from my eyes about how I had been viewing children.

I had always hoped that my first-born daughter would live up to be what “typical” first born daughters look like. Something like helpful, nurturing, compassionate, compliant, responsible, self-controlled, orderly. My relationship with her has been the most challenging over the six years of her life.  I was able to see recently that the reasons our relationship has been so challenging has had everything to do with my expectations of her.  They are impossible on this side of salvation.  (Not to mention that she just doesn’t have a naturally orderly bone in her.)  When I really get that she has a wickedly depraved heart, my expectations drop dramatically. I stop expecting regenerate behavior, and expect and prepare my heart for the sin that will start being manifested at 7am.

When I understand that this child is order-challenged, instead of getting angry when I see a trail again, I can build time into my schedule to regularly train her to be orderly.  Her little person is very different than mine. When I finally “got” this, it really helped me breathe a sigh of relief. Lowering my expectations, or just changing them transforms how I think and approach her. It’s just like Romans 12:1. As my mind is renewed (having a NEW understanding of who my daughter is), I am transformed. Our relationship is transformed.

The Gospel Light

I am desperate for the Lord to come and bring His salvation to my children’s hearts. I want to participate with the Lord by being a witness for Jesus to my children. In order to best do this, as a mom, I must have a theology of children and my role as a mother. I am sunk without it, and the Lord says that I labor in vain if I don’t get it (Psalm 127).

The freedom I’ve experienced since realizing that my expectations were unrealistic for my unsaved daughter has been profound. I think part of this freedom has come by relinquishing control over things I so desperately wanted and kept trying to make happen, whether it be due to her unregenerate heart or differences in how she’s wired. Now, I can let go and let the Lord have His way in her life while I partner with Him. I can gently lead her to a perfect Savior who can mold her into the girl and woman He wants her to be. I can learn how to accept who she is (in many ways so opposite of me!), and even learn to appreciate some of her quirks.

It has been easy for me in the past to sink into this overwhelming cycle of desperation where I’m convinced that my daughter’s behavior is all my fault. “If only I’d done better when she was younger.” There is responsibility to be taken, but an even greater truth is that my daughter’s heart is far from the Lord. Until she knows Him, her heart posture will not be like Jesus, no matter how consistent I am with her.  Fully “getting” this releases me from anger and desperation. I’m doing my job. I am leading her to Jesus as often as possible, and I need to keep on.  I don’t need to look back and wallow in my previous failures.

The reality is that I will fail many times more over the next several years of mothering. I’m sure I’ll stumble over her orderly-challenged tendencies, too (though hopefully not nearly as much). The good news is that there is also another reality: I am being conformed to Jesus a little more each day.  And as I continue to walk closer with Him, even in my weakness and failings, my children are direct recipients of God’s grace and mercy through me. My imperfections and weaknesses are actually perfect holes for His strength to shine through to my little disciples.

I want a heart aligned with Jesus, so that His love radiates from my being, and my children encounter the Living God, don’t you?