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If you’ve missed been past two posts — here and here — on Pastor Reb Bradley’s article on homeschooling ‘Solving the Crisis in Homeschooling: Exposing the 7 Major Blindspots of Homeschoolers’, I hope that you will have time to read it in full.

In this concluding part, he discusses ‘formulaic parenting’ and ‘relationship’. This also concerns the way husbands treat wives.

We seem to have a growing trend in conservative — not necessarily orthodox — churches with men objectifying not only children but also women. Some of these men are new to the faith, others are returning from a sojourn away from the Church and others have been lifetime believers steeped in outward holiness. Some laymen’s groups are church book clubs where the latest in family and ‘godly’ advice are dutifully read and digested. The erroneous notion of ‘federal headship’ — relatively recent — is gaining currency among men who, despite their muscular physiques, feel bewildered and displaced in 21st century society. The idea that they command their families like ‘high priests of the home’, the way a fundamentalist Muslim does, has some appeal. At least there is one realm which these men can control in any way they see fit. When ‘Christian’ books and videos reinforce these notions, men can hide behind the word ‘godly’ and say, ‘Honey, I’m only making our home more acceptable to the Lord. Now, just do what I tell you and we won’t have any problems.’

In the final part of his article, Bradley warns us about objectifying family members. Emphases mine below, except in the heading and italicised words.

7. Formulaic parenting breaks down relationship

An over-dependence on authority and control, along with an over-reliance upon sheltering are often part of a “formulaic” approach to parenting. We, as homeschool parents, are committed to achieving results with our children so we look for and rely upon formulas and self-working principles to insure our success. One of the reasons we go to homeschooling conventions and read numerous books is to learn the guaranteed “how to’s” and steps from the successful veterans. Our desire for results with our family compels us to discover all the ingredients in the ultimate “family-life recipe.”

Formulas for success after all, have become the American way – impatience and love of expedience characterize our outlook on life. That is why millions of self-help books are sold every year in bookstores, both secular and Christian. By its very definition, a formula is a reliable process of producing a specified result. In life, we want the ultimate formula for weight loss, the quickest scheme to get rich, and the surefire prescription for finding true love. In the church we want the proven method for church growth, the sure techniques for evangelism, and the most effective system for raising up leaders. And with our children we want the tried and true approach for producing results. The process doesn’t need to be quick or simple, but it must be reliable, and it certainly must be biblical. To our delight, we know the Bible is full of the wisdom and promises of God. We therefore look to it for its self-working principles and promised methods.

Yes, it seems that everyone in the church these days wants to find the biblical formulas for success, but there’s a problem with trusting in formulas – we are directed, no, commanded to trust in God – not in formulas (John 14:1; Ps 37:5; 62:8). There is a monumental difference.

A formulaic perspective says, “If I am faithful to implement this principle or carry out this procedure properly, I am certain to arrive at a specific result. And If I do not do the procedure exactly right I will achieve bad results.” In this state of mind we are trusting not just in the “method,” but in our efforts to carry it out. Trust in formulas is really dependence upon ourselves. In our hearts we know this and that’s why those who feel their efforts have produced great results are tempted to take pride in their adult children – they credit themselves for doing it all right (and condescend to those who haven’t). And that’s why those unhappy with the results of their efforts feel so much like failures – they conclude they must have used the wrong approach.

Anyone who really understands the grace of the gospel knows that we cannot take personal credit for any spiritual accomplishments. We are totally God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10; Phil 2:13; 1:6) and everything good in our lives is a gift from Him (James 1:17). We can do absolutely nothing by ourselves for which we can take credit (Eph 2:8-9; Gal 6:14; Rom 4:2; 1 Cor 1:28-31; 2 Cor 11:30).   Yes, when we face God on Judgment Day he will affirm us for what we have done here on Earth (1 Cor 3:6-15; Mat 25:21), but we know He is the power behind our lives (Acts 17:28), so we rightly give all glory to Him (Rom 11:36). So many of us lean toward a formulaic mentality, because our fallen natures are drawn toward self-reliance.  We want to feel that by our own efforts (works) we have achieved something that will make us acceptable to God – by nature we are legalistic. (The reason that “human effort” forms the basis for all false religions of the world is, because our fallen natures strive toward “high self-esteem” through self-effort. In contrast, grace gives credit to God for all that is good.)  

It is critical to understand that God wants us to trust not in principles, methods, or formulas, no matter how “biblical” they seem. God wants us to trust in HIM!  As I emphasized earlier on in this series of articles, our responsibility is to obey – God’s job is to produce results (1 Cor 3:6). Our success in raising children to be lovers of God and others, is not going to be contingent upon achieving perfect sheltering or using the best Bible curriculum. It is going to be based on doing what we must as parents, but trusting God for the outcome. We absolutely mustn’t trust in our ability to intimidate and control, or in the path upon which we lead our family.

If Christians can consistently achieve seemingly spiritual results by human efforts, I ask – where is God in the equation? After studying how God dealt with Israel and how Christ conducted himself on Earth, I contend that God will not reduce Himself to being an ingredient in a formula or method … In the church is it possible that we are trying to gain spiritual results by fleshly means? Yes, biblical principles of discipline, when used by believers or unbelievers, will help develop good behavior in children, but good behavior is only skin-deep.  Fruitful parenting is about affecting our children’s hearts, not just their behavior.  To influence their hearts, it won’t be by our control – the heart belongs to the individual and must be touched by God.

I have observed that the best and most lasting fruit is born in families in which the gospel is genuinely believed and lived. Parents who daily depend upon God, and not their methods and self-working principles, are most likely to pass on their faith. I am convinced that the most contagious parenting is living a heartfelt faith before your children.

Children as people

There’s a problem with approaching our relationships in a formulaic fashion. Can you guess what it is?

People, as self-willed individuals, cannot be successfully subjected to methods of manipulation. Our children are people – they are not soulless animals to be trained. Neither are they chemicals in a formula, which can be processed for guaranteed results. It is critical that we realize our children are people whose hearts, as they mature, are influenced more by relationship than by external controls. In all our intensity we can sometimes treat them not as fellow humans, but as dehumanized ingredients in a cake we are baking.

If we think we have total control over how our children respond to our training, we will relate to them not so much as people, but more as animals. Dogs are behavior-driven and can be trained to respond to a stimulus exactly the same way, time after time. Children however are people and as they mature they will eventually decide if they will continue to respond as trained. If we do not understand this we will fail to develop the relationship they deserve as our children, and as our younger brothers and sisters in Christ – which, incidentally, will give us greater influence over their adolescent hearts.

My own recipe called for great amounts of parental control, daily doses of Scripture indoctrination, plenty of edifying music, modest apparel, and safe entertainment, all combined in the oversized mixing bowl of sheltering, and cooked in the oven of homeschooling. The timer was set and I knew that when they reached their 18th birthday, “DING” the timer would go off I would have a perfect angel food kid. I was certain of it. I had yet to learn that fruitful parenting is more about people than process.

At homeschool conventions across the country I have seen in parents a tendency to treat children as non-persons. I cannot count the times I have stood at my booth in the exhibit hall and been approached by a mom or dad, accompanied by one of their older teenage children. The parents ask me about a problem they are having with one of their children, and as they talk, I realize that the child to whom they refer is the one standing there with them. It is as though these parents are oblivious that their young adult has feelings. As I look into the eyes of that embarrassed young person I often see a detached or despairing look that hints they can’t wait to get out of the home. Other parents who approach me may not have a teen present to embarrass, but they will ask me for a method to change their problem-teenager at home. In the last few years I have tried to explain to these parents that fruitful interaction is not about what they do to their young people, but who they are with them. It’s about having a real faith in God, and expressing it in a real relationship with a real person.

Breakdown of relationship

A number of years ago, it finally dawned on Bev and I that as we had focused on parenting “methods,” our children were eventually relegated to being ingredients in a formula. We related with them as if they were “projects.”  The more we focused on formulas and principles to which we would subject our children, the more they became “things.” The more they became things the less we had significant relationship. The less we had relationship the more we lost their hearts. Without their hearts the less we were able to influence them or their valuesWe regularly spent hours coaching and admonishing them during their teen tears, not realizing that all our brilliant lectures were falling on deaf ears. Without their hearts, the best we could do was make more rules and devise new consequences, which affected the outside, but not the inside.

I want to restate the points of this last paragraph one at a time, so you can see the progression again:

1. The more we focus on formulas and principles, the more children become “things.”

2. The more they become things the less we have significant relationship.

3. The less we have relationship the more we lose their hearts

4. Without their hearts the less we are able to influence their values

5. Without their hearts, the best we can do is control the outside (for a while).

Is it clear yet?   I know that some of you don’t get it, because right now you are hoping I will lay out a step-by-step plan for winning your children’s hearts.  Ouch!  The formulaic mentality, unfortunately, is like a filter that we wear over our eyes – it is a way of viewing the Christian life that must be identified and forsaken.

Perhaps it will become clearer if I illustrate the point using the husband-wife relationship.

Let’s say that the situation involves a man and his wife. He goes off for a day to the ACME School for Husbands and returns home to put into practice all that he learns. Upon arising the first morning he pulls out a cue card, looks at his wife lying in bed and awkwardly reads, “Honey… don’t you look ….. beautiful today!” She might be flattered, and does want to believe he is sincere, but she knows that with her mask of face cream she looks awful. Besides, although his words are nice, his need to read his “heart felt” love lines smacks of insincerity, and she doesn’t trust his motives. Her hopes are up, after all, he is trying; but as the day progresses and he does one “good husband” deed after the other, it is obvious that he has merely learned some tricks for manipulating women. He cluelessly insults her cooking for the 17th time that month, then reaches into a box and pulls out a bouquet of plastic flowers to “fix it”; when his wife confronts him after he starts his daily tirade against his mother-in-law, he suddenly stops and begins reciting a contrived script about how wonderful his mother-in-law actually is; before responding to anything his wife says he first refers to list of tips he carries in his pocket, etc.

Some women would be thrilled that their husband was at least trying, but most would prefer that he not simply act loving, but that he actually love them. She desires her husband not to act like he is listening to her, but to actually care enough to listen. A woman rightly desires a real relationship with her husband, and doesn’t want to feel like she’s another problem in his life to be dealt with. She wants him – not the cliché phrases or manipulative ploys he learned from an ACME instructor. Such a woman will not easily draw close to her husband – she may even be tempted to back away out of self-protection.

But what if a husband came home from the training and instead of trying to woo his wife, he treated her degradingly, seeking to force changes in her, ie: he threatened to take away all access to money if the house were not kept neater; he took away her car keys and cut off the phone to control how she spent her time; if she cried for any reason he would scream at her and accuse her of “classic female manipulation,” etc. My guess is that most women would have great difficulty submitting to such demeaning treatment.

A woman’s struggle with such harsh conduct is understandable, since as the Scriptures teach, a wife is to be sacrificially loved and tenderly cherished (Eph 5:25, 28-29). And she mustn’t be treated roughly (Col 3:19), but regarded with special consideration and respect (1 Pet 3:7). It is a foolish man who disregards God’s shrewd admonishments – any wife with self‑respect will be tempted to keep herself at a safe emotional distance.

In these two scenarios the husband approached his wife with a formulaic mentality. He related to her like she was a project, subjecting her to various techniques and ploys to achieve a certain result. What he really needed to do was love his wife and relate to her genuinely on the basis of that love. In the same way that a wife needs to be esteemed as a woman and fellow adult, our children, particularly our teens, need to be respected. When we relate with them like they are projects they subconsciously see it in our eyes and sense it in our manner. They respond best to genuine interaction – respectful of them, as if they were intelligent beings with thoughts and opinions worth listening to. If we relate with them as if they are projects, rather than persons, they will likely remain emotionally distant from us. Yes, we are still responsible to protect them, exercise authority over them, and groom them toward full adulthood, but they must have opportunities to share their thoughts and know they have been heard. (I will address this with more specifics in a future article.)

It all goes back to my admonition in Section 5 – it is who you are not just what you do. A formulaic mentality is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing to produce the right result. Our children need us not merely to act like Christians, but to be genuine Christians. As I look back in my own life, I see that with my first three children I was too concerned with how they were perceived by others. I saw their behavior as a reflection on me, and I wanted to look good. They, therefore, sensed in me a measure of pretentiousness – not the genuineness of faith that would have drawn them to me or to the Jesus I spoke about. My sincere concern for their character was overshadowed by my concern for my reputation. I have discovered that, like me, multitudes of parents want their children’s hearts, but live a faith that fails to completely attract them.

Influencing the heart

… If we want to influence our children’s hearts and not just their behavior, it will happen because of who we are, not what we do. We cannot simply implement loving actions in our homes – we must truly love (1 Cor 13:3). We cannot merely recite Scripture to our families – we must be those who look to the Word because it points to our wonderful Savior (John 5:39). And we especially cannot treat a spiritual activity such as prayer as a “discipline” or “principle” – it must be the natural response of dearly loved children of God pouring their hearts out to their Father in Heaven.

Turning hearts of children to parents

It is possible that the pure gospel of Jesus, which first led us to him, has become clouded for us. We may believe in the grace of the gospel, but we have unconsciously supplemented the finished work of Christ with our own efforts to implement our preferred formula. We may have muddied the gospel with our preoccupation with outward appearances and external controls.

It could also be that we don’t enjoy the fruit of the gospel in our families, because we have never understood the grace of the gospel at all. Either way, I pray that the eyes of our hearts be opened to see Jesus (John 12:21; 20:29). Those who see him, most easily drop those things that hamper them in their pursuit of him (Heb 12:1-3). And those who really see him find they more naturally become like him (1 John 3:2). And it is those who are genuinely like him that have the greatest impact on those around them.

Seeing Jesus

Jesus was the greatest preacher of holiness the world has ever known, yet he attracted to himself common sinners and the dregs of society. Jesus had high standards – he was the epitome of righteousness and purity, but somehow he was incredibly attractive. He exposed sin, but he accepted sinners. He hated evil, but evildoers saw in him a wealth of mercy. Jewish society was intimidated by the standards of the Pharisees, but few were drawn to their religion of avoidance, control, and form. Is it possible that when our children look at us they see more of the Pharisees in us than Jesus? Might it be that the Jesus we represent to our children is not the real Jesus at all?

The Savior is near you and calls you to leave behind the life of empty, lifeless religion, and come to the One who embodies God’s mercy. He is righteous – he abhors evil and despises pompous religion. He hates it exceedingly, but he loves us so much, he allowed himself be nailed to a cross, so that the wrath of God would pour down upon him instead of us. He now extends to us his scarred hands, so that we would see them and declare in our hearts, he is a wonderful Savior worth following!

Loving him isn’t about our children – it is about HIM! God intends that the side effect of loving Jesus, and enjoying the grace of the gospel, will be that all people, including our children, will be touched by the Savior in us. I pray in Jesus name that as you read these words you will experience the grace of God in a fresh and new way. Cry out for it!  And may it rain down upon you with power from on high! May today be the day that you grasp the love of God and find in Him what you’ve been searching for all along.

AMEN!

I personally know only one large family whom I consider godly, healthy and ‘successful’, for lack of a better word. Both parents held graduate degrees and had met at university. The husband converted to Catholicism from a Protestant denomination. His wife had always been a devout Catholic, despite a tragic episode during her childhood. The couple had a lifelong interest and activity in local and state education, primarily at secondary and university level.

They had five children, each of whom was an individual, and developed their lives in different ways. The whole family has a very lively faith, which is still evident today. The eldest son became a priest, a daughter pursued a fast-paced consulting career, a son forged his way in photography then as a small business manager, another son became a successful businessman and another daughter became a full-time teacher after a long debilitating illness. Four attended state secondary school and one a Catholic girls’ school. All earned at least a Bachelors degree at university; the eldest son has advanced degrees from seminary. In their spare time, some of them played sports, others pursued a more intellectual path, but all trusted in the promise of Christ which, in turn, deepened their love for each other and those whose lives they touched.

Their home was elegant and orderly but always felt calm and peaceful. I don’t know how the parents managed it; each had a busy schedule, often through to late evenings. However, they showed an excellent example to their children by exhibiting a true love of Christ. The children saw that example and wanted to follow it. I can’t explain it, because whilst the couple were in the public eye and well-respected, they were self-effacing and modest people who treated each other as equals. However, they did live their faith and respected their children as people whilst giving them sound guidance and providing them with structure.

A heartfelt Christianity, deep humility and a quiet spirit helped this couple raise five talented, thinking, believing children, now in middle age, two of whom have their own families.

So, it is possible, but it takes a genuine faith in and individual relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ.

End of series

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