Teach Your Children
Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century doctor of the church who penned the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” opens his devotional classic On Loving God with the following words: “You wish for me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason why He is to be loved. As for how He is to be loved, there is to be no limit to that love.” Similarly, the Shema leads us from a contemplation of the being and essence of God to our response in loving Him. For this article, we will consider particularly the duty (and delight) of parents to instruct their children to love the Lord God.
Even this parental obligation is rooted in the nature of God’s oneness as it unfolds into His eternality. Because God is, as Moses writes elsewhere, “from everlasting to everlasting,” while the span of a man’s life is like that of the grass that quickly flourishes in the morning only to be cut down by evening (Ps. 90), then one way to ensure that our love for Him has “no limit” is to labor generationally, the current generation praising His works and declaring His mighty acts to the next (Ps. 145:4).
Not only does the worthiness of God call for generational love, but the work of God is also necessarily covenantal, so that every command and confession, including the Shema, is given for “you and your son and your grandson” (Deut. 6:2). This may also be related to the eternality of God’s oneness. His address to mortal Abraham, for example, inevitably included the tacked-on phrase “and to your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7–8)—gracious, to be sure, yet sobering as well. More to the point, God’s plan to fill the earth with worshipers is worked out covenantally so that “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) becomes inseparable from “teach them diligently” (Deut. 6:7).
We find a beautiful expression of this idea as we compare the call of Abraham, the climactic goal of which was to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3), with the Lord’s remark later on that He had known Abraham “that he may command his children and his household after him … so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19). Thus, we see that one of the most consistent means by which God’s end to bless all the families of the earth progresses is through the little schoolroom—or, perhaps better, “little church”—of the Christian household.
Let us look briefly now at the manner in which Deuteronomy 6:6–7 guides us in teaching our children diligently. First, teaching our children requires time. Here we must reject the false either/or at the root of the myth about quality time outweighing quantity of time. Teaching our children “diligently” is defined and elaborated upon as talking to them “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (v. 7). A legitimate paraphrase might be “teach your children everywhere (at home or in the world) and always (from morning to evening).” We need, in other words, to live with our children, to be with them when they are at home or out and about. The lifestyle of regular instruction requires us to have a relationship with our children, which takes time.
Second, our lifestyle of teaching must be genuine. It is a fearful reality that we pass on to our children not so much what we “believe” as what we love. A father may lead his household in family worship daily, but if his children’s best memories with him are hooting and hollering over a ballgame, we can be sure those children will grow up to hoot and holler over a ballgame with their own children (but not so sure about the worship part).
Speaking of the things of God in your home, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise is an impossible task if it does not come naturally. This is not to say the practice takes place without effort—far from it—yet our teaching must be sincere, flowing naturally out of a heart that loves God, a heart that desires for God to be our children’s chief joy. In other words, if our love for God is genuine, it will also be consistent— everywhere and always. The admonitions of verse 7, therefore, are but the out-workings of the command in verse 6: “these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” Our love, without doubt, will flow into every budding twig of the family tree. This, in consideration of our own wayward hearts, along with the uncanny ability of children to detect disingenuousness, should lead us to our knees, pleading with the Lord to give us what we lack and yet so desperately need: a sincere delight in God, such that we enjoy worshiping Him above all other attractions.
Third, our teaching not only must flow out of the heart, it must be aimed at the heart, saturated with prayer for our children’s souls. Love for God and the things of God is the goal; obedience is the expression of that love. With this in mind, it is especially crucial to understand that beyond summing up the law, love is also its context—God’s children sin within God’s family. The statutes, judgments, and commands of Deuteronomy are set within the framework of God’s gracious covenantal dealings: He delivered Israel out of the house of bondage, shepherded them through the wilderness, and provided the tabernacle system of sacrifices as a remedy for their law-breaking, that every contrite heart would find the assurance of reconciliation. So we teach our children not merely to obey laws, but, through those laws, how much they (persistent, judgment-worthy lawbreakers, just like us) have been forgiven—that is, we teach them how deeply God has loved them in Christ. Because the goal is that they would love God, and because, as Jesus said, the one who is forgiven little loves little (Luke 7:47), we impress upon our children how much we have been forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We also teach them—with thanksgiving in our hearts—that Jesus has perfectly obeyed all of God’s laws in our stead, and that His obedience is a gift to us by faith alone.
In short, teaching our children diligently means continually fixing their eyes on the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ and upon the matchless love of God for us demonstrated through the cross.
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