From Behavior to the Heart

by

Jesus had harsh words for the Pharisees. He condemned them as those who “clean the outside of the cup, but inside [they] are full of greed and self-indulgence.” He called them “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones.” Between those scathing charges, Jesus said: “You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, that the outside may also be clean” (Matt. 23:25–27).

What important direction for parents. We are tempted to focus on behavior. Behavior requires a response. So we try to clean the outside of the cup, and forget the hearts of our children—the inside of the cup and dish.

We might bribe: “If you are really good, I’ll …”

We might threaten: “You don’t even want to know what will happen if you don’t …”

We might shame: “I’m saddened by your selfishness toward each other . . .”

These are ways to secure behavior without addressing the heart and without keeping the power of grace before your children.

Whenever you are simply requiring proper behavior, the power of the gospel and grace will never be the focus of your nurture of your children. Behaviorism and the gospel don’t mix. They reflect different approaches to change. Behaviorism seeks to produce change through appealing to the child’s crass self-interest. The gospel produces change through conviction of sin and faith in the power of Christ to forgive, renew, and empower your child to love God and others.

Godly parenting must target the heart with the gospel. You want more than externally appropriate behavior (Do I hear someone saying, “I would be happy for even that”?) You want changed hearts. You long for your children to see that their hearts have strayed; that Christ came to produce change not merely on the outside, but from the inside out.

The Bible bristles with instruction about the heart attitudes that lie beneath the things that we say and do. It speaks of attitudes such as pride, self-love, hatred, envy, covetousness, fear of man, desire for approval, rebellion, bitterness, and vengeance that lie beneath things children say and do that are wrong. Kindness, love, gentleness, and humility are some of the gospel motivations for right behavior.

Keeping the gospel central does at least two wonderful things for correction. It keeps you from hypocrisy. You can identify with a child who is struggling with selfishness because you know what it is to be so mired in self-love that you will do anything to serve yourself and avoid serving others. Second, it keeps you from missing the gospel of grace. You know what your child needs. He needs forgiveness, grace, and power from Christ to be changed. 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.