"But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children...just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory."1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11-12
Though his words were not spoken directly to parents, Paul left us a portrait of biblical parenthood in his first letter to the Thessalonians that leaves no doubt of his own thoughts on the relationship of parent and child (2:7-12). This is no stark portrait of strict order and demands on a child, but a portrait colored by loving relationship and parental nurture. Look at the words he uses to describe the parents: "gentle... tender... caring... exhorting... encouraging... imploring." These are heartfelt words of relationship and longing for a child.
When we read Paul's words in Ephesians 6:4, however, "bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord," we're tempted to think he is suggesting a strict upbringing. What you don't see, though, is that the term he used for "bring up" means to "nurture," to see your child as a living thing that needs to be spiritually fed in order to thrive and grow. It is the same word he used a few verses earlier to describe how a husband is to "nourish" his wife as he would his own body. To "bring up" or nurture your child is to carefully and lovingly tend to the life that you see growing there, to cultivate it as you would a prized plant, making sure it is fed, watered and its soil is properly enriched.
What you might also miss is the contrast of bringing children up "in the Lord" with the Roman idea of bringing them up "in the father." The concept of patria protestas meant that a father had absolute rule over his child's life, even to the point of killing the child with impunity. Paul, in contrast, says Christian parents are to bring up their children "in the Lord," in the principles of love, respect, and dignity taught by Jesus, who affirmed the dignity and faith of little children. This little phrase would likely even offend pious Jews of Paul's day who believed, according to Rabbinical teaching, that children prior to the age of 12 had no standing before the Law.
Paul's attitude toward children was not like that. He knew that a child needed to be nurtured and trained. One way to think about home nurture is as a process of creating an environment and atmosphere in your home that cultivates spiritual life in your child. That happens because of the way your relate to your children, the things you do in your home, and the way you bring the life-giving word of God into your home life. Nurturing your child is a process as intentional as tending a garden.
Tilling Soil, Planting Seeds
Remember the parable of the Sower? The Sower's seed, which is "the word of God," fell fruitlessly on many kinds of ground. But when it fell on "good soil" it bore fruit. Jesus explains to his disciples that the "good soil" is those who have an "honest and good heart" (Luke 8:15). How did they have a good heart that was able to "hold it fast" when the word fell there? I believe, as in the life of Paul's disciple Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14-15), who from childhood knew the word of God, godly parents prepare the soil of their children's hearts. You are training your children's character in order to create "good soil" for the seeds of God's truth so that, when God sows, they can take root and grow in your child's heart.
It is clear from Scripture that the character qualities we want to see in our children--the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22f) which is the character of Christ--are not from us, but from God. It is our role to train our children in the "ways and words" of godliness, to keep them walking on the path of righteousness until God gets hold of their hearts and regenerates them, changing them by His Holy Spirit. When He does they will keep walking in His path because they are already familiar with the lifestyle and language of godly character.
So, we do not "create" their character; rather, we teach and model to them what character is. Our training is cultivation, preparing an "honest and good heart" so the seeds of God's truth, when they fall there, will take root and grow, producing Christ-like character. Though it is not often mentioned, prayer may be our most effective character building tool because discipleship is a spiritual process, not a procedure, and God wants the glory.
Tools for Tending Your Garden
If your child's heart is a garden for God's seeds, it is your responsibility as a parent to prepare that soil. It needs to be kept soft, nourished, and watered. These are some of the tools you can use to nurture your child's spirit so they will long for God.
- Family Time and Togetherness: Being together will have more influence on your child's spirit than any other factor. As you walk with God, they will learn to walk with God. You cannot tend to their spirits without lots of time spent together. But it needs to be together on several levels; at home as a faithful family, fellowshipping at church with other faithful families, and ministering to the world as a faithful family. All of the faith goes deep into their soil.
- Family Traditions: Holidays into which you inject spiritual purpose and meaning are the big traditions your children will remember: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. But traditions also include family rituals, storytelling, family nights, patterns of relationship, bedtime habits, seasonal activities, and anything else that creates a spiritual "seed row" in your child's spirit for the things of God.
- Family Teaching: You cannot nurture your child's spirit without copious amounts of the water of God's Word. Teaching should spill over into every area of your family life, so your children are constantly soaked in truth. Bible reading, devotions, and study bring life to your child's spirit.
- Family Training: Training is more than just discipline. It is the proactive, positive role you play every day to lead your child to love and serve Christ. As you become a student of your child, understanding their personality and gifts, you nurture him or her by steering them toward God. You train not by rules, but by the guiding ministry of the Holy Spirit in your life.
Nuture is bringing the life of God into your home. It is the first step in creating a Christian home where God is alive and Christ is followed. The term "nurture" sounds like something God has equipped moms to do. But it's also a dad's responsibility. Paul was speaking to fathers when he commanded them to, "[nurture your children] in the training and instruction of the Lord." A godly home starts with spiritual nurture.