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Striving for a Perfect Faith
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Imperfect Mom

A FAILURE

Before I had kids, I attended church services at least two times a week, a weekly small-group Bible study, and week-long seminars. I taught religious education classes, sang in choir, and was an active member of the youth fellowship. I prayed and read the Bible regularly.

I was a conscientious worker at my full-time job as a magazine editor, a friend who could be counted on to “always be there,” and a daughter who helped her mother with her invalid father once a week. Before I had kids, I managed to take a shower every day and brushed my teeth at least twice a day.

But after the kids came, everything changed.

I could barely make it to Sabbath services, and when I did, I processed nothing of what I heard (which were two-minute sound bites in between diapers changes, feedings, picking up toys, etc.). I dropped out of all church work.

I attempted to do my job part-time but ended up quitting after I realized that editing was impossible because I could barely string together a coherent sentence due to getting four-and-a-half hours of sleep a night (usually broken up into ninety-minute increments).

My friends thought I had dropped off the face of the earth, and my mother saw me only when she invited me over for dinner. I no longer felt any qualms about going out in public with oily, stringy hair, and often fell asleep with fuzzy teeth.

I was a failure—from spiritual health to personal hygiene.

“What is going on?” I wondered. If children were supposed to be a blessing, why did my life look like it had been cursed after my kids arrived?

Then I thought, maybe it wasn’t the children. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was doing everything wrong. I felt inadequate as a mom because my children were not on any kind of “prescribed schedule,” and they were still not sleeping through the night even after twelve months.

I felt guilty as a Christian for dropping all forms of church work in addition to my daily spiritual cultivation. I felt like I had let down my friends, especially the ones whom I avoided because they liked to talk on the phone for too long. And I’m pretty sure I smelled bad.

My life revolved around parenting my children, and I wasn’t even sure if I was doing that right.

THE SEASON TO FOCUS ON CHILDREN

Then one day, I came across this passage:

            So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen 1:27, 28a)

Somehow, these verses penetrated my haze of guilt and failure, and I came to an important realization: The first “job” that God gave to man was to “be fruitful and multiply.” In other words, the first job that God gave to us was to have children.

And with the act of having children came the responsibility of teaching them:

            “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Deut 6:4-7a, NIV, emphasis mine)

So I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t so far off track as I thought. Maybe it was okay that I was focusing my limited time, energy, and brain capacity on my children—the first and most important “job” that God had given me.

Maybe it was okay for me to quit my job, take a break from church work, and focus on my babies, who needed me and depended on my presence for their very survival. After all…

            To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born,
And a time to die;
A time to plant,
And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill,
And a time to heal;
A time to break down,
And a time to build up… (Eccl 3:1-3)

I realized that now was the time to build up my children; now was the season to meet their needs, to love them, and to teach them about love. This season—their childhood—would pass all too quickly, and I did not want to squander the time I had with them.

Another season would soon come when I could again do church work, perhaps go back to work, and be the reliable friend and devoted daughter that I wanted to be.

Feeling vindicated by God’s word in my direction in life, I felt a sense of reassurance and peace that I was doing the right thing in focusing on my children at this point. But one thing niggled at my conscience….

            “Impress them on your children…” (Deut 6:7a)

            Impress them on your children… Impress them on your children…

I was doing many things with my children, but I felt that I was failing at impressing God’s commandments upon them—at least not in the way that I was conditioned to do.

MISSING THE BIG PICTURE

We were often late to Sabbath services, and sometimes we missed it altogether. My older child went to religious education classes, but she never finished her assigned homework or Bible reading, and I didn’t make her. My younger child refused to go to religious education class altogether, instead opting to do his little activity workbooks next to me as I sat in the worship service.

I tried to read a children’s Bible to them at home, but the reality was that we would often go long stretches without doing anything “biblical” at home. I had invested in a huge collection of Bible cartoons, but at most a handful of them were watched. They could not tell you a complete Bible story if their lives depended on it.

Our prayers consisted of grace, “Thank you, God, for this food,” and our bedtime prayers, “Please, God, don’t let me have any nightmares.” My children hardly participated in prayers in Spirit, and when they did, they lasted all of sixty seconds.

At one point, when I realized that this type of spiritual pursuit was missing in our lives, I began to institute changes. I “strongly encouraged” my older child to watch the Bible cartoons every morning. I began reading the children’s Bible to my children every night, whether they wanted to hear it or not. I forced my daughter to finish her assigned church homework. I even tried praying in the Spirit with them.

Somehow, though, as the level of “spiritual” activity increased, so did the sense of artificiality. Yes, it seemed like we were doing the “right” things, but things felt forced. There was no genuine sense of engagement and enthusiasm from my children.

I forced myself to take a step back and evaluate the situation. What was I doing? Why was I doing it? Was it even effective? Were they learning what really mattered through all this activity?

One of my worst fears is becoming like a Pharisee—having the outward appearance of piety, but lacking its true substance inwardly.

            “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Mt 23:23)

Somehow, what I was doing smacked of pharisaism. I felt that in all our “doing,” we were missing the big picture and perhaps neglecting the “weightier matters of the law.”

A CLEAR AND LASTING UNDERSTANDING OF GOD

I began to wonder how it was possible to “impress” God’s commands upon my children in a way that was genuine as well as effective. One of the definitions of “impress” from the Encarta World English Dictionary is “to make sure that somebody has a clear and lasting understanding, memory, or mental image of something.”

I began to pray to God to help me teach my children so that they could truly have a “clear and lasting understanding” of Him and be able to understand the “weightier matters” of life—to understand what really mattered. I laid out before Him all my weaknesses, my confusion, my failure, and asked Him to teach me how to teach my children.

Slowly, I began to find the way, but not without having to give up many preconceived notions of faith. I had to give up caring what people thought of my parenting and my children. I had to give up timetables and learn to trust my children and God’s timing. I had to give up doing things in the way I thought best but instead rely on God to do things in the way He thinks best.

In giving these up, I found a closer and more genuine walk with God, and my children are slowly but surely developing a “clear and lasting understanding” of God and His commands.

Here, I share with you what I learned, and what worked for my family:

Follow Your Child’s Interest

In my research on how people learn, I came across some interesting information: unless people are interested in and engaged in what they are learning, they will not retain the information long term.1

I thought back to my years in school and realized that explained why I retained about 2% of what I learned—I couldn’t have cared less about 98% of what was taught.

I applied this bit of information to teaching my children about God. I evaluated the “spiritual” activities I was doing with my children and retained what really interested them.

My children would often ask me to read the Bible to them before bed, so I knew that they were interested in that. They also liked the comfort of praying before bed, but we no longer prayed in Spirit. They would pray in words of understanding about things that mattered to them, whether it was not having nightmares, thanking God for the fun things they did that day, or wishing a sick friend a speedy recovery.

I no longer “encouraged” my children to watch the Bible cartoons or forced my daughter to finish her church homework, which included a weekly memory verse. However, I did buy a CD with memory verses set to upbeat music, which the children enjoyed.

If something no longer interested them, I would not force them to continue but instead continually tried to find other avenues for them to learn about God.

Adding all of these activities up didn’t seem like much, but I realized that this was enough for them right now. Little people have little appetites and require more frequent meals—and perhaps this applied to spiritual food as well. I could see that my children were “digesting” these small, frequent meals of God’s word and simple prayer, and changes were happening.

Sometimes in the car, my children would randomly ask me questions like, “When we die do we become angels?” Or I would hear comments like, “God is so powerful, He can do anything. He could squash a car if He wanted.”

These may seem like simple things, but the important detail here was that they were talking about God out of their own volition, which meant that they were thinking about Him. They were trying to figure out who God is and His relationship with us. They were developing an interest in spiritual matters and, more importantly, were enjoying the process of getting to know Him.

This enjoyment and interest would be the very thing that would help develop that “clear and lasting understanding” of God and His commands.

Focus on Biblical Principles Rather than Biblical Knowledge

Sometimes I think we as parents are tempted to stuff our children with biblical knowledge so that we can assure ourselves that we are doing our jobs teaching them God’s word. It is something that we can measure, something we can test.

But in so doing, are we neglecting “the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness”? Are we neglecting the principles of God’s laws in favor of the vehicle in which they are delivered? Because isn’t that what these Bible stories are—vehicles to teach us what really matters—living out God’s command to love each other, to act justly, to show mercy, to be faithful to God in our daily lives?

Sometimes, children are not ready to learn Bible stories or memorize Bible verses, but all children are ready to learn the principles of the Bible. A child can learn the biblical principle of love when someone wants to play with his favorite toy. He can learn the principle of kindness when he sees a lonely child on the playground. He can learn the principle of obedience when a parent asks him to do something he does not want to do.

God’s name may never be mentioned and a Bible verse never quoted, but in these situations, a child is learning about God all the same. In a way, this is an even more important learning opportunity, because it has to do with real life. It has to do with living out God’s teachings, and that is ultimately what God wants us to do—to convert our faith into deeds.

I learned to not be too concerned if my son could not get the story straight about Jericho or if he couldn’t tell me how many loaves and fish Jesus used to feed 5,000. However, I am very concerned about each and every situation my children encounter that may test their character and teach them how to live out a biblical principle.

Be Patient

It’s not to say that it is not important to know the Bible, to go to religious education class, or to pray in Spirit. All of this is very important. However, it may not happen in the timetable that you wish.

In raising my young children, I had to admit that I didn’t fully comprehend what was going on with them—developmentally, emotionally, spiritually. When I tried to expose them to something new and they balked, I had to trust them and trust that somehow they were not yet ready for it.

When my younger child turned three, I was so happy that I could finally send him to kindergarten class at church and I could enjoy my Sabbath worship in peace. But he absolutely refused to go.

Every week I encouraged, cajoled, and bribed him to go, to no avail. Other kids (many who were even younger than him) were happy as a clam, going to not just one but both sessions of kindergarten class. But no, my child stubbornly refused.

Finally, I gave up. For a year and a half, he spent every Sabbath at my side in the adult worship service with a little workbook and coloring pencils.

Then one day (finally, at four and a half years old), ten minutes before the worship service started, he stated, “I am going to class today.” My husband dropped him off in class, and since then, he has been an active participant and enjoyed every single class.

There’s no telling what clicked in that brain of his, but somehow, it was time, and he was ready.

What I learned is that even though your child may not be interested in something now, it doesn’t mean that he will never be interested in it. Even though your child may not be interested in Bible stories, or praying, or going to class, it does not mean that this will always be the case.

Sometimes, he may not be developmentally, emotionally, or spiritually ready. In that case, you can still focus on reinforcing biblical principles in daily life and expose him to whatever you think might be edifying to him, following his interests.

Live God’s Teachings

Another bit of interesting information about how people learn: I have read that 90% of what we learn is through example.

This information was actually very disconcerting to me, knowing how much I struggle with my own faith and my own character. My children would be in a very sorry state if 90% of what they learned indeed came from my example.

But this did make me realize how important my actions were in my teaching. Our children are learning important principles every time they see us operate, from the words we speak, to how we treat others, to how we spend our time. If the studies are right, then our actions in our daily lives will teach them more than our words ever will.

Maybe that’s why God said,

            “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deut 6:7-9, NIV)

In other words, we need to live out God’s teachings in our daily lives—in our homes (how do we treat our family members behind closed doors?), in our cars while we’re on the road (are we cursing at the guy who just cut us off?)—from the time we get up to the time we lie down.

We need to live out God’s principles in what we choose to do with our hands and what we choose to think about in our heads. We need God’s teachings to be the framework of our family and our communities.

Yes, sometimes our faith is tested by huge, fiery trials. I’ve found, though, that more often our faith is refined in the crucible of daily life.

This is really the most important and effective way that we can teach our children, but this is also the hardest, because our children see us day in and day out—our strengths and our many weaknesses. I know that many times, I have been compelled to try harder, not because of my own desire for piety, but because I know that I need to become a better person for the sake of my children.

I have had to admit to my children that I was wrong and to tell them not to follow my example. This is important to show them the consistency of God’s teachings—that it applies to everyone, and that there are no double standards.

Interestingly enough, instead of undermining my children’s respect for me, admitting my wrong has actually increased their respect. Perhaps it is because somehow, as young as they are, they implicitly understand that it is harder to admit wrong than to pretend that you’re right. Or perhaps, they realize that we are all in this together, striving for perfection in this imperfect body.

Love Your Child

What better way to teach your children about God’s love than to love them with the love of the Lord?

If it is true that people learn from example, then the best example is to love our children. Spend this season with them, because it is so short. Impress upon them the word of God through our love for them and through our daily lives. Fill them up with love and build them up on God’s teachings, so that they in turn can love others and build others up in God’s teachings.

Perhaps one day, when they are mature Christians, they will look back and say, “I learned to strive for perfect faith through my imperfect parents.”

1.        Memory and Liturgy: The Place of Memory in the Composition and Practice of Liturgy. Atkins, Peter. Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

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