Teaching Children Selflessness (Part 1) March 17 2018

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

Little children are so cute! We are blessed with four grandchildren (ages 10, 4, almost 3, and almost 2), with one more on the way. They are truly a gift from the Lord.

But it is also true that you don’t have to teach children how to sin. They are amazingly adept at figuring that out on their own. That’s because, ever since Adam and Eve, we have all inherited a sin nature. We are not “born good” as babies. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are born as sinners. Not until we have accepted God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ do we have the power to consistently overcome sin, and even then, the pull of our flesh is strong. Among other Scripture passages, we see this from:

  • Romans 5:18 - “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men,” and from
  • Romans 6:6 – “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin ….”

Even though believers are no longer slaves to sin, life can be a daily struggle. But our goal nevertheless, whether child or adult, is to follow the example of Jesus (1 Peter 2:21).

When it comes to helping children follow Jesus’ example, you can never start too early. While each child will need to make his or her own decision about faith in Christ at some point, bringing them up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) is both a command for parents and will help build a foundation of character that God can use even more powerfully when children grow up.

God never promised that this would be easy, and we know from observation or experience that it is not. There will be tears. There will be exhaustion. There will be sleepless nights. There will be days when “no” seems like the only word in our vocabulary. But as we seek to help our children grow, some of the most important parts of the process will be opportunities for us to grow as well. You could think of children as little “spiritual growth aids” for parents.

There are many characteristics of Christ we can help children learn, but let’s start with “selflessness,” since selfless love is what brought Jesus to the cross. Now you might be thinking that a “selfless child” is an oxymoron. In other words, you might think that it’s not really possible. Although children can melt our hearts with hugs, demonstrations of trust, and overall cuteness, they usually begin life with a focus on three things: “me, me, me.” Just acknowledge the fact that we didn’t need to teach our children how to be selfish. That came as part and parcel of these adorable little bundles of joy. And there is clear confirmation of this in the Scriptures, as God reminds us that “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15) and that “a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother” (Proverbs 29:15).

But you know that we adults are not inclined toward selflessness either. Just think of the last time you were in a group photograph. Whose face did you check first to make sure it looked ok? Thinking about ourselves first is part of our human nature, and only by God’s grace can we exhibit selflessness even when we don’t feel like it. Acts of selflessness often run counter to our feelings.

But Jesus also used children as an example of how we should come to Jesus: “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). So we can see in them both examples of “childlike faith” as well as the daily realities of dealing with “it’s all about me.”

We would all likely agree that teaching children selflessness is hard work. But how would we get started? If you remember the “put-offs” and “put-ons” from our “addiction” blog series or from the BCF Self-Confrontation course, you know that the “put-offs” are important, but biblical change comes more completely from a primary focus on the “put-ons.” This applies to children as well, not just adults, and there are some great, practical “put-ons” for children. Let’s take Ephesians 4:28, for example: “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.” A thief can stop stealing for a while and still be a thief. But we know that biblical change has taken place when someone not only stops taking from others, but begins working and becomes a giver instead.

It’s so interesting to watch how children tend to protect and hoard their own things, and also covet the things of others. Where did children universally learn that? And how do they learn not to? Intervening in a tug-of-war over toys (or food, or the TV remote) to reinforce sharing is a simple, but powerful application of Ephesians 4:28. We may have to go over this lesson with our children 1000 times, but as they hear our loving reminders and hopefully see our example in practice, they will not be able to escape this biblical truth and learn to become sharers. In fact, this is the real promise of Proverbs 22:6:

“Train up a child in the way he should go. Even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

The promise here is that children will not be able to escape from the training. It is not a guarantee that they will be godly when they grow up. If it were true that the statement is an assurance of the child becoming godly, then God our heavenly Father would be a failure as a parent. He never does anything wrong in our training, but does He have rebellious children? Of course, we see that He does.

But the training children receive will stay with them, even when they go through periods of rebellion. We cannot control what the children ultimately do with the training. Our responsibility is to faithfully bring them up based on God’s ways and bathe them in prayer; but the outcome is in the hands of each child and the Lord.

Given that our focus is to be on the training and not on the ultimate outcome provides great freedom for parents. Although our heart may ache at what a child ultimately decides to do with his or her life, our focus is to be on the biblical love and training of our children and on being a godly, consistent example to them. This is a sobering responsibility, to be sure, but we leave the results in God’s hands.

We also realize that we sometimes fail at this responsibility, and that we sometimes sin against our children. Next time we’ll talk about what to do when we’ve blown it, and we’ll look at other examples of how to teach children selflessness. We are stewards (caretakers) of our children at home for a relatively short time, and we’ll talk about how we can biblically disciple them during these years. This is a huge topic, and the Bible says a lot more about it. But it is critical for our families and for the next generation, as the pressures, distractions, and temptations of the world increase all around us.

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Steve Smith