Teaching Children Selflessness (Part 2) March 31 2018

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

One of the benefits children have is that they tend to be less concerned about things of the future. I have to admit that, as a child, I was clueless as to the future potential concerns, hardships, and tribulations that become part of everyday life later on. Ah, those were the days! No taxes, no bills to pay, no cars to fix, no payrolls to meet, no potential job complications to worry about. And it didn’t take much to keep us entertained and (mostly) out of trouble. Some children must face the realities of life much earlier, like those with serious diseases or the loss of parents; but we could say that children, in general, are blissfully unaware of all the temptations to worry that we face as adults.

But it also seems that those carefree days of childhood tend to come to an end rather abruptly. Thankfully, I was spared a lot of pain and disillusionment when I came to know Christ as my Savior my last year of college in 1971. This is not to say life was easy after that. But I had a new hope and purpose for living and new resources to help me walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which I had been called (Ephesians 4:1). 

While we would not want young people to miss out on the “simple days” of childhood, we do need to prepare them for life’s challenges. A great way to do this is to simply follow Jesus’ example of training his own disciples, and He was very systematic and consistent in how He prepared them for the many challenges they would face. If you just read through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapters 5-7, for example, you will see how much time He devoted to preparing the disciples for the difficult times ahead. His approach could be summarized in five steps:

  1. Teach them what and why – We see from Mark 1:17 that Jesus told his disciples to follow Him (the what) so that they might become fishers of men (the why).
  2. Show them how - Note that in Mark Chapters 3-6 Jesus showed the disciples how to minister to others. He taught in parables, among which was the parable of the sower; He performed miracles; and He demonstrated what true faith involved. The disciples (with few exceptions) were with Jesus continuously, and were in a position to observe how He lived and ministered.
  3. Get them started – We see in Mark 6:7 that Jesus sent the disciples out to minister in pairs, and when they came back, “they reported to Him all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30).
  4. Keep them going – Jesus continued the training of the disciples throughout the rest of the book. Immediately after their return, He taught them lessons of faith, such as through the feeding of the five thousand. In this case, Jesus made them not just observers, but active participants in the ministry by doing basic things they could do: search for food and pick up the leftovers. He taught them about the folly of following the traditions of men (Mark 7). He challenged them with probing questions like “But who do you say that I am?” Mark 8:29) He warned them about being too attached to this world: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:38) And He taught them about how He would suffer, be rejected and killed, but rise again. These lessons continued even to His death.
  5. Teach them to train others – The “Great Commission” is in the last chapters of both Mark and Matthew, where Jesus instructed His disciples to teach/disciple others. They had been trained up to the point that they could continue His work in the world. And we see throughout the Book of Acts that the disciples took this training to heart.

As I was reading through a devotional this week, leading up to Easter Sunday, it struck me that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17) was perhaps the most powerful demonstration of Step 2 in the New Testament. In fact, Jesus closes this demonstration with the words “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.”

There are many, many examples of how these simple steps of discipleship can apply to training children: having them pick up their toys (to teach responsibility), helping siblings pick up their toys (encouragement), going with you to take a meal to someone (compassion), helping to take out the trash (faithfulness even when we don’t feel like it or when it’s an unpleasant job), drying dishes (carefully), setting the table (serving others), asking forgiveness of God and others (humility), and so on. A lot of these activities may seem mundane, and sometimes it’s just easier to take over and do it ourselves. We are tempted to do this not just for the sake of efficiency, but to avoid battling the reluctance, the dragging of feet, and sometimes the outright resistance, not to speak of the less-than-perfect result. But a broken dish or a crooked bedsheet, or a few additional minutes is a small price to pay for the lessons that, by God’s grace, will be remembered by our children for a lifetime.

To that end, one thing to remind our children of is that “he who is faithful in a little thing IS faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10). This verse is in the present tense, not future (i.e. it does not say “will be faithful”). In other words, the seemingly little, mundane jobs are actually very big ones in the sight of God. Those little things that we tend to dismiss as insignificant are as much demonstrations of faithfulness as the more visible, prominent jobs. This is so, so important to be mindful of, not only as we train our children, but as we carry out our other seemingly “mundane” responsibilities as well. 

So let’s walk through a simple example of the discipleship steps. It could be anything, but let’s take teaching a child to make his or her bed. 

  • To teach them what and why (step 1), start out by explaining (in an age-appropriate way) “It is important that you begin to make your own bed because you will learn how to be a faithful steward by caring for what God has provided to you” (I Corinthians 4:2). “This will also help you in carrying out your responsibilities even when you don’t feel like it” (I Timothy 4:7). “There are lots of things in life you won’t feel like doing, but we honor God and others by doing them.”
  • Step 2: Show them how. Show your child how to make the bed properly by explaining each step. They can follow you around to observe how you make beds.
  • Step 3: Get them started. Assign the responsibility to the child and give him or her a certain amount of time to complete the task. At first, you might need to provide a lot of help, depending on the age.
  • Step 4: Keep them going – Remind them to make the bed before they start on another activity (e.g. before they come to breakfast, start play time, or go to school) and inspect for completeness (the definition of “complete” being appropriate for the age level). 
  • Step 5: Train them to disciple others - For example, have them teach a younger brother or sister to make their own bed, when the time comes. If they don’t have a younger sibling, you can pretend to be one and have them practice training you. It can be fun to make a little game out of it, when you pretend to be the reluctant, imperfect “student.”

As a parent, there are few jobs more important in this world than lovingly, patiently, discipling our children. As we know, it can be inconvenient, time-consuming, exasperating, and at times seemingly hopeless. But guess what. God is using our training of the children as a way He trains and matures us. And as we saw in the last blog, the results are between the Lord and what the child ultimately decides to do. We do not control the outcome, but our responsibility is to be faithful in this very important task. 

And as we mentioned last time, we often fail. And this becomes the perfect opportunity to teach our children Step 2 (i.e. “show them how”) about asking forgiveness. God does not say that we should ask forgiveness of others, “except for our children.” Our children know we are sinners, and while it may be humbling to ask them for forgiveness, it shows them how human we are, and prone to failure just like them. This makes us an example of the believer, and how we are to deal with sin in our lives. And it demonstrates how they, themselves, should ask forgiveness of others. This will not diminish their view of us, but will give them a greater appreciation of God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy in our lives. Children are very perceptive, and God has given them the uncanny ability to spot hypocrisy. More importantly, it is our responsibility before God to take the initiative in maintaining godly relationships, and asking forgiveness is a critical part of this.

There are times that our children will not like what we say or do in exercising our biblical responsibility to train them, and they may rebel against it. We don’t ask forgiveness for carrying out our responsibilities, but in cases where we have not responded in love, we need to take the initiative to restore those relationships. We should be able to say, legitimately, that we have sought to “be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18), to include our children, while also being responsible for their training.

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Steve Smith