[Condensed version originally published HERE at www.desiringgod.org]
I love words.
Our eyes feast on them, our ears soak them in, our fingers form them, our mouths sing them and confess them. They shape our minds and transform our hearts. Through them, life was born (Genesis 1:3) and through them, life is saved (John 1:1).
Words change us. From the time my children could speak them and hear them, I’ve attempted to teach them that words matter. That they should be chosen well and with care. That they should be true. Like many families, our rules, sayings, and governing principles revolve around words:
“Speak with gentleness.”
“Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean it should be said.”
“Don’t take joy in being the bearer of bad news.”
“Are you being a peace-maker or peace-breaker?”
“Don’t speak poorly of others.”
“Are your words building up or tearing down?”
Words Shape Beliefs
Actions are immensely important and are said to speak louder, but if you think about it, words in some form generally precede action. Words are heard or read, processed and pondered — and beliefs are formed. And in the end, actions reflect those beliefs. That makes words unbelievably precious in parenting.
When faced with shaping our children, we’re really up against shaping their belief systems, their axioms, their philosophies — their hearts. We’re helping them separate truth from fiction and build the foundation of their faith. Their choices and decisions (like ours) display what they actually believe about the world, about themselves, and about God.
This shaping isn’t a onetime thing, but an ongoing, organic, multi-faceted process:
“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds. . . . Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 11:18–19)
It’s the teaching and talking as we go about our days and evenings — errands, activities, and everyday lives. Sometimes conversations can go where a sermon cannot.
We raise our babies to send them out like sheep among wolves. It can’t be avoided. Teach them to be “shrewd as snakes” and “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Just one or the other, would result in cynicism or naiveté, but the prudence, insight, and defensive posture of a serpent paired with the meekness, gentleness, and purity of a dove is a powerful thing.
Missionaries are sent out after being taught the culture, language, and struggles of the people they’re being sent to — not to adapt, but to impact. Sending off our children should require no less forethought. Don’t throw them into the deep end expecting them to fight the current, without teaching them to swim.
Teaching our kids to be light to the world’s darkness and salt to the world’s decay doesn’t mean dragging them towards every speck of sin and horror. It’s embarking hand-in-hand on our pilgrimage, fearlessly progressing through the inevitable shadows and rot, showing them how to illuminate and preserve. Because light scatters the darkness and the gates of hell can’t prevail against Christ and his church.
There’s not a single square inch in this broken world where truth cannot be found or darkness cannot be dispelled.
Start ’Em Young
Children are never too young for truth. Don’t underestimate the faith of a child and the power of the Spirit, when they’re still willing to hold our hand and hear our voice. Resist the dumbed-down, shallow, entertaining words that so easily placate their little minds and ears. C.S. Lewis said, “A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then” — and I tend to believe the same goes for movies, and music, and TV shows, and yes, even our methods for teaching them the Bible.
We can’t expect deep souls that yearn for the truth and beauty of God when we feed them from infancy a steady diet of superficial, sugary-sweet frivolousness. Surround them with what’s good, and true, and excellent so they can readily find and identify it out in the world. We can spot lies when we’ve been soaked in truth.
As our children grow, it’s hard knowing when to start loosening that grip. But God has not given us a spirit of fear, and our faith is in something that can’t be shaken. Each child is different and discretion is essential, but let’s not act as if our God could be toppled by talk of million-year-old dinosaur bones, or atheism, or Santa Claus, or secular song lyrics, or stories with magic wands…. A strong foundation is thoughtful, but not fearful of such things.
As my kids begin developing their own tastes and interests, it’s an active exercise of taking deep breaths, praying for wisdom, and pointing out truth and fiction behind the words coming at us. At first, my efforts are met with eye rolls, but before long, they can’t help but begin to see the same things in words:
“Daughter, do you think someone who talks about loving your body like that singer does would be good at caring for your soul and loving your mind?”
“Wow, that author has an amazing imagination and talent for weaving plots together. Even someone who doesn’t know God can’t help but use his gifts and reflect the yearnings he’s put in us.”
“What is this commercial selling us, and how are they trying to do it?”
“Look at how the world loves beauty, and strength, and happiness, and power…what a great glimpse of how we’re created to be utterly satisfied by God. Their desires are far too weak.”
“Listen to that longing in those lyrics. I don’t think they know God, but man, are they searching for him.”
“Anyone who hears about that kind of violence knows this isn’t how the world is supposed to be. Come again, Lord Jesus, and make new what we’ve broken.”
“I know that kid used inappropriate words and treated you wrongly, but it’s usually the hurt who try to hurt. Let’s pray for him and think of ways to encourage him so he feels cared for and valued.”
“Listen to the wonder that scientist has for the world and its details and systems! It’s amazing how even those who don’t believe in God can teach us so much about our Creator, clearly behind the intricacies and loveliness.”
Greater is He Who Is in Us
We hurriedly cover their eyes and ears, when oftentimes, leading them to truth behind the reality, will soak in far deeper. Our worry that the world will change our children should be overshadowed by our hope that Christ will transform them. How often do I get in the way of the Spirit, as my child works out their faith? As I loosen my grip, it’s a humbling, breathtaking process watching my children see God in places I often overlook:
“I love mythology, but it’s crazy that people actually saw these guys as gods. I’m glad our God is different.”
“[Changing radio station, unprompted] Ugh, I love the tune of that song, but the words are foolish and gross.”
“I’m glad God can fight evil like those characters do, but he doesn’t need a wand or spells when he does it.”
“Do you think that scientist realizes the ‘Big Bang’ he’s describing just sounds like God?”
“Ha, they said you can do anything if you just believe in yourself. That’s ridiculous.”
Using the World’s Words for the Glory of God
We can’t control our children’s hearts, but we can point them to truth. Ask the Spirit for it. Speak it. Pray it. Teach it. Talk about it. Live it.
Teach them to be shrewd with the alluring, twisted, contradictory voices and seek the truth buried underneath — to find the common ground and rejoice in it. Teach them to listen to the broken, grieving, outraged cries and respond back with truth, depth, beauty, and love. Teach them to filter out what’s true and pure and excellent and praise-worthy amongst the billions of words being funneled into our minds and dwell on those (Philippians 4:8). Teach them to juxtapose what’s said against what’s known to be true, exposing it for what it really is (Luke 8:17). Teach them to take words uttered in darkness and strip them of their power, putting them to work for the Kingdom of God (Genesis 50:20).
The longer I parent, the more I realize I can’t hide or hold back the world’s words from my kids. It’s easy to frantically try to plug every little hole in the dam, hoping my children remain perfectly dry and unsoiled from the deluge of opinions and ideas coming at them — selectively sprinkling them with the holy water of my choosing. It can be a noble endeavor.
But the real beauty is raising children who can rise above those flood waters, swim against the current, navigate the changing tides, and help save those who are drowning. Children who don’t waste the words of this world, but use them to display the truth and glory of their Savior.