Nurturing the Spiritual Life of My Kids

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These days, my four-year-old son is learning a whole host of new skills, like writing the alphabet, singing in tune, riding a bike, and drawing ladybugs. He’s making up jokes and figuring out how to cut a sandwich (see picture) and covering his mouth when he coughs. He’s developing the desire and ability to be genuinely helpful with everyday tasks like getting dressed,  setting the table, and getting the stroller out of the garage. Seeing him growing and maturing – and helping that process along – is one of the most satisfying things I have ever experienced.

There are lots of things I want my kids to learn as they grow up. But what’s most important? What is the biggest lesson I want my kids to learn during these few years I have them in my home before they get launched out into the world?

As a Christian, I know the answer: the most important thing I can teach my children is to know, love, and trust in Jesus Christ. This means more than getting them to pray a one-off prayer asking Jesus into their heart; it means training them for a life of trusting and following him no matter what. It means nurturing a faith that will stand the test of time.

Nurturing my children’s faith can come in many forms. It happens when I rebuke them for self-serving and rebellious behavior, or when I ask them to forgive me for my own sinful actions and desires. It happens in everyday conversations about our gracious Creator when we’re looking up at the stars or talking about where cheese comes from. It happens when I sing over them while they’re falling asleep at the end of the day. It weaves its way into all of life; we talk about God and his goodness when we sit down and as we walk along the road and when we wake up and when we go to sleep (Deuteronomy 6:7).

A crucial part of my job of nurturing my children’s faith is the discipline of family devotions. While there are opportunities to disciple our children all throughout every part of our daily life, setting aside (i.e. “devoting”) a regular time to focus on God and his word is absolutely indispensable. It anchors and enables all our other efforts and spiritual nurturing. Stopping everything else to listen to God’s word consciously and explicitly demonstrates that God’s purposes are more important than ours. It reminds us all that faith in Christ is not some optional extra that we can just plug into our own agendas.

Just as my own spiritual growth and health depend on getting a personal daily devotional time, so my children need me to nurture their spiritual life by leading them in family devotions.

So, how do we do it?

In our home, we do devotions in a couple of different ways. Most mornings, Rebecca reads to the kids from a Bible storybook. (Our favorites so far are The Big Picture Story Bible and The Jesus Storybook Bible.) Every evening after dinner we pray for one of the missionaries pictured on our fridge and then read a chapter of the Bible while we eat our dessert (because God’s word is sweet!). Then we talk about what the Bible said, pray, and get ready for bed.

There are, of course, lots of pre-packaged devotional resources out there. Some of them can be helpful, and like I said, we do read Bible stories out of picture books in the mornings. But we really want our kids’ main devotional diet to be the Bible itself. They don’t understand everything, of course, but that’s OK. They’re picking up things as they go, and we help them by re-telling the story and explaining the message. (A bonus of this is that it forces us to really think about and understand the Bible ourselves. Knowing you need to answer someone else’s questions is a great motivator!) And there will be opportunities for review; we’ll cover all this material a couple more times for each of our kids before they turn 18.

Advent is actually the one time of the year when we don’t just read straight from the Bible. Instead, we go through The Advent Book, which contains a slightly-reworded version of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth hidden behind 24 exquisitely-designed paper doors. This year, we’ll also be reading some passages about Jesus’ first and second comings on the four Sundays of Advent. On November 29, we’ll read Isaiah 40:1-11; on December 6, we’ll read Isaiah 9:1-7; on December 13, we’ll read Isaiah 11:1-9; and on December 20, we’ll read Revelation 21-22.

If you want to develop a practice of nurturing your kids with regular family devotions, Advent is a great time to start! You can follow the same plan we do, find another one you like better, or make up your own. Whatever you do, get your kids (and yourself) into God’s word; then watch them grow in loving and following Jesus.

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth (3 John 4).

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Eating Your Dinner

couverts-1424106Most Christians believe that they are supposed to spend some time every day reading the Bible and praying. Whether they call this time “doing their devotions,” “having a quiet time,” or something else, they think they are supposed to do it.

There are a lot more people who believe that they should do their devotions than those who actually do them on a regular basis. Christians struggle to remember to set aside the time, to keep their mind from wandering when they try to pray, to grasp the meaning of the Bible passage in front of them, or to find anything in it that feels meaningful for them right now. Devotions can feel hard, dry, discouraging, and pointless. Some wonder whether the idea that they are “supposed to” spend time in the word and prayer every day is just a legalistic burden. Isn’t the Christian life supposed to be a living, personal relationship with Jesus rather than just following a set of rules?

Well, yes.

But that doesn’t mean you should ditch devotions.

I got thinking about this question a few days ago while I was – yes – doing my devotions. The thought entered my mind, “I don’t need devotions; I need Jesus.” This was immediately followed by the realization that this was like saying, “I don’t need dinner; I need food,” or, “I don’t need to go to bed; I need sleep.”

It is absolutely true that Jesus is the one thing I need. Knowing him and being united with him by the Holy Spirit is what gives me true, spiritual, eternal life. This is why the Bible so often describes union with Christ using the image of food. “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will not hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst'” (John 6:35). “For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed; therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). “We have an altar from which those who minister in the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10).

Jesus is the food of our souls, the one and only source of our spiritual life. We should never try to make our own activities – including our daily devotions – take that unique place that belongs to him alone. But maintaining knowing Christ as the single purpose of all we do doesn’t allow us to ignore the divinely-appointed means to that end. That’s like trying to absorb food without eating it, or trying to get rested without going to bed. We need to spend time in the Scriptures because Jesus is found in his word. In the Bible, the imagery of food is used not only for Jesus, but for the word of God itself (Deuteronomy 8:3; 1 Peter 2:2-3). This does not mean that the Bible is a separate, additional source of spiritual life; it is only life-giving because it points us to the One who is life itself (John 5:39-40).

Devotions are to Jesus as dinner is to food. It’s not that you aren’t saved if you don’t have a daily quiet time; you can keep yourself alive on fast food and snacks on the go. But you won’t get the same nourishment or experience the same delight that comes from sitting down and giving your undivided attention to a home-cooked meal. In the same way, you can survive by napping in your office chair or dozing on the train, but you won’t be truly rested until you lie down in your bed for a full night of undisturbed sleep.

This doesn’t mean that developing a quiet time is easy, or that you always come away feeling uplifted. If you’ve been keeping yourself going with high-fructose loaded snacks, genuinely good food may taste pretty bland at first. You may have a hard time eating your vegetables. And if you’re finding your satisfaction in something other than Christ, you may not come to the table with much of an appetite. But pull up a chair anyway. Keep coming back. Give your palate and your digestion a chance to adjust to this diet.

We also need to bear in mind that the act of doing your devotions doesn’t guarantee that you will actually grow closer to Jesus. As the father of young children, I live with people who require the constant reminder that the purpose of washing our hands, setting the table, and getting into our chairs is to eat the food in front of us. My kids can fritter the whole dinner hour away using their mouths for a purpose other than eating and barely picking at their food. This is what I’m doing when my quiet time becomes a rote, habitual exercise. There’s nothing wrong with the meal – the banquet of God’s grace in Christ is set before me! The problem is that I’m fiddling with my napkin and moving the food around on my plate and not putting it in my mouth.

That’s when I need the reminder that point of devotions isn’t devotions – it’s Jesus. It’s not about me being a spiritually disciplined person; it’s about receiving the food that gives life to my soul. Every day, the table is set for me; it’s just a question of whether I will stop my running around, pull up a chair, and dig in.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the person who takes refuge in him. – Psalm 34:8

Photo credit: Pascal Thouvin, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/couverts-1424106