Friday, July 27, 2007

Love God or Obey God: What's our Primary Responsibility to Teach Children?

One of my favorite podcasts is from Brookside Baptist Church in the Milwaukee suburbs, where Sam Horn is the primary teaching pastor. A few weeks ago he preached from one of my favorite passages in Deuteronomy 6, which shows parents the importance of making God big in the eyes of their children.

About 38 minutes into the sermon (6/17) he makes what I think is a pretty important comment:
It's not just that God wants you to teach your children to obey God. That's not the task. What is the task? God wants you to teach your children to love God. . . Now here's the question: If your objective is to teach somebody to obey somebody, you're going to go about it differently than you would go about the task of teaching somebody to love somebody. And my contention is, that somehow in our thinking, particularly for those of us who have come out of more conservative circles, we have been primarily consumed with the idea of teaching our children how to obey God. [Not that we shouldn't obey God—that's not what's being said.] But that's not the task that God is giving us here. The obedience is going to flow out of something.

What the task is, is to teach our children to love God totally—with all of their heart, and with all of their soul, and with all of their strength. So let me ask you a question. If that is the task, and you were to sit down and give some careful attention about how to do this, how would you do it? . . . How do you teach somebody to love God, because that is what the task is. We haven't accomplished the goal if all we have done is taught our children to obey a set of external things. We have to teach them in such a way—we have to engrave it in their heart so that it's permanent—a deep, complete, passionate love for God.
Verses 7-9 provide a pattern for how to do just that.

Obviously, teaching love and obedience are not mutually exclusive. But I think Horn is dead right to say that one flows from the other, and there shouldn't be any question which is the source for the other.

This is the kind of message I didn't hear 5 or 10 years ago, but it's seeping into more are more of the kinds of places it didn't seem to be before. Though my experience may be different from others, it's surely encouraging to hear these concepts that are so foundational to true Christianity expounded faithfully.


PinkAngel said...

Wow - that was awesome. Of course, it just confirms my fears that I've mentioned to you before - our struggle to teach the kids that their obedience to their parents and to God stem from their understanding and love for Him. We don't want little robots, which is really all I've ever known. It's completely overwhelming at times.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Here's something else to consider.
1) Obedience is love (John 14:15, 21, 23).
2) God told children to obey their parents---if they love God, they will.
3) Love isn't an emotion. Sternness is fine.

I have four children. They haven't been oppressed and they have great personalities. Guess what? I've been stern with them. I'm angry with them when they do wrong. They have sensitive consciences. Why? We've taught them the law of God. Love manifests itself in negative and positive reinforcement. Love rejoices in the truth, but also rejoices not in inquity.

brian mckanna said...

John 14:15ff does not teach that obedience = love. Rather, Jesus shows that true obedience to God is the result of love for God. That is the point of the followig chapter, John 15. The greatest commandment is to love, and the fruit of the Spirit is love. But only those who abide in Christ's love (and his words) will be commandment keepers and fruit bearers. Only those who are vitally connected to Christ will fulfill the law of Christ.

Not only that, but love is the greatest commandment--on this the law and prophets hang. Therefore, I think what we have to say is that sheer obedience to the law is empty without love. So I would argue that obedience has to be accompanied by love (1 Cor 13) and that love is demonstrated by true emotion along with concrete action (love rejoices with the truth). Therefore, it is only right to expect our children not only to obey outwardly, but also to exhibit the "emotions" or attitudes of the Spirit (love, joy, patience, kindness). Unless we teach them first and foremost to love God and love their neighbor, we have not taught them to truly obey.

Kent Brandenburg said...

If children are filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), how does that manifest itself? The Holy Spirit reveals Himself through children obeying parents (Eph. 6:1ff). If love is fruit of the Spirit, how do we train our children to "love." We can instruct them about love, which we do as a family, but they won't love unless they are converted, because then they have the Holy Spirit. If you want children to love the Lord, you preach the Gospel to them. Upon receiving the Gospel, the Holy Spirit indwells them, and then something can happen. I really don't mind you telling me if I'm wrong.

I have taught a long parenting course in our church 8 to 10 times, outside of regular assemblies, and we teach the parents to train in obedience. I have preached through the whole book of Deuteronomy, and my believe about chapter six is that the parents are to love the Lord and then teach the words that Moses commanded that day, which happpened to be all of God's commandments, so that later in chapter six, verse sixteen, they would diligently keep the commandments of the Lord God. Parents ought to enforce God's commandments in the home, and when they discipline their children, the Word of God should be referenced so that the children will know that this is how they love God, by keeping His commandments.

brian mckanna said...

Please don't think that I am only disagreeing or trying to tell you that you are wrong. Your question is a valid one: how do we teach/train/expect our children to love when love itself is the fruit of the Spirit's work? But doesn't Ephesians suggest, as you rightly point out, that when children are filled with the Spirit they will obey? Here's something I've struggled with in the past: how then can we rightly expect our children to obey when they don't have the Spirit?

Incidentally, I think this may be the thinking behind some who would classify love as a "choice" and not also an emotion. Assumed in their argument is that God wouldn't command us to do something that we couldn't do. After all, they may say, we are able in a way to "choose" to love, but we can't make ourselves want to love. But that brings us to the heart of the gospel, and I'm glad you brought up the gospel in your discussion. The fact is, everything that God demands of us, we are unable to perform. The law doesn't help us overcome sin, it increases our sin, and points us to our need for a Savior. So, in our home, we tell our children to obey, but show them that they need the Spirit. We do expect them to love (in action and attitude), all the while pointing to the only One who ever truly loved. In doing so, I hope we're teaching not just the importance of obedience, but also the beauty, glory, and wonder of God in the gospel.

One more thought from Ephesians. I think the foundational ethic in the letter is to walk in love (4:2, 15, 16; 5:2, 25), and Paul grounds and motivates that lifestyle of love through a complete comprehension of the love of God for us in Christ. When we see his love for us, we love and obey him in return, and that love should extend to others within society, the church, and the home.

Scott Aniol said...

As Edwards taught us, the inclination of the will is the affections.

Jonathan Tillman said...

Since the first commandment is to love the Lord our God it is VERY important that we accurately exegete the meaning of both the word and the concept. The understanding of word agape in the Greek must flow from the word as used in the first century forward not from the 21st century back.
I John 5:4 answers the question with a very simple statement.
"For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments."
God never commands us to feel or emote - He commands us to do. I don't want to oversimplify because as Scott has pointed out - my namesake - Jonathan Edwards has nailed it in his profound statement.
Love is sacrifice and our sacrifice as Christians is obedience. This sacrifice occurs when I don't do what I want to do or do what I don't necessarily want to because it is right.
We must teach our children to obey God because to obey IS to love. They must be taught that the most important thing in their life is to love God and all that it means.
I was 19 years old before I learned this truth! Born in a Pastor's home and saved at the age of six I knew what to do. At 19 I realized fully WHY I should. To obey doesn't not necessarily develop a relationship with the person you are obeying. To love and obey because you love, does.

brian mckanna said...

Three thoughts:
(1) In his first epistle, John seems to be addressing the issue of those who say they love God, but do not follow through in obedience to God and love for one another. His answer: if they do not obey, then they really do not love. So again, I think that obedience flows out of love, yet the two are not opposed--they go together. True obedience demonstrates true love.

(2) 1 John 5:3, the verse quoted, is completed with the line, "and his commandments are not burdensome". This seems to go against the "just do it" obedience which does what it really doesn't want to do. We obey God because we love him, because we believe his promises, because we trust his goodness, because we delight in his will. We don't simply obey for obedience sake.

(3) To love is to obey, and to love is to sacrifice. In that sense, obedience and sacrifice can demonstrate love (John 3:16). But we must be careful not to assume (with our kids even) that external obedience is accompanied by love. Even the greatest sacrifices can be done apart from love (1 Cor 13:3) and are therefore empty.

Ben said...

I'm sorry to have been so absent from a useful discussion. Although everyone has made important points, in my opinion, I think Brian's exegesis is the most careful and robust.

I'll try to make the point this way. It's impossible to love without obedience. Clearly, the Deuteronomy passage demonstrates that obedience flows from love, which is, of course, precisely what Horn says. No one's arguing against that.

But what seems inescapable to me is that it is surely possible to teach "obedience" without teaching love. Whether that is genuine, biblical obedience or not is a valid question. But just because your child does what you tell him to do, or you do what God tells you to do, doesn't mean that love is involved. Or perhaps it is love, but simply an idolatrous self-love that thinks obedience will bring some sort of opportunity for indulgence or avoidance of pain.

Does it not seem that the kind of love for God and his Word that we see portrayed in passages like this one or, say, in Psalm 119 are grounded in a knowledge of the character, nature, and works of God? That's where I think we teach people to love God by showing them who he is, and by pointing them to the revelation of his gracious acts toward mankind, most particularly in the person of Christ and the gospel.

Or is that not a valid theme in Scripture?