When we think about stealing we usually begin with the assumption that one man takes what belongs to another without permission. But perhaps we should back up a little. Perhaps we should begin with the knowledge that all things belong to God. That would mean, ultimately, that stealing is taking that which God gave to another and making it our own. In other words, theft is a man-centered rebellion against God’s distribution of his possessions. This understanding makes the offense a bit weightier and in need of our attention.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism, a 17th century doctrinal summary of what the Bible teaches, states the positive requirements of the commandment not to steal as the “lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others.” (WSC #74). What are some ways we allow our children to violate this commandment right under our noses?
- Taking without asking. Seems obvious, but so much of it happens in such a mundane way. Taking food without asking, appropriating mom and dad’s favorite wardrobe items, playing with toys. These are all be examples of theft. Hardly the equivalent of grand theft auto, but theft nonetheless.
- Cheating. The more common forms of cheating in parenting will deal with school and games. When our children cheat on tests, they are using a short-cut. They are stealing the time it took another person to study and trying to reap their benefits. Cheating in board-games and sports means the “thief” tries to further his own outward estate without abiding by the laws of the game.
- Manipulation. The manipulator is a creative thief. They convince someone to hand over their possessions. However, the reason behind their behavior is the same. When our children convince a younger sibling to trade a “little” dime for a “huge” nickel, the aggressor wants that dime. The problem for him is that it was either not given to him, or he did not work to earn it. Instead of applying proper work to obtain his own dime, the child uses a slight-of-hand approach.
- Emotional Theft. Perhaps one of our children has competed in a race and won. He comes exuberantly to show his ribbon. If his sibling’s response is to say, “You weren’t even close to the record,” or “Last year I ran this race faster,” they are stealing joy or delight from their brother or sister. This kind of behavior also manifests itself if a child is in the middle of an exciting story and the brother or sister jumps in right before the climax and finishes it off for them.
So now what? Parenting is never done well from a couch or an armchair. It requires action, wisdom, authority and time, and lots of it. Make sure your children understand the implications of the commandment not to steal. If they do, teach them to restore what they have taken, if that is possible. But also spend time giving them the opportunity to be generous and willing to share.
I’m assuming most people are not having to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to explain to their children that homicide is sinful. It is a basic idea: murder is not okay. Even little children understand this truth. However, how many of us are thinking beyond the narrow reading of the sixth commandment and seeing the broader application as defined by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus expands our understanding of murder. He puts anger and murder in the same category: a failure to rule over your emotions and passions. In Matthew 5:21-24, Jesus uses strong language to warn those who neglect this commandment with the “fire of hell.” I wonder if we take that warning seriously enough to help our children navigate through the difficult challenges of managing their feelings and emotions according to the word of God?
Emotions are powerful and can easily be abused even while doing something “good.” I remember from my own childhood. During family worship one evening my older brother and I were asked to recite our memory work from Matthew 11:28-30. As my older brother struggled through the verses I sought to “help” him when he got stuck. I remember delighting in showing him how much better I knew the verses. I quickly forgot all the times when he had known his verses better than I. And so anger broke into the peaceful bliss of the Gleason home. Right as my brother was reciting “for I am gentle and lowly in heart…” my final prod pushed him over the edge. He turned without blinking and punched me in the arm as hard as he could. My pride and his anger both were sins against the 6th commandment. Both of us were in need of forgiveness because we did not control our emotions. With both transgressions common in our families, how do we help our children navigate these waters?
- Teach them what is right. So much of parenting is spent on correction, but we also must remember the positive instructions. These are the conversations we have with our children when all is well. When your child has hit his sibling, teach him about gentleness as you share a walk with him. When your child is manifesting pride, talk to him about humility on your way to the grocery store. When he becomes a “name caller,” teach him about encouragement as you tuck them into bed at night. Help them learn to control their passions.
- Correct what is wrong. Most parents are more naturally attuned to this part of parenting. However, you have to learn to recognize the transgressions. Do you let your children slam doors? stomp out of the room in anger? lash out with their tongues? Your children should understand these expressions are not permitted in your home. More than that, they should understand these expressions are not permitted in your home because they dishonor God.
How do you teach your child to live joyfully for God? There seem to be so few opportunities to express love toward God for our children, especially when they are young. And yet parents have the responsibility to form a shape of something abstract like loving God for them. How? There is a very simple way: the fifth commandment.
When the Bible says, “Honor your father and your mother…” it is part of God’s holiness code for children. No matter what age our children might be, they can express their love for God by obeying this commandment. Let me be clear: honoring parents is not the end game for the Christian child. The goal is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. God’s call for them to honor mom and dad gives them an opportunity to do so, and “practice makes perfect” as they say (but not in the “perfectionism” sense). As Christian parents you have been given the privilege of leading them through this process. So how should Christian parents teach their children to glorify God in honoring the fifth commandment? Below are some suggestions:
- Expect obedience from your children. Colossians 3:20 commands children to obey their parents in everything. To obey is to honor their parents. To honor their parents is to glorify God. Do not teach your children to despise God’s commandment by allowing them to disobey you. Parents, when you call your little darling to come to you and they run the other way, that’s not cute. It’s sin. Instead lead them in honoring God even at an early age by requiring obedience.
- Give your children the chance to honor you in service. Parents are not exclusively in the law enforcement business, although you may sometimes feel that way. Try to find ways your children can honor you positively. Dads, give your child the joy of bringing mom her toast in the morning. Help your teens organize that special surprise for her. Certainly your children are to honor through obedience, but they can also honor in service.
- Teach your children to honor the adults in their lives. This lesson is easy to teach in the context of church. For your children, all the adults at church are old. Have them carry things, open doors, or give a friendly greeting to some of the senior saints at church. Have them speak respectfully to adults and use titles of respect for them. Grown-ups and children are not peers, or buddies. By teaching your children to act this way you are giving them opportunities to put God’s commandments into practice.
Of course, external obedience or service without love for God is not glorifying him. If only parenting were that easy. Add to that your children’s natural propensity to disguise their rebellion through deception and you have a recipe for much prayer. But while you pray, you also teach, showing your children what it means to honor their parents in the hopes of teaching them how they might glorify God.
I am guessing many first-time parents get their highlighters out when their little angel reaches 1 year old and furiously begin underlining Exodus 20:12: “Honor your father and your mother…” It becomes their “life verse.” This enthusiasm usually springs from a recognition of the universal defiance streak that is in all our children. However, the fifth commandment actually has implications for the parent as well.
More than just dealing with children, the fifth commandment also covers our obligation toward our children. “The fifth commandment requireth the preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 64). The 17th century divines teach us that children have duties toward parents, but parents have duties to their children as well.
One of the places our biblical duties are summarized is in Colossians 3:21. There God commands us not to provoke our children lest they become discouraged. To clarify, this passages does not teach our children’s happiness as the gauge for successful, biblical parenting. For example, our children may become discouraged when we prohibit them from kicking their siblings in the shins. They may be frustrated when we restrict their forms of entertainment. Discouragement alone does not invalidate our instruction, but discouragement flowing from provocation does. So how do we discourage our children?
- By failing to teach them from God’s word. Our convictions are not as stable as we might think. Consider how much your views have changed in the last ten years. When we make our thoughts the foundation for instruction, children will become discouraged because they are aiming for a moving target. We should instruct our children in God’s unchangeable commandments and in principles we derive from them.
- By treating them as if they were the center of the universe. When our children are young we form how they view the world. If we teach them to consider themselves the center, we inadvertently train them to make their happiness their primary goal. However, Scripture tells us that “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:38). The principle of self-denial is central to the Scriptures, not self-satisfaction. We will discourage them if they are used to considering self first, rather than Christ.
- By failing to love them as we have been loved by Christ. Parental instruction must flow from a heart of love. If we constantly treat our children as if they are an inconvenience, whatever may have been helpful in our instruction will surely be lost. View your parental responsibilities along the lines of Deut. 6:6-7: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you like dow, and when you rise.”
When I moved to Canada in 1985, all the shopping centers were still closed on Sunday. I don’t think anyone had the faintest idea why, but they were closed nonetheless. Now, in the church, we have the same situation. We commend Chick Fill-A for being closed on Sunday, but at the same time we’re a bit disappointed because now we have to spend more by going to Appleby’s for our Sunday lunch. We have lost our understanding of the significance of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. You, parents, are the ones who must be about making Sunday the Lord’s Day again.
The point of this post is not to address the issue of the theology of the Sabbath. Other people have done a very good job at it. Iain Campbell, Walter Chantry, Ryan McGraw, Joseph Pipa and others have made a thorough biblical case for the continuing application of the 4th commandment for the Christian. What I want to do is think through the “why” and “how” of teaching our children about the Christian Sabbath.
First, “Why?” If I was to boil down the significance of the Lord’s Day to one idea it is this: God has given us Sunday to continually re-orient us in the use of our time. Christian worship can easily become one of our weekly activities. We work, watch football, do homework, visit friends, and we also manage to fit in church. God knows the weakness of our frame and gives us one day in seven where everything stops. We have to get everything else in our week done in six days because we know that on the seventh, we don’t work, neither do we cause anyone else to work. It is God’s tithe on our time: all the time we have belongs to God and we should use it to glorify him. It is a gift from God reminding us we are blessed when our hope is in him (Ps. 146:5).
Second, “How?” There are two ways we mock the Lord’s Day. First, by not giving it any thought, and second by turning it into a checklist. The way to avoid these extremes is by setting some foundational truths before our children about the Lord’s Day:
- God made the Sabbath as part of his creation, before sin even entered the world (Gen. 2:3). That means we are all to obey this commandment
- On Sunday, we are not to work, neither should we cause others to work. If we need to make changes in our families to conform to this commandment, make sure we can show our children they are required by God, not you.
- Obedience to the Sabbath demonstrates we trust God will take care of us. We are to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all other things will be given to us.
- There are exceptions to the Sabbath commandment to rest in the works of necessity and mercy.
Can you imagine letting fly a string of expletives and blasphemy in front of your children? I hope not. Yet often we do take God’s name in vain in front of our children.
Too often we think God’s commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” deals only with spoken blasphemy. However, Ezekiel shows us a broader application. God charges the prophet to confront Israel with their disobedience: idolatry, Sabbath breaking, and a disregarded of God’s law. God views these transgressions as follows: “Thus says the Lord GOD: In this also your fathers blasphemed me, by dealing treacherously with me.” (Ezekiel 20:27, ESV). It is in what they do that they take God’s name in vain. Likewise 1 Timothy 6:1 urges Christians who are enslaved to honor their masters so God’s name would not be “reviled.”
So how can our children’s actions take God’s name in vain? By misrepresenting, or dishonoring, Christ in thought, word, and deed. We are to teach and lead our children in a joyful, thankful, humble response to God’s redeeming work. Since we are called to imitate Christ (Eph. 5:1-2), certain behaviors become unacceptable in Christian families. Below we find only three that will have to serve as a sample set.
- Unkind Words. Our children will use unkind words. But do we correct them when they do so? Paul commands us to put on kindness as part of the process of sanctification (Col. 3:12). When a man identifies himself with Christ, he is to be kind. How often is God’s name maligned in Christian homes through the use of unkind speech?
- Selfishness. How long did you have to wait before your little angel uttered the word “Mine!” with fire in his eyes? We may chuckle at their intensity, but in fact our little ones are behaving selfishly. However, God is not selfish. He is gracious, kind, and provides us with all we need both for body (1 Tim 6:17-18) and soul. Teach your children to be generous, and willing to share.
- Raising Voice in Anger. In Colossians 3:8, we find wrath and anger among the sins to be put to death. Yet we often express these emotions in the tone of our voice. We address this sin by seeking forgiveness, not by excusing it. As we turn in repentance, through the Holy Spirit’s power, we must seek after contentment and peace, also applying God’s standards of behavior to our children.
As a result of our being redeemed and serving as ambassadors of Christ, to live contrary to his instruction and attributes is to take his name in vain. We and our children will make sinful choices in our lives and by doing so will blaspheme him. However, we must learn to recognize these sins so we can lead our families in repentance and give full honor and glory to the God who made us, redeemed us, and sustains us.