Growing up in the church and having attended a Christian school, I was encouraged to exhibit good behavior that would honor God. My behavior was also expected to honor my parents, my church, my school, and of course others. Many young people I grew up with struggled performing or producing the desired obedience that was expected of them by the church or the Christian school. Often times, very negative attitudes developed in their lives because of the insistence and the pressure that was placed on them (they would be labeled as having a BA or “bad attitude”). The unfortunate thing was that many of those who complied with the outward behavior had hearts that were very negative towards authority. Which one was better—the desired behavior or a negative heart? It may depend on what we are using as our measuring stick.
I believe that too often parents and teachers miss the mark when shaping the lives of young people. I believe that we should desire more than a certain behavior but hearts that are fixed on doing the right thing out of a love for God. Some would call focusing only on the behavior~~legalism. It only focuses on the external obedience and not the heart issue. Some insist on everyone just doing the same thing for the sake of compliance and unity. I’m all for compliance and unity but I do believe that God’s Holy Spirit makes a better instructor than my forced rules that serve as the standard for everyone else. God’s holiness should be the standard for all living.
I’ve heard it said before that parenting is not just hard work but it is “HEART-work”. What does God look at~~He looks at our hearts! 1 Sam. 16:7 says, “man looketh on the outward appearance but God looketh on the heart.” He created us to love, serve, and obey Him. As parents, our job is to raise “spiritual champions” who live to please God alone. This does not mean we are supposed to ignore the significance of developing our children’s intellectual, emotional, and physical dimensions. But, it suggests that we have to see the bigger picture of God’s priorities and raise our children in light of His standards and not our preferences.
Most of us focus on “behavior modification” that looks for immediate results. In fact it’s an outcome-based approach to parenting. It usually works quickly, relieving the immediate tension. For example, a child whines so the parent requires him to stop and then rewards him by giving him the cookie he wanted. Although the surface problem of whining is temporarily stopped, the underlying problem of demandingness is not clearly addressed. The heart of the matter is never addressed.
The heart is a wrestling place. The heart chooses values to hold and convictions to live by. Those convictions become the moral pillars in our lives that keep us on track. Moses told the people in Deuteronomy 6:6 to put the commands of God “on your hearts.” When David describes the righteous person in Psalm 37:31 he says, “The law of his God is in his heart; his feet do not slip.” “Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat.” (Dan. 1:8) When Jeremiah describes the New Covenant that God will establish with us, he says that it will be different than the Old Covenant with tablets of stone. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (Jer. 31:33).
I would suggest to parents that we take parenting to the heart level and loosen our grip purely on behavior modification. When God has our children’s hearts He gets the rest of them as well. I understand that we want immediate obedience but even more important are hearts that understand why obedience is important.