Growing Like Jesus: The Spiritual Discipline of Parenting
(Matthew Proctor was among eight Christian leaders asked to share what helps them mature just as Jesus did. Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and serves as a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD.)
When I look at books on the spiritual disciplines, the table of contents all read the same: Bible reading, prayer, fasting, meditation, and solitude. Each discipline, of course, is a God-given tool to help sculpt us into the image of Christ.
But, if I were writing such a book, I would add another chapter: parenting. Few things help move me toward maturity like the spiritual discipline of raising kids.1
Enrolled in the School Called “Family”
My wife, Katie, and I have six children, a large family by today’s standards. At a sleepover, my 11-year-old daughter, Lydia, listened to her friends talk about their collections—coins, stuffed animals. “What do you collect, Lydia?” they asked.
Lydia replied, “I collect brothers and sisters.”
As the spiritual leader of this congregation of kids, I’d love to tell you I am constant, wise, and strong. But the truth is, in the school of spiritual formation called the family, I am the student as much as I am the teacher.
Here are some of the lessons I’m learning as I raise my kids.
I’m Learning Humility
In my ministry I get to travel, pull out my best sermons, preach to people who don’t know me, and then stand at the church door afterward and listen as people say all manner of encouraging things to me. Someone said, “Man is the only animal that, when you pat him on the back, his head swells,” and in my job, it would be easy to get the big head.
But then I come home. My wife and kids are proud I’m doing kingdom work, but when I walk in the door, I’m just the guy who needs to take out the overdue trash, mow the overdue lawn, and help with the overdue homework. They mostly just wish I would get with the program.
It’s true my little kids still think their dad is the strongest, smartest, and best-looking guy in the world. (Observant kids!) But I also have two teenagers who think my jokes are corny, poke fun at my receding hairline, and have lived with me long enough to know all the reasons why their dad needs a Savior. They’ve seen my failures, and when I’ve gone to apologize, they’ve been gracious to forgive me.
The everyday task of raising kids keeps me from thinking of myself more highly than I ought and helps me see myself “with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). Parenting keeps me humble.
I’m Learning Sacrifice
Family life usually does not require one big, martyrdom-level sacrifice. Instead it demands a thousand and one little inconveniences. If my life is a $10,000 bill, I don’t put it all on the altar at once. I make sacrifices 25 cents at a time: clean up the vomit when my kids get sick (11 times in one night—not kidding), spend money on my daughter’s orthodontist instead of myself, wrestle with my 8- and 6-year-old boys at the end of a long day instead of sitting in my recliner, get up at night to change a diaper instead of pretending to be asleep, watch The Princess Diaries again instead of my favorite action flick, stay up late to pick up my daughter at midnight after a school band trip, drive a 15-passenger van instead of a sports car.
I am by nature a selfish person, and my flesh resists whatever disturbs my personal comfort . . . (Maybe God gave me six kids because I’m especially self-centered!) Raising kids means giving up time, money, sleep, freedom, hobbies, privacy, and peace and quiet. But when I choose self-surrender in all those little 25 cent moments, I move a little closer to the attitude of Christ (Philippians 2:5).
I’m Learning Trust
I’m learning trust not just because my oldest turned 16 this year, although handing over the car keys to the kid who once ran his four-wheeler into the fence definitely increased my prayer life. Actually, every stage of parenting challenges me to trust God with my kids.
As parents we want to protect our children, to shield them from all harm. When they’re babies, we worry about SIDS and choking. When they’re toddlers, we worry about them falling into pools and sticking things in electrical outlets. When they’re in elementary school, we worry about kidnappers and school bullies. When they’re teenagers, we worry about drugs and sex. Former pro basketball player Charles Barkley was asked how he would handle his daughter’s boyfriends when she became a teenager. “I figure if I kill the first one,” Barkley said, “the word will get out.”
While it’s certainly wise to guard our children’s well being, we soon learn we can’t control everything. And it’s not just circumstances I can’t control. It’s my own children’s choices, especially as they grow older. I want so badly for my children to follow Christ with their lives. I can make rules, give lectures, and modify their behavior, but at the end of the day, only God can truly reach their hearts.
So parenting is a daily exercise in entrusting my children into God’s care, living in that strange mix of vulnerability, courage, and hope the Bible calls faith. I will be the best dad I can, but I am learning to trust the heavenly Father to protect my children, mature them, and give them what they truly need (Matthew 7:11).
I’m Learning Joy
I could mention other ways that shepherding kids is shaping me—developing persistence, practicing leadership, experiencing unconditional love. But I’ll close by telling what I’m learning of joy.
Somewhere between the ages of 21 and 41, it’s easy to lose your sense of wonder. I’ve been there, head down, mind burdened by tasks to be accomplished, shoulders heavy under problems to be solved. To quote John Ortberg, I can be “joy-impaired,” and I miss the goodness of this beautiful world God has given.
But my kids don’t. One fall evening years ago, I was walking across a parking lot at the college with my two oldest kids. Five-year-old Luke and 3-year-old Lydia were each holding one of my hands. My thoughts were preoccupied with work, but Luke and Lydia were drinking in the gorgeous October sunset—pink, red, orange, yellow, blue, and purple splashed brilliantly across the sky.
“Wow! That is pretty!” exclaimed Luke. “Daddy, God sure did make a pretty world, didn’t he? I think he wants us to be happy.” Luke is right. My kids notice God filled his creation with ladybugs, galloping horses, flowering dogwoods, big orange pumpkins, and bright full moons. They love splashing in the creek, the feel of sand under their bare feet, and they watch in smiling rapture the slow trek of a turtle across the backyard.
God has hidden gifts of joy in the world all around us, and my kids have often reminded me I should stop, unwrap them, and enjoy these moments. Joy is a mark of a healthy Christian, and my children have been my joy mentors. Raising kids is teaching me to “rejoice and be glad” in each day the Lord has made (Psalm 118:24).
The Sacred Enterprise of Parenting
I’ve heard it said it’s not just great preachers who grow great churches; it’s great churches that grow great preachers. This is also true: I’m helping my kids to grow, but my kids are also helping to grow me. As Gary Thomas writes, “Family life . . . becomes a sacred enterprise when we finally understand God can baptize dirty diapers, toddlers’ tantrums, and teenagers’ silence in order to transform us into people who more closely resemble Jesus Christ.”
It’s no wonder God says raising kids is great preparation for spiritual leadership (1 Timothy 3:4, 5). Thank God for the spiritual discipline of parenting!
1Sacred Parenting by Gary Thomas is an excellent book on how raising children can shape our soul.