Here is a scary fact: we have every reason to believe that the way we discuss home- work and chores in our homes is the way we will discuss drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. Even if the magnitude of the issue may change our approach, the culture we have spent years creating will not change in a moment to suit our purposes. Every life changing issue of the teenage years will be discussed within a culture we have created while our children were still children.
The Power of Repentant Conversations
Conversations about drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity between teenagers and their parents often aren’t conversations at all. Commonly, the parent, nervous and insecure, rambles about consequences and values while the teenager, also nervous and insecure, waits painfully for the whole thing to end. Is it really possible to have a genuine conversation about drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity? I believe it is, but only if it takes place in the context of humility, authenticity, and repentance.
To start, think about the difficult conversations you’ve had with other adults. Think about confronting a co-worker, telling a friend they had hurt your feelings, returning merchan- dise to a store without a receipt, or asking for a raise. Some of these conversations went well, some didn’t. It probably depended entirely on the kind of person you were and the kind of person you were talking to.
Some people cannot help themselves. They constantly deflect any and all criticism by using unrelenting logic in their own defense or by comparing themselves with others. Conversation with this kind of person is more like combat than a real exchange of ideas. We all know what this is like, and most of us know we have been this person before.
Others, however, make difficult conversations easy—not because they are weak-minded push-overs, but because they have a sincere interest in finding common ground and seeking the truth. Even if they make an argument, they display an interest in hearing our perspective and a willingness to admit personal fault. In conversations with people like this, winning or losing seems to fade while mutual respect becomes the operating principle.
The disposition to listen to others and admit fault is one of the most obvious indicators that the gospel has been at work in a person’s heart. Gospel humility leads to repentance, and the resulting disposition allows us not only to see our own faults, but also to acknowledge the dignity of others. And when others feel dignified, they are open to the truth in surprising ways. This is why there is nothing in our parenting toolbox quite so powerful as repentance.
As Christians we know repentance is actually more than just a way of resolving conflict. It is the doorway to the gospel, the first step to being filled with the Spirit and developing the mind of Christ. Why then doesn’t it play a bigger part in our parenting? Strangely, I tell my kids that my primary desire is for them to put all their hope in Christ, but I fear my actions sometimes speak louder than my words. I fear they see that whatever I might say, I have in fact put my hope in their good behavior and success.
So here is my point: if we want to help our kids stay off drugs, refrain from alcohol, and avoid promiscuity, we must create a culture of humility and repentance. This will bring the power of the gospel into our relationships, creating a healthy dynamic of give-and- take in genuine, honest, truth-seeking conversations.
The Path of Repentance
Consider the following quote from Oswald Chambers:
The entrance into [God’s] kingdom is through the panging pains of repentance crashing into a man’s respectable goodness; then the Holy Ghost, who produces these agonies, begins the formation of the Son of God in the life. The new life will manifest itself in conscious repentance and unconscious holiness, never the other way about. The bedrock of Christianity is repentance. Strictly speaking, a man cannot repent when he chooses; repentance is a gift of God. The old Puritans used to pray for “the gift of tears.” If ever you cease to know the virtue of repentance, you are in darkness. Examine yourself and see if you have forgotten how to be sorry.
This way of thinking offers certain challenges to normal models of Christian parenting. Here are three that stand out.
- We should pray for “the gift of tears” more than we pray for our kids’ safety and success. God has taught me so many lessons as a parent, but the most recent is probably the most difficult to apply. As a parent I should work from the conviction that “the panging pains of repentance” are more desirable than safety and success. I have to face the reality that the best path for my kids is a path marked by struggle that leads by God’s grace to repentance and ultimately hope in his unfailing, extravagant love.
- We should work towards repentance not holiness. To wrap your mind around the concept of praying for tears requires reflecting on the line “the new life will manifest itself in conscious repentance and unconscious holiness, never the other way around” (emphasis added). This means holiness must be secondary, repentance primary. Here is the implication for parenting: I need to stop making sinlessness, purity, and success the goals of my parenting. If Chambers is right, these can only be attained as the effect of a life of purposeful repentance. What if we as parents began living like we believed repentance really was the gateway to everything else we wanted for our children?
- We should teach our children how to be sorry. Chambers is not here encouraging a mentality of morbid introspection. And please do not think my goal is for you to browbeat your child into showing the emotional signs of repentance. Repentance is a skill that can be honed only by remembering it is a gift of God. Repentance is a habit of remembering that life begins with dying to self. I strive to have conversations with my kids that begin with humility, and I think it may have happened a few times. Mostly, though, I fall short. After a little reflection, after the storm of argument has passed, I decide to take the long walk up the stairs to their rooms to apologize for my sinful- ness. Here is the strange thing: the gospel tells me these apologies may be just as important as those where I did it the right way the first time.
The Promise of Repentance
I cannot promise you these strategies will keep your kids off drugs and alcohol or keep them sexually pure. In fact, I can’t make promises at all because I believe in the sov- ereign independence of the Holy Spirit. He does as he pleases, and we are his supplicants. There is no magic formula. However, he has left us more than one calling card:
“The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. . .”
“Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
There are others. It is a constant refrain throughout Scripture. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. It is only through the power of the Spirit of Christ in us and in our children that we can ever hope to resist the powerful allure of temptation in this world and live lives of holiness to the honor of our God. It seems that this power is made available to us to the degree that we openly own and acknowledge our deep need of it.
To win we must admit we have already lost.
To succeed we must embrace our failure.
To live we must die.