“Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you.” Ephesians 5:1
When I face the challenges of parenting every day, my answers come not from magazines or websites, but from meditating on God. St. Paul, in the verse quoted above tells us, as he told the Ephesian Christians almost 2,000 years ago, “Be like God.” That isn’t some cloudy, meaningless Hallmark message. It’s practical, real-life wisdom. If you want to do things right, you have to do them the way God does. After all, we were made in the image of God and our salvation consists in nothing else than our becoming like Him. Jesus made this plan when he said, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
What we see in most Christian circles is life that doesn’t look anything like the life we read in the Gospels, or in the history of God’s dealings with men. There is very little talk about imitating God. Our Lord’s voluntary poverty, inexhaustible generosity and patience, willingness to live with the poor and friendless, disregard for all social rank or influence of men, is like nothing we see around us. Rather we find modern Christians decorating their homes with Catholic stuff and spreading all kinds of materialistic, political news and controversies–as if that life has anything to do with the imitation of Christ in this world. However, those same Christians will give lip service to the saints, who simply imitated God in their lives and gave the modern Christian life no support at all. No, their time and context was not special and doing so was no easier for them than it is for us. They were radical and lived most heavenly lives in the midst of the same sin and pride that surrounds us–men and women “of whom the world was not worthy”. The world hated them, because it hated Christ. Many Christians mistake temporal hatred or political opposition for Christian persecution, but they are not hated as the saints were hated, but as Red Sox fans hate Yankee fans–simply as opponents in a particular temporal interest. This temporal hatred is not unreasonable, for political opponents have things to lose for which they lawfully contend. The hatred of sinners for Christians is unreasonable–where those who love and serve and help are hated without cause. That is a very different kind of hatred, and the kind Our Lord called “blessed”.
As Christian parents, we are sent into the world to make disciples, and our own home is our first mission field–and the test of whether or not we are fit for any other. If a man cannot teach his own sons, how can teach a school full of boys? That’s a reality I have to face every day as I parent my own sons in the presence of my students, their classmates. My sons are like any other boys and the challenge of parenting them in a rather public manner is, thank God, a great help to me. Every day, I look to God for answers and examples of what to do.
1. Generous Provision
We thank God constantly because He is so generous to us. Our Lord tells us that God is so generous a Father that we need never be anxious for anything. Any anxiety in us is unjustified and unreasonable, contrary to all of our experience of God’s care in the past. It’s quite wicked, actually, when we think about it. As God is so generous to us, we must be the same to our children. We must demonstrate our love for them, that is, we must persuade them that we consider their needs more important than our own. That’s what real love is. Remember when Our Lord was asked by his disciple what should be done about the 5,000 people who had followed them with nothing to eat? Our Lord’s answer was: “You feed them.” If he expected us to be so generous to strangers, how much more to our own sons and daughters? We must be generous–like God.
Moses was given a vision of the glory of God, and heard the attributes of God spoken. How would God describe Himself to man? He says,
“The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Deuteronomy 34:6-8)
It is very say to hear parents talk tough to their children, as if the children are on trial, auditioning for their parents’ approval. No, it is the parents who are on trial, auditioning for the children’s trust and love, in a world filled with dishonesty, unreliability and selfishness. We may spend a great deal of time telling our children about God, but that is all in vain, if we fail to allow them to feel and see God in us every day. Their evil behavior is no justification for short-tempered reactions that are not found in God’s example. Their evil behavior comes from their own weakness and inability to be like God. Our test is to not be imitators of our children, but in those moments to be imitators of God–merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth…”. When we sacrifice our pride and comfort to deal patiently with our children’s bad behavior or even unbelief, we must remember that the evil one is working to win them. Our greatest weapon is mercy. The mercy of God demonstrated towards those who sin against us is our glory. It proves that we are not of this world and allows those who are of this world to see into the life of heaven and just how different it will be. Yes, a child may not be moved by a father’s mercy shown once, or twice, but Our Lord tells us that he needs to see it 70 times 7 times—every time, every day. Our endless acts of mercy quench all of the devil’s efforts to lead our children to despair of mercy, which is the final cause of the death of a soul. We can look at our children and say to them, “I know it may be hard to believe Christianity in words, but I will show it to you in our relationship and you will see just how beautiful and true it is.”
We must also remember that in those moments when we are asked to be merciful, we are treasuring up mercy on the day of judgment, for Our Lord promised us: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”. On the day of judgment, your only hope of salvation will be the mercy of God. Your only hope for that mercy will be your own mercy. Therefore, be merciful and endure all things for the conversion of your children. Remember, the parable of the Prodigal Son, was an example of God’s mercy and, yes, it is an example of what God would do a father on earth.
When the soil is prepared, that is, the environment in which our children are generously provided for and dealt with mercifully, we will be able to sow the seed of Christian doctrine. If that soil is not prepared, our preaching will be in vain, like the sowing of a man who has not removed the thorns and weeds from his gardens, or whose garden is full of rocky soil in which no plant can take root. Do you know how plants, like grapevines, are made to grow? A location is chosen that will support he plant’s needs–soil with good drainage, on a gentle slope, facing the sun, deep and black. When the plants are first set, the plant begins to grow, but the vinedresser cuts back the growth–because the roots must be given time to develop before the fruits can be sought. The energy of the plant is directed downward, so that, in due time, the plant can bear fruit upward. You can be zealous to talk your children into heaven, as a vineyard owner can be zealous for fruit prematurely, but you will not be imitating God and, therefore, you will not be successful.
Is it not perfectly clear that Our Lord–and God–has taught us in this context? Has He not first established the soil with every soul He has called to Himself? Does God ever speak to a soul He has not first loved? In the Garden of Eden, God commanded Adam–after making him the lord of Paradise. God taught Israel the law–after He delivered them from the greatest power in the world–the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt. Jesus taught the people–after He healed and fed them. The apostles preached to the people–after they suffered for them. Never has there been an example of God teaching before preparing the hearts of His hearers with many infallible proofs of the truth.
God shows us that it is first to love, second to show mercy and third to teach. Our Lord teaches us this when He says, “He who is forgiven much, loves much.” If the goal of our teaching is the love of God and the love of man, how can we teach before we forgive?
The content of our teaching is clear. God has commanded us to teach our children the Scriptures. St. Peter said: “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.”. (1 Peter 2:2) If this pure milk is to be our desire, and if it is by this pure milk that we are to grow, how can we neglect to share it with our children? We must teach our children the Scriptures–but this does not mean that we must set ourselves up as interpreters of dark and difficult passages found in it. We must read the Scriptures, for most of what will be read is easy to understand and enjoy. It is pure milk, not tough meat. Besides, one does not need to consult some oracle in the underworld to learn what difficult passages do mean. We have point-and-click access to the teachings of the Church Fathers, saints, etc.. and can easily find help. No excuses, therefore! Christian mothers tend to be zealous about breast-feeding because of the benefits a mother’s milk gives to a child’s body, yet they neglect the child’s soul and offer him no spiritual milk. As always, I don’t criticize without offering to help. We offer a Scripture Reading program that can help you–and it’s free.
Second, the Church commands us to teach our children the Catechism, but more importantly to LIVE the Catechism. After all, the Catechism consists of four parts, the first of which is concerned with what we believe, and the other three with what we do. Four pillars of Christian teaching are found in the Catechism: the Apostles’ Creed, the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Everything else, all the details of Catholic faith and life are merely the extension of these subjects to the details of our lives and times. It is not complicated and, again, we can help you with Catechism classes for your children that you can use for free.
Third, the formal education of your children can make or break the rest. By sending a child to disordered or immoral school, all of the work done to prepare the soil of his heart can be wasted by transplanting that child to a school where the soil is poisoned with unbelief and sin. No gardener would ever do such a thing, but many, many parents do. On the contrary, but providing well for the child’s formal education, the soil prepared by good Christian parents can be made even more fertile through the help of good teachers or classmates who reinforce the message, and sometimes show it better than Mom and Dad. Education is terribly important and any concern that is allowed to take precedence over the needs of the child’s soul can destroy that soul. History if filled with examples of self-sacrificing parents who provided for the best possible education for their children. By “best possible”, they did not mean most impressive to people lost in the world, but best possible education for their souls. Refuse to give your children anything less than the best possible education. It is a part of that generosity mentioned at the beginning of this article.
1. To generous provision, some will object, saying that they, as parents are poor and cannot afford to provide generously for their children. “Poor” in America means lacking as much money as one needs to have everything one wants. We once were shown a video concerning social services performed by some Catholic organizations and my 5 or 6 year-old son asked, “Daddy, why are all the poor people fat?”. That’s what he saw in the video. We’re not poor. Besides, generosity is not about an absolute amount of money given, but about the priority of who receives first. Remember Our Lord’s praise for the widow placing her pennies in the temple charity box–surely you have more than her.
2. To mercy, some will object that God is also perfectly just. That is true. In fact, the next verse in Deuteronomy 34 emphasizes just that. The justice, however, that we should be concerned with is our own, not that of others. Remember the woman caught in adultery by the Jews? They brought her before Our Lord wanting him to be of this opinion of “justice”. They wanted Him to be angry, disgusted and to condemn the woman to death by stoning. Ah, how manly and “just” would that punishment be! However, Our Lord offered no such judgment, but challenged the accusers, who were so eager to judge others, to first judge themselves and ask whether or not they were worthy of such a responsibility. He said, “Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”–and they walked away. Then, Our Lord showed us the perfect harmony of mercy and justice in saying to the woman, “I do not condemn you. Go–and sin no more.” The command, notice, to sin no more, comes after mercy. There is no contradiction here.
3. To teaching, some may object that they send their children to a school that is not very good, but it’s all that is available. Where do schools come from? Do not parents create them? If a school fit for the formation of souls and minds for God is not available, is it not our job to create that school? Do others in our area or our generation no share the same need? Why then is there no effort to build and create? Were the Christian churches in the first century when the Apostles moved through the world preaching the Gospel? When St. Paul arrived in Corinth, did he find a Christian church to attend on Sunday in the Corinthian Yellow Pages? No, he built the Church for others, at his own expense–yes, with his life. What, then, we must do for our children, we must do, rather than excuse ourselves because no one else has made a school for us. I say this sincerely, for my wife and I, living in a county with no Catholic school had to do this very thing.
God is our example. He is our Father in heaven, and we must imitate his as fathers on earth. When we face any problem with our children, we can ask, “How do I do the same things to God, my Father? And, how does He respond to me?” We must read the Scriptures and become more familiar with God’s ways, seen in the history of his dealings with men and recorded in the Scriptures for our benefit today. We must provide the soil in which our children’s faith can take root and grow.
There can be no excuses…we must.