Volume 11, Issue 1: Thema
Nurturing Fat Souls
The most important parts of faithful child rearing are invisible and intangible. We can never figure them out by calculations or churn them out in neat, mechanical, step-by-step processes. They are wisdom, not knowledge. And God doesn't just expect us to grasp the ungraspable for our own peace and fun, but for the working out of all of His purposes throughout history. That's quite a task before us as we stare at our troops-troops wild with jam-smeared faces and milk moustaches.
The Old Testament closes by promising that in the New, "He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mal. 4:6). This reference to "turning the heart" suggests much more than just raising good, obedient children who don't talk back or do drugs. That's relatively easy. Good Christian communities (a minority) are full of decent kids, and those millions of evangelicals who haven't arrived at that level yet need to stop there first. Spanking mechanics and parental authority are "first principles" that we should have learned long ago (Heb. 5:12).
But we should want much more than just decent children. Rather than failing at basic discipline, I'm much more worried about raising decent but soulless children, children with that blank, unconscious stare who run in tight grooves, completely lacking in any passion for anything grand and beautiful. Decent but soulless children and their parents are those to whom much was given and much was buried.
"Soul" is one of those real but intangible characteristics that we can easily point to, though it won't squeeze through a scientific screen. The more biblical synonym for this sense of soul is "wisdom," and we can say that a soulful person is one who is consciously aiming to absorb the truths of the books of Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. None of us is there yet, since it's a lifetime pursuit. But some ignore the path entirely, and others look at it disdainfully. And those are the people who will have to give an account for their soulless kids.
But here again, we are too comfortable with the biblical word "wisdom." We hear it, think we grasp it, and run down the line. We think the message of wisdom in Proverbs is just "no debt, no gossip, no proud looks." But Pharisees can do those things. Wisdom or having soul involves so much more. It is an active, conscious pursuit (Prov. 2:2) that creates a "fountain of life" (Prov. 13:14) and a "tree of life" (Prov. 3:18) and "life unto thy soul" (Prov. 3:22). It creates a life that gushes with joy and blossoms with creativity. It eats its bread with joy and drinks its wine with a merry heart; for God has accepted its works (Eccl. 9:7).
But it is even more than that. Wisdom involves wonder, a mysterious, humble wonder-a taste for beauty: "There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid" (Prov. 30: 18,19). This sort of soul doesn't get stuck in the modern efficient, pragmatic game that blinds us to the wonder around us; it can stop and be amazed at soaring, slithering, sailing, and sexuality.
Such is a hint of a "fountain of life," a soulful living. But how can we nurture it in our children? How can we encourage this exuberant wisdom?
The story of childrearing is almost wholly about imitation. We do good or ill, and the young ones follow in lock step, no matter how much we talk and point elsewhere. They are designed that way. We laugh sometimes at the strong physical resemblance between parents and children, but, even without that, children carry over their parents' exact facial expressions, voice cadences, and personality quirks. How many adults swore to themselves as teenagers they would never do certain things their parents did, only to find themselves reincarnating the very same behavior? Even the myths of rebellion confirm this. Moderns tend to believe that "teenage" rebellion is something created ex nihilo, completely at odds with parental values. But watch closely. Such rebellion is just more imitation of the parents' own more subtle rebellion. Hot-tempered parents nurture hot-tempered teenagers. Pessimistic, negative parents mold pessimistic, negative children. Apathetic parents give us . . . and so on. As painful as it may be to hear, rebellion is almost always the parents' own personalities reflecting themselves.
This inescapable imitation should be listed as a means of growing in grace. Parents often jest about their children being "means of sanctification," meaning that child rearing is often a trial. But the situation is much more serious than a passing trial. Given the way children have to imitate parents (or whoever fills that role), one cannot just coast passively, selfishly like we often do through tough times. Our tiniest daily responses in front of the kids constantly mold and chip away at their persons. Children are a means of sanctification because they are daily adopting their parents' characters, virtues and vices, and all. This is a blessing when we are faithful, but it's a frightening mirror when we see our own sins growing in them. With kids around, we can't just move slowly on our own growth. We have to grow in grace for the sake of the kids. If we don't, then we can become a curse to them and their children.
Traditions of Soul Nurturing
If we want our children to be soulful fountains of life, then we must live it first ourselves. We have to be absorbing the life of wisdom too. And we can't fake it, just talking about full lives. Children have scopes that can detect hypocrisy instantly.
Developing a soulful life requires great diligence. The key requirement in nurturing our children so that they want to pursue it themselves is that they trust us. If they don't trust us, we can't lead them. This is easy with very little ones, but it requires greater work as they grow older. If they trust, they won't rebel in difficult times, and they will want to follow our positive model.
How do we develop trust? The best way is for parents to seek to imitate the Lord's own example. He gives us a perfect model for nurturing loyalty. In part, He draws our loyalty by His sacrifice, His intimate knowledge of us, and His love of beauty.
Sacrifice: We know that "the goodness of God" leads us to repentant trust (Rom. 2:4). And God's goodness is centered most clearly in His sacrifice: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:13). How much more does this apply to our children? If we aren't willing to sacrifice our lives for the nurture of our children, then we shouldn't even proceed. We don't love them with the greatest love possible. But again, contemporary Christian talk cheapens this. Every minimal parent would agree to martyring their physical life for their kids. But Christ didn't just die a physical death. He surrendered His personal glory for our good, making "himself of no reputation" and taking "upon him the form of a servant" (Phil 2:7). We talk of our willingness to die for the kids, but are we willing to sincerely sacrifice careers and vacations and personal talents for their sakes' without bitterness? The whole orientation of our household must be focused on sacrificing for our children. This is a sign of deep love.
Intimacy: The Lord not only draws our trust by sacrifice, He also does it by intimacy, by personal knowledge. He knows the number of the hairs on our heads, but also "the desires of thine heart" (Ps. 37:4), our passions and hopes and how they can all blend together for good. No child will be inspired to trust a parent who has only a "too busy," superficial concern for him. They flourish with our intimacy, especially with times all alone with one parent. When they are all grown, if they love our Lord, they do so because they love the love they saw in us. Arguments, proofs, and apologetics may have their place, but not in nurturing deep trust. They will imitate what they find lovely. If our lives are not lovely, then our children will pursue someone or something else's loveliness.
Pursuing Beauty: It is this attraction to loveliness that lies at the heart of nurturing soul. God has made us to be drawn to the beautiful. So often the divide between children who have full souls and those who don't lies here with the pursuit of beauty. The serious pursuit of beauty, for both children and adults, has a delightfully amplifying effect on all other areas of life. It makes us better at everything else, whether that be theology, engineering, homemaking, or plumbing. The connection here is quite mysterious, but it's often quite radical. Poetry, music, and fiction can utterly transform the coldest logician, computer programmer, or colonel into someone with soul.
Imagine how powerfully we can nurture soul in our children by leading them in beauty from infancy. And we can't just force them ahead of us, such as piano lessons just for the sake of discipline. We need to lead them in love for the goal. We need to lead them in a passion for beautiful music in a way that they want to delight in it themselves.
Children should be almost criminal in their love of stories. If they aren't regularly begging you for stories, even after you seem to have been reading all day, then something may be wrong with them. They live and grow by means of narrative, especially fiction. Families and schedules differ, but in our family we read passages from two or three books (fiction, history, theology, or Scripture) at every meal, making sure that we begin the day with plenty of poetry. Meals are especially important for families, since they naturally display sacrifice, intimacy, and beauty.
Stories frame a child's interior life for living in this world. Fiction is far more realistic than we realize. Fiction and poetry mysteriously transfer far more truth in a powerful way than anything else. God Himself chose to write in passionate poetry and narrative and parables rather than in the bureaucratic style of a systematic theology. But again, parents have to lead the way. Yet many parents have little taste for fiction, though they allow it for the "little kids." Some parents disdain fiction because they are bony pragmatists, not having the time, but others even claim that it is unspiritual (they just want Scripture). Though I couldn't prove it in an ecclesiastical court, I'm beginning to suspect that parents who don't enjoy fiction must have some serious spiritual problem lurking about, either in a very distorted view of spirituality or in a rejection of beauty. They are like the person who ungratefully refuses to delight in God's handiwork in nature. Time will tell in the lives of their children.
Though our modern heads may cringe at the wording, Proverbs tells us that "the liberal soul shall be made fat" (Prov. 11:25). That is a good way to summarize everything above. We want fat-souled children. We want them to have full, faithful lives-joyful, balanced, and lovely. But wisdom doesn't happen passively. It takes a diligent household and constant prayer, but with that He promises that "the soul of the diligent shall be made fat" (Prov. 13:4). That should be our prayer: Lord enable us to raise children with fat souls. "He that putteth his trust in the LORD shall be made fat" (Prov. 28:25).