This is my search section here


← back to Sermons

    Mar 24, 2016

    Class 4: Getting to the Heart of Behavior

    Series: Parenthood

    Category: Core Seminars, Children, Parenting, Indwelling Sin



    In the course thus far, we’ve seen that Christianity is inherently familial. The essential relationship in the first and second persons of the Trinity is as Father to Son. The primary way we are to relate to God is as his adopted children. And our primary relationship with one another in the church is as brothers and sisters. The family is where these biblical categories are formed. Our homes contain a small picture of God, the gospel, and the church—which we form positively, in good homes, or by contrast, when our homes fall short of these categories.

    One implication of this fact is that in our parenting we want our relationships with our children to image for the world our relationship with God. Obviously we want to do this only in appropriate ways—we don’t want our children to worship us! But the Fatherhood of God is our model in understanding how to be parents ourselves. As parents, we should image God.

    Among other things, this means children need to learn to be people under authority. Just as we live under God’s authority as his children, so our children need to live under our authority. Very practically, therefore, our goal in ages 0-5 is establishing our authority; teaching obedience. It also means that, in love, we want them to become more and more like Christ, which is God’s loving plan for us. So our goal in ages 6-12 is to help them grow in character. [Write this down! This is valuable.] Ultimately, we want our children to become worshipers of God, by God’s grace, to serve alongside us as adults in the church.

    But how do we train our children to do this—can we train our children to do this? Ultimately, salvation is a work of God. Yet God has given us a role.

    Describing the approach parents usually take to their job, author Tedd Tripp, in his excellent book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, hits the nail on the head when he says we often wrongly focus too much on outward behavior—usually reacting to stop what we don’t like. (E.g., “Will you stop that!” “Play nice!”) This makes sense, Tripp points out, because the behavior is what got our attention. SCH, p. 4. So of course we want to correct what we saw! This rings true at my house. And in focusing on behavior, we may also be just copying the way we’ve been parented.

    But if our goal is imaging adoption as children of God, notice that this approach, by itself, obviously falls short. Is God simply concerned with outward behavior? Absolutely not. What is he most concerned about? The heart. Likewise, we should be concerned not just with the what of behavior, but the why. If we do not focus on the why, on where the behavior came from, we will miss the idols of the heart and, ultimately, miss the Gospel. SCH, p. xi. This will not glorify God in imaging our adoption, and it will not lead our children to faith.

    So this morning, we want to talk about:

     the importance of the heart;

     offer some examples of how to aim at the heart; and then

     deal with some common questions about heart-centered parenting.

    I. The importance of the heart

    Why is it foolish to focus on behavior? Because to borrow a term from medicine, the behavior is just a presenting symptom; it is not the disease itself. To switch metaphors, Tripp says it’s like having an apple tree in your yard that only produces blighted, gnarled apples; and so you “fix” the tree by buying new apples and hanging them on it with fishing line. You’re not changing the nature of the tree; you’re putting on a show! Our children’s behavior is telling us something about their hearts, because all behavior flows from the heart.

    A. The heart is the control center of behavior; so behavior reveals the heart.

    Proverbs 4:23 tells us: “[a]bove all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Our lives flow out of our hearts—revealing what we worshi; what we fear, what we trust, what we hope in, what entices us. Jesus taught: “[F]rom within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly.” Mark 7:21. So “[w]hat your children do and say is a reflection of what is in their hearts.” SCH, p. 4. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart,” Jesus said, “and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart, his mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45.

    Do you see the implication here for parenting? We must not view our children’s misbehavior, or the misbehavior of children in our care, strictly as an inconvenience to us and an enemy! Well, it’s certainly an inconvenience. And at one level, it surely is an enemy—God says it is sin. But that outward sin is giving you a personal guidebook to their hearts. Are you reading that guidebook?

    B. Yet our parenting is often designed to control behavior.

    That is, when a child in your care disobeys, do you think about what that says about their heart—what they worship? Every year, when we review this material, I find that I’ve slipped somewhat back into behaviorism—obtaining outward conformity. This is a dangerous slide. I said at the beginning that the Gospel is at stake. That is true. Tripp observes: “A change in behavior that does not stem from a change in heart is not commendable; it is condemnable.” SCH, p. 4. Jesus repeatedly rebukes the Pharisees for honoring God in their behavior, while rejecting Him in their hearts. When we focus solely on outward behavior, we encourage our children to become Pharisees.

    What does this look like?

     Bribery/reward – “I’ll put a star on this chart when you put your shoes away.” Hang an apple.

     Penalty – “Every time you say ‘shut up’ I’m going to make you put a dollar in this jar.” Hang an apple.

     Guilt manipulation—“It makes me so sad when you disobey. You’ve now ruined mommy’s day.” Hang an apple.

     Fear of man – “That’s it! I’ve had it. You’ve been doing this all day, and you won’t listen! You’re gonna get it now….” Hang an apple.

     Forced obedience – “say you’re sorry”; “share the toy” Hang an apple.

    C. Of course, we must control behavior; but that must not be the whole story.

    At this point, anyone who’s cared for children tends to ask a very sensible, important question: If I have a kid in front of me, and I can’t get to the heart, don’t I still have to control the behavior? The answer to this is so important that we’re going to have a whole class on it next week, and another class devoted to how to do it. But this morning I want to offer a couple brief, initial responses to the question.

    Yes, we must control behavior. We are the authority in our children’s lives, and as God’s agents we are commanded to discipline them for their own good, to save them from death! We are not advocating simply thinking and reasoning with children about their hearts. The behavior must be corrected. What we are advocating is going beyond that to determine what’s causing the behavior and help the child see that ultimately, that cause is an idol in their heart.

    What must you do in correction and discipline? You must require proper behavior. God’s law demands that. You cannot, however, be satisfied to leave the matter there. You must help your child ask the questions that will expose the attitude of the heart that resulted in wrong behavior. How did his heart stray to produce this behavior? In what characteristic ways has his inability or refusal to know, trust, and obey God resulted in actions and speech that are wrong? SCH, p. 4-5.

    So yes, we do certainly want to correct behavior. But to faithfully image God for our children, and to lead them to Christ, we must go beyond that. We’ll come back to this question at the end.

    II. Examples of how to reach the heart.

    A. 1 year-old Jack is fussing about not getting to play with the dangerous utensil, and is starting to head for a tantrum. Do you: give the one year the dangerous utensil (wrong answer); try to distract the one-year old with a safe toy (not a bad idea sometimes with very small children!); or do you gently discipline the one-year-old and speak of the child’s “fussy heart,” “God does not want us to have fussy hearts.” This child, like every 1-year-old, at heart, struggles with pride, insubordination, and an impatient complaining spirit. Even at this age, we need start speaking of the heart.

    B. 2 year-old Christina is dropping food off the tray of the high-chair. [My son used to roll a Cheerio back-and-forth, left-to-right, on the lip of the tray, while staring into my eyes. Do you: stop feeding the child (wrong answer); sit and feed them by hand so they have nothing to drop or give them food they love so they won’t drop it (behavioral approaches); or thank God for giving you the food ahead of time, at the time of dropping, discipline; and then explain that God made the food, and God does not want us to waste what he gives us? We do not want to have wasteful hearts.

    C. 4 year-old Sandra refuses to share with sister, who is screaming her head off that the toy is hers. Do you: rebuke the older child and tell her to placate the younger child (this is Bill Cosby’s solution: “Will you give that to her!? Don’t you hear her screaming?! She’s got some of my stuff, too. If you think you’re alone in this, you’re crazy!) (wrong answer). Do you give the younger child a different toy to make her happy (unlikely to work)? Or do you sit down with both of them and talk about whether their fight is showing hearts of love for God and others or themselves (ask lots of questions!), pray about it, and then remove the toy as a discipline to both for thinking primarily of themselves?

    D. 6 year-old Michael is interrupting at the table after being told not to do so. Do you have all the other children interrupt him to teach him what it’s like (no that the wrong answer)? Do you take away his ice cream? Maybe; not a terrible idea. Or do you explain that if he keeps doing it, he will be disciplined, and ask him whether his heart is overflowing with love for himself or love for others when he does that?

    We could keep going, but are you seeing the pattern? If we are to lead our children to Christ, and image God in their lives, we won’t simply take steps, and make rules, to correct the behavior—as if the behavior was the main problem. From the earliest ages, we will view the behavior as direct evidence of the deepest struggles of their hearts—which are eternal struggles!

    III. Common questions about heart-centered parenting.

    Lastly, I want to address a couple questions that commonly arise when we teach this material. That is…

    A. How can I expect obedience from the heart—after all, if my children aren’t Christians, then they can’t keep the law.

    This is an excellent and serious question, and your faithful presentation of the Gospel depends on getting the right answer. Yes, you must expect obedience from the heart. The law must still be obeyed. Consider the cost of taking the old behaviorist approach:

    Parents sometimes give children a keep-able standard. [They] think that if their children aren’t Christians, they can’t obey God from the heart anyway. For example, the Bible says to do good to those who mistreat you. But when children are bullied in the schoolyard, parents tell them to ignore the bully. Or worse, parents tell them to hit others when they are hit first.

    This non-biblical counsel [,which simply deals at the level of your child’s behavior,] drives children away from the cross. It doesn’t take grace from God to ignore the oppressor. It doesn’t take supernatural grace to stand up for your rights. To do good to oppressors, however, to pray for those who mistreat you, to entrust yourself to the just Judge, requires a child to come face-to-face with the poverty of his own spirit and his need of the transforming power of the gospel.

    The law of God is not easy for natural man. Its standard is high and cannot be achieved apart from God's supernatural grace. God's law teaches us our need of grace. When you fail to hold out God's standard, you rob your children of the mercy of the gospel.
    SCH, xxii.

    So getting to the heart of behavior is essential to getting to the Gospel with our children. Let’s not rob them of the mercy of the Gospel by giving them only rules they can keep with outward conformity!

    B. Do I do this every time they disobey?

    This is another common question. And the answer is, mostly, yes. But we want to strike a note of realism. You may have a moment where you’re late to church and there’s no time, or there’s been a lot of disobedience, and the child understands the heart issue by now and doesn’t need to walk through the whole thing again.

    But even in these situations, we want to mention the heart and the sin revealed. “We’re late to church, but on the way I want mommy to read Ephesians 6:1, and talk about whether you showed a heart of honor to me when you yelled about your outfit.” “Honey, we’ve had a lot of discipline about this today. That was a fussy heart again, wasn’t it? So what does mommy need to do about that fussy heart?”

    C. This is hard work, and I’m seeing little fruit; can you encourage me?

    This won’t come naturally at first. You’ll get more comfortable as you faithfully practice this. Moms, you’ll probably get weary. Forget the heart! You may find yourself disciplining all day long and slipping into bad habits. Be encouraged and look to your husbands for oversight, guidance, and quality control. Your husband may well come in more fresh. This is a long road. We’ll also talk about corrective discipline, which God has designed for our children’s good and is a necessary complement to it.


    Have you noticed what behaviorism says about our hearts? We tend toward legalism! The Gospel runs shallow in our hearts! And we uncritically adopt parenting methods from our parents, without realizing that the Gospel revolutionizes everything—including our parenting. We are God’s agents in our children’s lives. With God’s help, let’s get to the heart of their behavior, because this is what God does for us.