Many Christians, like most people, aren’t wealthy — financially or spiritually. Many may live paycheck to paycheck materially, and too many live paycheck to paycheck spiritually. They struggle to enjoy divine margin in their relationship with God — surviving on a series of emotionally charged events or experiences. Kids in these homes have a unique set of issues to process when it comes to developing an intimate relationship with Christ.
Fortunately, many Christians fall on the other side of the continuum. They enjoy enormous spiritual margin in their relationship with Jesus, because they seek him daily and aim to live for his glory. The depth and maturity of their walk with Christ creates stability and richness and overflow in their families. But their abundance in Christ can present a particular set of struggles when it comes to their children developing their own passionate relationship with Jesus.
Passing on material goods to our children creates a fairly good analogy for the difficulties Christian parents often face in passing along to their offspring the spiritual wealth they’ve gained. For our discussion, let’s agree that we’re defining “wealth” as having more of something than the minimum, more than we can reasonably consume on our own. Jesus said that to whom much is given, much is expected. With that in mind, I offer the following parallels.
Difficulty of Passing on Our Wealth
There’s a big difference between becoming wealthy and having wealth from the beginning. The first knows what it’s like to have nothing — to be hungry, to wonder how you will make it month to month. The second knows none of these things — at least not experientially.
Yet it’s that hunger — the feelings of barely getting by — that tend to push a person to do the hard, disciplined work required to build up the internal muscles needed to eventually move from rags to riches. It does take “muscles”:
Humility — that puts their pride in check and frees them up to do the thankless, self-effacing jobs that eventually give them access to the ladder of success.
Vision — that enables them to see a better future as well as formulate a plan to get there.
Tenacity — that pushes them over, around, or through the myriad roadblocks on their quest for a better life that scream, “No, it’s too hard!” or, “It’s not worth it!” or, “Give up now!”
Sacrifice — that willingness to deny themselves now in order to ultimately attain what they would never get otherwise.
These internal muscles not only help a person gain material wealth, but also serve them well when it comes to protecting that wealth and multiplying it.
When typical Americans have worked hard and accumulated some healthy financial margin, it’s normal for them to want to use some of it to make their daily lives more comfortable, convenient, and safer. They don’t do this because they’re threatened by discomfort, difficulty, or risk. They’ve known plenty of all three. But now that they have some financial depth, it makes sense to use some of it to alleviate these hardships that are now optional. Because of the personal price they paid to get there, these amenities of their wealth aren’t as likely to corrupt them but simply represent ways they’re enjoying its blessings.
But if you’re a child growing up in this home, the blessings of your parents’ wealth can have a completely opposite impact on you. You have no reference point for hunger, no need for vision, no call for sacrifice. A life of abundant options is so much of a foregone conclusion that it’s hard for a child to even imagine what it would be like to not have them. If a parent isn’t careful, this context of blessing can breed an assumption of entitlement in their children. The underbelly of unearned privilege is often laziness, arrogance, selfishness, and a lack of appreciation for the sacrifice others made to make one’s life so good.
That’s why wealth has a difficult time being passed on for more than two generations from when it was originally made. The mantra has variations but basically goes like this: the first generation makes the wealth, the second one mismanages it, and the third one loses it.
Parenting in Material Abundance
Exceptions exist, but typically they are owing to deliberate actions parents take. They know it’s critical that their children experience their own financial journey. These kinds of parents tend to share two overriding principles in common.
First, they see the importance of their children experiencing financial adversity.
They view the statement “I don’t want my children to have to go through what I went through” for what it is — a misguided view of adversity that ultimately denies their children a chance to gain personal economic maturity.
Their kids may have a nicer home and more options than their parents did at the same age, but wise parents make sure to keep dilemmas in place that force their children to develop fiscal responsibility. For starters, their children still have to carry their fair share of chores around the house. And these parents realize that even though they could easily purchase their kids all the latest clothing and gadgets and everything else their heart desires, they do not. They provide the basics that any other parent would provide, but still expect their children to create income streams of their own if they want upgrades and extras.
The other way they allow them to experience adversity is they refuse to provide economic outpatient care for them once they’re adults. They know it’s in the best interest of their children that they each learn how to be economically self-sufficient.
Second, they distinguish between their wealth and their children’s.
The teenage son says, “Dad, we’re rich, aren’t we?” Dad replies, “No, son, your mom and I are wealthy. You have nothing. We worked hard for what we have and are glad to share its benefits with you while you’re under our care. But a day is coming when we’ll launch you into adulthood. Then you will have to assume total financial responsibility for your life. How you end up when it comes to money and lifestyle will correspond to your own efforts.”
A place exists for financial hand*ups* that enable a responsible young adult to be even more responsible, but not financial hand*outs* that accommodate laziness, irresponsibility, or entitlement. Trust accounts and financial inheritance aren’t assumed by these wise parents but only passed on if these parents are confident these things will help make their children better people. The last thing they’d want their hard-earned money to do is ultimately destroy their adult children.
Parenting in Spiritual Abundance
Now, for the parallel. When a person is brought up in a spiritually deprived environment, there’s a natural sense of something missing. Spiritual hunger, and the emptiness that often accompanies it, typically plays a significant role in a person’s response to the gospel. Up to that point, they may have embraced a string of religious counterfeits. But counterfeits, like junk food, can’t ever satisfy. When a spiritually starving person finally gets a taste of the Bread of Life and a sip of the Living Water, the contrast is overwhelming. There might not be an instant surrender, but when the Holy Spirit finally makes his move on their heart, the change is deep, the contrast is stark, and at least it seems there’s no turning back.
A newfound faith is often accompanied by a passionate desire for more of God, his word, his truth and grace, and his extended family. This pursuit has a transforming impact across the board in this new believer’s life.
If this transformation takes place in their young years or the early years of marriage, it’s not uncommon for them to use some of their spiritual wealth in Christ to “upgrade” their lifestyles. Prayer and the ingesting of God’s word become routine. Their closest friends become spiritual assets rather than liabilities. Fears are more consistently overcome with faith. Bad habits are replaced with life-giving ones. Their home is increasingly filled with God.
But if you’re a child born and raised in this type of home from the beginning, it can have a completely different impact on your spiritual journey, humanly speaking. There are unintended consequences of raising kids in homes where the gutter-to-glory transforming work of God is one generation removed. I have observed three common problems of kids raised in spiritually safe and comfortable Christian homes:
They don’t think God is as real as he is.
They don’t think sin is as bad as it is.
They don’t think.
The Christian environment that surrounds them — with its traditions, clichés, and built-in protections — may become their view of who God is rather than God himself. The safe confines of their comfortable Christian world may give them a naiveté towards sin that can easily make them vulnerable to its true nature once they’re adults. And they’re living in a world that’s constantly giving them answers to questions they’re not driven to ask and solutions to problems they’ve never truly had to wrestle with.
Passing on a Living Faith
Passing on a fervent faith in Christ to the next generation is difficult, but it’s not impossible. Ultimately God gives the gift of the new birth, but he does invite parents in to play an essential part. Like the wealthy parents that effectively pass on a healthy appreciation and stewardship of money to their kids, there are a couple of things, among others, that Christian parents can do in an effort to make their child’s upbringing a launching pad for their own passionate relationship with Jesus.
First, allow them to face a degree of spiritual adversity.
It’s obviously reckless for a parent to simply throw their helpless children into the midst of a morally hostile world. But it can be equally irresponsible and reckless to raise them in an environment that doesn’t really need God’s power and presence for protection. Although their children get to bask in the blessing of a godly and righteous home, wise parents know that there’s a huge difference between biblical knowledge and biblical power, spiritual safety and spiritual strength.
The former can be attained with orthodox information and man-made barriers. The latter is more likely attained through spiritual challenge, risk, and threat. The former can be achieved without God’s help. The latter can only be achieved through God’s power and a personal encounter with a mighty Savior.
When spiritually wealthy parents create ongoing dilemmas that highlight their child’s deep need for Christ, and he saves them, it not only raises the likelihood, so to speak, of getting a biblically knowledgeable and spiritually strong kid, but a biblically nimble and spiritually safe one too. And we don’t have to expose them much to the hostile world around them to convince them of their need for Christ.
But how does a parent do this without stepping over the line toward recklessness? Jesus showed us the way. He taught his disciples the truths of the gospel by regularly unpacking the Scripture and teaching parables and then applying them to their life. But he also consistently engaged the disciples in the raw reality of the broken world around them. They had daily exposure to man’s depraved heart by accompanying him as he actively poured out his love on people caught up in the throes of their lost condition. And there were times when he even sent these disciples out on their own “as sheep in the midst of wolves” to put into practice the principles they saw Jesus demonstrate for them (Matthew 10:16).
You say, “Yes, but the disciples were adults.” Perhaps, though some of them may have been younger than we typically think today of by “adult” — and in many of these encounters Jesus had with the underside of the lost world, we know that even “children” were present as well. In some cases, children actually played a role. However, on those edgier encounters when children were present, they were safe from sins under toe — because Jesus was there with them.
You say, “Yes, but the disciples were already believers in Jesus.” Actually, they plainly did not have a full understanding of who Jesus was, and what he represented, until the resurrection. But they had an attraction to him and a desire to respond to his call. During their three-year journey by his side, they drew close to him as their leader and friend, but their faith-based relationship didn’t show up until the last chapter of his earthly ministry.
If parents are truly wealthy in Christ, they should be living on the frontlines of his kingdom cause. They should have regular engagement with the spiritually hurting and needy people that surround them. These parents know that their kids are better off with a front-row seat as mom and dad go about loving the lost and lonely they encounter along the way. Spiritually wealthy parents, who consistently hold out their treasure to the spiritually bankrupt people around them, typically have less trouble raising kids who have a sober view of the lost culture that surrounds them.
Second, distinguish between the child’s relationship with Christ and their parents’.
These parents make it clear that the gracious spiritual environment their kids get to enjoy is an extension of their parents’ relationship with Jesus. If their children want these features to be a part of their future life, they will find it, sooner or later, through their own pursuit of Christ. These parents do not assume that anything they know or believe about Jesus will be their kids’ by default. But they seek to connect to their children’s heart in such a way that it prepares the way for their kids to connect ultimately to the heart of God.
Christ More Than Comfort
We can complicate passing on our faith if we unwittingly make the process too comfortable and easy for our kids. Although children can clearly benefit from the blessings that accompany their parent’s relationship with Christ, if they want those spiritual assets for themselves, they will come through their own authentic journey to the cross.
The more we make our homes a gracious place for our children to process the consequential features of their sinful separation from God, the less encumbered they’ll be when it comes to making the riches of his salvation their own.