This answer obviously depends on who you ask! I got over 28 MILLION results by asking Google. Here are a few of the suggestions
- Taking care of yourself
- Responsibility and independence
- Laughing at their jokes
- Reading with them
- Having a will
- Playing with them
- An early bedtime
- A college education
There’s much wisdom in this list. And yet there’s a gaping hole. Nothing here touches on the child’s eternal, spiritual nature. Maybe the better question then is “What’s the Greatest Thing a Christian Parent Can Give Their Kids?”
There are many good things parents are instructed to do in the Bible – love their children, train them in righteousness, discipline them consistently, teach them the Scriptures and talk about biblical truth throughout the day, to name a few. Pretty high standards! Are you overwhelmed trying to actually DO that in the midst of everyday, real life?!
But what if we could boil it all down. Give singular focus to what it is we are trying to do as we raise our kids. Sound too simplistic? Not comprehensive enough? It’s what Jesus did when He was asked what the greatest commandment was.
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:36-38 ESV)
This wasn’t just the greatest command for the Pharisees asking the question. Not just for the people of Jesus’ time. Not just for us as Christian adults today. This is THE greatest commandment. Period. That means it’s the greatest thing for our children too.
So, what’s the greatest thing we can give our children?
A love for God. A chance to cultivate intimacy with Him while they are still children.
If you look up the word intimacy it means
a close, familiar, affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person
an act or expression serving as a token of familiarity, affection, or the like
the quality of being comfortable, warm, or familiar
Your children need to learn to relate to God, even as they learn to relate to the people around them. They need to learn the character and nature of God, even as they learn the character and nature of people around them. Your children need to learn to talk to God, listen to Him and enjoy His presence, even as they learn how to interact with the people around them.
Why is this the greatest thing they need? Jesus gave us the answer to that question too.
“These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” (Matthew 22:40 MSG)
When a person really loves God first and foremost and loves people secondly, then that person can and will do everything else that is required.
If your children learn to love God and to cultivate an intimate relationship with Him, they will also love the Scriptures. They will love truth. They will know God’s voice. They will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. They will be prepared for anything and everything that life throws at them because they have a Friend who is walking beside them. A Friend who is keeping their foot from slipping. A Friend who is behind them saying, “This is the way, walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21 ESV) A friend who fully accepts them and offers extravagant grace over and over again.
What a gift! Think about the difference between a child who simply knows about God and a child who actually knows God in a deeply personal and intimate way.
The first child is one that is filled with head knowledge. Knowledge is important, but it can also puff up when it only remains in the mind. This kind of knowledge is impersonal and does not involve the individual or his heart. This kind of knowledge tries to force itself out into behavior and can lead to religion and the following of rules.
The second child is one who knows Jesus in a comfortable, warm, affectionate way. One whose heart loves and delights in the God who is his friend. One who runs to Him when he is hurting, talks to Him about what is on his heart, listens for His leading and desires to please Him in everything. Is he perfect? No! But he knows he is loved and accepted and wants to live his life to worship and serve this amazing God who first loved him.
Does this seem too good to be true? Does it seem like an impossible goal for children to attain? Here’s the reality though. That is a picture of the abundant life God desires for His children, no matter their age. There is no better time to start having this type of relationship with God than at the very beginning.
Children must be taught how to interact with God, but they are ready for it. In fact, they were made for it. They have child-like faith. They readily trust. They rely on others. They are honest. They are open.
Children can have an intimate relationship with the God who truly loves them, sees them, delights in them, loves to talk to them and listens to them. This foundation of a personal friendship with the God of the universe will then enable children to worship God and relate to Him in other ways as well.
How do you train a child to have an intimate relationship with God?
You have an intimate relationship with God yourself.
Sometimes the difficulty in passing along such a personal and vibrant relationship is that we don’t have it ourselves. Maybe you grew up in an environment that led to a lot of head knowledge but not an intimate relationship. Maybe you don’t know how to talk to God from your heart or hear His voice, much less teach your child to do so!
The good news is that you can get to know God in this way now! God promises that if you draw near to Him, He will draw near to you. (James 4:8) He promises that if you seek after Him with all of your heart, you will find Him. (Jeremiah 29:13)
Make this the priority in your life. Seek Jesus. Pour out your heart before Him. (Psalm 62:8) Listen for His voice. Follow Him. Enjoy His presence. Be honest with Him. Get to know Him. Read His Word. Do these things not because you have to. Not because it’s part of a checklist. Not even because you want this kind of relationship for your kids. Do it because you want it. Because you need it. Because it is your life.
As you do, you’ll notice yourself changing. Perhaps in big ways. But probably, most profoundly, in little ways. In the tone of voice you use. In your reactions. In your laughter. In the way you interact with those you love the most. The way you pray will change. The way you worship will change. The conversations you have will be different. And there will be no mistaking the source.
You lift Jesus high over and over and over again!
This one isn’t much different from other areas of a child’s life. It is true that repetition aids learning. A child can tell what is important and valued by the way in which we speak about it and the frequency with which we speak about it.
If we only talk about God when we pray before meals or bed, what will they believe about Him? If we never identify God as the source of the gifts and blessings we have, who will they attribute their praise to? If we relegate God only to times we go to church, how will they see Him and include Him in their everyday life?
Recognize that God is with you every second of the day. He is leading and guiding. He is answering prayer. He is showing mercy and faithful love. When you recognize it, share it with your children so they can learn to see it too!
You instill habits (rhythms) that lead him to Jesus.
The last part of this sentence is the key. We don’t instill habits for the sake of habits (although there is some value in this). Habits aren’t what will bring about change in your child, they are merely the means that God will use to bring your child to Himself.
Habits don’t grant us favor with God. Habits, in and of themselves, can become legalistic and binding. Habits can lead to pride and self-sufficiency.
But if habits lead us to Jesus and cause us to know Him better and love Him more, then they are a glorious means of God conforming us more and more to the image of Christ. Habits should focus us on our relationship with God and not just the completion of a task or required element.
Children don’t need a laundry list of things that they should do every day or even every week. They need time and space to get to know God, to talk to Him to listen to Him. They need to time to think about His word and His truth and His character and imagine what it means for them. They need to know Jesus and not just know about Him.
Pray that God would lead and guide you as you lead your children into intimacy with Him. Pursue Him with everything you have. Lift Him high every day in front of your kids. And discern the habits that would best help your children develop their love for and intimacy with God.