By God’s grace, my wife and I are in our fiftieth year of marriage. Our adult children survived our fallible attempts to shepherd their hearts. Now, we gladly watch them shepherd our grandchildren’s hearts. I have learned: marriage is sometimes hard but often sweet. Parenting is scary but can be full of joy. Our heavenly Father is forever patient, merciful, and faithful. I am still learning much more, and here are some admonitions that grow out of that learning.
Love Christ more than you love your family. Israel’s neighbors sacrificed children to Molech. Our neighbors often sacrifice spouses and children to professional advancement, personal fulfillment, or other “idols.” Christians may overreact to our toxic cultural environment by turning marital and parental love—God’s good gifts—into our own idols. But Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).
You cannot love your spouse or children well if you love them most. As idols, those nearest and dearest to you cannot bear the weight of your devotion and dependence. Only as your heart is bowed and your hope is fixed on Jesus will you receive grace to love your loved ones as God expects.
Only as your heart is bowed and your hope is fixed on Jesus will you receive grace to love your loved ones as God expects.
Love your family more than yourself. Selfcenteredness is the default setting of twisted human hearts, even those being renovated by God’s Spirit. It takes effort to move from pursuing our own agendas to a readiness to lay down our lives for others, as Jesus did for us (1 John 3:16). Such sacrifice includes not only the rare extreme (protecting spouse or children from physical assault) but also life’s everyday choices about how we invest money, time, and energy (v. 17).
Especially, guard your hearts. Proverbs 6:20–35 gives timely counsel for our social atmosphere in which fresh feelings of unmet needs and attraction trump old, uncomfortable vows. Husband, stop comparing your weary wife to the coworker who lavishes her admiration on your every insight. Wife, beware the listening ear of the soccer dad whose empathy outstrips that of your inattentive husband. Remember, you can draw from a reservoir of love beyond yourself: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Set the pace. Love aims for our loved ones’ best. That demands discipline. “Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord. . . . For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:5–6). Paul urges fathers to nurture children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). These texts show three truths: (1) Real love disciplines. Failure to say no is not a sign of love but of indifference, inertia, or self-serving timidity. (2) Godly discipline flows not from a drive to dominate but from a loving longing for your spouse’s and children’s well-being. (3) As we submit ourselves to the Lord’s discipline, we can extend the Lord’s loving discipline to others.
Live by grace. When we are being transformed by God’s grace, we can love each other and our children by living by this grace hour by hour. God knows your worst and still embraces you in love. His grace frees you to humble yourself before your wife, your husband, your children; to admit your sin and failure; and to ask forgiveness. And we live by grace as we patiently bear with others’ failures and offenses, refusing to retaliate or nurse grudges.
Love the church. Loving our spouses and children means showing them why we love the church. Sadly, one symptom of some believers’ “family idolatry” is the inclination to isolate families not only from the influences of our increasingly pagan culture but also from the communion of the body of Christ. Christ gave His church the spiritual gifts that help us grow together toward maturity (Eph. 4:11–16). God embedded His directives to parents (Deut. 6:5–9; Eph. 6:4) in documents addressed to His whole people: “Hear, O Israel” (Deut. 6:4) and “the saints in Ephesus” (Eph. 1:1). We love our spouse and children best as we help them “catch” our own love for Christ’s church.
Dr. Dennis E. Johnson is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is author of several books, including Walking with Jesus through His Word and Him We Proclaim.