by Seth Kittinger
“I don’t know what to do.”
Those six words pretty much sum up my experience of parenting so far. Granted, I’ve only been at it for a little less than seven years, but as a father of three, I’m still caught off guard by how frequently I am hit with the realization that I have no idea how to handle the latest parenting situation, decision, crisis—you name it. And it’s not because I don’t have access to lots of great wisdom on the subject. I do! My wife Laura and I have read lots of parenting books and articles over the years and are surrounded by a church family that is overflowing with top-notch mamas and papas to seek council from. But despite all of the resources we have at our fingertips, they still have their limits. And truth be told, those limits are reached on a daily basis in our house. That is because even though there are a great many “universals” when it comes to raising children, there are also just as many uniquenesses; each child truly is a “one-of-a-kind,” and so is each family, which means there is no magic formula that works for everyone. Did you catch that? I said, there is no magic formula that works for everyone.
So, what do we do when we don’t know what to do? Thankfully, James, the half-brother of Jesus, a man renowned for his abundance of practical wisdom on living the Jesus-life well, gives us some very straightforward advice:
"If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer.” (James 1:5-8, The Living Bible)
There are two things going on in this passage which I would like to draw your attention to because of how they relate directly to your parenting and mine. The first is that God cares about and wants to be intimately involved in the mundane details of our lives. Here James is pointing out to us that one of the most practical ways we can involve Jesus in our daily lives more consistently is to take advantage of those “I don’t know what to do” moments by turning to Jesus to ask Him what to do. According to James, the Christian life is less about asking ourselves the question “what would Jesus do?” and more about going directly to Jesus Himself and asking, “Jesus, what do I do?” As Dallas Willard puts it, we must become convinced that “nothing is more central to the practical life of the Christian than confidence in God’s individual dealings with each person.”
The second thing I want to point out from the passage above is that James is so confident about Jesus’ desire to be involved in and provide us with wisdom for the practical matters of our lives that he actually promises us that Jesus will answer when we ask! The only stipulation he gives us is that we actually believe this to be true and expect it to happen. In fact, another New Testament author says that this simple belief and expectation is the essence of faith itself:
“And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for [whoever] comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NASB)
James is not telling us that we need to summon up some sort of magical, certainty-guaranteeing “super faith” to get Jesus to answer us. We cannot make God speak or act by gritting our teeth and “believing God for a breakthrough.” To do so would be to completely misunderstand the nature of faith. What James is saying to us very simply, is that if we don’t expect Jesus to care enough to speak to us about the things that matter to us, then we probably won’t hear Him even when He does speak. And the author of Hebrews is echoing the same, telling us that what makes God happy is when we genuinely believe that He truly is who Jesus revealed Him to be, and especially that He is actively waiting to respond to (reward) those who seek Him. That is true faith.
Jesus Himself made this statement to His first followers: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). If this is true, it’s one of the most precious promises we could ever receive from our Master. Listen to these descriptions of the Christian life from a disciple who learned to live inside of this promise:
“Always, we are simply children walking and talking with our Father at hand… Accordingly, I believe the most adequate description of prayer is simply, ‘Talking to God about what we are doing together”… Prayer is a matter of explicitly sharing with God my concerns about what he too is concerned about in my life. And of course he is concerned about my concerns and, in particular, that my concerns should coincide with his. This is our walk together. Out of it I pray.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy)
“Spiritual people are not those who engage in certain spiritual practices; they are those who draw their life from a conversational relationship with God.” (Dallas Willard, Hearing God)
In light of these thoughts, I’d like to share with you the one practice that has become the foundation for all of the decisions that Laura and I make with regard to parenting our kids. It’s simply this: We ask Jesus what to do, and we expect Him to answer. Now, that doesn’t mean we always get an answer right away. Nor does it mean that everything goes perfectly when we do hear and apply His answers. Remember, this isn’t about magic formulas, and God is not interested in being manipulated or controlled. Learning to live in a conversational relationship with God is a way of life, one that takes a lifetime to learn! But one practice that Laura and I have found to be indispensable is making intentional time to ask Jesus for wisdom with regard to our kids and to just sit and listen at His feet. Yes, we can and do also ask Him for guidance “in the moment,” and yes, we do sometimes receive supernatural insight “on the spot.” But the most critical and beneficial wisdom we have received from Jesus in our parenting over the years has almost always come when we set aside intentional time to just sit still, ask, and listen together. As we wait in His presence, we consistently find that He is actually the one who has been waiting for us, ready to help.
But don’t just take my word for it…ask Jesus! Here are some simple guidelines you can follow to experiment with asking Jesus for wisdom in your parenting this week and beyond:
1. Find a time when you and your spouse can sit down together in quiet to pray. It might be for only 15 minutes, but having at least 30 minutes is optimal. Just finding and fighting for this time is often the hardest part! (If you are a single parent, know that Jesus will still meet you when you seek him on your own, or you can ask him to send you a prayer partner. This could be a member of your family, a close friend, or a mature Christian who you are in relationship with.)
2. Begin your time by just sitting together in Jesus’ presence, allowing yourself to become aware the He is with you and for you. If you feel that your faith needs strengthening before you ask and listen, try spending some time giving thanks for the help you have received from Jesus in the past, or read one of the Scripture passages quoted above (James 1:5-8 or John 10:27) out loud together and just sit with His promises for a bit. Ask Him to increase your trust in Him, like another desperate parent once did: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
3. When you are ready, lift up one of your children to Jesus in prayer and ask Him simply, “Jesus, what does _____ need right now?” Or if you are struggling with a particular challenge with one of your children, or with your home life in general, you could ask, “Jesus, what do you want me/us to do about _____ right now?” or perhaps, “Jesus, what are you doing about _____ right now, and how can I/we partner with you?” The words aren’t important. What’s important is that you are authentic and vulnerable in your asking, and ready to respond to His guidance with trust and obedience.
4. Just sit quietly and listen, paying attention to whatever thoughts and impressions come to you as you do so. Sometimes a word or a phrase might come to mind. Sometimes of picture or image will flash before you mind’s eye. Other times a story or passage from Scripture will “randomly” pop up in your consciousness. Sometimes you might even just have a strange but undeniable internal “sense” about what needs to be done. Again, it takes a lifetime to develop a conversational relationship with God, just like learning to communicate with our spouses is an ongoing process. But He is gracious to meet us where we are. Remember, the Shepherd/sheep relationship is dependent upon the competence of the Shepherd, not the sheep!
5. When you are ready, share with one another what you have heard or sensed, and then pray together about how to implement the guidance you have received. This is going to be a trial and error process, in which you “fail forward” as you come back to this practice again and again.
You can repeat steps 3-5 for each of your children, or for each situation you are seeking wisdom for. To be honest, the most difficult part is often step 6: do whatever He tells you. Often the instructions we receive require costly sacrifice on our part, but it is always worth it to be able to walk in confident trust that Jesus is with us and for us in our struggle, especially when the fruit of our obedience begins to blossom in our children’s lives.
As you practice these steps repeatedly, you will most likely develop your own natural way of walking with Jesus through a listening process that is intimate and relational. As this happens, you will find that all the parenting books and seminars in the world cannot give you the confidence that comes from genuine fellowship and partnership with Jesus in the midst of your daily life as a mom or dad. In the words of another disciple who learned and lived this secret of the Jesus-life:
“Yield yourself to Him who is a far better teacher than these outward words, and you will have found the Instructor Himself, of whom these words are a faint and broken echo.” (Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion)