The Goal of Our Instruction Is Love

by Joy Marie Dunlap
       "But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (I Tim. 1:5). A prerequisite of godly child training is the belief that children can and should love one another and live for the good of others, not just themselves. This is in complete contrast to the prevalent view that childhood should be a time when a child lives for pleasure or that a child cannot overcome his natural selfish tendencies and should not be expected to do so.
       Another false idea is that a child is naturally good. Children are innocent only in that they are born with a clean slate. However, the desire to primarily live to please oneself is the natural bent of all human beings, including children, and is the root of self-centeredness, which is in turn the root of every kind of strife and sin. We have to be patient with our children, but should not lower the standard of what is right and what is wrong.

The Foundation of Christian Character Is Love
       The most important lesson a child can learn is that God requires people to love others as they love themselves. This is the standard set forth for us by Christ Himself, who commands us to first love God supremely and then, as an extension or fruit of our love for God, to love our neighbors (the people we encounter in daily life) as ourselves.
       Your children will not be perfect in this. My children are not perfect in this. However, we must not, dare not, lower God's standard for our lives and our children's lives just because we find it hard to reach. With patience, accepting and teaching our children about God's abundant forgiveness in Christ, we must press on toward the goal of the standard Christ set for us to love God with all our hearts and to love one another. It is a challenging task, but God will give us the grace and wisdom we need along the way.
       We teach our children to love one another in three ways: by modeling love through our example, by teaching them about love—what it means in practical terms and why God requires it, and by requiring them to behave lovingly toward one another through the rules and commands we give them.

Teaching Our Children To Love by Our Example
       We model our love for God by putting His commands first in our lives; by reading, studying, and meditating on His Word; and by applying it in practical, life-changing ways in our daily lives.
       When God's will is our first consideration in any and every decision we make, our children know that we love Him. If He does not come into our decisions, they know that we do not love Him. To love God is to pray and live, every day, the Lord's prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," meaning, "Do your will in my life, O God, I want your will, not mine."
       God's will is not always easy to accept. Sometimes it involves hardships that we would rather avoid. We have to remember that Jesus said that only those willing to take up their crosses daily and deny themselves are fit to be His disciples.
       We model love by loving our spouse. First and foremost, our children must see our lifelong commitment to staying married and being first in each other's lives. Our children must see that love really is "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health," in good times and in bad times. Marriage is not for when it is convenient and pleasant, to be cast aside when things do not go so well.
       My husband, James, has modeled these things for our children in that he married a lovely, healthy, able-bodied young bride, who gradually became more and more crippled and ill over the next decade and a half with multiple devastating physical problems that have made life difficult for us both, and through it all his love for me has never dimmed. In fact, both of us are more in love now, in every sense of the word, than we ever were as newly-weds.
       James has accepted the hardships cheerfully with a sacrificial commitment to God and a good sense of humor that softens every difficulty. He has demonstrated to our children a servant's heart, giving selflessly at every turn, always as cheerfully as if every diaper change, dish basin, sick bed, late night, or midnight wake-up call was a wonderful privilege. His steadfast love has been an inspiration to our whole family and to many people outside our family as well. His love has certainly stood up to the test of hard times.
       One of the ways we have demonstrated our love for each other to the children is by being willing to give in to the other's wishes, requests, concerns, and consciences. If James feels strongly that a certain influence is not good for the children, even if I do not fully agree, I go by his conscience and concern. I know that God works in his life and can change his mind if He wants to.
       My husband's headship is a precious thing to me, as it is part of his place as a protection over our family.
       On my husband's part, he feels very strongly about always listening to the cautions of his wife as at least one godly Christian leader has advised men to do. We have both been willing, through the years, to change for each other out of love, to make adjustments and compromises in order to live in harmony.
       I cannot say that there has never been any strain on our marriage. At one point the strain from a work situation was tremendous. When a man puts his job and career above the family, as our culture puts tremendous pressure on every man to do, the marriage can be overstressed and sometimes even destroyed by the pressure.
       We have learned through the years that God does take care of His people when they put Him and their families first, before riches, prestige, and material gain. We do not have to be afraid to put His priorities first in our lives, because He does provide and intervene lovingly in our lives as we trust Him in the way we live.
       I have modeled love for both James and our family by avoiding outside commitments that are more than I can handle and which would put too much stress on our family relationships. We try to be available to people who need us on a case-by-case basis as the Lord leads, without making heavy long-term commitments outside our immediate family. Being there for one another when we need each other has been a high priority in our lives.
       We model love for our children by taking delight in them, enjoying their company and personalities, appreciating the little things in their lives which they are excited about, giving them lots of hugs, doing things together that we all enjoy, and taking the time to really communicate, to hear how they feel about things, to listen to what they are thinking.
       I work hard at showing appreciation to our children for all that they do for our family and for one another. They are far from perfect and need plenty of correction, but it is mixed with ample attention, appreciation, and affection from us as well.
       We model love for others outside the family by being available to those individuals in the church and community whom God lays on our hearts who are in some kind of need, not only financial or physical need, but poor health, loneliness, or poor proficiency in the English language, for example. We feel that Christ's priority, as expressed in His Word, is to reach out to hurting people, whatever form that hurt might take.
       So, for example, we have had a lonely foreigner over for Christmas, sung carols as a family to a bedridden neighbor, brought backyard flowers and handmade cards to a neighbor having surgery, and bought a hot meal for a homeless family. These are little things, which do not take more time, energy, or money than we have, but make a great deal of difference in people's lives.
       A message of encouragement, a plate of cookies for a new neighbor, a commitment to pray, a basket of fruit, slippers for a shut-in, a box of school supplies or toiletries for a financially struggling home-school family, a bag of groceries, a handmade card, a half hour of your time to hear someone else's problems—these are the little things that love is made of.

Teaching Our Children About Biblical Christian Love
       It is important to teach our children some fundamental principles about Christian love from Scripture.
       First, God is love. He is a loving Father to all who love and follow Him and has taught us what love is through the example of Christ's life and death on earth. "We love because He first loved us" is a fundamental verse for children to memorize.
       The more we love, the more we are becoming like our Lord. The more we love, the closer we draw to Him. We love in His strength and by his example, and every truly loving thing we do is unto Him. Jesus said in Matthew 25:40, "To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me."
       If we do not love others, we do not love our Lord, for it is by loving others that we show our love for Him in return for all that He has done for us. "For the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (I John 4:20b).
       The fact that God is a loving Father means that we can count on Him to take care of us as we sacrificially love others. This is an important concept, freeing us to love more than we otherwise would, knowing that what we give away today in terms of time, money, or material goods, God will restore to us tomorrow, so that we will never be without what we need for our well-being.
       Our children need to learn what love is through Scripture by studying passages such as the following: I John chapters 2-4, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and Luke, I Corinthians 13 on the attributes of love, Philippians 2:1-15, John 15:9-17, Matthew 22:35-40, Acts 2:41-47, Romans 12, Romans 13:8-10, Romans 14:19, and Hebrews 10:24.
       This list is included on a master list of Scripture verses we want our children to memorize. My husband works with the children each Sunday to help them learn one verse or more, often on the topic of love.
       How much and to what extent should we love others? This question is answered by the verse, "We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (I John 3:16). We can only do this by observing the levels of priority in love as demonstrated in the Bible.
       It is important for our children to learn that love has levels of priority. First of all, we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, and might. This affects the priorities of love, since it causes us to be cautious about keeping company with people who urge us to go against His Word, who tempt us to defy His authority, and to go against His direction in our lives.
       Second, we are to make it our first priority to love those whom we affect most with our lives. The Bible stresses that the marriage relationship should be given special priority above all other relationships except our relationship to God. To love others outside the home at the expense of the marriage, therefore, is a serious mistake. No act of Christian love that jeopardizes or damages the Christian marriage could be the will of God.
       Similarly, because we have such a profound effect on the spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being of our children, perhaps for their entire lives, and since parental neglect can have long-term consequences, we must therefore, put loving our children and meeting their needs ahead of loving others outside the family.
       A mistake that is often made in Christian ministry is to put ministry ahead of the needs of our own children, often bringing about grave consequences in the lives of the children, crippling them spiritually and emotionally. Many a child of missionaries has turned from God because his parents did not recognize the important principle of the proper priorities of Christian ministry and love.
       Our children need to see these priorities reflected in our lives and be taught them as well, so that they will never forget them. After our own family comes "the household of the faith," which includes all sincere Christians, not just our little group or denomination. Within the household of the faith, those who are hurting need our love the most and form yet another proper priority of love.
       If we are so busy loving those who love us that we neglect or even ignore the hurting we are ignoring our Lord Himself according to the last half of Matthew 25. Jesus teaches us that what we do for the needy we do for Him, and what we fail to do for them, we fail to do for Him. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "If you love [only] those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them" (Luke 6:32).
       Loving our "neighbor" is also to be a priority in the Christian life. In His parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus showed us that any person we encounter who is hurting or in need is our neighbor. This is such an important principle and answers the questions, "How can I love everyone when I am finite." If we all took the time to love our neighbor, everyone would receive the help they need. God wants us to do our part because loving our neighbor is Christ's second command in Matthew 22:35-40.
       Even though unbelievers are last on our list, our love should be such that it reaches them, too, because God loves them, and the best way for God to reach them with His love is through us (Matthew 5:43-48). While witnessing is important and is a high priority within the evangelical church, our witness is ruined if we do not also love our neighbor in a real, substantive, and practical way.
       We also ruin our witness if we do not love one another, love our marriage partner, and love and fully care for our children in every way. On the other hand, when loving one another within the family is top priority, that in itself is a witness to unbelievers.
       Countless times we have been stopped by complete strangers who have said, "I can't get over the closeness in your family and the way you love one another. I just had to stop and say something, even though you don't know me." This gives us the opportunity to "give an account of the hope that is in [us]." It shows that putting the family first, far from sabotaging our witness, can be a powerful witness in and of itself. (This should be especially encouraging to missionary families who home school.)

Requiring Our Children To Show Love To Others
       It is in vogue today to teach children that their primary moral responsibility in life is to love and look out for themselves. This is not in keeping with Scripture at all. Looking after one's own self comes so naturally that every human being will do it without any teaching or direction at all. What does not come naturally is looking out for our fellow human beings.
       The best way to teach a child to love others is in partnership with us. When our oldest son was a toddler and his brother was born, I encouraged him to take care of Baby with me. We did it together.
       As our children grew older, we did things for other people together. "Let's make cards for Mr. Roberts because he had a heart attack and has to stay home and rest for a week." "Let's take Mrs. May some flowers because she is in the hospital." "Let's have Mitra over because she is lonely and needs our love." "Let's be kind to the lady who thinks we should not be allowed to home school. That will be loving our enemies as Jesus taught us to do."
       All of our children, except our youngest, have helped me with their younger siblings. In fact, one of their main jobs whenever we had a baby or toddler in the house was to "keep Baby happy."
       Throughout their lives, I have tried to help our children look at life from the other person's point of view, not just their own perspective. This does not come naturally to children. It has to be taught. You have to tell the child what another person might feel or think or need or want. You have to keep doing this on a regular basis so that this kind of thinking becomes a habit in your child's life.
       As soon as a preschool child is able to begin thinking in terms of others' needs and feelings, he should be helped to think about the feelings of others besides himself. We do this through conversation, praise, and correction.
       "Mommy feels so good when you help her set the table! You made Mommy really happy just now." "Ouch, that hurts Mommy when you pull her hair." "Look, you made Sister cry when you snatched her paper dolls. Won't she be sad if they get torn? Quickly, give them back to her before you tear them. You would not want to make Sister sad, would you?"
       Even if I do not think our children will necessarily relate to the way I put things, I still try to express for them the thoughts they should be thinking in each situation. This helps to train their minds in the right direction. I have found that as I do this, our children begin to think the right kinds of thoughts on their own after a while.
       It is like the way I teach our children to write. I have them copy out letters, poetry, paragraphs, essays, and reports so that they can get a feel for how a good poem, letter, report, etc., looks and sounds. From there I get them started writing their own. When we express good and right thoughts for our children, we get them in the habit of thinking in a good and right and loving way.

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