I've been a full time pastor, a company CEO and have probably led a thousand more people in other capacities over the years, but these offices have proven mere child's play compared to offering a simple Bible study with my family.
I know few fathers today who crack open the Bible with their families to mine it for it's truth and wisdom. This void in masculine leadership is but another road sign knocked down along the ancient path where wise fathers through human history have passed down great riches to their kids.
For years my kids have seen me studying the Scripture for my own growth. I daily stop them to take advantage of teachable moments. They daily receive instruction at the Christian school they attend, and some information through our irregular church attendance.
And in my comfort with this arrangement I might have stayed here forever had I not stopped to inspect the skirmish inside my heart. When it comes to actually sitting down to teach my kids how to study scripture and listen to God, I have really battled fear.
Over the years I have risked leading my family in devotions time and again, and I have felt failure time and again.
Let me define "failure": By the time I finish our discussion they have already checked out. In response to their wandering thoughts and squirmy bodies I'm guilty of losing my cool. My kids feel trapped and go silent, afraid of not answering my questions correctly. My wife is visibly upset with me and I never want to lead a family devotion again. While one of my kids close up in a short prayer, I'm silently thanking God it's over. Then my family disperses quickly while I sit on the couch like a wounded animal to lick my wounds.
Then I will hear this voice:
"Let someone else do this---someone better equipped... someone your kids will find it much easier to listen to. After all... that's what other men do."
And in this moment if I compare myself to any other man, whether he be intentional in this arena or not, I am tempted to cut a deal...
"Just stop trying and you'll have more peace in your home."
The malevolent chatter comes hard and fast. If I don't shut it down it goes on and on...
"You are a failure, unable to even lead your family. Every single time you put yourself out there you get disrespect. Everywhere else you're respected and listened to, but not here. And you lost your cool again. You can't handle this simple job. You are not a good father and your kids know it. Your children will reject the Truth and be led astray. You will fail. And you'll have to watch them stumble into the darkness, powerless to do anything about it."
The assault is real. On me, my heart, my intentions, my wife and my kids. My soul can go very dark, very quickly.
What about you? Do you have any experience in this area? What dark thinking gets dredged up when you consider stepping forward as a priest in your home?
With so much on the line, it can be a terrifying duty. But the warfare is helpful intel, evidence that the enemy hates what I'm doing because I am moving us toward life and God. With kids now 13 and 15 years old this is still an arena where I am learning to fight, often returning to my corner between rounds for stitches and instruction. As much as my opponent mocks me and dances an intimidating jig around my tired soul I have always mustered the courage to step back into the ring for another round with gloves up.
I find courage and resolve when I lean deeply into a question that's been clarifying in every other arena of my life.
"Jay, what kind of man do you wanna be?"
God first asked me this question years ago, so I've already established a mental picture I can reference at any time. I have a vision of being a noble man who does not sit on the couch but is instead always learning, growing, and walking in Jesus' counsel, to eventually gain victory in every battle I am led into by God. So I return again to fight. There is simply too much at stake.
No doubt about it. This exercise requires courage, a humble heart, and the willingness to grow in my sonship with God.
This battle is for every man to fight.
You are not alone.
If you're not feeling the intense resistance, will you ask yourself why not?
Have you been seduced into abdicating spiritual leadership to your wife, church, a youth pastor, or private school, maybe? This is the norm, but it's weak. It's unmanly. And we all know it. Going to sleep on this watch brings a man's heart a little closer to death and puts our families at great risk.
A man is created and commanded to stand on the wall and guard the house. Our design is for battle. But I know many men who have spent years collecting a little money and reputation only to choose a safe and comfortable bed a few hundred yards off the front lines. The problem is, our kids are in a fox hole on the front line fighting an enemy who is supernatural--mighty, crafty and nearly invisible. It is quite possible there has never been a more deceptive age for kids to find and rest in the Truth of God's love and purposes for them. They are each being hunted. They need their old man in the foxhole with them so they can see how we handle our own fear and witness God's rescuing hand in our own battles for truth and identity.
They need to hear that God is the hero in our story as it unfolds in real time. They need to learn how we arm ourselves with God's truth.
Just last night I was talking with a good man who loves Jesus, with beautiful children now grown and out of the house. As I shared with him a bit of my successes and failures in this arena, he admitted this was an area he wished he had offered more. "I outsourced it." he said. And he regretted it. Even though his family looks to be doing well and loving Jesus, as a man, he regrets it.
My wife and I recently sat by the Christmas tree and inventoried, in detail, my past failures regarding family devotions. It was a painful but necessary exercise. And this is not the first time. Again, she lovingly but firmly offered criticisms to help me fight more effectively...
"What you say is great, but you say too much. It's just way too long. And while you start off in a good mood, it often ends up feeling controlled, and even angry. You don't seem to be reading our body language and discerning when it's time to stop. When you do this the kids don't want to have family devotions any more."
Ouch! I sat silent. Humbled. Sad. Tempted in the moment to both defensive anger and surrender.
But she's right.
So I pray, "Jesus, why do I get fearful and controlling? Literally terrified and angry. What's the deal?"
The answer is simple: When I don't trust God I take control.
There must be a better way
When she finished I sat quiet, considering what to do with the very real pain in my soul. I was naked and ashamed and at the end of my resources. Like the prodigal son, with nowhere else to go, I came to my senses.
"Father. Papa! Rescue me and my family. I am an unfinished man in this area too. I need you to father me. Teach me. Teach me to love my family toward the Truth."
And even as I'm typing now I am praying, and the Counselor is bringing up that treasured exchange between Jesus and Peter (MT 16:17):
"Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah, for this (revelation that I am the Son of God) was not revealed to you by flesh and blood but by my father in Heaven."
You and I, as fathers, cannot reveal the supremacy of Christ. But we can bear witness to the Truth, as Jesus did. That's what sons do. And we trust and ask Father to seal the deal. This takes off so much pressure.
As I was sitting there, motionless and prayerful next to my wife, the Father offered some good counsel that immediately lifted my spirit:
"Kill the current model and let's resurrect it." In the ways the old model bears any resemblance to your old self, let it die and be resurrected to reflect your new self.
So here are some strategies that have helped start turning things around for my family:
1. Get unity with your wife.
My wife and I were NOT on the same page at one point with regard to family devo time, and this was evident to the kids almost as soon as we got started. Any appearance of disunity between her and me will shipwreck the experience. I felt God tell me to get right with my wife so I asked her to tell me all her feelings about the subject. I repented with specificity for my sins and shortcomings, and hold fast to some powerful truth held out to Heather and I by our marriage counselors a few years ago:
Unity Trumps Disunity.
This simple statement has proven to be so true. It does not matter what you do or how well you do it, if there is disunity between you and your wife, it can do more harm than good. But this pursuit of unity in itself will come under attack. But once you get unity here, free from past offenses, and finally sharing a vision you both cast together, this task will be far less intimidating.
2. Change the environment.
We've been holding family devotions in the living room around a coffee table on Sunday mornings. This environment is now tainted with bad memories. So we've moved it from morning to evening. From inside to outside. From coffee table to campfire. And we sometimes add hot chocolate. This has helped.
3. Let go of outcomes.
Devotions will never turn out like you expect, so shift the focus from outcomes to simply making it a positive family experience. You and I cannot reveal the supremacy of Christ to our children. We cannot make them worship in Spirit and in Truth. We cannot make them ask for the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. You and I can, however, create a space to help God show them that He is loving and wise and safe. Among our greatest mandates as a man, one is surely to model the qualities of a good father to them.
So shift gears and aim to simply create an environment that starts with love, offers good news, and ends with love.
4. Lower the bar. Way down.
Whoo! What a relief this one is. My kids don't require a long lesson from a skilled theologian. In fact, the full expression of my gifting and knowledge of the Lord can actually make God appear LESS accessible to them, because they can leave with the feeling "Well how can I live up to that?"
I am guilty of trying to force feed my kids meat when they have not yet developed teeth, and I am surprised when they spit it out or choke on it.
What they can really use is truth demonstrated in love. They want to be loved. They want to better understand the story they were born into. They want to hear stories of God's power and love and wisdom and rescue. They want story time. If we can simply take a small piece of truth from God's word and tell a story that reveals God through it, we win.
Pressure kills joy and makes it impossible to hear God.
So lower the bar and have a better experience.
5. Celebrate the good. Anticipate God's next move to bring the best.
I have been tempted to specifically address my children's shortcomings, hoping to stir them into more sincere worship or repentance. (Honestly I am guilty of trying to shame and manipulate them into a change of heart.)
While shame drives them away, love will open a way. So shift to celebrating what you can already see God developing in them. Keep clearly in mind that childish concerns are appropriate for their stage. Without minimizing the reality of their troubles, give encouragement and hope. Cast a vision for what our lives will be like when we get to know God just a little bit better.
talk as you walk the ancient road
It's not in a family devo time that your child will most effectively absorb Christ's teachings from you, but in the movement and processing of your everyday life. We see Jesus teaching his disciples along the road more than in the temple. While I've wrestled hard with family devotions, I actually do pretty well at using the everyday to demonstrate a life of sonship. And I do this most effectively when I am applying some of the same rules as those I just described above:
Keep it simple and short.
Ask inspired questions.
Celebrate their good questions.
Let go of outcomes.
Share how God always comes through.
Anticipate God's goodness in every situation, especially the tough ones.
You, friend, are invited to be a son. And being sons we have full access to all the Father's instruction and resources. But are you in the habit of asking for it?
Have you dared bravely?
Have you loved yourself and trusted God enough to see your perceived failures for what they really are: God's discipline? A great Father always disciplines the sons He loves.
One last thought.
Jesus was born perfect, right? But was he ready for the cross when his ministry began? Was he born ready to be high priest?
Let's hear what God says about this.
Jesus had to pray to Father for answers.
Jesus travailed and petitioned the Father for help.
Jesus, though never disobedient, had to learn to obey.
Jesus, though already perfect, had to be perfected.
Jesus, though eternally omniscient, was a lifelong student and son of the Father. He had to learn.
Jesus school was suffering.
Precisely through his willingness to trust and submit, Jesus BECAME the priest his human family needed. Jesus prayed, his Father heard his prayers, and helped his son become even more his son.
And now, because Jesus did it, so can you and I.
Let that sink in.
Father, thank you for giving me the desire and ability to lead my family and help them see you for who you are. Without you I am unqualified to share a message so great. Without you I am an unclean vessel. Without your teaching me how to lead my family, how will I learn? Father me in this arena. I admit to being afraid. I have let my pride become an obstacle. Forgive me. Heal me of my unbelief that you are in this and ready to help. I am asking for wisdom, and more than that, for your love, Jesus to shine through me, giving glory and praise to the Father. Bless our family with unity through you.