I was honored to write the following on the sometimes rowdy, always unpredictable discipline we call family devotions in the Reinke house as a chapter in the new book, Good: The Joy of Christian Manhood and Womanhood (Desiring God, 2014), pages 64–73.
You can download the entire book for free here.
When the Apostle Paul said a man must first learn to manage his household before he can manage a church, he must have meant managing a church is something like managing a household. And that means being a father is something like being a pastor (1 Timothy 3:4–5).
I believe it.
Just like a pastor leading a church, a husband is called to lead his household in many different directions: in pulling his family into greater depths of the gospel, in pushing back the tide of worldliness, in pushing his family up in Godward joy, and in sowing deep seeds of gratitude. Pastoring children is a labor requiring a lot of thoughtful paternal attention. It always has.
On the heels of Israel’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Egypt, Deuteronomy 6 sets forth an ancient (and relevant) model for fathers today:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
These words are equally applicable for moms, but for the sake of this chapter, I’ll focus on how this passage shapes a dad’s calling (Ephesians 6:4). Although we are separated from Deuteronomy by time and geography and culture, Scripture remains true for every father today. Dads are called to the glorious labor of chiseling the words of God deep into the lives of our children, and this labor demands our entire schedule (breakfast and bedtime), all of our situations (activity and inactivity), and all of our locations (our comings and goings). There’s never a moment with his family when a father is not on-call to love his children by pointing their attention Godward.
As a dad of three kids (12, 8, and 6), this is the lesson I’m trying to learn myself. As I attempt to serve my family in this Godward direction, here are some of the most valuable lessons I’m learning along the way.
1. Dad leads family devotions … to Jesus.
Some dads choose to lead family devotions as a liturgy with a concrete style and format, with a Scripture reading, a short homily, and a concluding hymn. Other dads take a more informal approach. My personality favors the structured approach, but over the years the Holy Spirit has given some of the most impactful family devotions to our family when “my plan” seemed to take sudden turns toward the unexpected.
Take one Monday evening in our house, President’s Day 2014. The family lingered at the table after a meal (and drooled over the President’s Day cherry pie). A few Googled-and-printed presidential portraits were scotch-taped to the wall. I opened with a prayer of thanks for the lineage of American presidents and a prayer for our current president. As we pushed back the empty plates, I grabbed my Bible, and we began walking through my carefully planned devotional. I explained that civil authorities (like presidents) are God-given blessings for our flourishing. I read Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:13–17.
So far, so good.
Next I moved on to explain the goodness of civil punishment that keeps us safe, and I flipped open to Romans 13:1–7. Here’s where things unraveled a bit. Apparently the Marvel Comics Translation of the Bible I was reading said, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad …. For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (ESV). That phrase, “an avenger,” leapt from the page into the ears of my (up until that point) moderately-interested 6-year-old son. “The Avengers!” he said in his own love language (and probably in his Iron Man pajamas). At this point I could have smiled and nodded and kept reading, but I felt compelled to stop and go along with the sudden detour.
There was a connection here. The Avengers are dramatized fictional images of the civil powers God has ordained to preserve justice and order in society. We walked through each character briefly—Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, and Thor—and reviewed how each hero helps in the fight for justice. Fascinating discussions, of course, but I knew I had to turn this unraveling devotion toward Christ. So I asked: “But who is The Avenger?” Confused looks. “You know it,” I said again. “Who is The Avenger?” Slowly it dawned on them, and the devotion took a sudden turn to the return of Christ—The Avenger—who will return to bring cosmic peace and order. I had no intention of talking about the return of Christ after President’s Day dinner, but that’s the way it unfolded in the moment. We ditched the presidents, delayed the pie, and detoured directly to Jesus.
Dads, leading family devotions is our calling, and leading family devotions to Christ is our final aim. If I have a liturgy at the dinner table, it looks like this: Start by reading the Bible and end with Jesus. What happens in the middle will often unfold in ways unexpected and glorious.
2. Dad models a real relationship with the living God.
Deuteronomy 6 addresses a father’s heart before it addresses the hearts of his kids. And this is by design. God’s commands are written first “that you [dad] may fear the Lord your God” and then to pass that to “your son and your son’s son” (Deuteronomy 6:2). And the point gets restated: “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). Dad is an object of gospel grace from God before he is a conduit of gospel grace to his children.
Dads are not propped up as models of moral perfection, but as models of holiness (at their best) and a model of repentance and contrition (at their worst). My kids are watching me, watching to see how I respond to affliction and adversity and to success and victory. God has designed my life to be a legacy I pass on to my children.
3. Dad models joy in God.
But if my so-called obedience appears to my children as gruff, stern, and stoic, I am lying about God. As a Christian Hedonist, I believe God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him. This is the legacy I want to leave with my children. Son, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. Daughter, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.
This end—this aim—shapes everything about my leadership in the home, and it’s not a stretch because if fatherhood echoes pastor-hood, leading my family in joy is central to my success as a dad (2 Corinthians 1:24). Dad himself is called to model faith, the all-encompassing embrace of God. In the words of Deuteronomy 6, I am called to love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might. More than modeling right moral choices, I must model joy—a mighty, heart-filled, heart-saturated delight in God that spills over into everyday joy.
Dads, the model is incomplete if we model duty with a sour attitude. John Piper, a father of five, says of raising young kids: “Children need to see daddy is happy—happy with God, happy in being with the family, and of course happy in worship at church and happy in devotions at home. If dad is morose, bored, and withdrawn, he is saying, ‘That is what it is like to know God.’”
And that is simply untrue.
4. Dad reorients his family to the metanarrative of the gospel (daily).
With joy taking such a central role in our homes, the Ten Commandments are not given simply for stoic obedience training. Obedience is designed to flow out from God-initiated deliverance, as Deuteronomy 6 sets forward beautifully in the tender setting of a son who turns his head up to his father:
When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.”
There’s a time for young children to simply learn yes from no and obedience from disobedience. Disobedience brings negative consequences; obedience brings positive consequences. By God’s grace, this obedience at the training-wheel level can be replaced later by a robust, gospel-centered obedience when our children are old enough to understand the redemptive story of Christ.
And this introduces one of the tensions dads face. We’re called to instruct children in two truths simultaneously. First, it’s impossible for any sinner to earn God’s favor with our best obedience. Such a favor with God comes only in the merits of Jesus Christ, applied to us when we embrace him by faith (Philippians 3:2–11). Secondly, we cannot say we embrace this glorious Jesus if we consistently disobey his commands (John 14:15; 1 John 2:1–6). Both points are essential in our training (and more on the second point in a moment).
My point here is simple, but essential. The gospel message is the redemptive supernarrative that covers all of time and history, and the gospel message redefines our very existence. The gospel message is a supernatural story of deliverance that makes Jesus glorious and provides the necessary context for mature obedience. It is our glorious calling, dads, to reorient our families to Jesus and to this supernarrative every day.
5. Dad trains his kids in moral vision.
Out of the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection (indicatives), we find the full context and meaning and empowerment for obedience (imperatives). When the moral training wheels come off, the supernarrative of the Gospel holds them in balance.
As children grow, they find themselves in more and more situations when mom and dad are not around, when immediate consequences for disobedience cannot be meted out. Take school for example. As a family, we have over the years sent our three children to a mix of public school, private school, homeschool, and public academy. And while each of these educational options has their particular strengths, every option has its particular weaknesses and temptations for each child. A child tempted to self-exaltation and sinful comparison in a private school may be tempted to laziness in a homeschool setting. A child prone to man-pleasing at public school can be just as prone to the pride and elitism of the private school.
In whatever context our children are called to demonstrate maturity in this world, dads are called to envision obedience for them, and this obedience flows out of the gospel. Out of Christ’s self-sacrificing love for us, our children are called into the world to show love to fellow students and teachers. We help our kids identify pride and self-seeking as we teach them to pray for the children they meet. By the work of Christ, the Holy Spirit gives us the power for such a radical, selfless morality. The Spirit brings the power necessary for the hope-filled moral vision offered by dad.
6. Dad models God-centered gratitude.
All the blessings our family receives—house, food, sports, movie nights, dinners at home, dinners out, even life and health itself— come from the almighty God who sustains us and provides us with everything we enjoy.
We pray before meals, not only because daily gratitude to God for food is a pattern we find in Scripture (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Food does not appear on the table like magic. Dinner on the table requires God to call and gift men and women, folks we often don’t know. I want my children to know that before we enjoyed bread on our table, there was a farm boy who watched his dad farm, who felt the desire to farm himself, and labored in the soil to raise and harvest wheat. Then that wheat was hauled by a man who was called by God to drive a truck, who delivered the wheat to a bakery where men and women were called and skilled by God to make the bread. Next, another truck brought it to our local store, where a night clerk in the dark hours stacked it on shelves, and then a checkout clerk helped finish the transaction with mom, and now we have bread on the table for dinner. Why? Because God ordained a string of individuals—men and women—whose lives were meticulously fashioned and woven together into one long line with the aim of providing us our daily bread.
Money doesn’t make bread; people make bread. Behind the simple provision is a God who has built a complex chain of sovereignly ordained commerce for the goal that our family have bread on the table, which we in turn lift up in adoration to the God who somehow orchestrated all these details with the aim of blessing us.
Those are just a few ideas of how leadership in the home gets worked out in my life. And if I sound like an impressive father, it’s only because space (and perhaps pride) forbids me from documenting my glowing faults and inconsistencies. Growing as a dad is the fruit of the Spirit’s gracious work in making my failures into lessons. And if I have learned anything about being a father, it’s that the calling of Deuteronomy 6 is too big for me alone. I need a God, I need a Savior, I need a church, and I need a wife in the gargantuan work of raising sons and daughters and leaving them with a glorious legacy that God is most glorified in them when they are most satisfied in him.