Author Gary Thomas explains how parenting can lead to spiritual transformation in a discussion based on his book, Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls. (Part 1 of 2)
Gary Thomas: You'll stop parenting when it becomes difficult if you have selfish motivation. If you're not getting the rewards that you thought you would get out of parenting, if you're embarrassed by your kid, or frustrated with your kid, or just too tired to care, you stop parenting. Which is why I think spiritual motivation is crucial. And so, I'm doing it out of reverence for Him, which gives me a motivation that goes beyond whether I'm filling fulfilled. Whether I'm feeling proud. Whether I'm feeling happy at the moment. I'm doing it as an act of spiritual worship.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: Well, I wonder if you've ever thought of raising your kids as an act of spiritual worship. And, uh, that's a good comment. It comes from Gary Thomas. He wants to help you gain a new perspective, a fresh look at your role as a mom or a dad and for you to embrace God's purpose for your parenting. Welcome to "Focus on the Family." Gary Thomas is our guest. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. And I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, if we're honest, I think every parent would admit that raising kids is a lot harder than we thought it would be.
Jim: Maybe it has something to do with our expectations - they're so high. And, uh, we imagine ourselves sitting calmly in the living room with our angelic children sitting at our feet, probably nice and quiet, not making any...
John: Yeah, they're...
John: They're coloring or something. I mean, they're quiet.
Jim: Something perfect.
Jim: And, uh, you know what? That's just not the way reality is. Uh, it is different. It's a whirlwind of activity and not a lot of, uh, peace or calm. Many parents today feel like they're treading on water. I know I do at times. How about you?
John: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
Jim: And, uh, we want to talk that through and equip you today, and next time, to think things through a little differently. And we have a great guest to do that.
John: Yeah, Gary's going to help us get past the blur of busyness and, um, and to really sit down and think it through and savor the moments that God gives us as parents.
And, uh - and I know you're going to benefit from our conversation.
So, Gary Thomas has been a guest on "Focus on the Family" a number of times. And he's written so many different books. This one that will form the foundation for a conversation today is called Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls.
Jim: And, John, we should mention we're hunting at a ranch in Texas. And we're in a big lodge enjoying the view and enjoying the beautiful animals of God's great creation, right?
John: It is a wonderful place. It's been really relaxing to be out here and to have fellowship. And we got some warm hospitality that's making it all really nice.
Jim: And, uh, you know, the great benefit is, uh, Gary Thomas lives just a couple of hours away. So, Gary, it is great to have you here. We so much appreciate you and all you've done for the kingdom just building marriages up, building parents up. Thank you.
Gary: Well, it was nice of y'all to come out to Texas and make it easy for me.
Jim: (Laughter). Just a little drawl.
Gary: I got in one of the y'all's there. (Laughter)
Jim: Yeah, there you go.
Jim: Hey, you've got a lot of advice and encouragement for moms and dads, especially about the spiritual aspect of parenting. And, uh, we don't always connect those two things. Why, as parents, do we need to think about the spiritual dimension of our parenting?
Gary: When I first wrote Sacred Parenting, I was in the midst of parenting. Our kids were still young. They were all at home. Speaking now as an empty nester, that spiritual element is even more precious to me. It's what lasts. And I would say to every parent out there, as important as it is to help your kids succeed and get in the right schools and get in the right jobs, what gives Lisa and me the most joy these days is seeing our kids' faith, seeing them grow in their faith. It's - when John says I have no greater joy than to see my kids - my children - walking in the truth, that's just as true for earthly parents. In fact, I had one season where my son sent me two text messages just a couple days apart. The first one was I found out he had gotten into Harvard at the Master's program.
Gary: But a couple of days later - yeah, it was great news. I mean, I went to Western Washington University. Uh...
Jim: That's the rival of Harvard, right?
Gary: It is a top 500 university — I looked it up. So... (LAUGHTER)
Jim: Out of 500 and...?
Gary: (Laughter) So Graham and I both have that in common. We both attend a top 500 university. But - but two days later, I got the text where he had, um, found this series of devotionals online to prepare you for Good Friday. And he said, Dad, these have been so meaningful to me. I thought you would enjoy them. And as God as my witness, I think I was just as excited about that second text as I was the first because nothing fills your heart than to see your kids walking with the Lord. Because, you know, that's what's eternal.
As an empty nester, time becomes so precious. You have overload of kid time when they're young, and then you're just counting the minutes that you can have with them when they get older. But the hope of heaven is that we can have an eternity continuing that relationship and deepening it. It's just the way that I think God redeems the greatest frustrations of this life - a lack of time, a lack of love. And it just gives us a foretaste of what's to come. But that foretaste is dependent on a spiritually united family under Jesus Christ.
Jim: Boy, that's so true. Listen, you have a quote in your book I want to get your response to. Uh, you said - it's humorous. You said, God can baptize dirty diapers, toddler tantrums and teenage silence in order to transform us, parents, into people who more closely resemble Jesus Christ. Now, I'm not sure how a dirty diaper translates... (Laughter) into my sanctification. But can you elaborate for me?
Gary: Well, many traditions of Christianity stress being over doing. And I think that's what the season of parenting pushes us into. We can't do as much when you're a parent and be a responsible parent.
But it really does help transform who you are - whether you're responding with patience, whether you're responding with grace. I think, as a parent, you will face levels of anger you have never experienced before. As a parent, I faced levels of fear I never experienced before. I also faced levels of happiness and joy and wonder. So there's a positive, as well. But it just pulls you out of the lukewarm, and it seems to push you into the extremes. And I think it's God's brilliant plan that if we can learn to deal with fear in an appropriate way, if we can learn to deal with anger, if we can learn to deal with our frustration, if we can learn to listen and to understand, the more we engage in the act of parenting, the more we're equipped to do works of service for the church at large, whether you're working in academia or business or sports or the arts community, or serving within the local church. I don't think anything really prepares us to become the kind of people that we need to be more than children.
Jim: So let's, uh, put it to the test. I mean, with you and your wife Lisa, what surprised you in your parenting? What was, uh, something that caught your attention that changed your walk, that changed your view of God, your thought?
Gary: I was surprised at the level of fear I faced. We love our kids so much. And I remember, as a young man, reading the story of Joshua and Caleb saying, "We can take these. You remember they were the two of the 12 spies that went into the Promised Land. And the other 10 spies were saying, you know, we can't take these people on. They're too big. They're too powerful. They'll crush us. They'll have their way with our wives and children. And I always imagined I would be the Joshua or Caleb. Hey, guys, we can do it. We've got God on our side. He's already delivered us out of Egypt. What could there be?
Jim: That's what you envisioned yourself?
Gary: That's what I thought as a single...
Gary: ...man. (Laughter) When I read that passage again with two daughters and a wife, I thought, if failure means my wife is at their mercy and if failure means my daughters are their property, how bold would I be now? So, when I was reading that as a single man, I'm thinking, let's just go for it. Let's be bold. God's already delivered us from Egypt. How difficult can this be? But then when you’re a married man, and you have a wife, and you have two daughters, and you're realizing the consequences of failure is that your wife could be taken over by them and your daughters could become the property of these vicious people, I could understand why they weren't quite so bold. The stakes just are much higher.
When you look throughout Scripture, before virtually every person is called in the service of the gospel - talk about Gideon. You can talk about Elijah. You could talk about in the New Testament. They're always told not to fear. It's like God says to them, I have this plan. I'm going to do something amazing. But the first thing he says is don't fear.
And we often think of scandal taking a lot of people out of ministry and occupying us and keeping us away from doing what God wants us to do. But I think, in many ways, fear aborts a lot of ministry before it even starts. And so if I can learn to handle that fear - and when God places a vision on my heart, I can say, you know what? I had to face this down with my kids. I let my kids - I let one kid go to Johannesburg, Africa, for a missions trip. Another one went to Kenya when I thought she might have a hard time finding a way around the block. And I'm letting her go to (LAUGHTER) Kenya without knowing anybody. But when you can face down those fears, the other fears that hold back so much ministry don't seem quite so scary.
Jim: You know, Gary, in the book, you talk about how your children can teach you something as a parent. Now, that seems counter-intuitive. That seems different, right? - that, uh, normally we're teaching them. And we get in that mindset, as a parent, that it's only a one-way street here. Let me teach you how to do things. But you raise this question in the book about being open to what kids are teaching you, as a parent. What kind of situations would be, uh, conducive to that? Where does a parent need to say, OK, what is my child teaching me? What's God teaching me through my child?
Gary: One of the things I found out was - there is this evil little part in me that says don't inconvenience me. (Laughter) It's just - it's a selfish thing.
Jim: Ouch, OK.
Gary: I hate it.
Jim: All right.
John: Don't have kids.
Gary: But often, I've found that the problem was my annoyance, not that my kids were annoying me. And I think when I was younger father, I just - sometimes you just want peace and quiet. And I thought the problem was somebody who was stopping the peace and quiet. God challenged me that sometimes the problem is (chuckle) that I'm annoyed when it's not always peaceful and quiet. And that's real life.
Gary: Running a business, coaching a team, in a ministry, out in the public square - interruptions are never convenient. People don't die on a schedule. They don't get sick on a schedule. You don't have accidents on schedule. And so for me, it was learning to let go that I can't control my situations. I can control my response to the situations. But kids can bring a special kind of chaos.
Jim: Yes, they can.
Gary: (Laughter). And so it's learning to sort of just go along with that rather than letting that...
Jim: So how do you do that...
Gary: Dictate what I’m going to do…
Jim: ...Practically, though? I mean, you're talking to guys right now, and moms, too, who have that same problem. Now, how do you practically step back from that and say, OK, I'm going to take a deep breath, I'm not going to let this situation dictate my joy, dictate my response - how did you, uh, find a handle to deal with it?
Gary: One of the things I'm seeing now as an empty nester is that when you see other parents with young kids right now, and you see the response - and I know the tiredness. And I know this isn't the first time they've dealt with this issue with this child. It's probably the hundredth time. And so you see the lack of patience or whatnot. But just when you could look at it with objective eyes, you could see a little bit of the flinch the kid takes, that they realize they're just an annoyance to their parent, or they're frustrating to them.
Jim: And they feel it.
Gary: Oh, they do. They do. And they internalize it. And so it's just, I think, accepting that your desire is I want my kids to feel loved. I think, looking back now, what I would say is the environment I would want to create is that you mean the world to me. You're more important to me than my comfort. You're more important to me than my reputation. You're more important to me than my hobby. And I don't want you to think that just not being this perfect being in the sense of being quiet when I want you to be quiet and going to sleep when I want you to go to sleep and not getting hurt when I don't want to get hurt, that that's not what it's all about. It's not about you pleasing me. It's about who you are.
Jim: And developing their character into that confident person.
Gary: Because that's how God treats us.
Jim: Yeah, it is, exactly.
Gary: It's not - He loved us this when we were yet sinners. And so it's not that, uh, He loves us more when we're making life easy for Him. It's that He loves us because He loves us.
Jim: Well, and that is such a good parallel. Gary, you also talk about parental guilt. And I think this is a place we need to spend a couple of minutes here because I think, particularly moms, have so much guilt about this not going right, that not going right. Speak to guilt and the power or the negative power of guilt. And how does a person turn that into something more positive?
Gary: A lot of the guilt comes from this desire - and I had it, I think, as much as anyone. I wanted to be the best dad in the whole world. My goal was that if my kids went to counseling as adults, they would only rave about how thoughtful and understanding and caring their father was - not trying to recover from it. Uh, and then you get into parenting, and you realize I don't have the patience I need. I don't have the wisdom I need. I think of the right thing to say two days later, but our kids have moved on to something else at that time. For me, I'm very much a morning person. And I would hear parents talk about having these loving conversations late into the night. (Laughter) And I think of my, you know, good night, Bud, love ya (Laughter) and turning off the light and just feeling like, you know, who am I kidding, you know...
Jim: You didn't tuck him in.
Gary: ...I told myself.
Jim: You didn't do this right.
Gary: But where I was freed from this was a time with the Lord when I felt like I was trying to almost be a rival of God. Trying to be almost like a god-like figure. Not that I would consciously say I could ever be God or be like God. But I wanted to have his wisdom. I wanted to have his patience. I wanted to have his understanding. And I realized I'm not the Messiah. (Laughter) That job has been taken, and it's been fulfilled...
Jim: How long did it take you...
Gary: ...Very well.
Jim: ...To get there (laughter)?
Gary: Well, it was just my repeated failures did that. Instead, I'm the messenger. And when I took on the role of John the Baptist, instead of Jesus with my kids, parenting became a lot more fun because I could use my weaknesses and say, kids, see, this is why we all need a Savior. And that's the - one of the real purposes of sacred parenting is that it's not like we've arrived spiritually, emotionally and then are pulling our kids up to our level. It's like we're all rubbing shoulders, sinning against each other, asking for forgiveness, receiving God's grace, so that our kids see modeled, not just good behavior, which I hope they see, and not just a worshipful attitude, which I hope they see, but also, how do they deal with their sin? How do they confess it? How do they recognize it instead of run from it? And how do they ask for forgiveness? So for me, the joy of parenting was preserved by reminding myself I'm a messenger. I'm not the Messiah.
John: Well, I think that's such an important point for parents to grab onto. And I love the way you put that, Gary. Um, you think the guilt actually can lead us to some pretty powerful spiritual revelations even, I mean, in terms of learning lessons through guilt. It doesn't always feel that way when I just blew up at my kids or I just - whatever. How does that work?
Gary: One, we model to our kids our need for God's help. And the more our kids can learn the need for grace - that that's what life is lived out of - the more I think that they're going to be able to embrace that grace, the more that they can admit their sin. The more we can admit our sin, the more that we can grow out of our sin. And so we're modeling to our kids - see, I always thought, when I was dealing with guilt, that I have to model the highest and the best.
Gary: Here's what you're supposed to be. But, as fallen people, we also have to model how do you handle your junk? How do you handle your sin? How do you handle the evil within you without just not covering it up, but confessing it and growing out of it?
John: Yeah, and that's a process. The modeling isn't a one-time, it's a long-time process. Well, we're talking to Gary Thomas today on "Focus on the Family." His book Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls is really encouraging and might change your thinking - I hope it will - when you get a copy from us here at "Focus on the Family." Call 800, the letter A and the word family, or stop by focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Gary, I want to cover listening and sacrifice before we get out of here for today. We're going to come back next time with more. But this listening concept, this may be the toughest area for me. I don't know about you, John - maybe most men. Moms just tend to be good listeners. I don't know. God just gave them that blessing. But for Dads, it can be so frustrating. Yeah, and then what happened? And then what happened? (Laughter) Oh, really. And then what happened? And you're sitting there going - that's like nails on a chalkboard. How do we slow down, settle down, forget all the to-do items and actually zero in on our kids to hear their heart?
Gary: I had to slow down. And I wish I could have told myself as a younger husband, Gary, your kids will receive curiosity as an act of love.
Gary: When they know I'm listening just to be polite and to get over with it so I can get back to my book, or back to my task, or back to fixing whatever I'm fixing, they don't feel loved. But curiosity even goes a step further. Not only am I listening, I'm saying, tell me more. It's how we show interest in our kids. We show interest in their day. If something matters to them, it should matter to me. It's not so much what they're saying as who is saying it. And so it's learning to - really, as Jesus made his abode with us, he incarnated himself to relate to us. It's the process where we learn to relate to our children. I'll never forget — I was the first amongst my friends - really started having kids. And I took my oldest daughter, as she got a little bit older, to ice skating. And one of my friends said, Gary, I can't believe you're going to an ice skating show. When did you get into ice skating? (LAUGHTER) I said, I'm not. But I'm really into my daughter, and she's really into ice skating. So I'm learning to get into ice skating. Now, since Allison left the house, I don't know that I've ever watched ice skating since.
Jim: (Laughter) Oh, don't - Allison, we're sorry.
Jim: Pulling this out of your dad right now. (LAUGHTER)
Gary: ...But it is a process of listening. It's not something that's natural. But that is how people feel loved. It's how our spouses feel loved. It's how friends feel loved - not just listening, but being curious. If our kids are going to feel valued, they've got to feel heard.
Jim: You think about Jesus in these conversations when he walked the Earth. You know, if my temperament, whether it be, yeah, yeah, I know that part - keep going faster. I mean, the Lord just exuded patience, right? Well, because he knows everything!
Gary: Especially Jesus. He could say, (Laughter) I was there. I know this, I know this!
John: Fast forward. Fast forward. (LAUGHTER) Good thing he had other attributes than most men. But uh…hey, Gary I do want to talk about sacrifice right at the end here, because it's so important to the Christian faith. What does it mean in a parental role to show that sacrificial love, to model that for your kids and then hopefully to see it in your children?
Gary: This is, I think, one of the biggest aspects of parenting for me. And it happened early on, after we had our first daughter. She was just this tiny baby. And at that time, I thought Dairy Queen Blizzards had to have been invented by a Christian. I thought it was (LAUGHTER) the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to have something that delicious to give to people. And so we'd stopped off at a Dairy Queen, and I got a M&M Blizzard. You've got the fries, and you've got the burger. And our...
Jim: This sounds really healthy. (Laughter)
Gary: Well, yeah. I wouldn't be having that now with my wife with me. (Laughter) But we - our oldest daughter liked to save up her digestive efforts every three or four days.
Gary: So we didn't change a lot of diapers. But when you did change a diaper, it was a 20-minute experience. (Laughter) And so I'd just gotten this cold blizzard. And you have these hot fries. And it - the fireworks started. You could hear them across the parking lot. And we knew it was going to be a mess. And so Lisa looked at me. Gary, come on, I'm going to need your help. And I'm holding this Blizzard, and I'm holding these fries that have a shelf life of about five minutes. Am I thinking, are you serious? And, I mean, it's just this silly, stupid, little thing. But I was such a young man. I was in my mid-twenties. And I realized, this is really the first time where I'm going have to truly say someone matters more than me. I'm going to have a runny Blizzard, and I'm going to have wilted fries.
And it took parenting for me to make that connection that sacrifice is really the heart of what we're called to be as Christians. And parenting is a brilliant process to make you willing to sacrifice for someone other than yourself so that you can grow and then sacrifice for others that you don't have that connection with.
Jim: Well, Gary that - that, in the last few minutes, that's coming through loud and clear. That's the point of parenting. I mean, when God designs this, it's obvious that it has a purpose. And, uh, I think that's what I walk away with today. But — before we go, I want to ask you - what if I've blown it? What if I haven't modeled that? What if I'm the dad or the mom who hasn't done that? It's been about rules. It's not been about laying your life down. In fact, I'm so irritated at you because you're not being the child I thought I would have. You'd have better grades. I mean, whatever it might be. How do I say, what am I doing, and back up?
Gary: I take great encouragement from Paul's work with Timothy. Timothy, in one way, was like his son. And he tells him in the third chapter of 1 Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely. And that's what we're supposed to do, as parents, is to persevere in them. But here's where I found the encouragement - so that everyone may see your progress. I can't give my kids a perfect dad, but I can give my kids a progressing dad. I can't give my...
Jim: A getting-better dad. Yeah, I like that.
Gary: Yeah. I can't give my kids a dad that's got it all together. But I can have a - give my kids a dad who's working on getting it all together. And so I think if we just have that, embrace that with humility. We're not there yet.
Gary: And - and going back to what you said before, I think that's really where we get the most out of this. What I would say to myself, again, as a young parent is, one, we need the humility. None of us have arrived. God is growing us through the process of parenting. So just say, Lord, today there are lessons I need to learn - of patience, of anger, of putting people over things, of listening to my kids and being present. And second, I think it's just a key of listening to God, what he's trying to teach us through this. Why am I annoyed? Why am I so angry? Why am I so fearful? So that when we're listening to God, he can develop those lessons. And then I think what I would really say to parents is just be present in the parenting process. It's so easy for days to become filled up with tasks that we miss the spiritual wonder of what's taking place, that God lets us be parents, that God lets us be together. And just saying, I want to be present for this moment and not let this season slip by. I know empty-nesters tend to get too sentimental, but it really is a season. It's a cliche that the days are long but the years are short, but it's a true cliche…
Gary: …It really does feel that way.
Jim: Well, as a parent with, uh, children in the home. I'm grateful for the empty-nesters who can light the path ahead. And this is a great book, Sacred Parenting. Thanks for being with us, Gary. Let's come back next time. Let's pick up the conversation and continue. Can we do it?
John: What a great conversation with Gary Thomas on this episode of Focus on the Family. And I hope you’ll make plans to join us for the second part of the conversation.
Jim: Gary has a gift for honing in on what’s most important, John, which are those relationships with our children that we will value for the rest of our lives, even through the frustrations. I really appreciate his heart for the family.
If you were encouraged by what Gary shared today, I hope you’ll let us know. And please consider joining our support team as well, so that we can continue providing broadcasts like this to strengthen families, and equip moms and dads to be the best parent they can be for their children.
Your financial gifts are so valuable to us. And if you can send a gift of any amount today, I’d like to send you a complimentary copy of Gary’s book, Sacred Parenting, as our way of saying “thanks” for your support. Sacred Parenting is a great resource. I think every family should have one in their library. So contact us today to get your copy!
John: And our number here is 800-232-6459. 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Or you can donate and get resources at focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And Jim, we should mention our free parenting assessment that we have at the website, offering a comprehensive overview of the most effective ways to raise children.
Jim: Yes, we do, John. Our Parenting team has identified seven key traits parents need to raise a thriving family. Things like love, respect, intentionality, and so many more. The assessment only takes a few minutes to fill out and then you'll learn where you're doing well, and also where you need a little strengthening. We'll also mention resources that will provide that strengthening. Check out our free parenting assessment today.
John: And once again, our website is focusonthefamily.com/radio. Well, coming up next time on Focus on the Family, Gary Thomas offers this reminder to not miss those special moments with your children...
Gary Thomas: It just caused me to settle down and say, "Gary, this is the miracle of parenting. This is an A-plus day for your son. It should be an A-plus day for you." And again, looking back as an empty nester, that even hits me more.
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Gary ThomasView Bio
Gary Thomas is an international speaker and best-selling, award-winning author whose books include Pure Pleasure, Holy Available and Sacred Marriage. He has also written numerous articles for several prominent national magazines. Gary and his wife, Lisa, reside in Texas and have three children. You can learn more about Gary by visiting his website, www.garythomas.com.