In twenty years of ministry to men, I have heard countless stories of fathers who raised their children with this tragic philosophy: “Do as I say, not as I do.” The legacies of confusion and brokenness left in the wake of such instruction is both sad and sobering.
Children naturally observe and mimic whatever their parents do, even more than what they say. Therefore, if you are a father, you have a responsibility to set the example that you want your children to emulate.
God gives specific instructions to fathers to take the lead in training their children to live godly lives:
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”Ephesians 6:4 (ESV)
This verse highlights three key areas in which you have the opportunity to set an example for your children by your actions. Setting such an example has the potential to build a legacy of godly character and grow gospel fruit in them.
Set the Moral Example
Parenting 101 is teaching your kids what is right and wrong—a moral framework for life. This teaching is rooted in our understanding of being made in God’s image and therefore meant to reflect his character in the world.
God’s Word is filled with instruction on morality. God’s Law (starting with the Ten Commandments) is the foundation of our understanding of where the lines are drawn between what is right (good) and what is wrong (evil). This morality must still be taught, even though every human being instinctively knows something of the difference between good and evil since we all possess a conscience.
But remember, kids learn more by what they observe than by what they hear. You can tell your child what is right and good until you are blue in the face, but if your behaviors and lifestyle don’t line up with your words, don’t get angry at your child when they mimic your unrighteous actions instead of obeying your “righteous” words.
You must set the moral example for your child. They need to see your life, your attitude, your behaviors lining up with the clear principles and instructions of God’s Word. For instance, when you are at a store with your child and the clerk gives you more change than you are owed, do you pocket the money or correct the error by giving back what isn’t yours to keep? (And would you do the right thing even if your child weren’t with you?)
Of course, you won’t set a perfect moral example and there will be moments you fail, but if you want your child to have a strong foundation for understanding God’s moral teachings, they need to see you trying to do what is right (and confessing and repenting when you stumble), not just lecturing them about what is right.
Set the Spiritual Example
Closely tied to teaching your kids about right and wrong is guiding them toward a personal relationship with God. After all, since the moral teaching is rooted in God’s Word, it only makes sense that you introduce your kids to him. This also needs to be modeled by your actions, not merely talked about.
There is an old saying about sharing faith that goes like this: “Faith is more ‘caught’ than ‘taught.’”
Certainly, teaching is an essential component to sharing our faith, and doctrine is important. But in terms of your child really gaining their own passion and enthusiasm for pursuing Jesus, that comes more from them seeing and experiencing your passion and enthusiasm for Jesus. Is your faith “contagious”?
Part of setting the spiritual example for your kids is inviting them into the core spiritual disciplines of a faithful follower of Jesus:
- Reading and studying Scripture
- Corporate and personal worship
- Serving others
As your kids see you engaging these disciplines and inviting them to join you, they just might “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Set the Relational Example
Dads, your kids need to see you pursuing and building healthy relationships, especially with their mom. How can you expect your child to treat others with dignity and respect if you are not treating their mother in such a way?
The kinds of relationships you want your kids to have are the kinds of relationships you need to model.
- What kind of friends do you want your children to have? Are you modeling good friendships?
- What kind of marriage do you want your kids to eventually have? Are you modeling a godly marriage?
- What kind of worker do you want them to be? Are they seeing in you the character and ethics of a good employee (or employer)?
- What kind of neighbor do you want them to be? Are you modeling God’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself”? (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:36–40)
The example you set in each of these relationships has a direct impact on the kinds of relationships your children will pursue and build.
Remember, kids observe and mimic what you do far more than anything you say. Be intentional in setting the kind of example you want them to emulate in all their relationships.
But, finally, the most important example your kids need is not yours. They need to know the Ultimate Example.
Point to the Ultimate Example
No human dad is perfect. This includes you. So, I hope all this talk of you setting an example for your kids hasn’t placed an unbearable burden of shame on your already weary shoulders. There is hope for you and your children: Jesus Christ, the Ultimate Example.
Jesus is the perfect moral example.
He is the only human to ever live who never committed one sin and completely obeyed God’s Law in every way. As “God in flesh,” Jesus showed us what perfect dependence upon God’s Spirit looks like and how to respond in every circumstance with grace and truth.
Jesus is the perfect spiritual example.
He often spent time in prayer. He knew God’s Word intimately and used it to combat the lies and temptations of Satan. He fasted. He also broke the bread of communion, establishing the new covenant through his body and blood. He showed us what constant fellowship with God looks like.
Jesus is the perfect relational example.
He said that he and the Father are one. And he said that all who trust in him become one with him and the Father. He loved and served people, even to the point of dying on a criminal’s cross for sins that were not his. He showed us what it really means to sacrifice for the good of others.
The example you set for your kids will not be perfect. You are not Jesus. But by God’s grace, you have the wonderful privilege and opportunity to model for your kids what an imperfect faith in a perfect Savior looks like.
As you strive to set a moral example, point your kids to Jesus.
As you strive to set a spiritual example, point your kids to Jesus.
As you strive to set a relational example, point your kids to Jesus.
Most importantly, teach your children in both your actions and your words that their hope of forgiveness and eternal life does not lie in your example or their own performance but in the finished work of Jesus Christ—his death, burial, and resurrection. Through faith in him there is hope and peace and joy everlasting.
Lining Up Your Words and Actions
Dads, is your entire life pointing your children to Jesus Christ? Remember, your actions matter even more than your words. Is what you do lining up with what you say?
The example you set for your children is meant to be a bridge that leads them to Jesus. Never stop building that bridge.
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