It’s tempting to adopt a mindset that it’s good to live “on mission” as long as it doesn’t come at a cost to our children.
We’ll give, as long as we’ve already covered their needs and wants. We’ll serve, as long as we make time for their recreational activities first. We’ll enter uncomfortable situations for the sake of the gospel, as long as they can remain at ease. We’ll help shoulder someone else’s burden, as long as they don’t have to.
It’s good to embrace our God-given responsibility to love and provide for our kids, as long as we remember that the primary purpose of parenting—the best execution of love—is to nurture their souls.
If we’re serious about discipling our children, we must teach the cost of following Christ. After all, he said: “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38–39).
If we protect our kids from carrying crosses, we are stumbling blocks to them finding life in Christ.
I’m stirred by the many parents in my church who shepherd their children to embrace sacrifice. I’ve seen God comfort grieving kids when their foster siblings left the home. I’ve seen him make bold witnesses of children involved in ministry to the homeless. I’ve seen him kindle joy in those who gave generously from their piggy banks and babysitting money.
Witnessing this fruit builds my confidence that God will also care for my children as they learn the cost of following him.
Learning Patience, Finding Joy
When my sons were 2 and 4, we began serving refugees through a local charity. We made weekly visits to a Syrian family so I could practice English with the mother, while they played with her 2-year-old son.
Language barriers often triggered provoking situations, so my children began to learn the cost of patience. It’s easy to love the idea of reaching out to a refugee boy with no friends; it’s difficult when he breaks the toy you brought.
But as my children grew in extending patience, God blessed them with a sweet friendship. It wasn’t long before all the kids started greeting each other with tackling hugs. They played tag, jumped on beds, and had dance parties. They couldn’t have a conversation, but they had joy.
We also assisted the Syrian family with various errands, which created a different set of challenges. My children had to trudge through grocery stores while I helped the mother learn to use WIC. They spent hours at the DMV while the parents tried, repeatedly, to pass the permit test.
During one visit, the boredom incited a passionate fistfight between our 2-year-olds. Adults can lose it at the DMV; it’s no wonder our little guys did too.
Through these times, my children were learning that costly love isn’t glamourous. It includes boring visits to the grocery store and DMV. Outreach isn’t about gaining a sense of fulfillment; it’s about ministering to others’ needs so they can turn and glorify God (Matt. 5:16).
But even though it’s not about us, God graciously blesses us through our service. We empty ourselves so that we can be filled with him. My sons learned that lesson in a literal way: errands ended with treats. They regularly enjoyed Middle Eastern hospitality at its finest, finding favorites in sweet baklava and savory kibbeh.
When I began visiting a Kurdish refugee family, I was told the oldest son, who was diagnosed with autism, often displayed aggressive physical behaviors. I wanted to gain a handle on the situation before bringing my kids into it. Counting the cost doesn’t mean being reckless!
Eventually, I resumed bringing my children, since there were two younger siblings longing for playmates while I worked with their brother. It’s been hard. There’s more chaos, more fighting, more provocation. Past trauma and some difficult diagnoses have taken a toll on the family and, by extension, have affected my kids.
But they’re learning the cost of loving people they wouldn’t naturally like. They’re learning to graciously accept behaviors that stem from disability rather than sin. They’re learning to identify and leverage our gifts to bless people facing trials we can’t understand.
And they continue to experience God’s tangible goodness through the struggle—each visit brings more juice and lollipops than they’d ever receive at home!
I often ask, Is it worth it? My children are young, and I’m not confident any of them yet have saving faith. Why teach them the hardship of following Jesus when I’m still seeking to enamor them with him?
But then I remember this is an essential part of my mission to them. Jesus never shied away from discussing the hard facets of discipleship. He told us to expect persecution, opposition, trials, temptation, and rejection for following him. And he did so unapologetically, since he knew that nothing compares to his surpassing worth.
I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking they love God, when all they really love is the comfort he provides in their lives. They need to know up front that saving faith transforms us into living sacrifices, and that through sacrifice they’ll find satisfaction in Christ.
So, even though it costs them, we keep going.
And during our time in the car there and back, we often talk about Jesus. I remind them how Jesus made the greatest sacrifice of all time, so our sins could be forgiven. I remind them how he demonstrated the costliest love, so we could be adopted into his family. I remind them that because God pursued us when we were his enemies, we can pursue those who are difficult to love.
I remind them that though it’s often hard to obey Jesus, we find greater happiness in him than we’d ever find elsewhere. He is worth every cost.
Author’s note: this article was first published at The Gospel Coalition