Do you recall those first tender moments after your child arrived? Holding his vulnerable frame against your proud chest. Caressing her soft skin and breathing in the fresh scent of baby powder. Some of a parent’s most cherished memories come from those early days when a helpless infant did nothing but bask in Mom and Dad’s nurturing love.
Fast-forward a few years. The baby powder smell is gone. And, under normal circumstances, our expectations have changed. We continue loving the child without condition. But we want them to do more than receive our love. We also want them to give theirs.
Like a helpless infant, we can do nothing to earn God’s favor. But that doesn’t mean we limit ourselves to passively basking in His tender, loving care. Like every good parent, God expects His children to grow up.
That’s why Jesus, when asked to identify God’s greatest commandment, quoted an ancient Hebrew text: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
On a different occasion, He connected the dots between loving and doing when He said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).
Helping our children grow in their faith includes instilling habits of obedience that demonstrate mature love. Those habits include:
- Faith@home routines. Our natural tendency is to neglect those practices that keep our relationship with God at the forefront of our hearts and minds. That’s why it is important to implement faith routines at home. Take children to worship services regularly. Pray with them before bed. Give each child an age-appropriate Bible to start him reading God’s Word. At dinner let each child describe the “high” and “low” moment of the day, then help her give thanks or seek guidance for those things. In short, make the idea of putting God first highly practical.
- Love@home habits. Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Our children learn what it means to put God first when they learn to put others before themselves. Set and enforce rules about speaking to one another with respect and treating one another with care. Encourage children to look for opportunities to selflessly meet the needs of others.
You can use the activities and conversations listed below to help your children understand what it means to truly love God.
And as you teach this important truth, remember the power of your example. More than anything, your children need to see you loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
- God wants us to receive His love and love Him in return.
- We demonstrate our love through obedience.
- Jesus commanded us to love one another.
Family Memory Verse
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
For a more in-depth look at putting God first, read these Bible passages:
- Exodus 20:1-3
- Deuteronomy 6:4-5
- Mark 12:28-33
- 1 John 3:11-23
With your preschooler, gather five of the child’s stuffed animals and dolls. Ask, “Which is your favorite animal or doll?” Have her set that toy down in front of her. Ask, “Which is your next favorite animal or doll?” Show her how to put this second choice behind the first.
Continue in this way, creating a line of toys, one behind the other.
When she’s finished lining up the toys, ask your child to point to her favorite. “Why do you like this animal (you could use its name if desired) best?”
Affirm that we all have favorites, with our toys, and with people, too. Now place something tangible that your child equates with God, such as her toddler Bible, in front of the most favored toy.
Explain that when we love God, we want to always put Him first in everything. That’s how we show God that we love Him. You might make this explanation more vivid by hugging the Bible, then hugging your child. Ask your child to follow your example by hugging her Bible, then each of her toys, starting with her favorite.
Finish by saying together, “We love God first!”
When we’re not deliberate about putting God first in daily life, spiritual matters tend to be crowded out.
To prepare a visual to illustrate this point, put three golf balls in the bottom of a canning jar. Add rice, dried beans or field corn to fill the jar. Make sure the lid will close.
Dump the contents of the jar into a large bowl, and gather the children around. Explain that the jar represents their day and all the activities that fill it. Have the children start to add the rice, corn or beans into the jar while naming activities or responsibilities that occur in a typical day.
For instance, a small handful of beans may represent brushing teeth; adding another fistful is equated with making the bed. Continue filling the jar to represent activities or chores, such as watching television, playing video games or feeding the family pet.
After all of the smaller objects are added, try putting the golf balls in the jar. Describe that the balls represent Bible story time, praying to God and showing love to others. The children will see that the three balls will not fit neatly, and the lid cannot be secured.
Now, dump all the contents of the jar back into the bowl. Start with the three balls first, restating that they represent Bible time, praying and showing love to others.
Then have the children add all of the smaller items, equating each fistful with activities in their day.
When everything is added back in the jar, put the lid on. Explain to the children that when we put God first in our lives, everything else fits.
Experience a fun, faith discussion of Mark 12:30 with your tweens using this activity.
Gather your kids and give everyone a pencil and several 3x5 cards. Read aloud Mark 12:30.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Then ask your tweens to brainstorm “What if?/Would you rather?/What do you think?” questions inspired by this Bible verse. Encourage your family to be creative, to have fun and to put each question on a separate card. When everyone is ready, shuffle the cards and take turns discussing your questions.
Here are some sample questions to get everyone started:
- What if awards were to be given to anyone who lived Mark 12:30 at school tomorrow—what would you do?
- What if April 25 were designated as Love the Lord Day? What kinds of things might happen? Would you behave differently?
- Would you rather get a phone call or love letter from God each day? Why?
- Would you rather try to obey God by yourself or work as part of a group to encourage each other in obeying God? Why?
- What do you think makes God so special that He deserves all of our love?
Talk With Your Teen
When it comes to encouraging spiritual growth in teens, measurable milestones are often difficult to define. The easiest way to help them grow in their faith is by modeling the connection between loving and doing.
Although teens are adept at recognizing hypocrisy, they’re also perceptive about authenticity. As a parent, you can use this sensitivity to discuss the connection between loving God and showing love to others.
- What would be strange about a healthy teenager acting like a toddler?
- What’s wrong with a Christian teenager quoting the Bible and not living according to its godly principles?
- Why do parents want their teens to mature socially and spiritually?
- One way to show spiritual maturity is through the way you love others. How would you feel if friends said they loved you but never wanted to do anything with you?
- How did God demonstrate His love for you (John 3:16)? Since God gave His only Son, how do you think He expects us to demonstrate our love for Him and for others?
- (Read 1 Thessalonians 1:3 together.) Paul applauds “work produced by faith” and “labor prompted by love.” What have I done for the family that reflects my faith or demonstrates my love? (If your teens recognize actions that showed God wasn’t first in your life, humbly apologize and then pray together for God’s love to be evidenced in your relationships with others.)
- (Tell your teens about something they’ve recently done that demonstrated their love for God.) What else could we do for friends or family that would model the connection between loving and doing?
Appetizer: Did you know that ketchup and cheese are the most favored hamburger toppings? What do you like on your hamburger? Why?
Main Course: Have you heard the fast-food restaurant slogan “Have it your way”? What does it mean to you? Why do customers like having choices? Did you know that in the Bible there are stories of men who told God, “Have it Your way”?
- How did Noah let God “have it His way” when it came to building the ark? Could a canoe have done the job? Why? (See Genesis 6:14-22.)
- How did Moses let God “have it His way” when he went before Pharoah? What was the result? (See Exodus 7:1-6.)
- How did Joshua let God “have it His way” when he marched around Jericho? Did it make sense at the time? Why or why not? What did God prove? (See Joshua 6:1-20.)
- What are some ways you can let God “have it His way” in your life today?
—Adapted from Mealtime Moments by Crystal Bowman and Tricia Goyer, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers.