Dr. Tim Crutcher
Affiliate Professor in Theology/Church History, NTS
Associate Professor of Theology/Church History, Southern Nazarene University
When most of us think about “spiritual disciplines,” we imagine things that are generally far removed from the activities of our ordinary world. Spiritual disciplines are those deliberate practices (hence, “disciplines”) that God uses to form us more and more after His image and the image of Christ (hence, “spiritual”). Most of the time, this means things like extended prayer, fasting, journaling, solitude and the like, things for which we carve out time away from the ordinary workaday world of commuting and deadlines and making dinner and cleaning the house and the like. Now, I do think we benefit greatly from taking time away from the ordinary and focusing on God with the tools He has given us for connecting our lives with His. However, I have found in my own life that the single greatest tool God has used for shaping my spiritual life has been something exceedingly ordinary. For me, parenting has been my chief spiritual discipline.
To some, that might sound surprising. After all, many spiritually-conscious parents find that parenting takes time away from more easily recognizable spiritual practices. I don’t have much time to pray in the morning because I have to get my kids up and fed and out the door for school before heading off to work myself. Fasting is difficult when you are always making food for others, solitude is nearly unheard of in a house with small children, and who has time to journal? Still, in spite of all that, I have found that nothing I do invites me into the practice of living out the life of God in this world like parenting. Nothing else in my world is as consistent an invitation to self-denial and other-focus as trying to be a good daddy.
As one example, take the idea that God is the kind of God who loves regardless of whether or not that love is returned. Our human love is often a tit-for-tat enterprise—I’ll love you if you love me back. We love in order to be loved. But that’s not how God wants us to be. God wants us to love because we have already been loved and don’t really need anything further than that. After all, God loves even those who hate or ignore him, and He invites us to the same. Parenting normally begins with a moment in which you are invited to love someone who is in no way capable of loving you back. It’ll be years before anything like love can be returned, and there will be plenty of times after that when we have to love our kids far more than they can love us back. Sometimes they might even say to us, “I hate you.” While those are hurtful words to hear, they also present us an opportunity to demonstrate to that angry child the love of God, a love which says, “That’s okay. I still love you, and that will never change.” Is that easy? Not on your life. But it is an opportunity for spiritual discipline, a deliberate practice that helps us become more like our own Heavenly Father.
I could give lots of other examples. As a parent I get to give gifts without expecting or demanding that I be given something back. As a parent I daily get to sacrifice what I want for the well-being and good of another who rarely, if ever, returns the gesture. Parenting is always pushing me to the limits of my human capacity and forcing me to rely on God’s strength, God’s patience, and God’s love when I just don’t have any more of my own to give. Day in and day out, sometimes minute in and minute out, I am invited as a parent to live out God’s life in my small little world. All I need to do is approach my parenting calling as a calling to live more like God. It is hard work, but consistently rewarding, maybe even eternally so. And what more could we ask of a spiritual discipline than that?