Self Denial and Evangelical Parenting

On the weekend I was talking with a mother of teenaged girls about the statistic that 80% of evangelical, college age kids have premarital sex. Obviously, there’s a problem, and this mother was concerned for the future of the church.

People have pointed out the theological and ecclesiastical reasons for this stat: evangelical kids often come from churches that do not clearly teach biblical patterns of marriage and sexuality, and many teens leave church when they move out of their parents’ home for university or work.

Those are problems, certainly. But there may be an even more fundamental issue here: a lack of self denial for Christ’s sake. Many sons and daughters have been indulged for a long time, by family and church. They’re entertained in worship, coached and aided into academic success, sent on fully funded “mission trips” sweetened by theme parks or resorts, allowed to wear what they want, watch what they want, eat what they want, and do what they want, hovered over by helicopter moms who are waiting to come to their aid, day or night. Should we wonder why they can’t deny themselves the strong urge to sleep with a boyfriend or girlfriend when the opportunity arises?

While every child is certainly responsible for their own sins of impurity, at times parents may bear a share of guilt as well. Are we practiced in denying ourselves, taking up our crosses (i.e., crucifying the old man), and following Christ (Luke 9:23)? We may truly love Jesus and we don’t want our neighbors to go to hell, but are we hungering and thirsting after righteousness? We go out for dinner when we don’t feel like cooking; we love posh vacations; we have more clothing than we can regularly wear; we go golfing instead of serving at home; we expect help with normal child care; we skip evening worship because we want family time. While there is nothing wrong with restaurants, holidays, clothing, golf, etc., are we living routine patterns of self-indulgence to which evangelical Americans have become accustomed?

Not every child who sleeps around has a self-indulgent parent. Some of the most godly parents I know who have been exemplary in living and teaching the gospel to their children still have a son or daughter who end up in the sin and guilt of fornication. Some children heartbreakingly pursue sexual sin without repentance, turning their back on their faith. It is not what we do that saves our children; it is God. But Scripture also tells us that God often uses a pattern of holy living in parents to produce holy offspring. And unbiblical patterns of parenting always throw up obstacles for our children’s obedience.

Why would our kids listen to us telling them to pursue purity and godly restraint when we are giving in to shopping addictions, gluttony, love of money, love of pleasure, and other self-indulgent behaviors? We live with an entitlement attitude, bending Scripture’s commands to holiness when they are too uncomfortable or costly. Why are we surprised when our kids sleep around?

In a sermon on Luke 9:23, John Wesley wrote that “if the will of God be our one rule of action in every thing, great and small, it follows, by undeniable consequence, that we are not to do our own will in anything. Here, therefore, we see at once the nature, with the ground and reason, of self-denial. We see the nature of self-denial: It is the denying or refusing to follow our own will, from a conviction that the will of God is the only rule of action to us. And we see the reason thereof, because we are creatures; because ‘it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves’.”

Jeremiah Burroughs wrote in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment that we “must learn the lesson of self-denial or you can never become a scholar in Christ’s school, and be learned in this mystery of contentment. That is the first lesson that Christ teaches any soul, self-denial, which brings contentment, which brings down and softens a man’s heart.”

The mother I was speaking to on the weekend is doing a good job of living this. But a generation of her daughters’ peers has been left open to great temptation and sin by their own hearts and by parents who refuse to teach their children self denial by precept and example. Have we learned “the first lesson that Christ teaches any soul”? Are we helping our children to learn it so they can be holy even as God is holy (Lev. 20:26, I Peter 1:16)? Perhaps a generation of parents who are disciplined in prayer and Scripture reading, in fasting and tithing, in putting the old man to death and walking in newness of life (Rom. 6:4) will by grace be able to raise a generation of children who exceed their parents in holiness and living in the world, but not of it (Rom. 12:2).