From the moment my first child was born over 25 years ago, I’ve been looking for advice and the greatest example to follow as a mom. These days I can browse Pinterest for recipes to sneak veggies onto my kids’ plates. The pediatrician keeps me current on car seat safety, growth milestones, and building a strong immune system. My teacher friends and homeschooling moms are on hand if I’m stumped by my kids’ challenges at school. Dealing with a whiny attitude or a tough emotion? Our shelves hold a variety of parenting books, chock full of wisdom from the experts. My inbox holds a steady stream of inspiring blog posts by women who love God and their families with all they’ve got. Wherever I look, somebody’s ready to help keep my children healthy and happy.
Even so, it can be harder to find guidance for my highest calling—teaching God’s Word and inspiring my children to fall in love with Jesus. I’m so grateful that God placed one of the greatest parenting examples right in my hands, in the Bible. Several years ago a verse grabbed my attention: the apostle Paul boldly declared, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)
When I took a closer look, I learned that Paul was a spiritual parent to the believers he led to Christ and discipled to maturity. He compares himself to a “nursing mother” and a “father through the gospel.” (1 Thess. 2:7, 1 Cor. 4:15) Speaking to the churches in tender, loving terms, he called them his beloved children. I’m no world-changing missionary, but just like me, Paul’s life was centered on teaching, serving, and loving his “kids” every day.
Here are five ways Paul sets an example of what spiritual parenting looks like:
Paul talked to God all the time about his children. (Eph. 1:15) He thanked God for each one. He offered up constant prayers for them to have strength in tough times and a soul-filling knowledge of God’s love. He knew the poverty, danger, and persecution they suffered. He heard their tough questions and doubts. Paul recognized the temptations they faced—just like our kids—to conform to the culture instead of obeying God in everything. Just like we are invited to approach our Lord in prayer for our families, he put his kids in God’s hands and watched him transform their lives.
Paul traveled. He preached. He wrote, mentored, and spent every scrap of energy serving the children of God. Yet his persistent, passionate prayers covered it all. From Paul, I learn to pray often. I ask him to do “immeasurably more” than all I could ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20) Paul reminds me that nothing in my kids’ lives is insignificant to God—I can “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (Eph. 6:18) In prayer, I battle the enemy for my kids’ souls since he’s determined to “devour” their lives. (1 Peter 5:8) Paul’s example of prayer for his children motivates me to carry my own before the Lord every day.
Paul wasn’t afraid to take charge. He knew his role as an apostle was “by the command of God,” so he claimed his authority without apology. (1 Tim. 1:1) Showing tough love, he called his kids out for their sins and poor choices. No topic was too personal or awkward to tackle: he challenged them to stay pure. To recognize the value of singleness. To work hard and to show respect to authority. To forgive and live at peace with each other. He inspired them to be courageous and to discover their unique gifts and callings from God. Paul put them back on their feet when they were discouraged and making a mess of their lives. He did the tough, day-by-day work of moving them forward.
Today, we might need to find our voice as mothers. God himself instructs our kids to show us honor and to be a blessing by submitting to our words. He assigned us the beautiful responsibility to tell of him when we “sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up”—we lead our kids to God as we share life side by side. (Deut. 6:7) I want to embrace my high calling as a spiritual leader of my kids so they can discover his great love and promises for their lives.
Paul held a place of honor and authority over his spiritual children, but he knew he faced the same battles as every one of them. He, too, struggled to resist temptation and get along with difficult people. He was just as dependent on God for strength and wisdom. His sinful past required the same grace and forgiveness through Christ. He needed the Spirit to give him patience, gentleness, and hope when his “kids” made the same mistakes over and over.
Paul suffered spiritual attacks from the enemy that left him frustrated and exhausted. He never claimed to be perfect, since he was “pressing on toward the goal” just like everybody else. (Phil. 3:12-14) A humble heart created compassion since he knew we’re all in this together.
Are you feeling defeated today? Do you keep a running list of your failures in your mind, and do you secretly wonder if God made a mistake in making you the mom of your children? Take heart—your weakness is your strength! (2 Cor. 12:10) You can release your self-sufficiency and receive all you need to parent from your Father. Call on him for forgiveness and mercy. In your humble surrender, he will pour out his “ever-present help” in even the most difficult parts of mothering. (Psalm 46:1)
Paul suffered opposition and accusations at every turn. As a mom, maybe you feel judged for your decision to join the workforce or work at home. For choosing to home school or utilize public education. For your unique approach to discipline, nutrition, or use of technology. You feel shamed for cramming religion down your kids’ throats, or you feel like a failure for skipping family devotions at night. Five minutes of Instagram can make you feel less-than for days as you view the “perfect” mothers in your feed.
Paul knew the struggle, too, so he set us free from people-pleasing in our mothering: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:10)
Paul also gave up financial security, personal safety, and his reputation to be there for his kids. In the same way, we feel the sting when our culture devalues motherhood. Our bodies know the pain of childbirth, our souls know the grief of miscarriage, and the path of adoption is rough and steep. We sacrifice personal goals and financial gain to give our children what they need. We know the bone-deep fatigue of serving little ones whose needs never stop and trying to keep up with teens’ crazy schedules and late nights. Paul validates the suffering that true love requires so we can carry on no matter the cost.
Paul had a faith story of his own—he was a walking example of a transformed life. His dramatic before-and-after testimony told his kids that following Jesus changes everything. We, too, have turned away from religious rules to an authentic, grace-filled relationship with Jesus. We’ve been set free from the darkness of our past. We hold on to Scripture as our source of knowledge, truth, and hope. Despite the dirty diapers, hectic schedules, and moody teenagers, we have contentment and joy. (Phil. 4:11-12). Paul’s story teaches us that our here and now matters for eternity.
Our faith is an example our kids can follow as the living God reveals himself through our lives. In our insecurity, we can minimize the impact of our faith on our children. Yet they learn gratitude from our thanks for the little things. They watch and learn each time the Spirit’s fruit of self-control lets us resolve conflict in a gentle, constructive way. Lavish generosity to others can teach cheerful giving and obliterate our kids’ materialism and sense of entitlement. Our prayers send the powerful message that the God of heaven is close and listening. By believing, trusting, and living out God’s will with our whole heart, our kids see what it means to follow Jesus.
When I became a mother, I never expected a single “dad” like Paul to be the greatest example to follow as a mom. But I’m thankful God knows what I need—his perfect Word and his faithful people to show me the way.