A Legacy of Love: Passing Down the Gift of Spiritual Discipline to Your Children

I’ll never forget those mornings, spun through my teenage years like golden threads. I’d awaken just before light, padding my way out of the room I shared with my three younger sisters toward the small living area in our Soviet-style apartment in Mongolia. My tired eyes would light up with the glow of candles and the sight of my mom lingering over her Bible. Soon the home would be filled with the bustle of her eight children, and she would—yet again—fill her day preparing meals, homeschooling, showing hospitality, and serving alongside her husband in our overseas home. But she knew (and would often tell us) that her time with the Lord was vital to her ability to do what God had called her to. But it was never just a duty—we could see that it was her delight.

Now I’m a mom of five children, and with each new babe that’s entered our family I’m increasingly grateful for (and amazed by) the example my mother set for me. In my teen years I couldn’t have imagined the kind of discipline it requires to wake early and set aside regular time in the Word and in prayer when you’re up at all hours with a new baby, have countless duties to complete, and tasked with continually meeting the emotional and physical needs of your growing family. However, my mom chose, by God’s grace, to model in her motherhood what I need most in mine: cultivating intimacy with Christ. With every day that passes I feel the depth of my need a bit more, and my craving for time in His presence grows. 

If you were to catch a glimpse of my time with the Lord these days, you’d probably see a less than quiet scene: my four-year-old squeezing onto my lap for morning snuggles, chubby baby hands trying to sneak my mug of coffee, and frequent breaks from reading or my prayer journal to give instructions to my other kiddos. But because of the legacy my mom passed to me, I have a vision that goes beyond serenity and candles. I want my children to see a mother desperate for Jesus, willing to do whatever it takes to be at His feet. And, in turn, I pray that they catch this vision to pass along to their children one day too.

No amount of effort on our part can make our children love the Lord. And no methods for practicing spiritual disciplines are “one size fits all” for every family (or every season for that matter). However, God cares more about our children and their need for Him than we do, and He will give us wisdom as we seek to create an environment that makes focused time with the Lord a priority and joy. 

Here are a few ways we can start.

1. Remember: Love, not Legalism 

I’ve talked to a number of women who grew up in legalistic homes where certain practices were framed as salvific (having the power to save). Good and right disciplines like reading Scripture and praying were also lumped in with extra-biblical rules that muddied the pure waters of diligently seeking the Lord. Sadly, I know many who have thrown off Christianity altogether because of this kind of legalism. And while we should be careful that we’re not elevating spiritual practices as a means for salvation, we also shouldn’t be afraid to model spiritual disciplines for our children, encouraging them toward these things from a young age. 

I’ve always had a natural bent toward legalism. This, at times, has produced fear in my heart that legalism is what I’ll communicate to my children through my practice of spiritual disciplines. However, the Lord has brought me, time and again, back to the fact that I can trust Him with my children’s hearts as I seek to faithfully love God and them. He reminds me that He has all the wisdom I need to instruct my children, and all I need to do is ask (James 1:5). 

I also think about verses like these from Psalm 119:

  • “I rejoice in the way revealed by your decrees as much as in all riches.” (v. 14)
  • “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.” (v. 16)

These are not words of lifeless obligation: these are the joyful declarations of someone who has tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). These words flow from a heart of love for the all-powerful God of the universe who—wonder of wonders—desires relationship with us! When we place priority on reading the Bible, praying, and other spiritual disciplines out of love for the Lord—and our children witness the fruit of that devotion—it will, by God’s grace, plant the seeds of longing in their hearts for an intimate relationship with their Savior. 

2. Give Them Tools 

When I was seven years old my parents gave me my first Bible, and I was encouraged to begin setting aside regular time to read it. I treasured that Bible. I sought to read it faithfully as my parents did (although that determination waned a bit about halfway through Genesis). As the years went by I was given notebooks and pens that became my “quiet time” tools. When I was in high school, my mom took my siblings and me through inductive Bible studies and helped us memorize extended passages of Scripture together. We read through books together that enriched my understanding of the “why” behind our faith, and my parents gave us age appropriate theological books to read on our own. At every turn throughout my childhood, I was equipped to seek the Lord. What a gift beyond measure. 

This is what my husband and I are now seeking to do with our kids. We keep a “quiet time” basket in our living room filled with kids’ Bible books so they can spend a few minutes practicing stillness while I’m finishing up my Bible reading. The kiddos who can read have their own Bibles to open. The delight in my daughter’s eyes when she read through Psalm 1 (which we’ve been memorizing) for the first time made my own eyes fill with tears. 

The way this looks in every home will be different depending on life rhythms and circumstances. However, just like we buy ballet shoes for our tiny dancer or a hammer and nails for our aspiring builder, why would we not do everything in our power to equip our children in the most significant aspect of their life: their relationship with the Lord?

3. Connect Doctrine to Daily Life

We need look no further than the Pharisees to see that even the most stringent spiritual disciplines are nothing if our hearts aren’t transformed by the truth of God’s Word (Matt. 5:20). Our children need to see that Scripture is “living and effective” (Heb. 4:12), and that—through the power of the Holy Spirit—it has the ability to transform the way we live. 

Our children should hear truth and worship flowing from our lips from dawn to dusk. They should witness our repentance when we’ve sinned. They should see forgiveness, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience woven into our actions and words. Prayer should be as normal to them as eating and drinking, and recognizing the answers to those prayers should be frequent.

I so keenly feel the weight of my weakness in being able to live out what I claim to believe. But this is the amazing truth of the gospel. We are being continually transformed and enabled to live a righteous life by no merit or effort of our own but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf. And where do we learn this? In the Word of God. What a priceless treasure we’ve been given in having the Bible at our fingertips. What joy to be able to go straight to His throne of grace (Heb. 4:16), knowing that the Spirit is interceding for our every spoken and unspoken prayer (Rom. 8:26). 

I also want to take a moment to encourage those of you who don’t have children or whose children are grown. Although you may not currently have a primary role in the lives of young kiddos, your support and encouragement of young moms like myself is an incredible blessing. You have the unique ability to reinforce the day-after-day training of a mom “in the trenches'' in a way that will breathe life into her and her children. 

My home is filled with resources gifted to us from those who don’t have little ones themselves. On numerous occasions when single friends have babysat my children, I’ve returned to stories about them praying together for lost items (and finding them), deep conversations over topics like sin, forgiveness, or fear, and my children grasping biblical truths that were articulated to them in simple yet powerful ways. Each time someone intentionally pours into my children, it’s another jewel added to the spiritual treasure chest I’m longing and laboring to give them as an inheritance. It may feel small to you, but it’s not.

In the end, my prayer is that my lips and life would reflect the words of the psalmist:

Your word is completely pure, 
and your servant loves it. (Psalm 119:140)

I pray that my children will speak it and live it too. 

Perhaps you didn’t grow up in a family where spiritual disciplines were promoted and practiced. Or maybe your family is pretty much . . . a mess. Don’t be discouraged. The Bible gives us many examples of dysfunctional families bearing rich spiritual fruit, like Joseph’s. Want to learn more? “Dysfunction,” the latest season of The Deep Well with Erin Davisdrops today! Over the course of twelve episodes (plus a bonus!) we’ll explore the knotted stories of Joseph’s heritage as a grid to think through the many ways God is at work in our own families. 

About the Author

Heather Cofer

Heather Cofer

Heather Cofer is a wife and mother of six living in northern Colorado with a passion for encouraging women to love Jesus. She is the author of Expectant: Cultivating a Vision for Christ-Centered Pregnancy, and has also written for Set … read more …

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