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I heard a story once about a little girl who pulled her skirt up over her head while singing with the children’s choir at the front of the church.  A gentleman sitting behind the mortified mother leaned forward and teased, “They only do what they see at home.”

Chances are good, that little girl never witnessed her mother pulling her skirt up over her head at home.  I know the mother.  She just wouldn’t.

But there is some truth to the old adage “they only do what they see at home” and others like it, “more is caught than taught,” and “personal example carries more weight than preaching,” for instance.

I have a toddler.  He frequently disobeys. I think it comes with the territory.  Sometimes he doesn’t mean to be naughty, but it just comes so easily! Other times he deliberately chooses to disobey.  He decides he wants the toy in his sister’s hand more than he wants to respect others.  He decides he wants candy before dinner more than the good will of his mommy.

When he disobeys, he is quick to apologize.  He is well versed in the form of repentance. He’s two, and I think it’s quite an accomplishment to have learned the vocabulary and style of seeking forgiveness.  Some of what he’s learned we’ve intentionally instructed and practiced with him.  But the first time he sent himself on a break to “find his happy heart” we all laughed hysterically.  He picked that up on his own!

When he’s twenty-two, or even two times two, simply understanding the form of repentance won’t be enough.  Mimicking others’ habits for getting their hearts right before God won’t be funny anymore.

At two we are giving him practice and structure to build a skill by developing the vocabulary of repentance.  Most of the time, however, he doesn’t really repent.  He’s in this temporary phase.  {Lord willing it’s temporary and the Holy Spirit will work in his heart and make him tender to conviction and quick to repent.}

We will continue to pray with him and for him.  We will continue to instruct him with scripture and bathe his little mind with the truth of the gospel. And, since the word of the Lord does not return without accomplishing its purpose (Isaiah 55:11), we hope expectantly for the days when he is truly repentant.

Of course, I am not always truly repentant.  If I am honest with myself and with you, I have to admit there are still moments when I practice the form and style of seeking forgiveness while my heart is still hard.  In these moments, eventually, there is usually a time when my heart turns back to God and I am really repentant.  I find myself wanting to return to whoever I’ve offended and confess and seek release from the burden of my sin.

So how can I tell?  What is the posture of a truly-repentant heart?  If my words, tone, and actions imply repentance, how do I know when I am not really repenting?

I ask myself questions like:

  • Am I more concerned with getting caught than with the grief I’ve caused?
  • Am I wrapped up in moving past the heart of the matter or moving back into the heart of God?
  • Do I find myself justifying my choices because of my circumstances (i.e. trying to find a way the “rules” don’t apply)?  Or do I find myself choosing justification in Christ because of the cross?
  • Am I grieved because my plan is broken or because my plan has broken the heart of my Father?

These are great questions for me.  They are great questions for my kids, too, to evaluate their own hearts.

Legalistic remorse says, ‘I broke God’s rules,’ while real repentance says, ‘I broke God’s heart.’

Tim Keller

That’s pretty clear.  Until we realize sin is about more than breaking rules, we cannot repent.  Until we recognize sin is about breaking our Father’s heart, we will not seek forgiveness.

Sin Breaks Our Father's Heart

So what do I do about my kids?  Especially the older ones?  How can I guide them into understanding their hearts?  How can I train & model true repentance?  How can I help them recognize the difference between “legalistic remorse” and “real repentance”?

At the end of the day, I cannot see inside their hearts (though sometimes their hearts leak out into their tone, words, posture, and attitudes which give me hints to guide them).

The truth remains: I am not the Holy Spirit.  I do not have the omniscience of the Father.  It is my job to teach them how to walk before God on their own, because I will not be their authority forever.  Someday they will walk under God’s authority without a parent to guide them.  They need to learn more than the form and style and vocabulary of repentance.  They need to understand what it is to break the heart of God.  Without that grief and conviction, they have no hope.

If I am to leave a legacy of hope, I must lead with repentance.  I must learn to respond with sorrow rather than anger.  They need to see my broken heart more than my broken rules.  My children need to learn the difference between legalism and love, remorse and repentance, decrees and devotion.

And in this case it’s true: they’ll only do what they see at home.