Parenting is difficult under the best of circumstances. To raise children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) is the calling and desire of every Christian who is entrusted with little ones. Often, the task can seem overwhelming. Even seeking counsel from the many helpful resources available to Christian parents today can be daunting and leave moms and dads feeling inadequate and uncertain about how best to shepherd their children into adulthood.
In and through all of the biblical principles and wise strategies that parents can and should employ, there is one overarching responsibility and opportunity that can easily be overlooked and not given its proper place of importance. I would summarize that preeminent parental duty this way: Be a real Christian and act like it.
Actually, that is the counsel I give repeatedly to believers no matter what the challenge or responsibility being faced. A serious heeding of the call to follow Christ must undergird everything else a believer does. What this means for Christian moms and dads is that before they are parents, they are disciples of Jesus.
Parents who are more devoted to Jesus Christ than to their kids leave a powerful imprint on their children. Such a parent leaves a spiritual legacy to his children that says, “Knowing and loving Jesus Christ is more valuable than anything else in the world.”
That is the legacy that James Paton, “a stocking manufacturer in a small way,” gave to his son, John Gibson Paton in nineteenth century Scotland. And God used that legacy to make John G. Paton a great missionary of Jesus Christ.
The younger Paton left his homeland in 1858 to become a missionary to the New Hebrides Islands—what is now Vanuatu. Cannibals lived on those islands and two previous missionaries had been eaten by them. When John announced to his church his intentions of taking the gospel there one of the elders, Mr. Dickinson responded, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!” To this Paton responded:
Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer (Autobiography of John G. Paton, 56).
Three months of arriving on the island of Tanna, his wife delivered their firstborn child. Within two more months both mother and son were dead. Speaking of his wife, he wrote,
I felt her loss beyond all conception or description, in that dark land. It was very difficult to be resigned, left alone, and in sorrowful circumstances; but feeling immovably assured that my God and father was too wise and loving to err in anything that he does or permits, I looked up to the Lord for help, and struggled on in His work (Autobiography, 85).
After four years he was run off the island by the cannibals. But he later returned to another island, called Aniwa. And despite hardships, threats to life and untold miseries, after fifteen years, Paton saw the entire island of Aniwa turn to Christ. Years later he wrote, “I claimed Aniwa for Jesus, and by the grace of God Aniwa now worships at the Savior’s feet” (Autobiography, 312).
Where did John Paton come from? How did God mold this kind of tender tenacity that would risk all for the sake of getting the Gospel to the cannibals of the New Hebrides? Paton himself reveals the roots of his useful life when he writes about the lasting influence of his father. His dad loved the church and determined to use every Lord’s Day for the greatest spiritual benefit of his family. Their local church did not teach sound doctrine so they walked four miles to an orthodox church every Sunday. In forty years his father only missed worship three times: once for a a snow storm; once for an ice storm, and once because of an outbreak of cholera.
Every morning and evening his father would lead the family in worship at home. His dad had a small closet where he would go to pray, usually after every meal. John Paton never got over the impact of his father’s prayers. Years later he wrote,
Though everything else in religion were by some unthinkable catastrophe to be swept out of memory, were blotted from my understanding, my soul would wander back to those early scenes, and shut itself up once again in that Sanctuary Closet, and, hearing still the echoes of those cries to God, would hurl back all doubt with the victorious appeal, “He walked with God, why may not I?” (Autobiography, 8).
How much my father’s prayers at this time impressed me I can never explain, nor could any stranger understand. When, on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in Family Worship, he poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the Heathen world to the service of Jesus, and for every personal and domestic need, we all felt as if in the presence of the living Savior, and learned to know and love him as our Divine friend. As we rose from our knees, I used to look at the light on my father’s face, and wish I were like him in spirit—hoping that, in answer to his prayers, I might be privileged and prepared to carry the blessed Gospel to some portion of the Heathen World (Autobiography, 21).
When John came to the point of deciding whether to leave a thriving ministry in Glasgow and go to the New Hebrides, the final assurance came from his parents. They said,
When you were given to [us], your father and mother laid you upon the altar, their first-born, to be consecrated, if God saw fit, as a Missionary of the Cross; and it has been [our] constant prayer that you might be prepared, qualified, and led to this very decision; and we pray with all our heart that the Lord may accept your offering, long spare you, and give you many souls from the Heathen World for your hire. (Autobiography, 57).
When the time came for John to leave home and go to Glasgow to attend divinity school and become a city missionary in his early twenties he had to make a forty-mile walk to the train station. Forty years later this is what he wrote about that day:
My dear father walked with me the first six miles of the way. His counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. For the last half mile or so we walked on together in almost unbroken silence – my father, as was often his custom, carrying hat in hand, while his long flowing yellow hair (then yellow, but in later years white as snow) streamed like a girl’s down his shoulders. His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me; and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain! We halted on reaching the appointed parting place; he grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said: “God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!”
Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him – gazing after me. Waving my hat in adieu, I rounded the corner and out of sight in an instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me further, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for a time. Then, rising up cautiously, I climbed the dike to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he gazed eagerly in my direction for a while, he got down, set his face toward home, and began to return – his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as he had given me. (Autobiography, 25-26).
James Paton employed no special parenting techniques that we know of. There is no record of any secret of successful parenting that he left behind. Rather, he walked with God through a sincere faith in Jesus Christ and genuine repentance of sin. And he lived this way openly before his family. He was a real Christian and acted like it.
In and through everything else that we teach about raising children, may we never overlook this preeminent responsibility to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. Such a legacy is more valuable than any material or financial inheritance a child could ever receive.