The Role of Beauty, Joy and Love in Parenting

Throughout my career as a freelance author, there have been certain themes I keep returning to. One of these themes is the necessity for parents to demonstrate to their children that Christianity is beautiful, that following Jesus is not simply the right thing to do but also lovely and attractive.

Christians have often failed to take seriously Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique that religion has a tendency to stifle joy and to bring death rather than life, and that consequently Christianity is life’s nausea. Sadly, what often passes for “Christianity” has often been nauseating and succeeds only in driving children away from the faith.

If our Christianity is going to be real, effective and contagious – so contagious that our children will want to pass it onto the next generation – then instilling in our children a love for the truth is just as important as (and inseparably connected to) imparting to them a knowledge of the truth.

I would go further and suggest that all our parenting techniques, philosophies and procedures, as well as all the educational pedagogy and content in our Christian schools and homeschools, needs to pass through this grid. That is, we must constantly be asking ourselves “Are we demonstrating, modeling, and inculcating our children with a love for what is good, true and beautiful?

Here are some excerpts from various publications over the years where I’ve developed this concept in more detail.

From my book Saints and Scoundrels, page 227:

Saints and Scoundrels by Robin Phillips“The task of Christian parents is not merely to pass on the truth to their children, but also to show the next generation that the truth is lovely. Many Christian young people have willingly walked away from a faith they once believed to be true because they were enticed by the illusory attractiveness of idols. But few will abandon a faith they believe to be both true and beautiful.”

From my blog post ‘The Task of Christian Parents is to Teach the Loveliness of the Faith‘:

“Many Christian parents have taught their sons and daughters all the correct doctrine, yet because they have not lived it out in front of their children, when the children grow up they end of walking away from the faith. The parents’ hypocritical lifestyle has failed to convince the children that the faith is lovely (something worthy of adoration), and hence the youth fall prey to rival images of the good life. I have even seen people turn to rival images of the good life while still believing cognitively that the faith is true. But while there are many examples of youth abandoning a faith they know is true because their hearts have been lured by rival images of the good life, how many times have you heard of it working the other way round? How many young people do you know who have abandoned the worldview of Christianity without first having been enticed by a rival vision of the good life? Not very many, if any, and here’s why: our center of gravity is not the mind, but the heart. It is the heart which sends us the message, “This is the good life,” or “This is not the good life.” Now the lifestyle in the Christian home is crucial here, since our behavior in front of our children will unconsciously inscribe one of these two messages in the hearts of our children. The hundreds of little things we do with our kids from playing with them to disciplining them to just patiently listening to them talk, all help to reinforce that this is the good life. What is being reinforced is pre-reflective automated desires that only afterwards take form in abstract thought.”

From my blog post ‘What Science Has to Say About Heavy-Handed Parenting‘:

“…we often see similarities in the outcome of children whose parents who are too loose and children whose parents are overly strict. Both are avoiding the really effective type of parenting which is consistent moderate discipline (and I am using discipline in the broadest sense here)…. Effective parenting is a dynamic matter of being so in tune with your child that you find that Goldilocks level, which will be different for each child. Children are so different that what constitutes moderate discipline for one child could be overwhelming severity for another. Moreover, even moderate discipline is ineffective in achieving the ultimate telos of Christian parenting if it is not conducted within a larger context of loving nurture and the type of joyful lived-out-Christianity that instills in the child’s heart a deep sense that Christianity is lovely and attractive.”

From my book Saints and Scoundrels, page 14:

“…the greatest defense against evil is to enjoy the good…the strongest bulwark against unbelief is our capacity to love what is beautiful…the surest support against the lies of the devil is to be attracted to what is true.”

From ‘9 Things I Wish I’d Known About Parenting Teenagers‘:

“An aroma of love and peace will cover over any number of parenting mistakes, but if there is not this atmosphere of love and peace, then doing all the “right” things will get you nowhere.

When we are attentive to the atmosphere of the home, the question of how you correct a teenager becomes as important as whether you correct a teenager. It is better to ignore problems completely than to deal with your teenager in an attitude of harshness, frustration and anger. Thus, the first step to keeping a healthy atmosphere in the home is not to yell, to avoid outbursts of wrath and to be careful to preserve (as much as it depends on you) an environment that is free from stress….

Unfortunately many upright conservative Christian parents successfully inoculate their children against the gospel by approaching the parental task mechanistically while living in a way that creates a toxic atmosphere in the home.

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Raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is more about letting the fruit of the Spirit permeate the home than it is about knowing all the right discipline techniques and having correct rules. It’s less about trying to get everything perfect and more about modeling infectious love, joy and peace. It’s about instilling an inchoate sense that the life in the Kingdom of God is the Good Life. It’s more about heart-orientation than outward appearance; more about parents knowing how to model the love of Jesus to their teenagers than getting uptight about every little mistake they make. It’s about the home being suffused with an aroma of gratitude, prayer, gentleness and kindness that point the children Godward. (See my earlier post ‘Pointing Children Godward.’)

This can hardly be overemphasized since many parents have imbibed a false idea of what constitutes godliness, mistaking fussiness for holiness. The Lord is not looking for families burdened down by an exacting load of perfectionism. Rather, He is looking for love, obedience, growth, faithfulness, joy and laughter within the context of our fallen world. If we need to loosen up on our standards in order to preserve this atmosphere of joy, love and peace, then by all means we should lower our standards to the glory of God.

Preserving an atmosphere of love and laughter and joy with your teenager is like depositing money in their bank account, creating relational capital that you can later draw on.

We all know that a check is only good if there is money in the bank to back it up. When we ask our teenager to do something difficult, to obey us when they don’t want to, or to sacrifice their selfish desires for the good of the family, we are essentially writing our teenager a check that we want them to cash. But if we haven’t put money in their bank account, the check will bounce. Now the way we put money in the bank account, the way we build up relational capital, is by cultivating this atmosphere of peace and joy.”

From my Colson Center article ‘Cultural Apologetics‘:

“…the cultural “liturgies” we are surrounded with train us to love and desire certain things on a gut level, exercising a formative role in what we believe. The subtle narratives embedded in our cultural rhythms find expression in how we think about the world and how we define the good life…. We must also engage in what a friend of mine has called “cultural apologetics”, working to transform the rhythms and practices of our culture – including the culture of our Christian communities – to reflect the beauty and desirability of Christ.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once noted, “In vain does one repeat what the heart does not find sweet.” It is not good enough simply to prove to someone that Christianity is true; if we are to have an impact for Christ we must also show that the faith is sweet. One of the ways we can do this is through cultural expressions that embody that sweetness, which show that Christianity is not only true, but lovely and desirable.”

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