Love or obey, which is first?

Posted on May 27, 2014 · Posted in Gospel, Parenting

As parents we rightly focus on teaching our children to obey God.  But, we must be more focused on teaching our children to love God first. This is where it is easy to turn away from the gospel in parenting. 


Whether you read Deuteronomy, Matthew or Colossians, the first thing that God desires is that he is to be loved. Too often, when it comes to raising children, loving God is tacked on as an after thought to obedience. The thought process may run like this:


“I can’t force my children to love God, so I will teach them to obey, because I can require that.” 


Teaching obedience appears to be a more doable task than teaching the love of God. After all, reaching the heart of your child appears to be way beyond our capacity. Of course, it is beyond your capacity, but not beyond God’s!


Think of the people of whom God required love as a condition of obedience:


The children of Israel were a hard-hearted, complaining bunch. But Moses tells them that their first responsibility is to love God with all their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:12-13;  6:4-7). 


To the cynical, hypocritical hearts of the Pharisees, Jesus says the greatest commandment is the love of God (Matthew 22:37-40).


To the pagan, cosmopolitan people of Colossae and Corinth Paul says to begin with love (Colossians 3:14 & I Corinthians 13).


Your children’s hearts are no more difficult to reach than the hearts of these folks.  The message is the same today as it was, the love of God must come first. This doesn’t mean that this truth will be immediately embraced by your children. But it does mean that you can not leave out requiring the love of God in your parenting (Deuteronomy 6:4-7).  Otherwise, your parental direction will be just an empty form of work-righteousness or manipulation.

What does this look like in practice?


Instead of saying:

“The Bible says that you must obey mommy right away.” 


Use language like this: 


“Obeying right away is how you can show your love for God. Remember, that God says that loving him is the most important thing.”


Suppose your child responds something like this:

“I don’t feel like loving God right now. I want to keep playing.”


I realize that addressing this response can be time-consuming.  We are talking about much more than a change in behavior. But there is no more important issue that you can be involved with as a parent. 


This represents an ongoing opportunity to present the gospel. In addition to whatever discipline is called for, the most important thing here is to address the importance of loving God. Of course, this means that loving God first must be your primary motivation as a parent.


Obey first or love God first? How you answer this question will shape the course of your parenting!


Jay Younts
Jay Younts is the Shepherd Press blogger. He is the author of Everyday Talk and other materials on parenting. He has been teaching and speaking on parenting issues for 30 years. Jay and his wife, Ruth, live in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. He serves as a ruling elder at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Moore, South Carolina. He and Ruth have five adult children.