Feb 24, 2015

The Full-Circle Effect of the Fourth Commandment

By Dana Palmer

For us mothers, loving our families is a big part of how we serve our neighbor. Some Christians, particularly modern evangelicals, view these good works as going up to Heaven. They are works “for God.” In contrast, Martin Luther wisely said, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” Service within our families is horizontal, rather than vertical. Upon reflection, however, I have been thinking of the flow of giving and receiving within a family as more of a circle: the parents are the authority and give to their children, but the children, in their own God-given way, also give to the parents. Although this does honor God, it is important to also remember that God has graciously given us our families to benefit us. Our families are good gifts from God.

My oldest child is engaged and lives several states away from us. It is hard to comprehend that almost twenty years have passed since I lay awake in the hospital the night she was born, unable to sleep because of the wonder I felt at her birth. After years of mothering a household of little children, I find myself in the position of being the mother of children who are middle-school-aged and older. My relationship with each of my four children has grown, deepened, and changed over time. Our service to each other has changed also. When my children were all small, I was uncomfortable with the knowledge that I would need to relate to them differently in the seemingly far-off time when they were older. This discomfort came from my own strained relationships with adults when I was a teenager. I knew that I would have to let go and give my children more responsibility and choices, but how would that work? Would we still be able to express love to each other?

Martin Luther’s explanation of the Fourth Commandment in his Small Catechism tells us that we are to “fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” Those early years of parenting center heavily on instilling this understanding in our children. In fact, I overdid that focus. I wish I had been Lutheran back when my children were little--we were a church-going, Bible-reading, Evangelical family that focused a lot on the Law. The Law of God is good and wise, as the hymn says, and I am thankful for the moral guidance from God's Word (and I did try to show the kids that we unconditionally loved them), but the specific pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins, both by us parent and Jesus, was ultimately what they needed.

As my children grew and we moved out of the constant supervision phase, we became Lutheran. What a joy it was to be able to speak forgiveness to my children. Yet I experienced pain as I realized the damage I had done by putting the primary emphasis on their behavior, instead of the life-giving Word of God. I sincerely believe that becoming Lutheran saved my relationship with my children. I began to listen and try to understand my children, instead of treating them like robots that should give me a particular behavioral output if I trained them in a certain way. When correcting them, once they understood their offense and were repentant, I aimed to end the “talking-to” right then and there instead of heaping more guilt on them by continuing a lecture.

I also learned that there was no lecture I could give that would help them face the inevitable struggles that come with living in a sinful world. I remember a wise older mom once telling me as I struggled with potty-training my children, “This may seem like a big deal now, but it is actually a simple time. The kids' needs become more complex when they get older.” That didn't seem possible at the time, but it has turned out to be true. Dealing with a potty-training accident is easy compared to the pain of seeing a child hurt or rejected by a peer. I also experienced a learning curve in helping the children deal with the realization of their own sinfulness that comes with growing up. The challenge is compounded by the fact that it is not uncommon for them to have some of the same sinful tendencies that I see in myself. It feels downright strange to give advice while I feel like I am the one who needs guidance. Thankfully, God promises that when we ask, He gives us wisdom. His strength comes through. I don't have to have it all together or have all the answers, because ultimately, we all need the forgiveness which Christ abundantly gives.

I am glad that my children still need me as a mother even though mine is a constantly changing role. As they mature, I have told them more of my own life experience, in hopes that they can learn from my mistakes. I also listen more, and show them their options, so they can think through the various choices and gain confidence in their ability to do so. I am also glad to say that I treasure being with my four children, now ages 11-19. We laugh, grieve, work, play, learn, worship, and pray together. My husband and I consider ourselves incredibly blessed, and look forward to continuing to guide, advise, and enjoy these dear children God has given us.

How is the Fourth Commandment a circle? With the help of the Holy Spirit, we love our children and don't provoke them to anger (Ephesians 6:4). When we fail (and we do), we repent and receive Christ's forgiveness. Through the love that Christ gives us, we discipline, instruct, and forgive our children in Christ's name. By that same grace of Christ they love, cherish, serve, obey, and honor us, which gives thanks to God. As they grow up and marry, they have children and the multiplication of God's love continues its circle for generations to come.


Dana Palmer is Pastor Stan Palmer's wife, mom to four children ages 11-19, a daughter, a sister, and a friend. She homeschools three of her children and enjoys Lutheran theology, reading, writing, classic movies, exercising, scrapbooking, and people. 

Title Image: "Breaking Home Ties" by Thomas Hovenden, 1890


  1. "I sincerely believe that becoming Lutheran saved my relationship with my children."

    I feel the same way regarding my little ones. How wonderful to shower them with the forgiveness that we all need instead of having a narrow focus on law-keeping. What a difference receiving grace makes! As sinners the Gospel is good news and as a sinner/saints, the Gospel continues to be good news. We don't "outgrow" our need for forgiveness in Jesus!

    Thanks so much for your insights on parenting! I really enjoyed reading your post.

  2. You're welcome! Thanks be to God that "we don't 'outgrow' our need for forgiveness in Jesus!"


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