Fostering Faith, One Talk at a Time

America is growing more secular. All the studies say so. While it’s still an overwhelmingly religious country (and most adherents say they’re Christian), numerous polls have shown a rise in people who claim no religious affiliation. Many Christians worry that their children will slip away from the faith. And, from personal experience, I can tell you that that can happen.

But if you want to foster a healthy sense of spirituality in your kids, there’s a critical step you can take: Talk with them about your faith.

According to a new wave of data from the ongoing National Study of Youth and Religion (and reported on by David Briggs of the Association of Religion Data Archives), parents have a huge impact on whether their own children become religious adults.

“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” says Christian Smith, a University of Notre Dame sociologist and lead author of the study. “Parents just dominate.”

The study actually began way back in 2002 and 2003, tracking teens and their relationship to faith. Now those teens are young adults—ages 24 to 29. And there’s no question that these young adults are engaged with a more secular country than their parents were.

But here’s the thing: 82% of teens raised by moms and dads whose faith was important to them—and who demonstrated that importance by talking about it and taking an active part in church—were spiritually active themselves. That’s no guarantee, of course, but you have to like those odds.

In comparison, teens raised in more secular households were almost guaranteed to be pretty secular themselves. Only 1% of those secularized teens went on to find a meaningful connection with faith.

“Parents, for better or worse, are actually the most influential pastors .. of their children,” Smith said during a presentation of his findings at the Yale Divinity School. “Parents set a kind of glass ceiling of religious commitment, above which their children rarely rise.”

So how do you show your kids the importance of religion? Going to church is a good step, of course. Volunteering at church is one step better. But it seems like the biggest factor in encouraging children and teens to follow your faith is to talk about it.

It’s funny: We should know all this already, and maybe we do. Dads, as the spiritual leader of the home, should be particularly aware of their need to communicate religious truth. But I think a lot of times we pass on the responsibility, leaving our children’s spiritual education to outside “experts” like pastors and youth leaders. But this study stresses that we moms and dads are still by far the most important teachers our kids have, particularly when it comes to faith. There’s just no overstating our influence.

Yeah, it can be tricky to talk about religion with our kids. We don’t always know what to say or how to say it. And if we consciously try to foster really open discussion, our kids’ questions can be pretty challenging. But all the more reason to deal with those questions head-on, right? It’s so much better if you try to answer those questions—however imperfect you feel those answers might be—than leave a void for other influencers to fill.

I’ve always felt that good communication is one of the most important keys to good parenting. If you’re worried that your children might turn away from faith, the answer might be as close as an afternoon walk or a chat around the dinner table.

Do You Know Why You Get Angry?

Angry face
I can’t pretend to remember (or know) all of the things I’ve been angry over. If you’re a dad… or a mom… or a human being, then I’ll hedge my bets and wager that you probably can’t either. I know I’ve been angry, but I don’t really remember why.

I was really angry with my kids just mere hours ago and, this time, I know why. I can remember. I was angry because I wasn’t getting my way. Because I felt like my desires/needs/rights were being infringed on by my children.

I didn’t notice at the time. Of course I didn’t, or else I wouldn’t have gotten angry in the first place. (I like to think.) They were disobeying by not listening to me when I wanted them to because I wanted time for myself. Which isn’t a bad thing… until you let it drive you to yell at your children… like I just did. All because I wasn’t getting my way.

Which, if I’m not mistaken, is called a tantrum. A temper tantrum, to be precise.

I just threw a temper tantrum.

I could blame it on a lot of things. Lack of sleep. Stress carried over from work. Hunger and dehydration. Brain malfunction due to my children’s mind-numbingly loud shrieks. The melting of the polar ice caps. All are great excuses, and most are relevant to my situation. But those are just exacerbating the real problem: selfishness.

Parenthood, much like marriage, is really, really terribly/wonderfully good at rooting out the core selfishness in a person. Like insanely good at it and, just when you think it’s all been plucked up, more always seems to be surfacing. So much so that it almost feels like I’m more selfish now than when I first became a dad. Which is no good, especially as I’m realizing that pretty much all of my shortcomings as a dad, including my anger, stem directly from my selfishness.

A father carrying his sleeping son You see, the external triggers that I generally like to blame (stress, fatigue, dehydration, grasshoppers) really just reveal the true nature of my selfish heart. Because, it would seem, if I wasn’t so selfish then my reactions to the stressors would likely be much different.

I tried to rationalize my anger away as simply being stress-related, until I found myself yelling at a blank bedroom wall for no reason other than wanting my kids to go to sleep so I could have my “me time.” Subtract selfishness from the equation and, even though the external stress still exists, the yelling at family members and inanimate objects can be more easily addressed and nixed.

It’s all very important, I’m discovering, because if I wasn’t so worried about what I felt like I was missing out on I’d be better able to enjoy the moment I’m actually in. I would be better able to see my kiddos struggle with the concept of staying in bed as gentle learning experiences rather than as deliberate attempts on my sanity. (Even when it really, really feels like the latter.)

Do you struggle with this at all? Or have you found that your anger has another source? Or are you just never angry?

I think it’s worth digging through the muck to find the roots. I want to for my family’s sake and, honestly, for my own sake too. I think healing can start and be most effective there. At the source.

And who knows? If we can figure out why we’re actually angry, we might just find ourselves well on our way toward having happier families.

Intimacy and Sex: How Men and Women are Different— and Why

Although couples often argue about sex, they rarely talk about it. Try to talk and pray together about your sex life at least once a month.
by Dr. Juli Slattery

The first path to a satisfying sex life is through increased knowledge of your spouse’s sexual mindset.

Guys, one of your challenges is to understand the incredible complexity of your wife’s sexuality. I recommend reading The Way to Love Your Wife by Cliff and Joyce Penner. Gals, we need help understanding our husbands’ struggles and temptations. My eyes were opened after I read about the sexual temptations men face. As you read, talk openly about what you are learning.

I’ve already mentioned the need to become a student of your spouse. The greatest roadblock to this is a lack of communication. Although couples often argue about sex, they rarely talk about it. Consider discussing your insecurities, temptations, turn-ons and turn-offs. Try to talk and pray together about your sex life at least once a month. Because these topics are so sensitive, be a sympathetic and supportive listener.

Accept what you can’t understand. In all my efforts to understand my husband, I eventually became frustrated with the gender gap that we could never bridge. We could talk until we had no words left and still not know what it feels like to be in the other person’s skin.

The problem was rooted in the fact that neither of us had accepted what we could not understand: Men often view sex as a physical release and a way to reconnect with their wives, while women tend to see it as an outgrowth of their emotional intimacy.

Gals, we struggle to understand why men are tempted visually. Guys, you may not understand the emotional energy sex requires from your wife. (What makes matters more complicated is our own human shortcomings and selfishness.)

There comes a point when we have to move beyond understanding and come to a place of acceptance. God simply created men and women differently. When we genuinely accept each other, without judgment and resentment, we can begin to enjoy our differences.

I have often wondered why God made men and women so different. Wouldn’t it have been easier and more pleasurable if we had the same needs, drives and preferences?

These differences are actually designed to show us how to give ourselves to each other in love. According to the Bible, true love can be expressed only through unselfishness.

Were it possible for me to love my husband while pursuing my own selfish desires, I would never know the beauty of real love. A great sex life is only possible as both the husband and wife commit to laying their needs down for the other.

One of God’s great gifts for us is marital sex. Through it, we gain an even richer blessing: the experience of loving and being loved unselfishly.

The article originally appeared in the February 2007 edition of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2007 by Juli Slattery. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission

Defending Your Marriage Against Mediocrity

Defending Your Marriage Against Mediocrity
When couples compromise on obedience to God, their marriages drift towards mediocrity. Abundant marriage, however, is within reach when attending to five key areas.
by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

Chip and Sandy are like many married couples who say, “We’re making it” in marriage. Recently I asked Sandy, “Do you ever feel great about your marriage?” She paused, clearly uncomfortable with the question, and replied, “My husband doesn’t abuse me, doesn’t cheat on me and hasn’t left me. I would say that I am blessed.”

Indeed, God has blessed Chip and Sandy. But, Sandy’s response left me pondering the meaning of “great” marriage. God wants us to have not only life but to experience it abundantly (3 John 2). Yet, Sandy seems more aware of what is thankfully absent than nourished by what is abundantly present.

Maybe I should have asked Sandy a different question: “Does God occupy the center of your marriage?” After all, a God-centered marriage assures God’s blessings upon the marriage covenant, fosters authentic partnership and models genuine love for others.

Many couples fall short on this point because God is pushed to the margin of the relationship. These couples have a sense of God, but they may compromise on obedience to His Word. They may pray for God’s presence in their decisions, but lack the patience to wait for God’s timing. They may seek more godly influences in their lives, yet their jam-packed schedules leave little room for meaningful relationships. The Apostle Paul describes this phenomenon as a form of godliness, but one lacking its power (2 Timothy 3:5). These power-deficient marriages are mediocre. Are you settling for the mediocre in your marriage?

Avoiding the Threat of Mediocre Marriage
The secular influences that surround us can exact a toll on marriage. Protecting your marriage against these stressors requires effort in five areas: unconditional commitment to the marriage, trust, respect, healthy boundaries and protected couple time.

Unconditional Commitment. Secular western culture defines individual happiness and satisfaction as the endpoint of marriage. While these are good things, we may have lost the equally critical concept of commitment. Despite culture’s prioritization of pleasure and convenience, God expects us to be committed to Him and to our marriage regardless of how satisfied we feel at the moment. This requires an abundance of forgiveness, grace and humility between husbands and wives, even in the face of difficult circumstances.
Increased Trust. Many Christian marriages lack godly trust yet fail to realize it. Similar to Sandy’s response, many Christian couples think of trust only in the context of marital fidelity. However, when God is marginalized in your marriage, trust deficits are also characterized by blaming, suspiciousness, power plays, jealousy, secrecy and hidden agendas.

Increasing the level of trust in your marriage requires a commitment to care for the needs of your spouse more than your own needs. This also requires trusting that your spouse knows what they need more than you do, and honoring them. Trust, like marriage in general, only works as both you and your spouse agree to move forward together.
Increased Respect. Husbands feel respected when their wives express appreciation for what they do. Women, by contrast, feel respect when they are supported for who they are. Marital disrespect, however, almost always derives from one of three types of issues: delusions of grandeur, devalued self-worth or unchecked fears. These selfish tendencies push God into the margin — resulting in an unbalanced marriage where spouses behave defensively. Increasing respect necessitates understanding how your spouse feels respected, assessing your own control issues and praying for healing in this area.
Healthy Boundaries. Boundaries are an imaginary and internal line where your self ends and another’s self begins. There are three types of boundaries: rigid (unhealthy because they are inflexible and disinterested in the perspectives of others); enmeshed (unhealthy because they are so weak that they cannot guarantee safety); and permeable (healthy because they are strong and flexible; able to accept a learning posture while restricting influences which are unsafe for the marriage). God-centered marriages work to maintain marriages with permeable boundaries.
Increased Couple Time. Time is your most valuable asset. The value that you place in your marriage can be assessed by how much of your time is spent cultivating it. Couples voice a desire for intimate companionship. Yet, most couples spend more time microwaving dinner than investing in their marriage. The commitment, trust and respect so vital to healthy marriage are only fostered with a primary investment of time.
An Abundant Marriage
The Holy Spirit emboldens couples to resist the stressors that erode their marriage only if they move God to the center of the marriage. Abundant marriage is within your reach as you allow the Holy Spirit to reveal and heal your strengths and weaknesses. In healthier marriages, this may just require additional insight. More troubled marriages are likely to require intervention by others who are committed to the health of your marriage.

Many couples enter into marriage with false or unrealistic expectations. Some believe that marriage will solve their problems. Some do not understand that strong and rowing marriages are a result of hard work.

Copyright © 2008, Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.