God and Parenting: Tenderness, Affection, and Patience

How we think God responds to us shapes how we respond to our children. God’s tenderness, affection, and patience is an amazing and important foundation for our parenting.

My friend Michael Horton writes about John Calvin’s view of God: “Across Calvin’s writings, one of the recurring terms for God’s lavish gift-giving disposition is ‘liberality’—often ‘fatherly liberality.’ God is not stingy. As we see in nature, God has provided for us far beyond our needs, to delight us with the diversity of pleasures that ought to lead us to gratitude for his bounty.” One of Calvin’s favorite words about God’s love and disposition toward us is “gratuitous” (mercy, promise, love, favor, goodness).

Calvin writes about God’s disposition toward us:

“Those bound by the yoke of the law are like servants assigned certain tasks for each day by their masters. These servants think they have accomplished nothing, and dare not appear before their masters unless they have fulfilled the exact measure of their tasks. But sons who are more generously and candidly treated by their fathers do not hesitate to offer them incomplete and half-done and even defective works, trusting that their obedience and readiness of mind will be accepted by their fathers, even though they have not quite achieved what their fathers intended. Such children ought we to be, firmly trusting that our services will be approved by our most merciful Father, however small, rude, and imperfect these may be.”

John Calvin, Institutes, III.xix.5

In The Upper Room, J.C. Ryle has a beautiful passage about what parenting with tenderness, affection, and patience could look like. This seems like the practical parenting application of Calvin’s doctrine of God.

“Train up your child with all tendernessaffection, and patience. I do not mean that you are to spoil her, but I do mean that you should let her see that you love her.

Love should be the silver thread that runs through all your conduct. Kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, forbearance, patience, sympathy, a willingness to enter into childish troubles, a readiness to take part in childish joys,—these are the cords by which a child may be led most easily,—these are the clues you must follow if you would find the way to her heart.

Few are to be found, even among grown-up people, who are not more easy to draw than to drive. There is that in all our minds which rises in arms against compulsion; we set up our backs and stiffen our necks at the very idea of a forced obedience.

We are like young horses in the hand of a breaker: handle them kindly, and make much of them, and by and by you may guide them with thread; use them roughly and violently, and it will be many a month before you get the mastery of them at all.

Now children’s minds are cast in much the same mold as our own. Sternness and severity of manner chill them and throw them back. It shuts up their hearts, and you will weary yourself to find the door.

But let them only see that you have an affectionate feeling towards them,—that you are really desirous to make them happy, and do them good,—that if you punish them, it is intended for their profit, and that you would give your heart’s blood to nourish their souls.

Let them see this, I say, and they will soon be all your own. But they must be wooed with kindness, if their attention is ever to be won.

And surely reason itself might teach us this lesson. Children are weak and tender creatures, and, as such, they need patient and considerate treatment.

We must handle them delicately, like frail machines, lest by roughness we do more harm than good. They are like young plants, and need gentle watering,—often, but little at a time.

We must not expect all things at once. We must remember what children are, and teach them as they are able to bear.

Their minds are like a lump of metal—not to be forged and made useful at once, but only by a succession of little blows. Their understandings are like narrow-necked vessels: we must pour in the wine of knowledge gradually, or much of it will be spilled and lost.

‘Line upon line, and precept upon precept, here a little and there a little,’ must be our rule. The whetstone does its work slowly, but frequent rubbing will bring the scythe to a fine edge. Truly there is need of patience in training a child, but without it nothing can be done.

Nothing will compensate for the absence of this tenderness and love. A minister may speak the truth as it is in Jesus, clearly, forcibly, unanswerably; but if he does not speak it in love, few souls will be won.

Just so you must set before your children their duty,—command, threaten, punish, reason,—but if affection be wanting in your treatment, your labor will be all in vain.

Love is one grand secret of successful training. Anger and harshness may frighten, but they will not persuade the child that you are right; and if she sees you often out of temper, you will soon cease to have her respect. A father who speaks to his child as Saul did to Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:30), need not expect to retain his influence over that child’s mind.

Try hard to keep up a hold on your child’s affections. It is a dangerous thing to make your children afraid of you.

Anything is almost better than reserve and constraint between your child and yourself; and this will come in with fear. Fear puts an end to openness of manner;—fear leads to concealment;—fear sows the seed of much hypocrisy, and leads to many a lie.

There is a mine of truth in the Apostle’s words to the Colossians: ‘Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged’ (Col. 3:21). Let not the advice it contains be overlooked.”

J.C. Ryle, The Upper Room (London: William Hunt and Company, 1888), 285–287.

*I changed the original excerpt from “he” and “him” to “she” and “her” since Lindsey and I have two daughters and we have read this quote a few times.

On social media, I saw an example of tenderness, affection, and patience in action. A daughter shared a letter she received from her dad.  I modified that letter and gave a copy to each of my daughters.  Here is my version:

Dear _____,

If you are ever scared or nervous to tell me something, just bring me this note as a reminder that I am here to love, support, and serve you. I will not get mad. Rather, I will listen to you with compassion and work with you on a solution. I am FOR you.

I love you,