A Mother's Example: Strive for Godliness, Not Perfection
- 2006 22 Mar
Don’t you ever do that again!” Janelle scolded Patty-Lynn in the severest tone her sweet, little voice could muster. Patty-Lynn (or Lynn-Patty as she was also known) was her Cabbage Patch doll. I listened from around the corner as the reprimand continued in an angry voice: “How many times do I have to tell you that it is not acceptable to disobey Mommy? I am very, very upset with you. That was your last warning, and now you will have to be punished. Do you hear me?”
I was poised to storm the room and nab her for unkind speech, but a single thought halted my well-timed raid: “She’s imitating me!” My daughter was only copying an earlier performance of mine when I’d angrily corrected her for emptying out the linen closet. If she was guilty, then I would first have to “arrest” myself.
Children are consummate mimics. They effortlessly take in our accents, mannerisms, and oft-used phrases, making them an indelible part of their personality. They copy the way we hold our purses, talk on the telephone, walk down the street, or put on our makeup. What mother hasn’t had the “I want to sink through the floor” experience of hearing her careless words repeated verbatim to an unintended audience?
But more than our traits and style, our daughters also absorb our character. From their earliest years, our behavior is their standard and guide. Our influence, for good or bad, will follow them into the teenage years and throughout their lives. So when they are in a conflict, do they lash out in anger, or do they seek to be peacemakers? When trials threaten to knock them down, who or what do they lean on? How earnestly do they seek the face of God? In all these things, our example will influence their conduct.
If truly understood, the impact of our example should bring us to our knees. Elisabeth Elliot soberly considers the fact that “the example of parents, for good or ill, is an influence far more profound than can be measured.”1
An authentic godly example is indispensable to the transfer of the language of biblical womanhood. Not only will our model of a godly woman provide a pattern for our daughters to copy, but every virtue we will teach stands or falls by our example. Our example must precede our instruction.
Appropriately did J. C. Ryle warn: “[Your children] will seldom learn habits which they see you despise, or walk in paths in which you do not walk yourself. [She] that preaches to [her] children what [she] does not practice, is working a work that never goes forward.”2
Paul Tripp points out that if we talk about Christ’s love and the Bible but live selfish, angry, materialistic lives, then we are saying with our example that God’s truth is only a facade. He writes: “Our teenagers will tend to dismiss or despise the very Gospel we say is of paramount importance. They will tend to reject the God we have so poorly represented, and they, too, will end up serving the idols of the surrounding culture.”3
While a poor example will dishonor the gospel, the godly example of a mother is among the most profound forces in human history. We read in the Bible of the mother-daughter pair, Lois and Eunice, who shaped the life of Timothy. In a survey of church history we are introduced to the influential mothers of great Christian leaders such as Augustine, Charles Spurgeon, and John and Charles Wesley—men whose love for the gospel resulted in thousands coming to know Christ.
Two hundred years ago John Angell James, in his book titled Female Piety, reported on the effect of a mother’s example in his day:
At a pastoral conference, held not long since, at which about one hundred and twenty American clergymen, united in the bonds of a common faith, were assembled, each was invited to state the human instrumentality to which, under the Divine blessing, he attributed a change of heart. How many of these, think you, gave the honour of it to their mother? Of one hundred and twenty, above one hundred! Here then are facts, which are only selected from myriads of others, to prove a mother’s power, and to demonstrate at the same time her responsibility.4
If I Have That Much Influence, then My Kids are in Trouble…
Now if the thought of this grave responsibility to be a godly example enervates your soul, you are not alone. When we compare our shortcomings to our hopes for a daughter’s character, the disparity is often conspicuous. If you are like me, you are painfully aware of your imperfection. But this is good, for it brings us back to the cross.
We are sinful mothers; however, we must not forget that the Savior died for sinners such as we. We will never be able to hold up for our daughters a perfect example; however, we should display the humble, honest example of a woman striving after the qualities of biblical womanhood by the grace of God.
In fact, our sins provide an opportunity for the light of the gospel to shine into our mother-daughter relationships. If we humble ourselves, confess our sins, and ask for our daughters’ forgiveness, we will be showing the power of Christ’s saving work.
I vividly remember one interaction between Nicole and Kristin when they were little. I had gotten angry with Kristin, and afterwards I overheard Nicole reassuring her sister from vast experience: “Don’t worry, Kristin—Mom always asks forgiveness.” I didn’t know whether to be pleased or discouraged. While I didn’t want to believe Nicole had so many illustrations to draw from, I was relieved that her experience, though not of a perfect mom, was at least tempered by some measure of humility on my part.
Paul Tripp concurs: “Living consistently with the faith does not mean living perfectly, but living in a way that reveals that God and his Word are the most important things to you. Such a [mother] can even honor God in [her] failure, with [her] humility in confession and [her] determination to change.”5 Humility isn’t just a component of a good example: It’s godliness in its purest form.
Humility: The Key to Godly Mothering
This truth should give us renewed hope in difficult situations with our daughters. Humility is a powerful tool that breaks down barriers that correction and advice can’t on their own chip away. A humble spirit helps us get behind the walls our daughters may erect. It’s a doorway into their hearts, no matter how hard they have become.
From the time our girls were old enough to communicate, C. J. and I asked them regularly, “If there is one thing about Daddy and Mommy you could change, what would it be?” Often they said silly things like, “Give me more ice cream.” But occasionally their comments provided valuable insight into our deficiencies as parents. And although the phrasing matured over the years, we never stopped asking this question. Why not ask your daughter the same question before the week comes to a close?
Only after we humble ourselves can we encourage our children to follow our example. Comments like “Why don’t you do what I say?” or “When will you ever learn?” will not promote the language of biblical womanhood. But our humility will soften their hearts and inspire them to imitate our example of these virtues.
In conclusion, we must not hesitate to encourage our daughters to follow our example. Many mothers consider such a statement prideful. They simply hope their quiet example will produce the intended effect. By the grace of God, it may. But we would be wise to emulate the apostle Paul’s more aggressive approach. In humility, he encouraged the believers to follow his example as he followed Christ. He exhorted them in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” And again in Philippians 3:17: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” So let’s take our daughters by the hand and say, “Come, follow me into the riches of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
This column is part of an ongoing series on Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood. Last month's installment: Effective Mothering is Born of Faith, Not Fear
Carolyn Mahaney is a wife, mother, homemaker, and the author of Feminine Appeal: Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother, and Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood. During her more than 30 years as a pastor’s wife, Carolyn has spoken to women in many churches and conferences, including those of Sovereign Grace Ministries, which her husband, C.J., leads. C.J. and Carolyn have three married daughters and one twelve-year-old son, Chad.
Nicole Mahaney Whitacre is the oldest daughter of C.J. and Carolyn Mahaney, as well as a wife, mother, and homemaker. She assisted her mother with Feminine Appeal, and is the co-author of Girl Talk. Nicole and her husband, Steve, have one son, Jack.
Carolyn and her three daughters keep a weblog for women in all seasons of life, also entitled "Girl Talk."
This column was adapted for Crosswalk from Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood (Crossway 2005) by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Mahaney Whitacre © 2005 (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.gnpcb.org.)