Parents love imperatives. I know I do. Just take a close look at the parenting vocabulary and you’ll find it riddled with imperatives:
“Eat your broccoli.”
“Don’t hit your sister.”
“Quit setting the dog on fire.”
That kind of thing. The imperatives are commands. They are statements of direction, made with authority, that have a direct and expected act of obedience expected to follow. Parents need these imperatives if, for no other reason, than because children need to be corrected. Hopefully these imperatives are given patiently and out of love, but more often they are given retroactively and out of anger or impatience. The child misbehaves (or at least fails to live up to our ideal standard) and so we respond with an imperative. But imperatives need to be given with a partner – the indicative.
These statements are less about what you do than who you are. They don’t necessarily give direction but state a reality. And they aren’t necessarily given as a reaction but instead are pronounced proactively:
“You are my son.”
“I love you.”
“You are beautiful.”
These statements are needed, too, but they also tend to be more neglected than the imperatives. Perhaps that’s because we assume the indicative but we pronounce the imperative. We assume that our daughters know they are beautiful, that are sons know we are proud of them, and that they are confident of our great love for them. After all, look at all the sacrifices we make as parents, right? But when we assume the indicative but only pronounce the imperative, we are doing a great disservice to our children. Further, we are failing to model our parenting after our great Father in heaven.
Make no mistake – God loves the imperative. You don’t have to get very far in the Bible before you see the imperative start popping up. Commands are everywhere:
“Do not eat the fruit.”
“Be fruitful and multiply.”
“Rule the earth and subdue it.”
These are all imperatives found in the first 2 chapters of the very first book of the Bible. But those imperatives only come after God’s great pronouncement of the indicative:
“This is very good.”
In fact, this pattern of indicative / imperative is what flows throughout the whole of Scripture. The people of God are commanded, but only after the people of God are defined. We are told of our position before we are instructed. We know who we are before we are told what to do:
Ephesians 1-3 is about new life and the new society God is building through Christ. It’s not until chapter 4, verse 1, that he says, “As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received…”
Colossians 1-2 is about the greatness of Christ and what it means to live in Him. It’s not until chapter 3 that Paul says, in light of this, that we should live a certain way, setting “our hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God…”
Romans 1-11 has every bit of theology imaginable in it, from the universality of sin to the greatness of grace and faith, from predestination to the role of Israel in the end times. But it’s not until chapter 12 that he says in light of all of this mercy from God, you should “present your bodies as a living sacrifice…”
Do you see the pattern? For Paul, it seems it’s about understanding who God is, and then understanding that in Christ all things have been made new – including us. Once we believe this, we become something different. Then only after we have believed and become does he address how we behave. Indicative then imperative. There is a great truth here for us not only as Christians, but as Christian parents.
The order is important. Before we instruct, our children must understand who they are positionally in our families. They must know and be convinced of our great love for them before they are commanded. Indeed if there is imperative but no indicative, we might raise compliant children, but their obedience will be rooted not in love and trust but instead in an effort to garner approval we assume they know is there. And in the end, they become like the high school athlete constantly trying to score one more touchdown for the scoreboard of his father’s pride. They become like the little girl who tries to lose one more pound to tip the scales of her mother’s approval. These are generalized examples, but you get the idea: Instruction without identity is behaviorism. And behaviorism never really touches the heart.
God is not content with that and neither should we be. We must go deeper, just as He did. God demonstrates His own love for us in the cross, and when we obey, we know we are not earning the approval of our Father. He’s already given it. And our obedience to the imperative flows from the ultimate indicative – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Michael Kelley is the Executive Director of the Nashville Baptist Association. He has degrees from West Texas A&M University, Beeson Divinity School, and is currently pursuing a PhD from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books and lives in Brentwood, TN, with his wife and three children.
You can find more from Michael, including information on his latest book, THE WHOLE STORY FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY: A YEAR OF JESUS-CENTERED FAMILY DEVOTIONS at MichaelKelley.co , on twitter, and facebook.
Are you interested in family discipleship and the gospel at home? Check out a free sample of Rooted Network’s newly updated 10-week, group-discipleship resource, Life in Rhythm: God’s Design for Work and Relationships.