My, What Cute Little Moralists You Have!

If you’re a parent and have even a sliver of perspective, you realize that the responsibility of raising children is one long lesson in inadequacy. It’s probably a blessing that we’re not constantly aware of the ways in which we’re falling short. Instead, insight tends to come in fits and starts, through a glass dimly. And sometimes even what we learn gradually fades to the background until God graciously prods us again.

The truth of this has been reinforced in my own life recently. As a pastor, you might say that my great, overarching aim is to live in light of the biblical gospel and encourage others do the same.

In practice, a crucial part of this is often underscoring the fact that God’s love for and acceptance of me is not dependent upon my ability to earn it. In fact, our supposed moral performance is often thinly veiled self-righteousness. Our inclination is to think that our obedience (such as it is) can somehow obligate God to accept us, bless us, save us. “Look God! See what I did? Now you must love me.”

This mentality is quite opposite the truth of the gospel. As Paul so powerfully puts it in Ephesians 2, God did not show his saving love to us when we deserved it. No, it came precisely when we least deserved it, when we were completely reprehensible, when we were “dead in our transgressions.” It was the “incomparable riches” of God’s grace to us in Christ, not our moral performance, that enabled our redemption and acceptance as his children.

Not that obedience isn’t important to God. It’s just that in his redemptive calculus, it isn’t a means to our salvation. Rather, it’s the fruit of his grace. By sending his own Son to die on our behalf, God has proven the depth of his love and concern for us. He’s established the fact that he can be trusted and obeyed. If he’s willing to do this, we can be sure that his commands are for our good.

All this is Gospel 101. I can’t count how many times I’ve taught or otherwise explained these truths. So you would think they would permeate everything I do, including disciplining my children.

You would think.

A little recent reflection, however, has made me wonder. Consider a few questions from John Younts, writing in his book Everyday Talk (which, fyi, is available in our bookstore):

Do your children believe the gospel of Christ is about His performance on the cross? Or do your kids think that the gospel means God will only be pleased if they obey him and obey you? Do your kids think that the gospel means that they must be good because God will love them? Do your kids think they must be good for you to like them, for you to love them? Your everyday talk teaches your functional understanding of the gospel to your children. Does your everyday talk center upon grace or performance?

This last question is particularly appropriate to think about. I say that because I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that answering it will in large measure help you answer the questions that precede it.

In my own case, I’ve come to the realization that I often talk to my son (soon to be four) about obedience. I tell him that he needs to obey. I ask him if he is going to obey. I explain the consequences if he doesn’t obey. I even encourage him when he does obey.

Unfortunately, I do a much poorer job of pointing him to the reasons why he should obey in the first place.

This, it should be noted, is not always easy. It takes more time to tell my son that I love him and want the best for him. It takes more effort to demonstrate those things concretely on a regular basis, so that his young mind and heart will understand words in light of actions. It’s not always easy to help him to begin to understand that I don’t love him because he obeys me, but rather that he can obey me because I love him.

But the simple truth of the matter is this: children begin to understand their relationship with God through the prism of their relationship with their parents. And if I want to raise children with a deep grasp of the gospel—and not cute little moralists—the things I just mentioned are exactly the things I need to be about. May God grant the grace to make it so.

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