When it comes to parenting, an extreme focus on character education and training in our culture has seeped into the church and into Christianity at large. Mesmerized by good behavior, we have equated positive character traits with godliness. We are in shock by the degradation and immorality we see around us, and we believe we can fix the tidal wave of a culture gone mad. We truly believe we can turn it around with educational programs that teach good character and a standard of morality. However, in focusing on the traits rather than the Giver of them, we have placed our hopes and dreams in a faulty system.
A biblical view of character
Many people throughout the Bible are portrayed as displaying good and strong character. Honesty, hard work and kindness are distinguishing marks of a person set on God’s ways. However, nowhere in the Bible do we read about someone who is able to perfectly sustain good character. Adam sinned and his son committed murder. David, a man after God’s own heart, was an adulterer and an accomplice to murder. Jonah, called by God to go to Nineveh ran the other way in fear. Peter doubted, questioned, and outright lied. The disciples argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. From these examples, it seems clear that God does not rely on the completion of a character-training program to qualify his people for entrance into his kingdom.
Think about it. Who were the people of high moral values and seemingly flawless character in the Bible? Wasn’t it the Pharisees and religious leaders who possessed all the principles of right living? Clearly, they had excelled in the rigorous moral upbringing they received as children. Contrast these stellar citizens with those Jesus called to be his disciples. Of the twelve closest to him, some were fishermen, one a tax collector and another a religious fanatic. While there is nothing wrong being a fisherman, chances are none of them received the kind of training and education the religious leaders received. The contrast could not be more apparent. Good character and moral upbringing did not qualify the disciples. God’s grace qualified the disciples. Grace alone. Repeatedly, the Bible makes it clear that good behavior is no guarantee for entrance into the kingdom of God. If it were, this whole thing would be about us, our accomplishments, and our ability to act according to a set of standards. That is slavery and it is a form of self-salvation.
The impact of character education on our children
A family in my community has an elementary aged child who is well behaved. She is the one who receives stars for her good conduct and she is recognized at school wide character program events. That is, until one day when she was overly talkative in the class. There went her star. She was devastated. Her pride was wounded and she was embarrassed and ashamed. Meanwhile, her brother was at the other end of the spectrum. He learned very early on that attaining recognition for conformity to a standard outlined by the school was out of reach for him, so he gave up trying. As time went by, he reveled in his disobedience and nonconformity.
Focusing on good character produces pride in those who can perform and despair in those who cannot. The more dangerous result of this kind of training is the self-salvation aspect. Children believe that, as long as they meet the standard for conduct and morality, they are getting it done. This removes any need for God and the power of grace in their lives. Hypocrisy and dark shadows will haunt them because the truth is, character training can produce conformity but it can never change a human heart.
Another neighbor of mine is disappointed in her child. She is angry that her daughter acts disrespectfully towards her. She assures me that she raised her daughter to know right and wrong and that she set a standard for right character. Now, as a young adult, the daughter has had enough and my friend is incredulous as she continues to demand respect and in return receives contempt.
In both of these scenarios, the gospel must break in and destroy the lies that have set these families up for sure disappointment and despair. Only the gospel can crush these idols of pride and reputation and significance. Only the gospel can free us of the need to be recognized for our achievements.
Pointing to Christ vs. training in character
In Genesis, we read the account of Abram (Abraham) and his nephew Lot. The time has come for the two to divide the land and part ways and, according to the culture of that day, Abram would have had every right as the patriarch of the family to choose the land he wanted. Instead, we see a shocking gesture on his part. He defers to his nephew and gives him first choice of the land. Lot chooses the best plot of land with the lush and fruitful terrain. When we read this story to our children we often highlight the moral of the story. We say “Abram was a man of character and see how he put his nephew Lot before himself? God must be pleased with him!” Then we “encourage” our children to be like Abram, reassuring them that God will be pleased. We may use this story as an example to our kids when a fight over a toy breaks out. We say to them “See how Abram shared the land with his nephew Lot? He did not have to give Lot the best land, but he did anyway because he loved God. God blesses us when we share with others.”
What our children need
Zeroing in on Abram and his good character misses the point of the story. Pointing out Abram’s kind gesture is not bad, but if we stop there, we miss the gospel. Every word of the Bible whispers the name Jesus. Every verse and every story is meant to point us to Christ. When we focus on the moral of the story, we make it about us and what we can do to be better people. Our children do not need improved behavior; they need to be rescued by Jesus. Their (and our own) ongoing sin and rebellion points to our need for rescue, for a Savior, for the One who loves us in spite of our bad behavior and our good character.
Gospel rich parenting resources
Check out these gospel rich parenting resources: Give Them Grace – Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson, Grace Based Parenting – Tim Kimmel, Shepherding A Child’s Heart – Tedd Tripp, Instructing a Child’s Heart – Tedd & Margy Tripp, The Jesus Storybook Bible – Sally Lloyd-Jones, Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing – Sally Lloyd-Jones
Lori is Director of Care Ministries and Women’s Support at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. She blogs regularly at lorileighharding.blogspot.com.