I dislike Hallmark Holidays. Yet I love to give flowers to my wife on Valentine’s day, and I like to honor my parents on Mother’s and Father’s Day (after all, they put up with my innumerable character deficiencies). But I’ve never once posted an article about those holidays.
Last Father’s Day I saw a dozen articles on blogs and Facebook. The articles included things like:
- Fathers are there when you need them. Great fathers are there at your neediest.
- Your children need to know that they are seen, enjoyed, and believed in.
- Your kids need two things: for you to love them, and for you to be a great example.
- You can do this; you can father your kids; you have what it takes; you are needed.
If I ever wrote a post about Father’s Day, I’d mostly encourage people to honor their own parents. None of the Father’s Day posts focused on that, but they did encourage men to invest in their own children. And I completely support that idea.
But I never would have written the quotes above.
Such Encouragements Are Not Bad
Christians universally believe in original sin, that every human is corrupted by the original fall of Adam and Eve. If that is true (and I believe it is) then we have a simple question: If all humanity has a predisposition to sin, why isn’t the world an even worse place than it is?
- If people have strong temptations to lie, why are so many contracts honored?
- If people are sexually tempted, why doesn’t every marriage end in disaster?
- If people lust after money, why isn’t every bank in the world robbed?
Why isn’t this world a far, far more treacherous planet than it is?
The answer is Common Virtue. God rains on the just and the unjust, and he offers grace to all people; even though that “grace” often arises from our bad motives or self-centered reasons. We don’t lie because we don’t want to be called liars. We don’t rob banks because we fear jail. We don’t lash out at our kids—in part—because we want to think of ourselves as good parents.
I favor this mixture of motives for good behavior. If you are tempted to punch me in the nose, I want an arsenal to thwart you: fear of prosecution, fear of what the neighbors will think, and fear that I’ll hit you back. (Of course, I also want God’s love to grow in your heart. Real virtue.)
In that sense of common virtue, I fully support motivating parents to care for their children whether it appeals to self-esteem (“Come on, you’ve got what it takes”), great causes (“Your children really need you”), or even shame (“You don’t want to be like your dad was, do you?”).
Common virtue makes the world a safer place. It’s just not Christianity.
I’d Rather Point to the Gospel
Every culture promotes its own highly prized virtues: the Romans encouraged courage, the ancient Celts honored family, the feudal system valued chivalry, and the Boy Scouts taught community service. Our own culture needs an exponential growth of all of these.
Such cultures taught character development through a mixture of external restraints and rewards: fear of punishment (or shame) and desire for personal glory (or comfort). I call these secular motivations, “Carrot and stick character incentives.” But they don’t know the gospel.
Only the gospel says God desires our poverty more than our superhero self-consciousness; only the gospel teaches we don’t have what it takes; only the gospel says our kids don’t need us, not nearly as much as they need God. Which is no excuse to be a harsh parent. (See what I did there, with the tiny shame stick?)
I’m glad secular institutions teach honesty, courage, and citizenship. I hope they do it more.
But as a Christian, I want Christians to teach the uniqueness of the gospel such that the courage of Jesus subsumes the cowardice in me, and that my kids need him far more than they need this faulty father who definitely will fail them in their most desperate need of all.
If all the world needed was a good moral example, why did Jesus need to die? Let’s be better parents, but our kids don’t primarily need us to be better parents; they need us to point them Further, to their real Father. As earthly fathers let’s remember: blessed are the poor in spirit.
I support common virtue, but come on Christians: Don’t we have something better to offer?
P. S. The best thing we can do for our kids is for us to have an intimate relationship with our Heavenly Father. And the essence of every relationship is conversation.
To grow in a divine dialogue with our Heavenly Father, please watch the video below (Is that all there is?), and read, Hearing God in Conversation.
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Being a mom was a real struggle for me as my children were growing up. God’s comfort for me was that he could use my mistakes to draw my kids to him. I clung to that hope. They are now all adults, and I like them. God is faithful, indeed.
Hi Sam, your post today reminds me of your book, “Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids? How Moralism Suffocates Grace.” As we get caught up in “do’s and don’t’s” and particularly the “curse of shaming ourselves and others”, we totally miss God the Perfect Father, and his perfect love for us.
There is a 2002 Christian Movie,”Time Changer”, about a professor in the 1800’s who believes that if everyone were simply taught morality, rather than religion, everything would be much better. His friend at the University is also an inventor who has made a time machine. The inventor disagrees with the professor and suggests that he look and see how the world is without Jesus. He sends his friend forward in time to see how morality by itself has made the world. He lands in the 1990’s and discovers how bad things have all become, when people are trying to “act morally” without a relationship with Jesus. D. David Morin, Gavin MacLoed (from the Love Boat) Hal Linden and Callan White head up a cast of actors you’ve never heard of before. BUT…
It is exactly to your point. We need Jesus as our redeemer. Our own behavior will never redeem us. The Law of Moses will never redeem us. The Aspotle Paul says we all have an innate sense of right and wrong, a conscience, that will lead us to do “the right thing” even in the absence of societal and religious law. But that is simply to say that Jews with the Law, and Gentiles without the Law, are both on equal footing and both need Jesus.
As we see in the movie, and as we see in society today, our conscience on its own doesn’t do nearly as much for society as a personal relationship with our redeemer.