Are You Spiritually Spoiling Your Children?

Are your children spoiled?

That’s a scary question. Part of the sting of the question is the answer. Most parents, some polls suggest 2 of every 3, think their children are spoiled. However, I believe the question has a second stinger that hurts even worse. The question, and our children, serve as a mirror suggesting that  it isn’t just our children who are spoiled, we are too. Far too often, spoiled children are simply reflections of the spoiled culture they are living in.

If you aren’t convinced that your children are spoiled, or that you are spoiled, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent article, “Spoiled Rotten.” Kolbert compares American children to children living in the Amazon jungle in a little village known as Matsigenka, Peru. As you might expect, we come out looking as spoiled as 3 month old milk.

Consider how Kolbert compares the two cultures:

…the Matsigenka begin encouraging their children to be useful. Toddlers routinely heat their own food over an open fire, they observed, while “three-year-olds frequently practice cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives.” Boys, when they are six or seven, start to accompany their fathers on fishing and hunting trips, and girls learn to help their mothers with the cooking. As a consequence, by the time they reach puberty Matsigenka kids have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival. Their competence encourages autonomy, which fosters further competence—a virtuous cycle that continues to adulthood.

The cycle in American households seems mostly to run in the opposite direction. So little is expected of kids that even adolescents may not know how to operate the many labor-saving devices their homes are filled with. Their incompetence begets exasperation, which results in still less being asked of them (which leaves them more time for video games).

Our first response is to suggest that this is a ridiculous standard. What parent in their right mind wants their three year old playing with machetes? Yet, if we are honest, we must admit that Kolbert has a point. Americans seem to be expecting less and less of our children, and, generally speaking, our children are living up to these continually diminishing standards.

So what exactly are we doing to spoil our children? According to Kolbert, it is little things like tying their shoes. She provides the following story as an example.

… a boy named Ben was supposed to leave the house with his parents. But he couldn’t get his feet into his sneakers, because the laces were tied. He handed one of the shoes to his father: “Untie it!” His father suggested that he ask nicely.

“Can you untie it?” Ben replied. After more back-and-forth, his father untied Ben’s sneakers. Ben put them on, then asked his father to retie them. “You tie your shoes and let’s go,’’ his father finally exploded. Ben was unfazed. “I’m just asking,’’ he said.

The problem, as Kolbert points out, is not so much that Ben is being rude (though that deserves addressing as well), but that he is learning to depend more on his parents rather than learning to become independent. She hints toward a solution saying,

The notion that we may be raising a generation of kids who can’t, or at least won’t, tie their own shoes has given rise to a new genre of parenting books. Their titles tend to be either dolorous (“The Price of Privilege”) or downright hostile (“The Narcissism Epidemic,” “Mean Moms Rule,” “A Nation of Wimps”). The books are less how-to guides than how-not-to’s: how not to give in to your toddler, how not to intervene whenever your teenager looks bored, how not to spend two hundred thousand dollars on tuition only to find your twenty-something graduate back at home, drinking all your beer.

But what does any of this have to do with being spiritually mature? Does the Bible consider independence as a sign of spiritual maturity? The answer is yes and no.

We should remember that the gospel is the story of how we lose our independence – or at least gain a new kind of dependence. Consider Ephesians 2:11-22

Remember that you were at that time seperated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise. Having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:12-13, 20)

Christianity is in many ways a worldview based on dependence. We are far off from God and must depend on His Son, Jesus Christ, to bring us back into the fold. And then, once we are brought near, we do not become an island unto ourselves, but we become members of a household that we depend on, and that depends on us. In this sense, the Christian parent is not shooting for independence.

Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the type of independence that Kolbert has in mind. The six year old in Matsigenka isn’t training to leave the tribe, but to become a productive, contributing member of the tribe. She needs to be able to work effectively and independently as a member of the community, or the whole community suffers.

This appears to be the same mindset that Paul is urging Timothy to share in 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in rightousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

Paul is obviously not suggesting that Timothy become an island, independent of any influence. Quite the contrary he is calling Timothy to build on the influence he has already received. Yet, the goal before Timothy is to develop into maturity, to become a man who is competent and equipped for every good work. While Timothy looks back on foundation laid by his mother and grandmother, he no longer needs their urging to do every good work. His maturity is evidenced by his compentence and ability to do every good work independent of their continued prodding. As Kolbert points out, a wise parent will begin developing this kind of maturity, or independence, as early as possible.

Most Christian parents want their children to be spiritually mature. They want their children to know the Bible and to love Jesus. They want their children to be competent and equipped for every good work. The question that remains is how to acheive this. While every child is different, I believe that the same things that prevent responsibility in the rest of our lives are preventing maturity in our spiritual lives. That is, we coddle our children, keeping the bar low enough that they are never in danger of not reaching it.

Gone are the days when children are expected to work through a catechism. In his recent biography, Paul Gutjahr explains that Charles Hodge (a famous Princeton theologian) had memorized all 107 of the questions and answers in the Westminster Catechism by the age of 12, but downplays this impressive feat as standard for all children in the early 19th century. Today you will be hard pressed to find a child under 12 who even knows what a catechism is. To expect a young child to memorize a work of this size sounds almost Matsigenkan.

If we want our children to become spiritually mature, we have to raise our expectations. We have to expect them to be spiritually mature. And just like teaching a child to tie his shoes, or ride a bike, its going to require making them do the work.

If your not quite ready to start memorizing the Westminster Catechism, but you want to start making your kids “do the work,” here are four of ideas to help you get started.

  1. Ask your kids how individual Bible stories fit in the whole story of the Bible.  If you have young children, buy the Big Picture Story Bible and start reading it to them today. As you read the stories to them, expect them to start putting the pieces together. Ask them how the story of Adam and Eve prepares us for Jesus. Ask them why God would include the story of Samson in the Bible.
  2. Help your kids answer their own questions. Children have a natural curiosity and ask tons of questions about God, heaven, hell, good, bad, and all sorts of other things in the Bible. Rather than immediately answering their questions, expect them find the answer in the Bible for themselves. If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish…
  3. Ask them to prove the point from the Bible. In Acts 17, Luke praises the Bereans for being more noble minded than others. When they heard Paul’s sermons they went home and examined the Scriptures to see if what he was saying was true. Expect your children to be noble-minded. Ask them to examine the pastor’s sermons, their teacher’s lectures, and their own ideas against the Scriptures. Its not enough to simply say the right things, help them become competent to explain why it is true.
  4. Memorize Bible verses with your children. Children have crazy good memories. My mom can still recite the entire nativity story from Luke 2 because she memorized it as a child with her family. Don’t waste this opportunity because a good memory doesn’t last forever. Expect your children to memorize sections of the Bible. But be careful, your kids won’t think its important if you don’t memorize Bible verses too.

Losing Yourself in Marriage: Reflections On Our First Anniversary

Today is our first anniversary. It has been an amazing year for us. We have been able to travel in four countries, and several states. We have read together, budgeted together, exercised together, eaten together and, in short, lived life together. We are learning what it means to become “one flesh.” I can say today, with full confidence, that our life together is sweeter today than the day we were first married.

One of the many things that drew me to Kanon was the way she described the relationship between her grandfather and grandmother. Her grandparents, T.J. and Lyma Raulerson, were married for 62 years when he passed away on August 12, 2006 – nearly four years before we started dating. Kanon liked to tell about how, near the end of his life, he was given a hospital-style bed in his home. The bed was too large to fit in their bedroom and had to be kept out in the living room. Though the bed offered comfort, and proper medical surveillance, he complained that he could not sleep well. The problem, it seemed, was that after 62 years of marriage he could not fall asleep without his wife in bed beside him. Kanon loves to tell how she moved a twin bed into the living room beside his hospital bed, and they would stretch their arms between the beds so they could fall asleep holding hands.

Spending 62 years together developed a sense of dependency between her grandparents. Some people today would bemoan this loss of individualism. For instance, one blogger with more modern sensibilities has explained, “How Not to Lose Yourself in Marriage.” She claims, “it is not necessary to give up yourself to be happily married.” However, her idea of marriage is a far cry from God’s design. The first marriage God institutes has no concern for “not losing yourself.” Instead, when Adam first sees Eve, his response is the exact opposite:

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman
because she was taken out of Man.” 

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:23-25)

I want a marriage like Adam and Eve’s. I want a marriage like T.J. and Lyma Raulerson’s. I want a marriage where Kanon and I can honestly say “the two have become one.” I want a marriage where, in 62 years, I no longer know how to sleep when Kanon is away. I want a marriage where I have completely lost myself for the joy of being “one” with her.

The question is, how do you become one flesh? What is the game plan for becoming the man who can’t sleep when Kanon is away? What should be my strategy for developing a love that will carry us through 61 more years? The answer is simultaneously simple, and impossible. The answer is that I must love Kanon the way Christ has loved the church.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Ephesians 5:25-31)

It seems clear that there is no room for “not losing myself in marriage.” But, then again why would I even want that?  Kanon and I have become one. My goal is not to keep her separate and protect my own identity, but to nourish and cherish as if she were my own body. It’s only through this type of mindset that we will experience the reality of marriage. Only through loving Kanon as myself I will experience what it the Bible means by “the two shall become one flesh.”

As I reflect on the past year, I am confident that Kanon and I have begun this process. I love her more today than the day we got married and I am confident that she feels the same about me. Even as I type this, Kanon is working late and I am counting the minutes until she can get home. I miss her when she is away and I eagerly wait for when we can hang out again. The longer we are married the easier it is to understand why T.J. Raulerson couldn’t sleep with his wife in another room. It is awfully strange when a part of you is missing.

It makes me so happy to experience this type of love. At the same time, I know that our love is still far from perfect. Our love is but a dim reflection of Christ’s, who gave his own body to die so that we might be united with him. Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). This greatest love is what Christ has shown us. I hope, if God allows me and Kanon to enjoy 61 more years together, we will be able to better reflect that kind love with each passing year. If we continually and increasingly reflect Christ’s love for us, I expect many more happy anniversaries to follow.

Free Will and Southern Baptist Soteriology

If you haven’t yet heard, a “Statement on the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” was unveiled today. In spite of being endorsed by several notable Southern Baptist leaders, it promises to be a controversial piece of literature. Personally, I am not a huge fan of the statement for several reasons, but I will steer you to an article by Jon Akin for a fair and helpful critique of the statement. Instead, allow me to use this opportunity to discuss the issue of free-will and how it relates to salvation.

The Quest for Freedom.
Calvinists are criticized for over-emphasizing the sovereignty of God in salvation. That is, opponents of Calvinism believe they ascribe to God too much control over people. Those who reject Calvinism typically prefer to emphasize the centrality of the freedom and responsibility of the individual in their explanation of salvation. This new Southern Baptist statement provides an excellent example of a doctrine of salvation that keeps man’s free-will at the center of salvation. For instance, consider the following five points taken from the statement:

  • We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will…
  • We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will.
  • We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted.
  • We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ. 
  • We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.

It seems clear that those drafting this statement view our freedom to be one of the non-negotiables of the doctrine of salvation. But just what is freedom? What does it mean that we have a free-will? This Southern Baptist Statement offers what they call the “traditional view.” I suggest that if we look even farther back into the Christian tradition we will see a more robust understanding of the will that begs for God’s sovereign intervention without denying the human’s free-will.

What If We Can’t Freely Choose?
In our day to to day lives we often think of ourselves making choices. We see two or more options before us and we try to decide which option is best. These types of real world dilemmas can lead us to think that we are freely making choices. However, what if these choices are not entirely free? What if they are directed by something else?

The church’s most famous philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, spent a good deal of time explaining the relationship between our will and our choices. The term “will” describes our desire, or appetite for something. Choices (which he called free-will) are the individual decisions we make to satisfy the appetite of our will. Thus he concluded, “wherefore, it is evident that as intellect is to reason, so is the will to the power of choice, which is free-will.” In other words, just as a person’s ability to reason is only as good as his intellect, so a person’s free-will (ability to choose) is only as good as his will. (If you are familiar with the Summa, you can find this discussion at 1,83,4.)

Perhaps another philosopher can help make sense of this. Consider, for instance, the following by Blaise Pascal.

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves.

Pascal is explaining that the will is bound to always seek what it thinks will bring happiness. While there may appear to be a variety of choices before us, we will always choose the one we expect to make us the most happy. Or, to state the negative, you can never choose to do something that you believe will bring more unhappiness that the other option. In that sense, our power of choice is completely controlled by what we believe will bring us happiness.

You may think, as I did when I first encountered Pascal’s claim, that this cannot be true. I immediately turned to my father for proof. My childhood was marked by his incredible, sacrificial, generosity. He worked long hours for very little pay, and he gave every penny he earned either to mom, or to me and my sister. If Dad really was bound to seek his own happiness, wouldn’t he have spent more time pursuing his own hobbies and less time funding mine? At first that seemed like the nail in Pascal’s coffin, but then a light bulb went off in my head. Perhaps the reason that Dad continually sacrificed for our family is because he was most happy when we were most happy. When I realized that, my entire worldview was turned upside down. My understanding of both love and the gospel was forever changed. But I won’t chase that rabbit here.

Directing Our Wills
While Aquinas realized that our will was bound, he still maintained that we have free-will. That is, Aquinas recognized that we have the actual ability to make choices. He explained, “Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain.” That is, why even bother teaching a child to make good decisions if they can’t really make good decisions in the first place? Certainly the free-will is a real and important thing in the mind of Aquinas, however it is not his starting place.

Before Aquinas tries to deal with the quality of our individual choices, he begins by asking the most important question of all; what can make us happy? He spends page after page proving that money, friends, entertainment and the like can never provide full and lasting happiness. His logic seems to be pretty straight forward, there is no need to tell someone to make better choices when the end of their choices remains unclear. Thus, it is Aquinas’ goal, not primarily to shape the free-will, but to shape the will itself.

However, shaping our wills is no easy task. We have already seen that the will drives our choices, so we cannot simply choose to will something. At the same time, this does not mean that our choices have no affect on our wills. Perhaps the best way to understand the relationship between free will (making choices) and the will itself is to return to Aquinas’ analogy of the intellect and reason. Intellect and reason have a symbiotic relationship. On one hand, a person’s intellectual ability is fixed according to the function of their brain. We can never reason better than our own brains will allow. On the other hand, proper use of reason can maximize our ability to use our brains, or conversely, poor use of reason can minimize that ability. In the same way, a person’s will always directs and constrains their ability to make choices. however, the choices we make can either maximize or minimize our ability to properly utilize our wills.

Thus, if our will is bad, no amount of good choices can fix it. A good use of our free-will may make us more likely to get what we are seeking, but if we are seeking the wrong thing, it is all for naught. So before we ask about the quality of our free-will, we must first ask how to secure a functioning will.

Getting a New Will
Lest we get off track, let’s return to the issue of salvation. According to this new Southern Baptist Statement, human sin is understood primarily in terms of our free-will, or our choices. The problem that earns us God’s wrath is our poor choices. The solution to this problem comes when we make the right choice. Ultimately, it is the free choices that we each make that either condemn us, or save us. To be fair, the statement does admit that our response of faith does not earn salvation. Nonetheless, actual salvation is necessary because of our free will decisions and secured by our free will decisions.

On the other hand, consider for a moment that Aquinas may be right. Consider that there is an issue that is even deeper than a handful of bad choices. What if Adam’s sin bent our wills, not just our choices? What if Adam’s sin caused us all to hunger for and desire our own glory and not God’s? What if Adam’s sin caused us to believe that true happiness was found in something or someone other than God? If this is the case, and I believe that Romans 5 suggests that it is, making better decisions is not enough to fix the problem. Even having our sins paid for isn’t enough. We need someone to fix our wills. As an imbecile would need a new brain to reason well, so we need a new will in order to choose well.

Before Christ, we have free-will, which means that we are free to do as our will desires. The problem is that our will desires the wrong things. God has to give us a new will so that our free-will can begin to desire the right things. God has to reveal himself to us in a way that awakens our hearts and our minds to Him. David would say, God has to create in us a clean heart (Psalm 51:10-12).

I think this new will was exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 6:20-22.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to salvation and its end, eternal life. 

Notice how a person’s will is always slave, yet they always have free will. Before Christ, our will was bound to sin, which meant that we were free to do whatever we thought would make us happy. However, the bitter truth is that our wills were broken. We know that because our free decisions did not bring happiness, instead they brought only shame and death. But when God fixes our will, not by making it free but by making it a slave to Him, He makes it possible for our free-will to actually fulfill its purpose. In both states our free-will pursued the fruit, yet now that our wills have been changed, our new fruit leads to salvation and eternal life.

Maximizing the New Will
The need for a new will proves an absolute dependence on God to sovereignly change our heart. In a very real sense, a person is saved when they receive this new will from God. However, in another sense, this new will only begins the process of salvation. Remember that the will only tells us what we desire, full salvation will be when we actually obtain what we desire. For this full salvation, we rely, at least in part, on our free will to move us toward that desire.

In Philippians 3:12-14, Paul explains how he continues to seek this full salvation.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul seems to understand that the happiness that his new will seeks can only be found in Christ. Because of that, with his free-will he chooses to obey God and press on for the goal. Paul clearly recognizes that it is God’s work to change our will, but it is the job of our new free-will to work out this salvation.  In this way, he teaches the Philippians that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility must live in harmony

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work our your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-14)