The Dangers of Legalism in Parenting

Yesterday we talked a bit about becoming accidental legalists. We set the tone for the rest of the week, because this habit is so prevalent and pervasive that we can’t ignore it anymore. It’s a habit I can’t ignore anymore. This week we’re going to look at several areas in which we tend to withhold grace from the wounded and broken, and they’re going to be big illustrations because it’s a big issue.

I turned 31 this year, and I grew up in the Bible belt. It’s possible that much of what I’ll write today is fueled by that context, but I think it does stretch further than a small strip that reaches from one side of America to the other.

As so many bloggers and writers my age have expressed, we grew up in an environment where Christianity came across as moralistic deism at its best. Sure, Christianity was about a personal relationship with God, but that truth was overshadowed with the “be good or else” version of Christian morality. It was a culture of “good Christians don’t do that” which held us captive in fear of stepping out of line. To be sure, children and teens need to be instructed in morality and held accountable in what they should and shouldn’t do, but they must also be taught that the goal of the gospel is the restoration and reconciliation of sinners. They must be taught that God loves imperfect people enough to die for them. And teaching via the felt board on Sunday morning alone doesn’t cut it, they must be taught by example.

They must be taught by example, first and foremost, by their parents. Parents are the first glimpse into the world that children have, and are the closest of God’s image bearers to their children. I’m not a parent, so much of what I write here comes from what I believe is a compulsion of the Holy Spirit to say these words. Too often when a child sins, makes a mistake, or does something else wrong they are met with looks of disappointment and words of “you know better than that.” I understand being disappointed when someone blatantly does something they know is wrong, and that many times we are disappointed because we want what is best for those we love. But it is our responsibility to reign in our natural reactions and use wisdom and discernment to respond with love and grace.

I understand and agree with the need for disciplining children and teens; that’s not what this post addresses. What concerns me is that I see so many kids who are afraid of disappointing their parents that they are afraid to be authentic. If they get “you know better” for running around the corner, how much grace do they expect to receive if they mess up in bigger ways? Should they expect their parents to react differently when they have their first hangover? Should they expect a different response when they cave to peer pressure and smoke marijuana? Or when their boyfriend or girlfriend finally presses the right buttons long enough and they lose their resolve, and their virginity?

A lifetime of “you know better” holds shame over their heads and that’s the last thing people want or need when they already feel internal shame weighing them down. To be sure, we acknowledge sin for what it is, and we follow Jesus by extending grace to the broken and pursuing restoration. We lift the veil of self-protection and make ourselves vulnerable by being authentic about our own brokenness and need for God’s grace in Jesus. We lift up the head of the young boy or girl and say “God doesn’t condemn you, neither do I. Now go and don’t sin this way anymore.”

I often wonder if the girl was shown grace and was restored instead of crushed when she was thirteen would have stayed on the path that led her to have an abortion at sixteen. We’re so quick to throw stones because we can’t imagine how anyone could murder their own child. This is tragic, indeed, but imagine how broken a person’s heart must be to take this step. Imagine how afraid and confused a couple must be to kill their baby while it’s still inside the mother’s womb. And now stop and realize that the same culture that throws stones at the mother and father who commit the abortion is the very culture that drives them to do it.

Now, pre-marital sex is a sin, and abortion absolutely is murder. My question here is to what extent can we save the lives of the unborn, and the heartache of young men and women before they reach that point, if we gave them grace when they were children and cultivated an environment in which they were encouraged to confess sin and find the freedom of forgiveness instead of the weight of judgment?

Watching even the best of parents has shown me that parenting is hard. Training up children is hard. Doing so with grace and wisdom is even harder. But here’s the thing, the grace that gives forgiveness and freedom to children and teens is the same grace that forgives parents for not extending grace.

After all, God knows we know better, and He still came to rescue us from ourselves so we would have peace.

May God give us strength and grace to do the same to the broken around us.

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