Friday, November 15, 2013

On Ends, Means and Obedience

A certain article by John Piper on obedience popped up in my Facebook feed a lot last week (or two . . . I have never caught up with the pace of internet discussions.) Apparently it struck a chord.

It struck a few chords with me, too: dissonant ones. For starters, anytime someone starts turning parenting choices into a matter of life or death, they have lost my ear. It's like the vaccination debate. Vaccinate and your child will die of horrible complications! Don't vaccinate and your child will die of preventable diseases!

The truth is, death is highly unlikely in either scenario, so let's set that aside and look at reasonable risks. Similarly, disobedience might, in some circumstances, lead to death, but so might unquestioning obedience. ("Theirs not to question why, theirs but to do and die.") In any case, cooperating with people pointing big guns at you or with people about to take you six miles into the air are both more matters of self-preservation than obedience. Forget obedience, I hope I can raise my children not to be stupid.

But the real problem I have with the article is its open twisting of Scripture. No, the Bible does not say, "Parents, make your children obey you." It never, ever does. And John Piper of all people should know better than to put things into the Bible that aren't there. It doesn't matter that it doesn't make sense to him that God would tell children to obey and not tell parents to make them obey: God is perfectly capable of saying exactly what He means. God also never says, "Wives, make your husbands love you," or "Masters, see that your slaves obey cheerfully, as unto the Lord."

Now, if I don't believe that God tells me to force my children to obey, does that mean I sit back idly and let them do whatever occurs to them, however wrong or dangerous? Of course not. If it was my small boy playing with an electronic device on the plane, and they didn't turn it off, it would be spending the rest of the flight in my purse. (And then, if it WAS one of my small boys, we would have a long and vivid discussion of the possible consequences of interference with radio transmissions, and all the people within earshot would be traumatized for life.)

So if the end result is the same, why do I bother to differ? Because I think it makes a difference where you start from. Piper's article, and many articles and books on the same thing, makes it sound like the beginning and end of parenting is authority--that our purpose as parents is to exercise our authority so that our children will learn to submit to authority because authority is the Way Things Ought To Be.

But authority is a means, not the end. The end and beginning and summation of all things is love. God is love. God is not "authority." (He is the King, but note that a king is a person. Someone we can love.) The whole point of the change from the Old to the New is that obedience out of coercion was no good at all. We need a new heart, and then we obey out of our new heart, because we love Christ and pick up his mannerisms. Authority as a parent is not an end goal, but something given to us to serve our children in teaching them to be an independent adult and modeling for them how to be a follower of Christ.

Even if the issue is exactly the same, it makes a big difference whether the reason for making a child obey is, "They are the child, I am the parent, and I must make them obey," or "It's my job to help them grow in this area." It's important to remember that parents are sinners, too. And too much harping on our own authority is a dangerous temptation. It's very easy to slide over . . . I have done it many times myself . . . into "You should not DARE to challenge me," or "How can I make you hurt enough to stop this?" And neither of those attitudes are Christlike at all.

In a practical example, suppose a child is told to pick up their toys and doesn't want to. Looking at this through the lens of authority, this can only be interpreted one way: Disobedience. Challenge to authority. Child must be coerced into obedience so that authority is not disrupted. There might be various ways the coercion is applied, but there must be no doubt about the coercive force. Any approach that might distract from authority (making a game of it, using an incentive) is suspect if not outright forbidden.

However, if I'm looking at it simply with the goal of helping my child grow up, I realize that the child probably isn't thinking about my authority one way or another---they just don't want to pick up their toys, something I identify with very much. (By the way, I have been amazed as a parent how seldom, if ever, my children actually challenge my authority if I don't bother to assert it for its own sake. It's been a complete non-issue.) My job is not to bend them to my will, particularly, but to help them learn to overcome that natural reluctance because it's an essential life skill to do stuff you don't want to do and to take care of your own things. Now games and incentives, or just doing it alongside them, are back on the table, because those are all great strategies for learning to do stuff you don't want to do. Even if you do a consequence that might look like punishment (like removing toys that aren't cared for), it can be done, not as the authority setting yourself in opposition to the child, but as a sympathetic guide helping them streamline their life.

After all, obedience to earthly authority is not the sum total of righteousness. Quite the opposite. One of the other things I want to teach my children is that there is a time to disobey. That someday they may need to stand with William Tell and John Adams and Christ's own apostles and say, "This is an unlawful use of authority and I will not obey."


the Joneses said...

I like how you work it out: that, yes, teaching children to obey is a good thing -- but not for the sake of authority, but for life skills and love. Truly, my relationship with my children is much better when I'm not the one responsible for their souls.

And it's okay if you take a week or two to articulate it. I would do better to slow down and not post as soon as I grow fangs.

Willa said...

I really like the way you approach this issue. Especially, the distinction between obedience and forcing someone else to obey. That seems of great importance to me. Great post, thanks!

Wendy said...

"a sympathetic guide" Yes! There's a real sense that I am on the same side as my child, and we are working together to build him or her the joyful life God wants them to have.

S Mehrens said...

Well put.

Catie said...

I just read some of your parenting posts and I love them! Keep 'em comin!

Virginia Knowles said...

This is right along the lines of something I wrote a while back about coming alongside our children with tenderness:

As I typed this comment, my 16 year old son came in and kissed me on the top of my head. Sweetness. :-)

Amy K said...

Good thoughts Karen. I agree with you. "Forget obedience, I hope I can raise my children not to be stupid." This made me laugh. :)

Vildy said...

Came here from Space Between My Peers. Not only do you have wondrous hair but you have a wonderful blog.
You have such heart.