Last week, I addressed the fifth of the seven reasons Deborah Mitchell cited in her controversial CNN article “Why I Raise My Children Without God.”
Mitchell’s 7 Reasons “Why I Raise My Children Without God” were, as follows….
- God is a bad parent and role model.
- God is not logical.
- God is not fair.
- God does not protect the innocent.
- God is not present.
- God does not teach children to be good.
- God teaches narcissism.
This Week: 6) God Does Not Teach Children to Be Good.
A child should make moral choices for the right reasons. Telling him that he must behave because God is watching means that his morality will be externally focused rather than internally structured. It’s like telling a child to behave or Santa won’t bring presents. When we take God out of the picture, we place responsibility of doing the right thing onto the shoulders of our children. No, they won’t go to heaven or rule their own planets when they die, but they can sleep better at night. They will make their family proud. They will feel better about who they are. They will be decent people.
What About This Statement Is Wrong?
The reasoning that Mitchell provides here to support her point really doesn’t follow. Her stated point is that God does not teach children to be good, but her support suggests that “God” (or at least the human conception of him) does command people to be good and moral (e.g. the 10 Commandments), but that he uses fear tactics – threats of punishment and hell – to motivate people.
So, for starters, Mitchell would probably have to clarify her statement. Does God teach people to be good or not? Most everyone on the planet would suggest that the Bible, in fact, does teach a certain amount of common decency and universal morality. You cannot read through Paul’s great chapter on Love (1 Cor. 13) or his encouragement towards Fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5) or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) or the official giving of the Moral Law (Ex. 20; Deut. 5) and suggest that the Bible is not guiding people to be “good” by almost any definition of the word.
Now, it’s true that some people would say the Bible does only that – appeals to moral rightness. Christians would say that the Bible does significantly more than that. But Mitchell’s basic point sounds like the Bible doesn’t do any of that, which would indicate that either 1) she has never actually read or understood any of the world’s more influential spiritual guidebooks (esp. the Bible) OR 2) her real issue is with the Bible’s approach towards motivation for good behavior.
What About This Statement Is Truth?
This issue – motivating good behavior – is a tricky one.
There are many ways to motivate people. Fear can do it. Appeals to pride can do it. Guilt is perhaps as effective a force for good behavior as any. But none of these is what the Bible principally appeals to regarding good behavior.
Here’s a quick illustration: Some of you may remember the once famous Jerry Lewis’ telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). I recall a comedian once gently mocking Jerry’s motivation techniques. The comedian mentioned how Jerry would look into the camera, tell a heartfelt story, and then ask the people if they wanted to be able to get up the next morning, look themselves in the mirror, and think, “Yeah. I’m a good person.” Now, see what a statement like that would do to your psyche? You’ll either be motivated to give money towards the cause by fear of guilt and being a bad person if you don’t OR you’ll be motivated to give money because then you can consider yourself a good person. It’s the basic drives of fear & pride, which account for a great majority of human behavior. The comedian wasn’t suggesting that the telethon wasn’t for a good cause. It was. He was merely pointing out the obvious – if you’re not going to motivate people with the grace of the gospel, you’re going to have to motivate them through a means that many might consider manipulative.
Do even Christians inappropriately misuse/abuse motivators sometimes? Uhhhhhh……routinely. Parents regularly screw this up when teaching their children about God. Pastors regularly screw this up when teaching their members about God (mea culpa). Jesus is much older, much fitter, and much more gracious than a fat, self-indulgent Santa who interacts with people on the basis of “naughty or nice” behavior. Consequently, we probably shouldn’t teach about God the same way some teach Santa. God does not simply respond to our faithfulness as Santa does. Rather, God initiates faithfulness and mercy in the face of our unfaithfulness. “When you were dead in your sins…God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins,having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:13-14)
Mitchell seems to understand that motivating people to live morally “because your Father is watching” is an incomplete, merit-based, fear technique. As a Christian, I would suggest that it’s sometimes necessary to communicate the truth that God is indeed watching. And that he does demand perfection (Lev. 19:2; Matt. 5:48). I’m in good company here with the Spirit, who also apparently felt such truth communicates something important about God (Jer. 23:24). That said, it’s still fear-motivation and should not be our primary motivation.
Similarly, I’d also say that pride motivation also should not be our ultimate motivation. This is what Mitchell seems to be advocating though. She says that when you teach children to be good, “They will make their family proud. They will feel better about who they are. They will be decent people.” But do you see what she’s doing? She has said that the Bible motivates through fear, i.e. “God is watching,” but that pride is a purer motivator, i.e. “my family will like me and I’ll like me.” To that, I’d say, “Do you honestly think causing people to feel more self-righteous is going to make the world a better place?” If so, I’d encourage you to read Lauren Slater’s NY Times piece on the societal danger of inflated self-esteem. In other words, if we teach our kids to be “good, moral people” because then they’ll like themselves, do you know how they’ll feel about others who perhaps don’t behave as decently as they do? They will look down on others as inferior. And if they ever stumble across someone who behaves, dare I say, more decently, you know how they’ll feel? They’ll think that person is superior and subsequently fall into despair. Fear and pride are very similar in the sense that they’re both really about me.
Any time I define my value on my “internally structured” performance, by virtue of the fact that I’m not the only individual on this planet, I’ll run into either arrogance or condescension when I approach others.
How Is the Gospel of Jesus More Beautiful Than This Belief?
Christianity is not about our performance, but about Jesus’ performance. Any Christian who is teaching otherwise is teaching his/her own gospel, not the gospel of the Bible.
While morality is good, Christianity is not about morality. Christianity is about life through Jesus. Morality is still important. In fact, it is an inevitable fruit of faith. But in the breath of Christian life, good behavior is not the oxygen, it’s the carbon dioxide. Good behavior doesn’t give you life. Rather, it’s a sign that you, in fact, are alive.
Your life and breath as a Christian comes from the resuscitation performed by a gracious God who, for no other reason than that he loved you (Eph. 2:6-8), breathed his Spirit into you and made you alive (Eph. 2:1-5), at which point you were able to truly become you. And even that spiritual exhaling (Eph. 2:9-10) is no more your own conscious doing than the involuntary expansion and contraction of your lungs are in physical breathing.
Every non-Christian religion in the world commands good performance from humans for salvation. But according to the Bible, God does not demand performance from Christians so that he may love us. Instead, he just loves us. Those who are aware of such love are moved to say ‘thank you’ in a way that may look like performance. But really, it’s just a no-strings-attached ‘thank you’ much like his no-strings-attached forgiveness. The Bible teaches that the grace of God is a gift, not a wage, and therefore our corresponding work (good behavior) is volunteerism, not slavery.
Three Summary Points to Consider:
1) Does God (or the Bible) really not teach people to be good? Would the majority of humanity agree with that statement? Would 10% of humanity agree with that statement? Has that 10% read the Bible?
2) Christians and Non-Christians alike are guilty of using fear and pride as primary motivators. Do the qualities of fear and pride, in general, seem to create a better world or a worse one? What about if the world was simply motivated by gratitude?
3) Should love be given on the basis of performance? If so, who’d love babies? Isn’t love more beautiful if it’s free to the recipient but costly to the giver? If that’s the case, who is better, more loving than Jesus himself?