Last week I shared a story with you about my son and his lapse into lying. I made a statement along the lines that how we disciple tells a story about God, and invited you to spend some time reflecting on what story the nuances of your discipleship strategies are telling.
To pick up the story… to be honest I was a little mad so I first sent my son to his room. My kids are used to my occasional schizophrenic parenting now, where in the same sentence I send them to their room and then have to say, ‘Sorry, I meant to say come to me.’ For a long time, all I had in my parenting toolbox was punishment based, and when I’m not doing so great this is still my initial default. I had embodied a story of sin and punishment, not a story of love and pursuit.
For the past few hundred years, the gospel message has become condensed down to “You are a sinner, Jesus died for your sin.” Too often, this is also embedded in a narrative that paints God (especially through the Old Testament) as an angry God who withdraws or sends His people away when they disappoint Him. When we imagine it like this (even if we might say something different), two things occur. First, as disciples, we feel like we need to perform. We need to perform to get close to God and we need to perform to stay close to Him. We perform to be loved, we perform to be accepted. To our core, we believe that if we do the right things God will love us. This also means if I mess up, I am responsible to fix myself and clean myself up before I can come back to God.
I encounter this a lot in discipling young people. (In truth, I encounter this in my own heart too.) They expend a lot of energy trying to be accepted and loved by God. In fact, this is the basis and norm of their Christian walk. But, it flies in the face of the gospel message that God loves us and pursues us. That God has done it all. That salvation is a free gift. That God loved the world so much, that while we were yet sinners He gave His one and only Son. That God…
Second, we see the Christian life as an ongoing drama of sin and punishment. I once heard a lady vividly describe how she imagined this: a set of floating stairs heading up to God that she continually strives to ascend until she messes up and God sends her back to the bottom to start again. It was only in her mid-life that she was questioning if that’s how everyone saw it, and was asking if there is another picture. (I often wonder how much of this belief has been taught to us through the way we were parented.)
Left bereft of the glorious image of a God overflowing with light and love and life who created us from relationship for relationship, and who called us “very good”, we fix on a picture that equates being human with being sinful. Here, our only hope is behaviour modification and the role of the discipler or parent is to punish away disobedience. The more serious or ongoing the sin, the greater the punishment. If we punish well enough, the lying will stop.
But, what if it’s if we love well enough?
Back to my son. I went to him. I pursued him. I reminded him that I love him and described the kind of relationship I want for us. I asked him to explain to me what had happened, and he did. He needed to be honest and take responsibility for his choices and behaviour. He needed to apologise for deceiving me. These are ways that restore and build relationship. I explained to him that when he lies it makes it hard for me to trust him or defend him at other times when he’s blamed unjustly – and how much I hate that. I told him how I wanted to have a relationship of trust because I love him. He agreed that he wanted that too and we talked about what that looks like.
We talked through what he could have done differently when the feelings came up of wanting to adjust his timer. We’ve been through this before, so he knows the answer is to come to me. And that’s what he said. He needs to bring those feelings to me so we can deal with them together. Sometimes when he and I go through this we go back and re-enact the event. We do it in a silly way so it’s funny, but it serves to put it into muscle memory as well, means he has practiced the right way and means that laughing and doing it the right way are the way we end the discipline. He walks away with a clear picture for how it can be in the future and what that feels like.
This is important. The lie didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was the product of feelings that came up when it was time to stop and he didn’t want to. I want to do more than train him by the threat of punishment to obey the rules of the house, I want to teach him to recognise those feelings that could lead to isolation and behaviour that is detrimental to relationship and bring them to relationship. In relationship, those feelings will abate and the behaviour becomes a non-issue. Perfect love casts out fear. My desire is that when he is older and he messes up he will choose to move toward God and others, not isolate himself and think he has to fix everything on his own. I want to teach him what God is like.
Jesus was most critical of the Pharisees, who He accused of being white-washed tombs (Matthew 23:27). Even though they obeyed all the rules (and many more that they had added) and their outward behaviour reflected that, they missed the point. And they missed the Messiah, of whom it was their very job to identify. In Jesus’ teachings, He explicitly proclaims that it is not about the outward action but that it’s about the desire of the heart (Matthew 5-7).
What if Christ’s life wasn’t an enormous act of will power to obey a set of rules, but an outpouring of love as a response to a good and faithful Father? What if holiness is more about connection and a quality of relationship? What if it is about love and faithfulness? How do we disciple toward that? How should the way we disciple be different because of that?
In my experience in discipleship and parenting, I have found that strategies of behaviour modification are easy, strategies of connection and heart change are hard. This type of discipleship demands that I grow in the fruit of the Spirit; in love, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. (I’m sure there will be many who read this who have all sorts of questions and scenario’s and better parenting strategies, but that’s not my point.) Don’t get bogged down in the details here, but rather receive the invitation to think more deeply about the kind of God and the kind of story your discipleship strategies are telling.
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