Two weekends, two graduations. Our daughter number three graduated from high school, and daughter number one from college (that’s right, my children have no names, just numbers). It’s that time of year in America! As we transition to summer, hoards of young people walk across the stage, and into another chapter of their lives. They are told the secrets of being successful at the next level, which typically includes hard work, good character, and following their passions. Can you tell I’ve been to my fair share of commencement exercises?
Unfortunately, graduation from high school, college, or a higher level of learning can tempt us to believe that our education is complete. Those of us who graduated a long time ago know that’s just not the case. Sometimes I feel like I began learning all the important life lessons when I entered my thirties! This is especially true when it comes to our walk with Christ. While we can certainly learn many of the stories of the Bible and some of the core doctrines of the faith as children and youth, the real education often takes place as we experience the later challenges of this life. That’s when what we know and believe come to the forefront and are truly learned.
One of the best passages of Scripture that describes our relationship to Jesus Christ in lifelong educational terms is found in Ephesians 4:20-21.
20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus,
Paul begins Ephesians 4 charging the young Christians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling in Christ. This includes growing in humility, gentleness, patience, love, and unity as believers. Then, in the middle of the chapter, he reminds them NOT to walk as the pagans do, with their darkened minds and their futile understanding. Non-believers have not learned the ways of Christ, but reject Him altogether! So then, we get to verse 20, with the all important “BUT”–“but that is not the way you learned Christ…” Using very educational language, Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus to remember ALL that they have learned–something we would tell high school or college graduates. But as Christians, our curriculum is not a specific academic discipline; our subject is Jesus Christ! We learn Christ–not about Christ, but Christ Himself! And we never stop learning Christ, complete our coursework of Christ, or graduate from the School of Christ. When you learn Christ, you are taught IN Christ since He is the TRUTH. Christ is the subject of our lessons, He is the teacher of the subject, and He provides the educational experience for the rest of our lives!
The great temptation for graduates is to say/think something like: “I don’t ever want to read another book in my life!” While I understand the sentiment and appreciate the fatigue, I hope our young people don’t ever stop reading and learning. But more importantly, our Christian young adults must not stop reading God’s Word, and books that teach them the truth of God’s Word and world! They need to keep on learning and never stop. They need to take every opportunity to learn more of Christ and Him Crucified.
Consider also these words from Paul to his spiritual son, Timothy, in II Timothy 3:14-15.
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 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.
This is the call to all Christian graduates: CONTINUE! Always believe in the continuing education in the School of Christ! Belief in the gospel brings us salvation, by the power of the regenerating Spirit. But belief in the gospel and ongoing Christian education is what God uses to CONTINUE growing us up in wisdom. So, we never graduate from the School of Christ because our sanctification is always ongoing. That’s why the church and Christian home must always offer education and equipping for all ages, not just children and youth! Our learning is lifelong–which is not burdensome, but freeing! We have a lot to learn, and Christ loves to teach us by His Spirit!
Last month, a couple of connected research studies were released dealing with the apparent increase of young narcissists in modern society. The researchers’ conclusion? Well, while there are several factors that combine to make a narcissist, the chief culprit appears to be the parents. Specifically, parents who “overvalue” their children and dole out too much praise may unleash a raging little narcissist on the world. Coupled with the tendency to be a “helicopter” or overprotective parent, today’s moms and dads are creating some wimpy, self-obsessed little ones. Raise your hand if this surprises you! Just watch every season of American Idol and see this principle at work–parents telling their children how amazing they sing, when they actually have little or no real talent.
But while it’s certainly true that parents should take a large amount of responsibility for this rising generation of narcissists, most are just dutifully following the orders of the professionals. For at least forty years now, parents have been told by psychologists and other experts that the worst thing a child can suffer from is low self-esteem. They were instructed to be light on criticism (if any at all), and heavy on praise. Children were thought of as fragile and insecure, needing constant ego-building by parents, teachers, and every other adult in our society. Low self-esteem was the scourge of our generation, and it needed to be eradicated.
So, it makes me chuckle (albeit cynically) a bit to see psychologists admitting that too much praise is actually harmful to children, and that we can actually “overvalue” or young ones! In the words of one of the researchers: “Telling kids how exceptional they are doesn’t produce kids with good healthy self-esteems–it just makes them more narcissistic” As happens time and time again with the expert class in our culture, they proclaim a crisis and call for a solution only to over-correct, thereby creating new problems. I’ve always rejected the notion that most of our children are suffering from low self-esteem, and the solution of praising them in order to grant higher self-esteem. We all come out of the womb self-focused enough, and full of self-love, which can lead to either self-pity or narcissism if left to ourselves.
I guess we should be thankful that some of our parenting experts have come around and have new wisdom for our parents. Unfortunately, they have still missed the point on a couple of fronts. First, they continue to misunderstand the whole notion of self-esteem. One of the co-authors of the study illustrates this problem as he states: “People with high self-esteem think they are as good as others, narcissists think they are better than others.” So, it’s a good thing to think you are as good as other people, but a bad thing to think you are better than others. What, then, do we do with this verse?
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Philippians 2:3).
Is this the sort of instruction we are giving our children? Or, are we afraid that they would suffer from low self-esteem if they would count others more significant than themselves?
The other ongoing error summarized in the results of this study is the notion that half of the problem is genetics. The researchers claim that genetics and environment are evenly split, so that some children are biologically predisposed to narcissism. More accurately, a Biblical view of the human being demonstrates that we are ALL predisposed to be narcissists because of our indwelling sin, not some of our genetics. We all have self on the throne, both ruling us and enslaving us at the same time. What is passed down to each baby born in this world is original sin and selfish pride.
So here’s the final word from one of the co-authors of the study: “It has changed my parenting style…. When I first started doing this research in the 1990s, I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I’m careful not to do that now.” I’m glad he’s come to that conclusion. But it still misses the point. As parents, we can and should love our children in a way that shows them that they are extra-special to us. We must couple that love with the gospel of grace that trains them to love the LORD God with all their hearts as well as other people as themselves. The true solution to narcissism, then, is for our children to become totally preoccupied with the freeing love of God for sinners instead of the enslaving love for self!
I’m seeing more and more pronouncements in Christian media that begin with the words: “The Church needs to be more accepting of…” Now, I’m used to the anti-Christian voices judging the Church of Jesus Christ for being judgmental or hateful or intolerant of many types of people or behaviors. That has always been, and will always be the case. But I’m getting more concerned with professed believers who are talking about “the church” in a way that is not helpful, not thoughtful, not edifying–and in a way that distances themselves from the body of Christ. After all, any Christian who criticizes “the church” is criticizing himself!
Here’s a statement circulating around Christian outlets that particularly frustrates me as a Biblical Counselor and Christian Education Director: “The Church needs to be more accepting of…those with mental illness.” At one level, we can always say that the church needs to improve on how it loves other people. As the body of Christ, we are to always strive to show the love of Christ to anyone and everyone. And some local churches do it better than others. So if that is all that statement means, then I heartily agree.
But, I’m afraid there’s much more to that statement, centering on the word ACCEPTING. What is the underlying accusation against Christians when it is said that they need to be more accepting of those with mental illness? Here are some questions to expose what this sentiment means:
- The opposite of accepting is REJECTING, So, generally speaking, do Christians and local churches reject those struggling with a mental illness? Do we ban them? Do we treat them as outcasts? Do we shun them? Do we believe that they have no place in the church?
- Or, by ACCEPTING people with mental illness, is it more about accepting modern psychology’s descriptions and solutions of those problems? (I think this is the case) Are we only truly accepting if we believe that mental illnesses are one hundred percent physiological and therefore the person with a mental illness is one hundred percent not responsible for that particular problem?
- Building on that, are we REJECTING people with mental illness if we offer hope for Biblical change? If we believe the Bible gives us principles and the Spirit gives us power to overcome those problems categorized and mental illness, are we rejecting rather than accepting?
- Finally, are we defining ACCEPTING as: making no value judgment or saying a certain behavior or problem is right or wrong, sinful or not sinful? Is it possible to accept someone and yet love him or her enough to listen, understand, and offer the hope of the gospel for change?
In my mind, the church is the best and the only place with its arms open wide to offer love and grace and mercy. Why? Because Christ offers it, and we are His BODY! Christ Himself says to all of us, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). The Church historically and the Church universal has always and will always be the place which receives and accepts sinners because Christ receives and accepts sinners. Yes, humans are sinners and we certainly fail to loves as we ought. But statements like “The Church needs to more accepting of…” implies that non-Christians or human organizations are actually more accepting of people than Christians are. That is simply not the case. Unless, as demonstrated by the above questions, one has a different definition of ACCEPTING.
So, let’s briefly address a few more examples that are commonly suggested in this statement:
- The Church needs to be more accepting of…homosexuals. Yes, we must receive them, love them, and yet Biblically confront and help them in their sin. They can change by the power of the Word and the Spirit.
- The Church needs to be more accepting of…people with disabilities. Yes, we must always make the church more accessible! We must counsel people who struggle with problems that can be solved, and accommodate those with limitations and weaknesses.
- The Church needs to be more accepting of…people of other faiths. Yes, all are welcome in the Church of Jesus Christ, but all come the same way. Only when we shed ourselves of our human religions and believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life can we come to the Father!
- The Church needs to be more accepting of…people of other ethnic backgrounds. Yes,the Church of Jesus Christ is universal, transcending all nationalities and colors. We all are the body of Christ when we profess the same Jesus as Lord and Savior!
The Church (all Christians) can always work on our out-reaching to all sorts of people in this world. But the Church is also called to stand against the forces that seek to change Christianity into some human organization which simply accepts people without the receiving standards of God’s Word. The Church is accepting of all who turn from their sins and rest on Jesus Christ alone for their salvation. Praise be to God alone for receiving us in Christ!
Our national anthem proclaims that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” While it’s tempting to question the first part of that pronouncement, the last part has also fallen on hard times. Certainly, we still see many individual acts of bravery and courage every day, such as in the riveting story of Louis Zamperini in the last century, to the work of sniper Chris Kyle more recently. But what about our bravery as a culture and a nation overall? And, more importantly, what sort of legacy regarding courage are we passing on to our children? It seems to me that more and more adults are parenting by fear and leading their children to become more fearful than brave.
This point is made brilliantly in a recent article in The Economist entitled “Home of the Unbrave.” Written from the vantage point of “risk and litigation” in America, the author discusses how more and more towns and cities are outlawing sledding in the winter. Yes, you read that right: the childhood joy of sledding! There is just too much risk to allow children to barrel down snow-covered hills on pieces of plastic anymore. Here’s one of his great quotes about this trend:
This crackdown on unregulated sledding seems of a piece with the recent American tendency to curb marginally perilous childhood pleasures, such as tricycling without body armour or venturing alone into the back garden without a Mossad-trained security detail.
While this conjures up hilarious images, it really is quite embarrassing. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that more and more parents are driven by the need to protect their children from all possible harm, way past the point of wise responsibility. Just ask parents to send their children almost anywhere alone without a cell phone and fear will strike deep in their hearts. I saw it in myself last week, when I was told that my two boys (age 11 and 9) had biked alone to the library. “How could you let them do that,” I asked fearfully? Yet, at their age (and younger) I would ride my bike alone every single day of the week–sometimes miles and miles to a friend’s house in another state!
Then there’s this convicting quote from “Home of the Unbrave”:
It’s just that the risk, as small as it is, now looms larger in the imagination, becoming too great for the no-longer-bold American spirit to bear. Shutting down sledding hills is inspired by the same sort of simpering caution that keeps Americans shoeless in airport security and, closer to home, keeps parents from letting their kids walk a few blocks to school alone, despite the fact that America today is as safe as the longed-for “Leave It to Beaver” golden age.
Yes, America, we are just as safe–if not more safe–than the America of the 1950’s. So why do we act in so much fear when it comes to the safety of our children? Is sledding really going to dismember our kids? Are there really more child molesters and predators out there than ever before? Will our children be abducted if we aren’t in constant cell phone contact with them? Now, depending on where you live, you may be saying: YES, it’s very dangerous out there–and maybe we are wiser than our parents and grandparents were! But does that automatically mean we can and should parent out of fear, and end up producing fearful children?
More importantly, what does this all mean for Christian parents? According to II Timothy 1:7, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Christians alone, because of the love and power of God, have no reason to live in fear and worry. That truth certainly must translate to parenting out of faith and trust in the LORD, rather than out of the fear of man, Satan, or this world. We are to raise brave and courageous children–not so they can go sledding without fear or ride their bike to the library–but so they can be a bold witness for Christ. How will they be the next generation of missionaries, ministers, and heralds for Christ if they grow up in a secure bubble, taught to be worried about everyone around them? It’s imperative that we resist the cultural (and sinful) impulse to fear for our children, and wisely call them to trust in the Lord Jesus and grow to be warriors in the army of God!
As a Children’s Ministry Director, my favorite week of the church calendar is Vacation Bible School week. But a close second is going on this week at my church–Missions Festival week. It seems to always come at the right time, to give me a necessary attitude adjustment and a re-focusing of my priorities. I (and my family) need to remember what our Missions Festival theme reminds us: that we all must “answer our missionary calling.”
The opening sermon by Dr. Ed Hartman was especially profound. He applied the theme from John 13:1-17, the passage where Jesus shocks the disciples by washing their feet. Our Lord gives us an example of service to follow–not just for one aspect of our lives, but for life in totality. But here’s the principle that is life-transforming: Christians are to live their lives as HOSTS in this world, rather than GUESTS. That’s exactly what Jesus did! He set aside His deserved status as esteemed guest at the supper in order to serve as the host of the meal. This particular event was actually a parable or picture of His entire life on earth–coming to His lost people not to be served, but to serve. So, as Christians, Jesus serves us, giving us the power to serve as HOSTS to a lost world.
In the first place, I NEEDED TO HEAR THIS! I am far from the sort of Christ-empowered host to my wife, my children, and other people. I would rather be served than to serve. So I pray that this truth penetrates my heart and changes me in very practical ways this year.
Yet this Biblical principle is also essential for our children. As sinners, they are born into this world demanding to be served. Of course, as dependent beings, they must be served in order to survive! But as they grow up, it’s tempting for them to just keep on exercising permanent “guest mentality” rather than learning to serve others. And without Christ, they will only continue to be self-serving in their approach to life–always thinking they deserve more than what they really deserve!
Unfortunately, parents often add to this pervasive heart problem of our children. We are in an unprecedented time of mothers and fathers who act as if they exist to serve all of their children’s wants and desires. American children are especially indulged with material excesses–with rare times of self-denial. Added to that, there is often little expectation to serve others, especially their parents and siblings. We, as parents, can act like children will just learn to be servants some time later in life. But when? As teenagers? Young adults? Senior citizens?
To make the bad news even worse, our children also have the world against them. Our culture only teaches us that we are constant guests, and that we are the center of the universe. We are used to being served when we go to a restaurant, the doctor’s office, and the auto shop. With the modern changes in our educational system, it can also be perceived that teachers exist to serve students rather than the other way around. Even the church can appear to somehow have been created to serve our needs rather than as a community which exists to serve Jesus. Our extreme self-esteem focused culture makes everyone a guest, and no one a host. So, if we all deserve to be served, who will ever serve others, except by compulsion?
With all that being said, it’s essential to NOT turn this into a compartmentalized program for children. This is not about requiring a few “community service” hours for school or just coming up with mission opportunities at church. While that can be a start, these efforts may also send the wrong message that service is just what you do once in a while–a way to “give back” because we have been given so much. Jesus teaches that our entire lives must be lived as HOSTS not GUESTS. Living in Christ means living this life to serve, rather than to be served.
So, parents, I give you Dr. Ed Hartman’s (and the Lord Jesus’) call: Train your children to be hosts in this fallen world! Don’t just make service something they do for academic credit, a gold star, or a resume enhancer. Depending on the power of Christ, make service a lifestyle–training a host mentality rather than a guest mentality. How the Kingdom of God would advance in this world if it had an army of hosts seeking to serve the lost, the hurting, and the needy!
Last month, I dealt with the temptation to pull our children out of youth group due to the influence of non-Christian peers [Help! There are Pagans in my Youth Group!]. Thankfully, in a Biblically sound youth ministry, there are also many of our covenant children, growing in grace as young Christians. These young people are tasked with the challenge of being godly influences to those who are rebelling against Christ and those who are struggling with unbelief.
Yet, there are other teens lurking in your youth group who also desperately need the gospel: Little self-righteous, legalistic Pharisees. These are young people who have trouble seeing their own sinful hearts, and are stuck in works-righteousness. Now, this probably won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me, but I was a teenage Pharisee! After enjoying junior high youth group, I dropped out of high school youth group for over three years. I thought I was better than my peers, even in my Christian high school. I was a moralist, a rule keeper–performance-based to the core. I thought I knew the Bible as well as any adult, so our youth ministry had nothing to offer me. Somehow, my parents even allowed me to sit in the family car and read the Sunday newspaper while the rest of my family attended Sunday School. Oh, the beautiful irony that God would call someone like me to be a Christian Education Director!
So, as parents, covenant parents, and youth workers, how do we deal with burgeoning Pharisees in our youth groups? Here are just a few thoughts:
- Don’t let them drop out of youth group. They need this “laboratory of relationships” to confront their pride, unbiblical thinking, and unloving attitudes. Just like with other sinful patterns, Pharisees would rather be with other Pharisees than with the unwashed Gentiles. So if we enable our legalistic youngsters to only hang around others of their ilk, how will they see their sinful hearts? Additionally, we must challenge their faulty belief that they already know the Bible and they are above what is being taught in Sunday School and youth group. Those who have a tendency towards works-righteousness need to hear the gospel just like the rebellious pagan.
- Give them a high view of the law and Biblical understanding of sin. Even though it may appear that the Pharisee thinks highly of God’s law, he actually has a low view of it. Legalism seeks to make the law much easier to keep, so particular rules are cherry-picked and others are ignored. That’s the only way we can deceive ourselves to think we are doing a good job at law-keeping! So, a teenage Pharisee may be avoiding foul language, yet engage in gossip regularly. He or she may not be doing drugs, but that abstinence leads him or her to have a proud heart. Bad movies and TV shows may be shunned, yet a lack of love and compassion for sinners may also be absent. Our young Pharisees need to learn that the law is impossible to keep, and their sin is much deeper than they think!
- Show them their hearts on a daily basis. It’s easy to show a pagan his heart–his sin is always before us! But the well-mannered, externally-behaved Pharisee can be tougher to diagnose and to expose. After all, it’s wonderful to have rule keepers in the youth group! They are often our leaders and examples to the rest. And they can be easily self-deceived to believe that they have it all together. So take extra care to point out their pride and self-satisfaction, which is often connected to sinful fear and anxiety. They need heart change just like the rest of the youth!
- Teach them the grace of God and grace for others. Even though the Pharisee typically won’t verbalize it, he doesn’t really see the need for the grace of God. After all, he is one of the “well” not one of the “sick;” the “older brother” and not the “prodigal son.” So the legalist doesn’t truly enjoy the depths of the mercy and grace of God–other than as a theological concept. Because of this, our young Pharisees often struggle to show grace and mercy to others who need it!
- Help them to become Biblically self-focused. Instead of being preoccupied with the behavior and attitudes of others, we need to help our Pharisees be properly self-focused. They need to be asked what they learned from the lesson, how they were challenged at the retreat, and how God’s Word spoke to their hearts. This will help them turn aside from gossip and tale-bearing, and thereby take responsibility for their own actions, reactions, words, and attitudes.
How important it is for all of our covenant children to have a youth ministry that teaches God’s Word faithfully, provides relevant application to their our youth, and helps them to work it out in the community of the local church. By God’s saving grace in Christ, there is hope for our teenage pagans AND teenage Pharisees alike!
Our children learn a whole lot about life during the Christmas season. They learn how to indulge themselves. They learn how to be demanding and self-centered. They learn works-righteousness from Santa (Good=presents; Bad=lump of coal). They learn that getting new stuff equals happiness. They learn the secret of discontentment. They learn that our American economy is totally dependent on holiday consumer retail sales (okay, maybe only a few sharp ones…). They are learning these lessons every year thanks to their own sinful hearts, Satan, and the world.
So that means Christian parents must be aggressive, winsome, and purposeful in the education of their children during the holidays. By words and example, it is our duty as parents to train children to think rightly about God, the world, and ourselves. So here’s my list of the “Twelve Truths of Christmas” for children (you may put them to music if you like…”On the first day of Christmas, my dear Savior gave to me, a heart of…”):
- Contentment. We’ll start with possibly the hardest of all lessons: How do we fight against rampant discontentment in our children? It’s taught primarily by what parents REFUSE to do–indulge their child’s every whim throughout the year. If your children are getting whatever they want whenever they want it, then the sinful virus of discontentment will be at fever level at Christmas.
- Compassion. Not just for all the poor children who don’t get presents at Christmas. More importantly, teach your children to have true pity on all who make Christmas meaningless by removing Christ. Our children should grieve for and pray for all their friends and family members who have rejected the Christ of Christmas.
- Joy. Presents bring happiness–usually very temporary happiness for our children. Teach them that their joy can only be found in the Lord!
- Identity. Even though Christmas is a fairly universal holiday, it is one that should only be enjoyed by Christians. After all, what meaning has Jesus taking on human flesh unless you identify yourself with Christ? Your children will either identify with the world or identify with their Savior every Christmas and all through the year.
- Sin. Talking about sin on Christmas is borderline heresy! But your children really need to have their sinful hearts poked during this time of year. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to show them how they are thinking more about themselves than about Jesus or others.
- Grace. Santa Claus teaches what our sinful hearts want to hear–that good people get good stuff and bad people get bad stuff. It’s not good enough to teach your children that Santa isn’t real; you must debunk the lie that we can be good and that we deserve good things. Show them Jesus, and teach them undeserved grace!
- Giving. Yes, teach your children to give to others this Christmas. And, yes, teach them how much better it is to give than receive. Yet you must teach them how God so loved the world that HE GAVE His Son…or your children will become self-righteous in their giving. We don’t want our children to think highly of their own benevolence when it is God who is the true Giver.
- Receiving. Christianity is first about receiving (on our side of things)–we receive grace, forgiveness, and salvation because of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. Children love to receive–it’s adults who are often too proud to receive well. When your children receive a gift, train them to have hearts of gratitude towards all who give to them–because it is a reflection of how they receive Christ.
- Peace. The angels announced that the birth of Christ brings peace on earth. The world defines peace as lack of war, conflict, or trouble. True peace is a lack of hostility between God and man. This is only possible in Christ, and it gives rest in even the most difficult of holidays.
- Love. This one’s obvious, right? But does Christmas just naturally bring love out of our hearts? While our children may not have to be taught affection for their family and friends, they need to learn how to love God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves. This is only learned when the love of God dwells in their hearts.
- Faith. We pray that God gives our children the grace of saving faith so they can put their trust in Christ. Christmas can be a missed opportunity to talk with them about the nature of faith. It’s not about being “good for goodness sake,” but rather resting in Christ alone for salvation.
- Life. The world offers life in all the wrong places and through all the wrong things. Christ is the giver or life. Jesus was born in order to die for our eternal life. Teach it over and over again to your children!
So even though your youngsters are out of school for Christmas break, remember that the School of Jesus never takes a holiday!