Moralism and Grace

 

Black and White
Black and White

“Postmodern people have been rejecting Christianity for years, thinking that it was indistinguishable from moralism.”
– Timothy Keller

It made grammatical sense to me. I added an “er” to the word bug when referring to my even littler brother, because he was bugging me.

Mom washed my mouth out with soap for my efforts to extend my understanding of linguistic principles. I didn’t know it was a bad word. That event made such an impact on me that I remember it all these years later. I resolved as a three year old that when I was a grownup I would explain the rules to my kids before dishing out consequences for violating them. Unfair! It was a justice issue for me then. It still is.

My husband and I were discussing the question of how to teach the principle of grace to young children in a Christian education setting. We both taught Sunday School for years and became frustrated with pre-packaged lesson plans that required every Bible story to have a moral. Nearly every one of them was a moral about behaviour — shoulds and should-nots. A lot of them were stories from the Old Testament that did not take New Covenant grace into consideration. Be like the good guys. Don’t be like the bad guys, because God is watching. (How do we explain that everyone, except Jesus, was both good and bad without glossing over the embarrassing details the Bible does not gloss over?)

What we truly believe becomes evident when we distill it down to concepts we try to teach to little ones. But how do we teach the concepts of grace and forgiveness to children (or others) who don’t yet know the difference between right and wrong?

Grace is not a laissez faire message that sin has no consequences. Skipping that truth is really unfair. Sin is not okay. Never has been. Never will be. I do think there is a difference between sin (defying God’s principles) and un-wise actions though. Sometimes even though you have been working at a job for 32 years, and know it inside out and backwards, a boss will require you to do something that you know is stupid. It will cost you great inconvenience later to clean up the mess, but the boss is in authority, so you do it. It’s not a sin; it’s just un-wise on the boss’s part. If the boss asks you to eliminate a competitor in the back alley, however, there is no question. That is sin. You refuse to submit, no matter the cost.

Sometimes we choose unwise actions of our own volition. When we come to our senses it involves changing our minds and policies, and probably offering some apologies, but it’s not the same as deliberately choosing to disobey Jesus’ command to love your neighbour, for example.

The Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Children need to be taught what he said: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Luke 12: 30-31 ESV).

Four times in his final charge to his disciples Jesus said loving him and being his friend meant keeping his commandments. Then this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John15:12).

Sometimes love means being quiet and leading by example. Sometimes love means letting children learn the discipline of natural consequences. Sometimes love means tackling a kid who is big for his age before he hurts himself or somebody else. How this plays out in your life depends on the wisdom God gives you when you ask Him.

By the time a child can think for himself he knows he has missed the mark. Holy Spirit speaks to them too. Even as a child I knew that labeling my brother according to his on-going temptation to bug me was not loving him — even if I didn’t use the right word.

When I was depressed and in the midst of burn-out from trying to earn God’s approval a counselor asked me, “What does grace feel like?” I gave him the Bible school definition. He said, “No. I asked what grace feels like.”

I had no idea. I was a product of moralism. After a search in which I asked many other people this question – including some joyless Christians I did not admire – I came to an understanding. Grace to me now is climbing up on the lap of the Creator of the universe, (someone who has the power to annihilate me in a flash), resting my head on his chest and knowing I am perfectly safe because he loves me. Grace lets me know I am forgiven and enables me to change because he whispers encouraging words and tells me who I really am in his eyes. He loves me because he loves me because he loves me. The Creator sent his son, who lived as a man, who both accepted and spoke the truth to those caught in sin, chose to die at the hands of those he came to save, and conquered death just to prove it.

How do we teach children (and others) about grace? By demonstrating it. By speaking the truth about the way God sees them -as lovable. By loving them the way we are loved, including setting wise boundaries, teaching them to base their choices on love (and not mere tolerance) and becoming who they are meant to be. We teach by extending a grace that costs everything the way Jesus extended grace to us.

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – Jesus Christ

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