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Getting grace

Lifestyle | Obedience is important, author says, but homeschoolers should not let rules obscure the gospel

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

Christian homeschooling generally is a great success, but a recent essay by homeschooling dad Reb Bradley is garnering wide attention on Christian blogs. "In the last couple of years," he began, "I have heard from multitudes of troubled homeschool parents around the country, a good many of whom were leaders. These parents have graduated their first batch of kids, only to discover that their children didn't turn out the way they thought they would. ...

[S]ometime after their 18th birthday they began to reveal that they didn't hold to their parents' values."

After outlining some of the ways these children have stumbled, Bradley wrote, "Most of these parents remain stunned by their children's choices, because they were fully confident their approach to parenting was going to prevent any such rebellion."

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Who doesn't want to find a parenting system that guarantees success? And yet, as some homeschoolers have discovered, such a system doesn't exist. Earlier this year Elyse Fitzpatrick and her daughter, Jessica Thompson, talked with me about their parenting book, Give Them Grace (Crossway, 2011). They noted that some parents think a move to the country and a lifestyle based on Little House on the Prairie "will transform our children's hearts." The problem: "It doesn't."

Fitzpatrick sympathizes with those who are looking for a system because she says that is how she raised her three children. She took "every story of grace and mercy (like Jonah's) and made it into law and morals." Now she sees the problem with that approach: "We've stressed outward compliance and obedience. We've boiled down the Christian message to 'Be nice. Be polite. Don't hang out with bad people.'"

Of course obedience is important: "Respect, courtesy, and civil obedience are blessings from the Lord." But in their book Fitzpatrick and Thompson warn parents that human obedience not "motivated by gratitude for God's grace" is "deadlier to the soul than immorality. ... Those who excel at the sort of obedience listed above may not see their need for a Savior; their hearts may be hardened and unfazed by God's grace."

They note that if we confuse obedience with righteousness, some of our kids never hear that they need a Savior: "Nice kids don't hear the gospel. Compliant kids are missing it. They fly under the radar. ... They can be 'elder brothers' and proud of it. They win awards."

Fitzpatrick first began to change her thinking about parenting 10 years ago when she went to hear New York pastor Tim Keller. Up to then she was "into lots of steps and rules," but Keller's message led her to reread completely the New Testament, taking copious notes. Then she read with her daughter Martin Luther's Commentary on Galatians. That provided further insights: They recognized, "The law of God, although beneficial and beautiful, cannot advance us on our way to righteousness because we cannot obey it."

Fitzpatrick says she couldn't give the gospel to her kids because she didn't really understand it herself. Now she and Thompson state it in such simple terms that even the youngest child can understand: "You're a sinner. You need a Savior. You have a Rescuer."

But what exactly does that look like in practice? Although their book provides many "scripts" to provide guidance to parents, they don't offer a system. I suggested to Thompson, who alongside her husband is raising three children, that she should make videos like Super Nanny, with perhaps a video camera attached to her forehead so we could see what grace-based parenting looks like in practice. She looked shocked by the suggestion.

But if she had been wearing such a camera, we could be watching a scene she told me about and called "the slap heard round the world": At a get-together of church people in her backyard, Thompson's 7-year-old daughter slapped the pastor's son across the face because she didn't like something he said. Embarrassed and humiliated, Thompson took her daughter inside and asked, "How could you do that? Why would you do that?"

Some time later the daughter again was outside: This time she slapped her brother across the face. Thompson, too angry to talk, sent her to her room: "I needed physical time to cool down." After Thompson composed herself she said to her daughter, "How can I even let you go outside?" Her daughter agreed: "You can't trust me to go out. I don't deserve it."

That word deserve cut through Thompson's anger and embarrassment. She saw an opportunity to talk about grace: "We get what we don't deserve," she explained. "We get mercy and grace." As Thompson talked, she realized that God was softening her own angry heart. When her daughter responded by saying, "Wow. God must really love me," Thompson was able to see the series of events as something "God orchestrated for us. I wasn't praying. I was mad ... resistant. That's how the gospel changes both our hearts."

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