Monday 20 February 2012

Is Obedience the Goal?

"The key to developing your children's full potential is to recognize that their foremost responsibility is to learn obedience. While they are living under your roof, they have a primary duty to learn to obey. It's absolutely crucial to understand that this is a child's primary goal in life. If a child can't learn to obey a parent who is visible, he'll never learn to obey a God who isn't." -Chip Ingram

"A child's primary goal [responsibility, duty] in life is to learn to obey." This quote is only one voice among many who presuppose the idea to be true. But is it? Is learning obedience the primary responsibility of children? Is obedience the goal of our parenting? While I will be exploring this question primarily from a Christian perspective, both the question and conclusion are universally relevant.

It's a tempting goal, to be sure. Who doesn't want obedient children? Things are certainly easier when a child obeys the first time, every time. Add to that the threat that a child who does not consistently obey his parent will be unable to obey God, and the whole question instantly becomes a non-issue. Of course the Christian parent wants his or her child to be able to obey God!

But for me, to have obedience as my goal is to have everything entirely backwards. Obedience is not my parenting goal.

Training a child to respond only to an external source of control fails to develop within them the confidence to make right choices in the face of pressure to do otherwise. It also fails to develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and the ability to hear and follow their own God-given instincts. It attunes them to external direction rather than the internal promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Training a child towards obedience is little more than moralistic behavior modification. It removes the child's focus from the bigger picture of God's story and places it instead on themselves and their own behaviour. Yet it is not our behaviour that draws us into a relationship with God, but rather His great love, kindness, mercy, and grace.

Although it is typically the parent who shapes a child's initial understanding of God, we cannot presume to take the place of God. Training a child to obey his parents in order to teach them how to obey God is both illogical and nearly blasphemous. God is perfect; we are not. Obedience to God is part of the child's own individual walk with God. It is not something that can be trained into them, but rather something they must to choose to do, and increasingly so as their relationship with Him deepens and matures.

Exploring God's Word

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of a rich man who asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. This man had obeyed all of God's commandments since he was a boy, and yet he lacked one thing:

"Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
-Mark 10:21-22

The man lacked one thing: a love for God that outweighed his love for earthly wealth and possessions.

But when we contrast this man, who had obeyed God's commandments since he was a young boy, with the one whom God called "a man after God's own heart", we find some striking differences. David, too, had great wealth, but his love for God far surpassed that. And yet David was not known for his obedience. This was a man who remained in Jerusalem while his troops were at work, coveted his neighbor's wife, committed adultery with her, devised a plan to cover up his sin, had his mistress's husband murdered, and remained silent about his sin for nine months before repenting to God.

Despite David's disobedience, his heart was for God. He loved God. We find this same theme played out over and over in Scripture. The ones named among the righteous - Noah, Abraham, Peter, and more - are not without grievous disobedience and cause for repentance. Conversely, those who are secure in their obedience - the rich man, the Pharisees, many of the religious rulers of the time - are those whose hearts were furthest from God, lacking a sincere love for God while praising their own righteousness. Jesus said that the prostitutes and tax collectors would see the Kingdom of God before the Pharisees.

Even today, those who focus on obedience often do all the right things, believe all the right things, and yet have a haughty arrogant superiority that says (often quite literally, out loud, says), "you are not good enough to deserve my love. You don't believe the right things. You don't act the right way. You don't line up with my idea of a 'good Christian'. I will not get to know you, I will not listen to your story, I will not love you as I love myself." Doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons. Clanging symbols without love.

No, mere obedience is not my goal. Obedience is important, but only within the correct context. The words of Jesus describe that context clearly in the book of John:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

-John 14:15-24

We cannot be obedient in our own right, sustained by our own power. "No one is good but God alone." (Luke 18:19) If pure goodness and obedience were possible, we would not have needed a Savior. Such a gospel is no gospel at all, for it lacks the Good News of the Messiah entirely. God does not want us to be merely moral and obedient for obedience's sake. He wants so much more than that: an obedience born out of love and sustained by the power of His Holy Spirit. Psalm 23 reminds us that He leads us along right paths for His name's sake. It is for His glory, not for the sake of our obedience. It is about Him, not about ourselves and our behaviour.

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control."(Galatians 5:22-23a) Goodness is the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of our own strivings towards obedience. True obedience is alive, organic, and vibrant; mere moralistic obedience is flat, self-reliant, and lacking in a true understanding of God's desires and purposes. The former is the "obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake" (Romans 1:5); the latter is a Pharisaical pseudo-righteous obedience to rules and precepts.

What are My Parenting Goals?

If God truly is the source of all goodness, and if I desire my children to come to live in true obedience to Him, my primary goal should be nothing more and nothing less than to point them towards the richness of God's love, kindness, mercy, and grace.

As such, if I had to sum up my entire parenting goal in a single word, it would be only this: Love. Loving my children is easy, but my goal is more than that. When I say that my goal is love, that goal is tri-fold: first, that I would express that love to my children in a healthy and undeniable way; second, that I would communicate clearly to them the unfailing love of their Heavenly Father, and develop in them a love and trust in response to that; and third, that they would love others in the truest possible sense of the word.

To phrase it another way, my goal for them is relationship: healthy relationships with family, with others, and ultimately and above all else with their Heavenly Father.

I don't want my children to walk through life simply doing as they are told. I want them to be awake and alive to the world in all its messy God-created glory, living their way through the ups and downs and greys in their own beautifully unique journey, a journey I could never presume to dictate for them, I who do not know what their Creator has planned.

My desire is to actively teach them right from wrong, pointing them always to the promptings of the Holy Spirit living within them that they may come to discern the difference for themselves. I desire to instill in them a strong internal locus of control that does not bend to external pressure, but rather chooses to do what is right in whatever situation they find themselves in. I desire to disciple them to maturity, not drill them to fear-based obedience where they recognize only external sources of control.

In short, my goal is to raise healthy, confident, self-aware, and compassionate individuals who love God with everything in them and who love others as themselves. If true, heart-level, internally-based obedience is a side-effect of that goal, all the better, but it will not and should not ever be my parenting goal in itself.

What is your primary parenting goal?


  1. Thank-you for posting this! It is something that I have thought about a lot too as a Christian parent. The question that I have pondered is - can true obedience be forced? Obedience is talked about as a quality in the bible, but if kids have to followed around and threatened with punishment in order to make them 'obedient', is it true obedience or is it just compliance?

    I think we use those terms interchangably - obedience and compliance - but they have two different meanings. To me, obedience is not something that can be forced. It comes from a desire within. As soon as obedience is forced, it fails to be obedience and becomes compliance.

    Therefore, I find parenting experts that talk about obedient children as a necessary stage to being an obedient Christian quite ridiculous. God does not want robots in his kingdom. He wants people who own the truth of what he has done for themselves and follow after him because it is what they choose to do.

    My parenting goals are similar to yours. Being able to just love my kids is the freedom that I think we are meant to experience as Christians - Jesus came to set us free from being bound up by the law, having to worry about clean and unclean - and in doing that he gave us the ability to stop judging and to just love.

    I want my kids to choose what they believe for themselves. I talk to them about God and what he has done for us. It is not something I will ever force on them though - it is something that they have to choose for themselves. The best way for me to help them do that, is for them to realise that they have choice. But I am a Christian and part of being authentic for me is letting Christ speak to my children through who I am - as a wife, parent, friend. God is part of the everyday conversation in our home. But if my children do not choose God for themselves, I will not feel differently about them. I will love them continuously and pray for them as I do now.

    Anyway, I wanted to share my thoughts on this as well. It is something I have thought about a lot and I really appreciate what you have written here. Actually, I have appreciated many of your blog posts. You have some wise words and I appreciate the thought and time you put into sharing them. Thank-you :)

    1. Thank you for these beautiful and wise words. I so enjoyed reading your comment.

      I appreciate you mentioning the difference between compliance and obedience. I've touched on that before and had made a note to go into it deeper here, but later changed my mind for simplicity's sake (as I would then have also had to add in moralistic obedience, such as that of the Pharisees, which is internally-motivated and therefore not compliance but still lacks the richness of true obedience born of love and sustained by the Spirit). Your differentiation between the two, however, was both relevant and succinct; thank you for that.

      "Being able to just love my kids is the freedom that I think we are meant to experience as Christians" - oh yes. There is such freedom in just loving our children, coupled with a lack of fear that is present in parenting when obedience is the focus and the goal.

      Thank you again for sharing these beautiful thoughts with us.

  2. Wonderful post. I'll be sharing it.

  3. Rach (above) linked to you, and this was timely because I am currently reading Chip Ingram's book that you quoted. I liked his first chapter but have been mulling over exactly what you quoted here - the idea that obedience is most important as our parenting goal. I'm with you - if we follow the example of God, our primary goal isn't obedience, it's love. Love results in obedience, but obedience without love is empty.

    Love. Love of the Father.

    1. I really liked the first chapter (two chapters?) as well. I was so hopeful that he "got it" and it would be an encouraging and helpful book to read through. Unfortunately, aside from good points here and there, it didn't get any better after the "obedience is the goal" bit. A huge disappointment overall.

      "Love results in obedience, but obedience without love is empty." What a beautiful way to sum it all up. Thank you, Kacie.

  4. I have always been frustrated by this conundrum. Why, in the Christian walk, would we not think more clearly of this as parents? We learn and grow in love and we express our ultimate goal as Christians to be love. Love of God, first and foremost as our life's goal. Obedience is a fruit of that love, and it is fruitful to practice obedience out of love for God. But it is not and can not be the end goal. It is the maturity in the Christian walk that sees the freedom that obedience gains us.

    I just listened to the most beautiful sermon on Sunday about what it really means to turn the other cheek, and it is so relevant to love in human relationships...hoping to post on it today if I can wrap my words around its profound simplicity. Blessings, PM

    Thanks for the clarity in your post

  5. Love this! I so often hear arguments in favour of physical punishment boil down to this issue of obedience - as though a Pavlovian knee-jerk compliance was equivalent to a rich, free, loving embrace of God's will! It's ridiculous! But it's so, so terribly common. Am sharing.

  6. What a really fantastic post! You have a great way of articulating ideas things I think a lot about but have no way of morphing into concrete thoughts. You know, I read things about 'first time, every time' and 'obedience with a happy heart' and something about it makes me uneasy and doesn't seem to ring true, but I can't really put my finger on it... Well, you are the finger putter on-er!

    Thank you so much for being out here! You help me (quite regularly!) in my quest to consciously choose the traditions, methods, thoughts and ideas we apply in our family.

  7. Beautifully explained and entirely relevant to my life right now. Your thoughts expand on a series of sermons our minister has been giving. As a mother of an independent 2 yr old, I sometimes feel the pressure to get him "in line" when he acts out in public. I forget that strangers don't know his kind heart, his desire to please, his sensitivity and emerging empathy. They only see a seemingly defiant toddler sitting down on the grocery store floor (yesterday it was the parking lot!) in protest. Thank you for reminding me (through this and other posts) that it is my job to respond to the child I know--not the child passerby see.

  8. This is my favorite part of your post: "Training a child to respond only to an external source of control fails to develop within them the confidence to make right choices in the face of pressure to do otherwise. It also fails to develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and the ability to hear and follow their own God-given instincts. It attunes them to external direction rather than the internal promptings of the Holy Spirit."

    Thank you!

  9. This is so amazing. You put into words exactly what I have felt. Thank you!

  10. There is an awesome book you may be interested in if you are not already. It helped me so much understand these ideas well after Holy Spirit was already birthing them in my heart. It is called Loving Our Kids on Purpose by Danny Silk. God has forever changed my goals in parenting by changing my understanding of His heart toward me. Beautifully done. I am loving your blog.