Thursday 17 January 2013

Asking the right questions

I am the goal-oriented product of a goal-oriented society. I ask questions the focus on achievements, outcomes, accomplishments. I ask how I can get what I want, how I can improve my surroundings, how I can make things happen. Good things. Worthy things.

But on their own, they are the wrong questions.

They all focus on the end, but the end cannot be the foremost consideration. Too often I have witnessed - in the world and in myself - the goal becoming the Good Thing, and anything that aids in achieving that goal must also be a Good Thing. So very many things are justified in the name of attaining that Good Thing.

Parenting for Results

The principle applies universally, but I am a mother and I have a habit of seeing everything through that role. As a mother, I see all the ways in which we, too, focus on the wrong questions.

How can I make her listen to me?
How can I get him to do what I want?
How can I make her stop doing that?
How can I keep them safe?
How can I ensure my children Turn Out Right?

Their focus is on the end, achieving a goal, making something happen, and on their own they are insufficient.

Sometimes it is our own human weaknesses that most clearly illustrate the insufficiency of these questions. We want them to obey! now! and so we yell because it is effective and we don't have the time, energy, or patience to do the harder work of teaching and guiding. We focus on our desires and lose sight of what we believe to be true. These days do not define us, but they happen and we apologize and we try again tomorrow.

Other times, however, the insufficiency of these questions is demonstrated through deliberation rather than a slip-up in a moment of weakness. Entire parenting paradigms are built around the idea of goal attainment, promising children that grow up to be productive citizens or God-fearing adults or responsible or hard-working or whatever it is that we want to hear.

Perhaps even worse, these promises are often cloaked in religion, and there is always the looming threat that failure means the loss of our children's very souls. With that end, what means could possibly be worse? It is upon that question that many of those who call themselves Christian parenting experts build their kingdoms. Follow these biblical instructions and you too can be guaranteed to raise a godly child. We are assured we can raise them to righteous through these instructions, usually centered on a "biblical model" of corporal punishment, yet ultimately amounting to nothing more than moralistic behaviour modification.

There are no promises in parenting. If we could parent our children into God's good graces, they would have no need of Christ in their lives. We cannot presume to be able to do the work of the Holy Spirit; our children are as human as we are and will need God's beautiful redemptive grace as much as we ourselves do. Nothing is gained by making obedience the goal of our parenting.

If we parent with the belief that things will add up as we expect, we will be disappointed. There is no guarantee that good parenting will produce the desired results, religious or not. We must parent not for their obedience, but rather out of our own obedience.

And therein lies the question.

Asking the Right Questions

Whatever our goals, whatever our desires, however noble our purposes, there is one question that must accompany them all: Are my actions the right actions?

Not the goal. My actions. Are they good? Not will it work, but is it right?

In so many other words,
Is this the right choice in this moment?
Does this decision line up with my values?
Am I faithfully doing what I should be doing?
Am I, right now, bringing glory to my Creator?

Many things will achieve my goals, but far fewer things are Good and Right.

Goals are good. They give us direction for the journey. But when the question of how to achieve them becomes the ultimate question, we too easily lose perspective. Those questions must always be balanced by that one question, is this right?

My ultimate desire is to bring glory to God, as a person, as a parent, in whatever role I find myself at any particular time. Is this action going to please and glorify my Creator? Maybe your question will be different, not God but peace or love or freedom or kindness or non-violence or whatever your ultimate value is. But underneath it all, however we word it, whatever the ultimate motive is, the question must always focus on our own actions.

I cannot control others. I cannot guarantee outcomes. But I can always control myself, can consider my own actions, my own reactions, my choices along the way.

Likewise, I cannot control my children. I cannot guarantee that they will Turn Out Right. But I can control my actions and reactions, letting those be lessons that teach them about life.

This is the principle that ultimately guides my parenting. It is why we respond to our children's cries, speak to them with kindness, respect their individual needs, extend them grace, seek solutions rather than punishments, and apologize when we mess up. It is why we ultimately seek to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit to them rather than demand it from them. We ask not will it work, but is it right?

Beyond Parenthood

The same principle applies throughout our lives: our marriages, our relationships, our workplaces, our churches, everything. Regardless of roles or desired outcomes or anything else, the question of how to accomplish our goals must always be coupled with the question of is this action, right now, the right action in these circumstances?

The question is not how can I make my spouse do what I want, but how can I act and react in a way that lines up with my values? Not how can we grow our church, but how can we live faithful lives today? Not how can we get promoted, but how can we love and serve where we are? Not how can we make things easier, but how can we behave honourably in these circumstances?

With that question foremost in our minds, the rest often falls into place behind it. But even if it does not - there are no guarantees - at least we have lived well and without regret, having considered the rightness of our actions ahead of the achievement of our goals.


  1. As a grandma of six and mother of two, you are right on, you cannot control any of them but you can pray and always encourage.

  2. Thank you for spelling this out so clearly. I've been struggling a lot as a first time mom with making sure to do everything "right" for fear of how my child is going to turn out. But, the root of the issue is far different from any of that. Great post!