Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Conflict between parties of unequal authority

We are all familiar with conflict in unhealthy relationships. But conflict occurs in healthy relationships as well. Here is a key difference. In unhealthy relationships/churches/ministries, the one with the authority squelches conflict effectively. They don't endure conflict; they crush it. And the one getting crushed is usually the one without the power. In a healthy ministry/relationship, the one with the power and authority lays down his life. He endures. He absorbs the injustice. There is still conflict, but if there is outright injustice, authorities bear the weight of the injustice, not vice versa.

Before you write me off as suggesting the acceptance of sin and rebellion by those under our authority, consider Jesus, who epitomizes healthy ministry. At His trial, He is falsely accused. Great injustice is committed against Him. But He who had all the power, took it. He restrained His power and authority and absorbed their injustice. Scripture calls it gentleness, and it is a crucial piece of imitating Christ in healthy conflict. Jesus says of Himself, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and in 2 Tim. 2, Paul emphasizes it as well.

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Gentleness isn't weakness, and it isn't a feminine virtue. Gentleness is strength under control. Babies aren't gentle. Babies are weak. But when the man who has the strength to crush the baby instead tempers that strength to protect it, that is gentleness.

Conflict often arises between parties of equal strength, power, or authority. But it is conflict between parties of unequal power or authority that is my focus here (though these principles similarly apply to conflict between peers). Paul warns fathers in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 to not discourage or exasperate their children. John Stott notes in his Message of Ephesians commentary that when Paul outlines how parents should behave towards their children, it is “not the exercise but the RESTRAINT of their authority which he urges upon them” (p. 245). Often such conflict arises over the very issue of authority, the most tempting situation to rouse ourself in the full manifestation of our power or authority. Yet Paul calls us to a different way.

When conflict arises between me and those under my authority, do I want to humiliate my opponent? To take them down a notch? Some sin makes me so angry I want to rip into the offender and verbally tear them apart, but acting on that is sin. According to James, the anger of man NEVER accomplishes the righteousness of God. I must take my anger to God, pray through it, and ask Him to transform it from anger that will accomplish nothing for His kingdom to resolve that stands against injustice and sin in righteous ways. I've transitioned from unrighteous anger to healthy resolve when I move from wanting my opponent destroyed to wanting him or her freed from their sin. I don't want to figuratively shoot them. I want God to heal them. As Paul teaches in 2 Timothy 2, my opponent is not my enemy. They are a captive of my true enemy. We will never win a war when we aim our warfare at prisoners of war. No, our war is with principalities and powers, not flesh and blood (Eph. 6). Healthy conflict understands this difference. I must stand in the gap FOR my opponent even as I stand against their injustice, patiently enduring evil, correcting with gentleness. If you hate sin and injustice, believe that God's explicit instructions on such conflicts really do work His righteousness.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Helping the Hurting

I first posted this in 2008 after a tough year of walking with several close friends through seasons of deep pain.   My tendency at times, because I don't know what to do, is often to do nothing at all. That is a big mistake. Silence, even if your motive is well-intentioned, can be the most hurtful response of all.

So here are a few thoughts on walking with a loved one through a season of deep pain.

1) There is a time to mourn. There is a time to weep. Ecc. 3:4

Some day in the future, there may be a time for advice or a time to try to cheer up. But respect the time to mourn. Weep with those who weep. I have noticed when I am seriously hurting, there are some people that I just can’t have around because their response is to either give advice or try to distract me from my pain. Instead, I have to walk through my pain, and I treasure those who have the love and patience to walk with me.

2) Be quiet.

Listen. Don’t talk. I don’t mean that we need to remain mute when coming alongside the hurting, but take seriously James 1:19, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” When your hurting friend speaks, you listen. You listen well and ask follow up questions. You don’t redirect the conversation away from your hurting friend and toward yourself. If your friend needs to talk through their pain, listen.

3) Don’t pretend the pain doesn’t exist.

This is particularly important when it comes to the death of a loved one. Don’t ignore the person who passed on in an effort to distract your friend. They are missing their loved one, and you can’t ignore them anymore than a big white elephant standing in the room. I remember meeting at a restaurant the parents of a friend who had died unexpectedly a few weeks before. We all talked like nothing had ever happened, and I regret to this day that I ignored the elephant in the room. I wish I had said simply, “I am so sorry for your loss,” and then given them a hug. I, of course, had no idea what to say, but I realize now that saying NOTHING was even worse.

If your friend miscarried her child, let her show you the hand made blanket she made for him. If she’s having problems getting pregnant, love her enough to check on her about that specifically. If her father died unexpectedly, don’t avoid mentioning the beauty of the deck he was building for her before he died. If her husband left her, give her room to be honest about her pain.  Whatever the situation, don’t feel you have to do acrobatics to avoid the elephant in the room. If talking about their loved one fits the occasion, then do it.

3) When the time comes, speak the truth with love.

Support and encourage your loved one with the truth of God. But remember that speaking truth alone is not necessarily loving. If that were the case, Paul would have no need in Ephesians 4 to exhort us to both speak the truth AND speak lovingly. So point your friend to the character of God in loving ways. The way you say things and the empathy you show have power to minister grace to your loved one according to Paul’s instructions on language at the end of Ephesians 4. In times of pain, there is hope in the fact that God is sovereign and in control. But there is also questioning and pain. Wrestle with your loved one as they struggle with the sovereignty of God in the midst of their painful circumstances. Don’t cop out with easy answers or glib Christian sayings.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this by any means, but these are ideas that have been on my mind through times of my own pain and as I try to walk with other friends through theirs.  I hope something here is helpful to you.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Cry of the Oppressed

Zechariah 7:9-10 "Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart."

Psalms 10:17-18 O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

It is the character of our God to hear the desire of the afflicted. He inclines His ear and does justice for the fatherless and the oppressed. He is a helper and defender to those afflicted/oppressed, and the particular context is those who are afflicted/oppressed by those with greater strength, power, or authority. Apart from Christ, our nature is to ignore the cry of the oppressed, and Scripture warns us against the consequences of closing our ear to the cry of those in need.

Proverbs 21:13 Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.

One thing I noted in my study of Ephesians was all the ways the gospel and our inheritance in Christ equips us to become “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1), reclaiming His image in us that was so marred by the fall of man. And our response to the poor and oppressed is most certainly one of those ways.

Tim Keller's Generous Justice lays this out with Biblical clarity. I plan to write a review when I finish it completely. I was already coming to a strong conviction that a conservative reading of Scripture will lead to a liberal view of social justice, and Keller's book has reinforced this conviction for me, maybe even solidified it. I had a moment reading it last night when I felt something that was previously shifting around in my mind finally settle in my psyche.

As God's grace transforms us into His image, we WILL hear and respond to the cries of the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor (though not necessarily politically). Keller's book does a good job of giving the different arguments for what role secular government should play. However, if you are of the conviction that secular government should be legislating morality, Keller makes it clear from Scripture that the care of the poor and the immigrant is a moral issue, clearly talked of in terms of righteousness and sin in Scripture. If you're a skeptic and think your gospel responsibility ends at calling someone to repentance, Keller writes out the Scripture again and again, overwhelmingly making his point. I get annoyed with books that just generally refer to Scriptural principles or only give endnote numbers that I have to look up at the back of the book to find the Scripture to which the author is referring. Keller does not do this. He writes it out right in the text and analyzes passage and passage. Keller doesn't prove his point. THE BIBLE proves his point.

I have spent the last few years becoming increasingly aware of the cries of the oppressed. But sometimes I wonder if my ears are on a different frequency from my peers in the church. I now realize that, no, we aren't on different frequencies. Yes, we hear the same cries. But many of us have been trained to close our ears when we hear the cry. The church has a bad history of siding with authorities in conflicts and ignoring the pleas of the ones without power. But this is not like Christ. When the salt and light in our culture ignores the afflicted, there is no surprise that the larger culture does as well. If we really want to reflect well the character of our God to our culture, our responses to the poor, immigrant, orphan, and widows of society are a central place to focus.

Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us JustDo not close your ear to the cry of the oppressed. Do not close your ear to the cry within the church, and do not close your ear to the cry in your culture at large. As Keller's subtitle suggests, God's grace makes us pursuers of justice. This is core to reflecting the image of God.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Aligning with the Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:31-32 "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

I grew up in a branch of conservative Christianity with a view of the end times that had true believers increasingly marginalized in society, finally herded into a tiny corner of the world awaiting the return of Jesus while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Not exactly the picture Jesus paints of the mustard seed. But I get as discouraged as anyone with the state of the church. I personally wouldn't mind some days burrowing down in my own little corner of the world and covering my head with a blanket until it all disappears. There are some ministries associated with my upbringing that I so hope will embrace the gospel at a deeper level and then change to better reflect it. Instead, I just keep seeing the exact opposite. There is the particular issue of sexual abuse rocking segments of Christian fundamentalism, and the inability of individual leaders and ministries to articulate and embrace a Biblical ethic on sexual abuse is absolutely mind boggling to me. Instead of the bloom of the mustard seed (which results in confession, repentance, and restoration), it seems more like an infectious disease that devastates more and more ministries. I get discouraged.

I'm thankful for the reformed pastor that first exposed me to the mustard seed view of the kingdom of God. It's growing, folks. The kingdom of God is at hand. He is making His church glorious. Certainly the works of the flesh are evident, just as Scripture predicts. We're always going to be more aware of the bad than the good. It's the nature of man to focus on the sensational – sin, abuse, oppression, bad theology, and so forth. The sensational is … well … sensational. But for every pastor that is disciplining a sexual abuse victim or aiming missiles at those called to hold him accountable, there are ten who are ministering gospel grace to victims, repenting of sin, correcting mistakes, pursuing justice, and modeling the life of Christ to their congregations.

The works of the Spirit are subtle. The left hand isn't letting the right hand know what's it's doing, and that's how God said it should be. If you're quiet and patient, you'll get glimpses. The Spirit is slow and steady, and the things He accomplishes will not be ripped away. The mustard seed is growing, and it will burst forth in glory. When Jesus returns, it's not to a marginalized church hiding in the corner. He is making her beautiful and glorious day in and day out, and when He returns, she is overcoming.

When I get discouraged by the state of the church, I am learning to discipline myself to align my thoughts and focus with the mustard seed. Where is the true gospel being presented? Where is it taking root? Where is grace flowing? Where is confidence in the finished work of Christ for our sanctification triumphing over legalism? Where are wrongs being made right? Where is good triumphing over evil?

After a day of being bombarded with all the dysfunction in Christian circles, I wrote a friend and asked for encouragement. Where is God working?! She wrote back with a beautiful affirmation of how the mustard seed was blooming in her own little world. It was subtle – quiet conversations in the dead of night, private repentance over private sins, making things right, and seeking accountability. I was encouraged.

Yes, everything is subject to Him. No, we don't yet see everything subject to Him. But we can be confident that He who has begun His good work will complete it. Yea, IS completing it.

Hebrews 2: 7-8
“You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet."
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Philippians 1:6
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

The kingdom of God is at hand!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Watering Seeds and Waiting for Fruit

Ecclesiastes 11:6  In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

1 Corinthians 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

I'm ok sowing seeds. I don't mind watering them. But I don't have much tolerance for the wait for growth or the ultimate goal – fruit. And nowhere is this more obvious than raising my children. I've written a couple articles on parenting recently (here and here) on principles that are becoming more and more important to me the further I get into this daunting, winding, sometimes very poorly illuminated road called parenting. Here's the new one God is applying in my heart – sowing and reaping.

I know as a novice gardener that a beautiful, fruitful garden takes time and effort. And I've gotten the effort part with my children. I know that lazy parenting is sin. I must stay engaged. I must sow seeds. I must water and fertilize. It's the time part that is just starting to dawn on me. I don't mind putting in the effort with my kids … as long as I see the results. Today. But so help me, if I don't see results within 10 minutes or an hour, or if I'm really being patient, by the time I put them to bed, I'm pretty frustrated. What was the point of all that meaningful engagement with my children? I'm working hard to disciple them, to teach them truth and help them apply it. I'm working hard to expose them to the gospel, both in my words and my actions. But then I put them to bed and they seem in exactly the same condition with the same attitudes (often angry at each other, generally unthankful, or complaining about the day ahead) that started off our day.

Even though I know better, it's very hard to believe any sowing, watering, or fertilizing I did through the day was meaningful if I don't get fruit immediately. But I KNOW that is not the nature of fruit. That's not how gardening works. And occasionally, the Lord lets me see how it really works.

My oldest loves to make projects. He thinks about them in his head for a while, then gets to work with a definite plan. It's a great strength of his. And it's a great weakness, for he loves his projects very much and woe to the one who interferes with or, gasp, accidentally trips over a project, as little brothers are prone to do. We've been working on loving people more than our projects. We can enjoy our projects, but we have to keep them in perspective. The most important thing is loving God. Then it's loving others. And projects are good and fun when they come under those first two.

Well, I've been trying to communicate that for over a year. But it's just been the last few weeks that out of the blue, my oldest will offer from the back seat of the car, “Mom, I love you more than my guinea pig roller coaster.” Don't laugh. That's my world—guinea pig roller coasters, tiny ant toilets, and so forth. My 6 year old is an entertaining piece of work.

In that moment in my car, I tasted sweet fruit. “Honey, I love you more than my computer,” I responded. I feel a need to tell him that regularly because I am on my computer a lot. And there it is, a tiny sprout poking its head out of the dirt after months of seed-sowing, dirt-watering effort.

I am becoming more at peace with sowing and not so upset when I don't get to reap. Fruit will come. But it's not likely to be today. And I don't need to keep watering and fertilizing on an issue non stop until I see fruit. That will drown a seed. It's OK to sow a seed, water a little, and walk away. After all, any fruit is a result of God's light causing the growth. So I stand back and wait for Him to work. At peace in the waiting.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A Resurrection Response to Loss

I Cor. 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

The "therefore" in v. 58 points back to Paul's discourse on death and resurrection in the previous verses. My pastor preached on this Sunday, and it was a very life giving message--a resurrection response to loss. One day, everything crooked will be made straight, and everything sad will be made not true. And it's THAT life we are to orient THIS life around. It's in that context that we can become the kind of people who can endure loss without creating a crater around us that swallows ourself and others. And it's only in that context that we can stay engaged, knowing that our labor in the Lord is NOT IN VAIN.

If you have 30 minutes, I think you will find this exhortation encouraging.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

An Imperfectionist in a Perfectionist World

I think I just made up the term imperfectionist. I do not fit into the perfectionist world in which I live. I am messy. I have tried Fly Lady and every suggestion Real Simple magazine has made, yet I am unable to change my genetic propensity toward messiness. My clothes are wrinkled. My sons have bed head most days. I don’t follow cooking instructions well. I eat too much. My workout routines fall short of my expectations. And so forth.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to recognize my coping mechanism. I anticipate that you are going to perceive me as messy, overweight, or irresponsible. So I compensate by saying it myself first.

Self-deprecation-- belittling or undervaluing oneself; excessively modest.

The guests coming over for dinner are going to notice that my corn pie is runny. “Hey. Here’s some corn pie. Sorry it’s runny. I didn’t let it cook long enough.” You probably think my son is undisciplined. “Yeah, I know he’s doesn’t play well with others. I know I’ve made these mistakes with him (list mistakes), and here’s what I’m doing to fix it.”

I grew up in Christian fundamentalism, and sin and laziness were projected onto me with pretty much every mistake I ever made. I dropped my tray and made a mess because I wasn't being careful. I am sick because I didn't take care of my health, exercise regularly, or eat carefully. I made a bad grade because I didn't study hard enough. And so forth. It's been a long road unpacking all that baggage. I don't have a category for things that are simply mistakes.

A friend pointed my coping mechanism out to me this week. I wrote down the wrong date for volunteering at my son’s preschool. I showed up Wednesday and was about to leave when the teacher reminded me I was scheduled to work. Horrified, I double-checked, and sure enough, I was supposed to work Wednesday, not Thursday as I had written on my calendar. I felt irresponsible. Surely she thought badly of me too. My immediate response was along the lines, “That’s totally my fault. Totally irresponsible on my part.” She interrupted me and said, “You don’t have to take that on yourself. It’s OK.” It was just a mistake. And we worked through it to fix it. She believed the best of me, and it was unexpected.

My self deprecating coping mechanisms have also been highlighted to me over the years with my health. In 1995, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It was actually a good moment for me. I had felt like such a loser. “Why am I tired all the time? I guess I’m just lazy. Why am I hungry all the time? I guess I’m just a glutton.” When the doctor told me I had diabetes, it was a relief to know that there was something truly wrong with me, and it wasn’t my fault. I had a similar response earlier this year when the podiatrist showed me x-rays of my feet with very pronounced bone spurs in each one. And again when the ENT showed me the CAT scan of my sinuses and pointed out the chronic infection and deviated septum. “Oh, I’m NOT a hypochondriac!” I almost cried in relief. I had believed it of myself. I felt so tired, but I kept trying to power through because asking for a break from my responsibilities or taking a nap when I needed to clean my kitchen seemed lazy.

The truth is that some people WILL think that my corn pie is runny, my son is undisciplined, and that I’m irresponsible for writing the wrong date on my calendar for preschool. Some people will think I’m a hypochondriac if I refuse to take on new responsibilities though I don’t have a physically obvious ailment. But why am I constrained by my fears of what they will think of me?

We live in a world of high expectations. People are easily offended and easily let down, within and without Christianity. And if we don't constantly meditate on God's words of affirmation said over us in eternity, we will be constrained and handicapped by the expectations of others, many of which are simply unattainable. I'm praying that God would give me an honest assessment of myself. I want to face my sins head on. But I also don't want to over spiritualize things on which God has given me freedom and grace.

I have learned a lot from my friends who parent autistic children or other children with learning disabilities that are not physically obvious. How many of them get repeated looks from other parents like they are complete losers for not disciplining and controlling their kids? The answer for them/me is the same answer for everything. The first place I have to flee is the gospel—God's words of affirmation over me and the lavish grace that fills my spiritual bank account. When it's a mistake as opposed to sin, the gospel equips me there too. When I did my best and it still wasn't good enough, there is something in the resurrection power at work on my behalf that allows me to deal with it without condemnation or self flagellation. And a great side benefit of my inadequacies is that, when I do succeed at something like my exercise routine, instead of applauding myself for my self-discipline, I look up to God in awe and praise Him for the gift of His grace (as I just did when I got off my rowing machine, marveling over the last 2 months of consistent exercise on it). I know good and well my imperfections, and I am free to receive success on an issue that has thwarted be for a lifetime as purely His love gift to me as He transforms me. My experience thus far with the gospel applied to my mistakes is that facing them without self flagellation and with confidence in who I am in Christ gives great testimony of the gospel, particularly to myself. And I'm not going to project the gospel to others very well until I get it for myself.

See also Theology of a Mistake.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Grace based parenting in the real world

Based on the responses I got from my recent post on Graced Based Libertarianism, it was clear that many of us long for real examples of exactly what grace responses to our children look like. I found a secular article that made me think. Of course, we're coming from entirely different beliefs on the nature of our children. Yet, I think there is some helpful analysis here. His criticism of manipulative praise gives insight into manipulative punishment as well. His point is that punishment and reward/praise are opposite expressions of the same philosophy. He encourages an entirely different philosophy. The main place I diverge from him is that I need my children to understand what God says is good, so I definitely will be making moral declarations about things to them. But with that distinction in place, his other ideas are worthwhile.

Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!" by Alfie Kohn

1. Manipulating children.

Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies. Who benefits from this? Is it possible that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience?

Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to this as "sugar-coated control." Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter, punishments – it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done -- or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people. ...

2. Creating praise junkies.

… Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice ("Um, seven?"). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.

In short, "Good job!" doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

3. Stealing a child’s pleasure.

… To be sure, there are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance is necessary -- especially with toddlers and preschoolers. But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children’s development. Unfortunately, we may not have realized that "Good job!" is just as much an evaluation as "Bad job!" The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged.

4. Losing interest.

… an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a "Good job!"

In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard "Good sharing!" or "I’m so proud of you for helping," they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.

Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

5. Reducing achievement.

… Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task – and they don’t do as well as children who weren’t praised to begin with.

Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to "keep up the good work" that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.

More generally, "Good job!" is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future. ...

This point, you’ll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids "earn" it. But the real problem isn’t that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It’s that we’re tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done. ...

If a child is doing something that disturbs others, then sitting down with her later and asking, "What do you think we can do to solve this problem?" will likely be more effective than bribes or threats. It also helps a child learn how to solve problems and teaches that her ideas and feelings are important. Of course, this process takes time and talent, care and courage. Tossing off a "Good job!" when the child acts in the way we deem appropriate takes none of those things, which helps to explain why "doing to" strategies are a lot more popular than "working with" strategies.

And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? ...

* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement ("You put your shoes on by yourself" or even just "You did it") tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: "This mountain is huge!" "Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!"

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: "Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack." This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing.

This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to … constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head.

Copyright © 2001 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at

The big point that Kohn is making is similar to my argument in punishment v. discipline. Punishment is reactive and, frankly, easy. “You hit him? Ok, now I spank you.” “You took his toy? Fine, now I'm going to take your toy and put you in time out.” And, to be honest, I take the easy way out way too much. But Biblical discipline (i. e. training in righteousness) is hands on and takes time.

My boys are ages 4 and 6. I have only minimal experience putting this into practice (though I have much experience failing at it). But here is the guiding principle that is helping me to formulate my responses.

Be suspicious of the easy way out. Grace responses (when you choose discipleship over punishment) are not quick and easy. The one grace response that often does quickly help in our home is redirection or distraction—-distracting them from their sin. And I think this is a beautiful picture of what God does for us. He is so merciful to see us on the trajectory of sin and to rescue us from it by moving our attention or efforts somewhere else. That's helpful when kids are heading toward sin but aren't quite there yet – it's making a way out much like God does for us.

But once sin has happened, I need to engage. I have to put down what I was doing, pray, think, and engage. “Son, why did you ruin your brother's project? Look at his face. That made him really sad. Did you want to hurt his things? Were you trying to provoke him? Do you remember what God said is the most important thing? Yeah, loving God and loving others. Was it loving to tear your brother's project? What do you need to do? Yeah, you need to ask him to forgive you. You need to ask how you can help him fix it. We need to pray that God would change your heart to love your brother.”

But even that paragraph is short and assumes a lot. There are other things that could be going on. I may need to explain to him what provoking means. Provoking is when you want someone's attention and you do something mean or hurtful to get it. If you want your brother's attention, try this instead (and then think with him through solutions when he wants someone's attention). Maybe he wasn't being unloving or provoking at all. Maybe he thought his brother's project would look better if he drew all over it with markers (which is what happened to us yesterday). He wasn't trying to destroy it. He was just insensitive and unaware of how his brother would receive his “improvements.” Maybe he needs support in thinking about how others will feel before he does something. I need to teach him about empathy. Or maybe it's a situation that doesn't demand any of that kind of intervention. As I prayed and thought about it, I realized it was something they could work out themselves. Finally, it may very well be that his heart really did hate his brother in that moment and I need to pray for him (because he's too angry to pray himself) that God would change his heart.

In terms of character development, I am working on teaching my kids perseverance and endurance. Rather than simply saying “Good job” when they score a goal at soccer, I am trying to emphasize that they didn't give up. “I saw that you were sad when that kid scored a goal, but you didn't give up. You kept playing.” My son in particular gets very discouraged and wants to quit when he can't accomplish something the first time he tries. So encouraging perseverance has been helpful with him. There's no point in me saying, “You are so good at soccer.” Because, frankly, he's not. And I don't care if he is the best at soccer. But I do want him to learn to persevere.

My final thought in this mishmash of ideas is prompted by a line from Amazing Grace, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.” It's not grace to ignore the sin. But it's not grace to punish it either. Grace is this amazing third way. And wrestling daily with what this looks like with my kids has been amazingly productive in understanding it for myself. In short, there aren't easy answers. There isn't a simple 3 step outline for how to disciple your children in light of the gospel. It takes union with Christ, leaning into Him in prayer, and much self examination as a parent. But mostly, it just takes preaching the gospel to ourselves. As I grow in my understanding of gospel grace for myself, I grow in my understanding of God's use of it with my children.