Friday, September 08, 2006

Big PUN, the notorious G.O.D.

Michelle Lopez, a wonderful at-home mom from Arizona, recently wrote:

Hi Melvin,

I am on another blog called Emerging Women. We have been discussing "If God Punishes", which has led to interesting thoughts. Obviously, I am rethinking Bible stories for children of preschool/ Kinder ages. One thing I would be curious about, should the focus of traditional stories be changed. I know that traditional stories ie Noah's ark, focused on the evil in the world, and that certainly has taught many "the punishing God". Do you think that in light of Jesus and his ways, that even if that was what was happening, through Christ that changed? If Jesus took upon himself the sin of the world and God doesn't see it any longer, shouldn't we focus on maybe how God cared for Noah and His family? Or in other traditional stories of punishment, can we turn them to focus on "choices made and redemption"? Especially for kids, I think that too much time has been spent focusing on punishment and fear.

For example, just tonight my daughter asked me if God was going to make her blind. She had watched a "Christian" video at my mother-in-law's house. I know I will have to deal with some of that, but I question "Is this really what I want my kids to take away about God?" I have been very careful and yet she is still getting messages like that, and thinks God will make her blind if she is bad. That bother's me.

How can stories be reconciled through the way of Christ? Christ acknowledged the Old Testament but was always concerned with the way that it was interpreted. Have we and are we still doing that with the stories we teach? I hope this makes sense. I would be curious to hear other ideas, or thoughts about this. Just thought I would throw it out.

Thanks again,


You raise great theological questions. I am humbled that you invite me to comment on them, and as in every act of humility I begin in prayer. I have no definitive answers. Nonetheless, I do have a few suspicions.

I'm not so much a dispensationalist so I don't believe things are starkly different after Christ than before. However, I do believe that through Christ our understanding of God has expanded, and we should allow it to continue to do so.

It seems to me that it would never be helpful to dismiss totally "punishment" from our understanding of God; if for no other reason, it would leave us with a skewed (toward indulgence, which is seldom, if ever, healthy) vision of what it means to be a parent. Rather I believe that we should allow God in the way of Jesus to redeem our understanding of what I would be more inclined to call 'discipline' and its function in child-rearing.

Let me rehearse some things you undoubtedly already know, just to give us the same frame of reference for the purpose of our conversation. I believe the goal of child-rearing is to equip our children to make as good if not better choices/decisions than we would--better being more toward God's kingdom, particularly more toward an others-interested love. What discipline does is make it less convenient to grow the way of self-interest--as we are apt to do (path of least resistance and all)--and more convenient to grow in a healthier, more abundant, others-interested direction (the way of Jesus). What happens at times, however, is that some are so determined to grow counter-fruitfully (I know that's not a word, but it should be :-) that they will sacrifice life and limb--theirs and others--to satisfy their self-interest. And what they discover sooner or later is that there is no sustainability (life) in self-interest. Eventually, self-interest ends up gobbling up the very thing one was after. The Apostle John puts it most succinctly, "In him [Jesus] was life" (1:5).

Thus, as Leslie (my wife) and I often say, our job as parents is to say, "No," 2 more times (one from her, one from me) than our children say, "Yes," and "Yes" 2 more times than they say, "No." And in doing so, we must be tireless and irresistible. For example, Les & I have taught our daughters how to ask for things early on. The youngest is 16 months, and her very few words include "up please," "more please," "[point] please". (It's a teacher thing; we got so tired of having students who would just declare a need out loud in class and expect someone to fulfill it!) Well, once our 3-year-old got 'please' pretty much down, she started to experiment. At first it was, "I want... [such-and-such]," and in the moment, if it's something we don't mind her having, it's easy to forget to make her ask properly. However, when we're on top of our game, we'll say no to anything she says "I want" for. Still, like any kid, she has sought to test our resolve. Her newest derivation on what we have taught her is to preface her desires with, "Maybe you should... [such-and-such-and-such]." Because we like to see her reasoning, this has been even harder to resist. Nonetheless, we know she'll never feel compelled to ask if she can get away with anything else. And we know the fruit her life will bear if she learns to manipulate before learning the humility and respect of asking. So tough and inconsistent as it may be at times, we strive to stick to our guns.

The way of Jesus has taught us these things and I believe I see them at work in God's good creation, so I have confidence in using them to inform my understanding of the dynamic between God and humanity throughout the Bible. I see God as Heavenly Parent working tirelessly to grow humanity toward life, yet many of the stories being about children who were determined even unto death (self-destruction) to think they knew better.

This is where I believe common language fails us: because I do not believe that common death (mortality) is one and the same with eternal death (separation from God). Maybe they would be, shy of the work of Jesus reconciling all things. But because of him, we live in hope that our stupidity that may lead to our mortal demise does not have to eternally separate us from the God who gives life.

So when I read the story of Noah, one of the lessons I see in it is that self-interest can't last always. When I read about Pharaoh Ramses, I see a man given the rare opportunity to resist God with resolve and what comes of that. When I read the stories of King Saul and Uzzah (the non-priest who touched the ark as David was returning it to Jerusalem), I see men who had accustomed themselves to exercising prerogatives (from the Latin meaning "before"+"ask") that were not theirs. All real lessons that must be learned. But all extreme examples of chastening which Paul is instructive in letting us know is not the first stage of God's discipline--not to mention that all struggle and/or misfortune is not an act of God's discipline (Bruce Wilkinson's Secrets of the Vine was real helpful to me in teasing this out). Still all these stories teach us that fire really is hot. Blessed is the person, young or old, who can learn from others' belligerence.

I believe the thing we must hold on to is the truth that "God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance," and we should tell our stories from that point of grace. What is God doing in these stories to reconcile us unto Himself [unto each other, unto creation or unto ourselves]? How is She loving us back to Herself and discipling us in the direction of good health and sustainability? That is my focus [(communicated age appropriately, of course)]. Fear may be a good attention grabber, like spanking--and sometimes we need our attention grabbed--but neither is a good reconciler or teacher.

I pray some of that helps you continue to process through how best to teach your children. We're all still in process on this thing for sure. What are you thinking in response?

Much love,
Melvin Bray

What do you think, other parents?


Michelle said...


I whole heartedly agree with so much you said, and do. I think studying psychology helped me in many areas. I am a much different parent than my parents were. I think where it would have been easy to repeat unproductive, and unhealthy cycles, I have been able to move to a different place.

As for the stories, I am searching for the age appropriate balance. For instance, I don't plan to discuss the deaths of all people except Noah, any time soon with my children. I would much rather emphasize how Noah and his family were taken care of through the flood, because he had found favor with God. Maybe emphasize the honorable traits God would like to see within us. My daughter is very sensitive to death etc. right now. I know in time these discussions will come, but especially at younger ages, I think heavy topics should be left up to the parents and how they want to handle them.

Too many times in churches I see really graphic ideas, or we think that kids "need" to get every detail of the story. I wouldn't want my kids to see many of these stories played out in movies. Honestly, at my kids ages I have been focusing on Jesus, the kingdom, fruits of the Spirit etc.

I was raised where spanking ("spare the rod") was top in our home. What I have realized as a parent and as I grow, is that so much of that was not done appropriately, and it didn't evoke the proper behavior etc. If anything it bred more anger, resentment, frustration, and temper problems. I know that this isn't the case all of the time, but for me, I have gotten away from it. I honestly haven't spanked either of my kids in quite awhile. I found that the times I would spank, it was more for my benefit (ie. control, venting anger etc.) than it really was for them. My kids are young, and we really have tried to reinforce positives, and discipline with other consequences. Now that my daughter has started school, we have found that she is really responsive to disappointing us more than anything, especially disappointing daddy.

With that in mind, maybe that is more what I am grasping. That the "fear" of God should be less vengeful in our storytelling with more emphasis put the idea that when poor choices are made there can be very real consequences. As you said, tell the stories from the point of Grace or that God's work is to reconcile the world. Obviously, those thoughts are intense for young ones, which is why I focus at this point on what I do. Thanks so much for the dialog. I will definitely post a link on Emerging Women.

Talk to you soon,

Existential Punk said...

i am going through a whole deconstruction of what i have been taught about the Bible. i am reading a great book by Marcus Borg, "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time", and it has been enlightening and freeing. i have almost walked away from Christianity several times and this book is helping me see the Bible in a fresh way and in a new light. Glad to see your blog and looking forward to reading more.