So I'll admit I dropped a bit of a bomb in my last post, and I want to clarify a few things: 1) I did not mean to imply that all Christian schools, parents, or teachers are clueless or the reason for the problem. Many Christian parents and teachers displayed the Gospel for me and I am so grateful for their ministry to me as a snotty and difficult young person! 2) I'm not promoting a rejection of structure or rules or saying that homes/schools with rules are always destructive. Rules literally kept me alive at certain points in my childhood! 3) I'm also not claiming to have all the answers to the problem. In fact, I'm still trying to wrap my head around some of the things my teacher is presenting in class right now.
Rules are important and necessary. Rules unexplained in light of God's character and our relationship to Him seem arbitrary; and- here's the kicker- rules enforced with an overwhelming emphasis on behavior are what often times end up making the Gospel seem irrelevant. Quick recap: kids should share, right? Well, we reduce the command to "share, because it's nice" and we enforce the command by expecting the behavior without discussing the necessary heart change that needs to take place to produce a genuine sharer. So, when I see kids fighting over a toy, I ask, "who had it first?" AKA, "whoever gets it first wins." A cute (but scary!) result of this kind of teaching is Paul Tripp's kid at six years old lying on top of a big pile of toys. He said, "I had them all first, Daddy!"
So, back to rules. We set up "sharing" rules so that kids don't have to address their selfishness, but manage it. Computer rotations. Assigned car seats. (I can't tell you how many fist-fights broke out in my family over the front seat of the van!) Or for a high school student, rules about how short skirts can be. Modesty is an expression of a dozen issues: like a self-image rooted in dignity (not dress-size), an unshakable confidence in one's value as God's child, a humble concern for the struggles of others, an unselfish mindset of ministry influencing our very wardrobe. We often try to address these incredibly deep issues of the heart with a measuring stick on the thigh or a rule book, as if that will magically produce the needed soul transformation!
We reduce God's standard to something manageable by leaving the attitudes of the heart out of it. We learn how to follow the rules with unchanged hearts. Again, we create 1) self-righteous rule followers (for example, girls with perfectly long skirts who might be every bit as insecure, vain, and self-seeking in their appearance efforts as the girls sitting in detention), and 2) kids who have sniffed out the hypocrisy of the rule followers-- and the applause they're receiving from Christian adults!-- and decide they want nothing to do with it. And again, the rule-followers don't think they need grace and the rebels think, "if that's what being a Christian is, I don't want it"
So, what's the solution? (I know, I keep thinking...ok Hannah, you've described this problem three different ways now. When are you going to write part B?) But I'll admit, I'm a result of this culture! It's still a big blind-spot for me. I'm basically scratching my head a lot in search of an alternative. Tedd Tripp writes about one in his book, Shepherding a Child's Heart:
"If you don't call him to be what God has called him to be, you end up giving him a standard of performance that is within the realm of his native abilities apart from grace. It is a standard that does not require knowing and trusting God. In other words, you either call your children to be what they cannot be apart from grace, or you reduce the standard, giving them one they can keep. If you do that, you reduce their need for God accordingly."
I know it might seem dorky that I'm quoting a parenting book while I sit in seminary, but it's convicting me! It's shedding light on a lot of my own experience as a young person and on my frustrations in shepherding young people around me. As long as we reduce obedience to God to following certain rules, the gospel will seem unnecessary. It will remain an ethereal, theoretical idea that we comprehend with our minds and assent to intellectually but it will have no power to bring us to repentance ("what from? I'm keeping the rules!") or produce life change ("what to? I'm already a good girl"). God's standard is much higher than we make it, and grace becomes truly amazing when we realize just how far we fall short. It doesn't exist just to fill in the gaps for our bad days; it rescues hearts so hard that the rules could never penetrate. And the Gospel alone gives us the power to live a life that would be utterly impossible to live apart from the Spirit of God at work in us.
Rules in the context of God and His standard- and my utter inability to keep it- bring me to the gospel. To want to share with a happy heart, to truly care more about ministering to others in the way I dress than about turning heads, to pray for and bless the self-righteous rule-followers with a pure heart, I desperately need grace. To be who God has created and called me to be, I need the gospel. Rules should be in place only to show me my need of Him, not to make my life manageable apart from Him. The gospel isn't just an added bonus, a trophy on my shelf with other good deeds. It's what rescues and redeems the deepest part of me- my heart.