The biggest lie that I ever told my daughter was the cover-up of her pet fish’s death.
When my daughter started asking about having her first pet, we really weren’t interested in something high maintenance. I’m allergic to most pet dander anyway, so that (mercifully) ruled out most cats and dogs. And – no – I’m not buying one of those expensive, inbred and ridiculously named hypoallergenic dogs either. So when my daughter begged for a pet, a fish tank seemed like a safe, low-maintenance angle. Upon the seemingly expert advice of the teenage, acne-faced Petsmart worker, we went all in for the best tank, filter and variety of fish available. We proudly set up our tank in the front window of the living room, and our daughter proceeded to name her fish after her beloved Teen Titans Go characters: Starfire … Trigon … Raven … Cyborg.
So you probably already see where this story is going.
Raven died. My daughter’s favorite. A bloated corpse bobbing lifelessly.
Providentially, I discovered Raven’s floating corpse while coming home from work on lunch break. Immediately, an unwholesome thought came across my mind: Gwen’s not home from school yet … Replace the fish. So easy I’d seen it done on TV over a million times. I checked my watch … Barely enough time to run to PetSmart. Fortunately, Petsmart had a reasonable facsimile of the deceased, so I was able to get Raven 2.0 in place before my unsuspecting kid came home.
Now my lie began as a lie of omission. I never told her about the fate of O.G. Raven. However, my daughter started to remark that Raven somehow looked “different.” And then I assured her that – yes – Raven did magically develop a hunchback, bigger eyes and red colored gills. It’s puberty or something like that.
Alas, our fish story doesn’t have a happy ending. After the miraculous, Lazarus-like recovery of Raven, we wound up committing fish genocide. Never seeking to be upstaged or outdone, I bought an “even better” filter for the tank … And the sheer power of that filter sucked all of our poor sickly fish into its deadly rotating gears. As I scraped out the shredded pieces of my daughter’s pets from the filter gears, I felt like the living incarnation of the Jigsaw killer from the Saw movies.
We now have a guinea pig, who mercifully seems harder to accidentally murder while we’re away at work.
Parents, we often tell seemingly “harmless” lies to protect our kids. I’m not advocating lying (*ahem* … it’s a sin) … I’m just saying it’s unfortunately commonplace in our parental play book. We tell our kids that Santa is watching when they’re beating the snot out of each other around the Thanksgiving table. We tell our kids that the TV is broken when that annoying Caillou cartoon is about to come on. We tell our kids that Chuck E Cheese is only for birthday parties and not daily dining. We tell our kids that the dead dog moved to a farm in California. To borrow from the Millennial jargon, there are just times when “I can’t even” with these kids.
So why do we lie to our kids? In a true Machiavellian manner, we believe that the ends justify the means when “white lies” are involved … That there is a greater good to be served by leaving our kids in an alternate reality … That keeping our last frayed ends of sanity together is more valuable than our kids desires … That we’re protecting our kids by keeping hard truths out of their reach … That our kids are more well-behaved and compliant amidst the fiction. White lies are the parental “easy button.” And we largely lie because we’re selfish.
Amidst the white lies about chicken nuggets, nose picking and kids cartoons, I believe the biggest lie that Christian parents tell their kids is this: “You are saved by works.”
Allow me to explain.
Over the past twenty years of student and family ministry, I have met a litany of well-meaning, Gospel-believing parents who taught their kids to believe they’re saved by some form of good works. This fractured view of salvation stems from a lifetime of poor Biblical interpretation, whereby we distill virtually every Bible story into legalistic anecdotes about well-behaved children. We inform our kids that we shouldn’t sin like Adam and Eve did. We tell our kids that God rescues good people like Noah. We tell our kids to obey the 10 Commandments. We tell our kids that we should model our lives after King David.
Of course, we know these overly-simplified interpretations of Scripture are wrong. All have sinned like Adam and Eve (Romans 3:23) … Noah was actually saved by grace … No one can obey the Law (Romans 3:10) … King David was an adulterer and cold-blooded murderer.
So why do we perpetuate these hermeneutical nightmares amongst our kids?!? Here’s the thing for many parents: We’d much rather have compliant kids than Gospel-centered kids. We’d much rather tell the kid throwing a fit over Goldfish crackers that God desires moral, compliant children. We’d rather tell the hostile child who just clocked another kid that God hates bad people. It’s often to our advantage to tell our kids this “white lie”: We want our kids to behave. And the fear of God often produces compliance. A little fear of Hell produces a lot of hustle. And thus we distill our version of God into a “cosmic Santa Claus”: God gives good gifts to good people … And God consigns the really bad people to Hell … So you’d better act like a good person because God’s see you when you’re sleeping. Shamefully, most parents even realize their teaching contradicts the Gospel, but their immediate need for well-mannered children overshadows the eternal consequences.
All too often, I’ve seen the long-term damage done from this reductionistic philosophy in the hearts of teenagers. I’ve met way too many church-going kids that believe that “good people” who attend church regularly, come from Norman Rockwell-esque “good homes” and serve faithfully in church go to Heaven. Other kids believe that a defining life moment, such as a baptism, a “magic prayer,” a church camp, a mission trip or a date written in their gift Bible, is the ultimate evidence of their salvation. And many church-raised Millennials simply believe in some relativistic form of universalism (“all roads lead to Heaven”). These kids are often incredulous when I try to burst their bubble and tell them they’re not saved by their “inherent goodness” … Because you don’t have any inherent goodness.
During my first season in youth ministry, I remember leading a Bible study that included Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:37: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” As we probed deeper into the meaning of that passage, one high school senior seemed shocked at Jesus’ words: “Are you telling me that I have to love Jesus more than my parents?” As she stood up from her chair, she was visibly exasperated at the words of Jesus and demanding my attention. As I affirmed Jesus’ words and began to share the Gospel, she became more agitated, giving an unsolicited overview of her unorthodox beliefs about Christianity: “I believe that the real Jesus really wouldn’t tell us to do that. Jesus loves good people from good families. Jesus would never ask me to do that.” She walked out. As I interacted with her later, I began to realize this senior had been sold the Gospel of “being a good person from a good family.” And if the Gospel was based on God’s grace instead of our goodness, then a recently deceased family member might not be in Heaven after all. Tough stuff.
Sadly, this experience is commonplace instead of an aberration. Recently, I took a young person to camp whose entire definition of salvation was based on “doing better” and “trying harder” to please God. When this person was confronted with passages in the Bible about salvation by grace, their response was essentially: “I’m sorry that I don’t understand the Bible well … I’ll try to do better to please God.” (*face palm*) Speaking the Gospel to this young person was like speaking pig Latin … The Gospel was both familiar and shockingly unrecognizable. And that’s the unfortunate truth for many kids: They’re spent some much time and been so affirmed doing the “good kid” routine in church that they’re inoculated to the genuine Gospel of grace. They have a hard time distinguishing the facsimile from the truth.
Kids who trust in good families.
Kids who trust in being in church every time the doors are open.
Kids who trust in magic water in the baptismal.
Kids who trust in the abra-kadabra magic words of front-altar prayers.
Kids who trust the scales of good / bad behavior will tip in their favor.
Kids who mistakenly don’t trust in Christ alone.
So here’s my simple encouragement to parents: Have the spiritual guts to ask your kids one crucial question: “Why did Jesus save you?” If your kids give an answer that reeks of the foul smell of good works or legalism, then you need to lovingly confront your kids with the Gospel. No greater Biblical lesson can be taught to our kids than Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” You may wind up having to undo some spiritual damage that you’ve unwittingly done to your kids’ theology, but the long-term benefits are critical to your child’s salvation.
Because we are saved by grace. We are not saved by good behavior, church attendance, baptisms, magic prayers, service in church or names on church rolls. We are saved because Jesus mercifully loved evil wretches like us. That’s why His grace is amazing.
Tell your kids the truth: Following Christ is all about grace.