Friday, February 1, 2013

Teaching Character Traits [A Self Salvation Project] Part 3

(Part 3 of a 3 part post on Teaching Character Traits - Read Part 1 and Part 2)

This series began with a look at what character means and how an extreme focus on character education and training in our culture has seeped into the church and Christianity. We are so mesmerized by good behavior and positive character traits we equate it with godliness.

The second post in the series examined the false belief that things are worse now than they have ever been. History has proven otherwise. Even still, we are shocked by the degradation and immorality and we panic. We believe we have to fix the tidal wave of a culture gone mad. We truly believe we can turn it around with educational programs that teach good character and a standard of morality.

What does the bible have to say about character? 

Many people throughout the bible are portrayed as displaying good and strong character. Honesty, hard work and kindness are distinguishing marks of a person set on God's ways.

However, no where in the bible do we see that good character describes the whole person and a person's whole life. We never read about a person who is able to sustain good character. Adam sinned and his son committed murder. David, a man after God's own heart, was an adulterer and a murder accomplice. Jonah, called by God to go to Nineveh ran the other way in fear. And on it goes. Even those who had the best intentions possessed character flaws. Peter doubted and questioned and outright lied. The disciples argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. From these examples it seems clear that,

God does not rely on the completion of a character training program to qualify his people for entrance into his kingdom.

Think about it. Who were the people of high moral values and seemingly flawless character in the bible? Wasn't it the pharisees and religious leaders who possessed all the principles of right living? Clearly they had excelled in the rigorous moral upbringing they received as children.

Contrast these stellar citizens with those Jesus called to be his disciples. Of the twelve closest to him, some were fishermen, one a tax collector and another a religious fanatic. While there is nothing wrong being a fisherman, chances are none of them received the kind of training and education the religious leaders received.

The contrast could not be more apparent. If good character and moral upbringing qualified the disciples, they would not have been called.

God's grace qualified the disciples.

Grace alone.

Over and over again, the bible makes it clear that good behavior and moral uprightness mean nothing in the kingdom of God. If it did, this whole thing would be about us and our accomplishments and our ability to act according to a set of standards. That is called slavery and it is a form of self salvation.

How Does Character Education Impact Our Children?

A friend in my community has an elementary aged child who is well behaved. She is the one who receives stars for her good conduct and she is recognized at school wide character program events. All this seemed innocent enough, and even something to be proud of, until this precious one lost control one day. I don't meant acted crazy, just talkative in the classroom. There went her star. She was devastated. Believing she was a failure she became despondent. Her pride was sorely wounded and she was embarrassed and ashamed. Meanwhile, her brother was at the other end of the spectrum. He learned very early on that attaining recognition for conformity to a standard outlined by the school was out of reach for him, so he gave up trying. He despaired of ever making a "good" impression on his teachers. As time went by he reveled in his disobedience and nonconformity.

Focusing on good character produces pride in those who can perform and despair in those who can't.

The more dangerous result of this kind of training is the self salvation aspect. Children believe that as long as they meet the standard for conduct and morality they are getting it done. This removes any need for God and the power of grace in their lives. At some point however, the burden and responsibility for their own salvation will crush them. Although some may achieve an outward obedience, inside they realize something is terribly wrong. The hypocrisy and dark shadows haunt them because the truth is,

character training can produce conformity but it can never change a human heart.

Another friend of mine is disappointed in her child. She is angry that her daughter acts disrespectfully toward her. She assures me that she raised her daughter to know right and wrong and that she set a standard for right character. At the top of the list was respect - especially towards parents and adults. But now, as a young adult, the daughter has had enough and my friend is incredulous as she continues to demand respect and in return receives contempt. It's a sad situation.

In both of these scenarios the gospel must break in and destroy the lies that have set these families up for sure disappointment and despair.

Only the gospel can crush our idols - the idols of pride and reputation and significance. Only the gospel can free us of the need to be recognized for our achievements.

Pointing To Christ vs Training in Character

Turning to the pages of scripture we read in Genesis the account of Abram (Abraham) and his nephew Lot. Abram has just won a battle and rescued Lot. Abram makes a hard but necessary decision to separate from Lot because he knows the land they are on can not possibly sustain all of their herds. According to the culture of that day, Abram would have had every right as the patriarch of the family, to choose the land he wanted. Instead we see a shocking gesture on his part. He defers to his nephew and says:
Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other.
Genesis 13:8-11

Reading this with our children, we're tempted to moralize the story. We say "Abram was a man of character and see how he put his nephew Lot before himself? God must be pleased with him! Be like Abram and God will be pleased with you too." Or maybe in a squabble between your kids you intervene and remind the kids of their devotion that morning about Abram and Lot. Have you ever caught yourself saying something like this: "Remember Abram and how he shared the land with his nephew Lot? He didn't have to give Lot the best land, but he did anyway because he loved God. God blesses us when we share with others."

Pointing out Abram and his good character misses the point of the story. Pointing out Abram's kind gesture is not bad, but if we stop there we miss Jesus. Every word of the bible whispers his name and every verse and every story is meant to point us to Christ. When we focus on the moral of the story we make it about us and what we can do to be better people. The truth is our children are sinners and what they need most is a savior.

Our children don't need to be better people, they need to be rescued by a Savior.

The truth is Abram was a sinner too. God's love for him motivated his love for Lot, plain and simple. Read the account of God's love and protection of Abram and his family in the face of his fear and deceit (Gen 12). God's love for us us always precedes our love for others. Our ongoing sin and rebellion points to our need for rescue, for a Savior, for the One who loved us to death that we might live. Every story whispers his name...

Check out these parenting resources:

Give Them Grace - Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson

Give Them Grace (website)
Grace Based Parenting - Tim Kimmel
Instructing a Child’s Heart – Tedd & Margy Tripp
The Jesus Storybook Bible - Sally Lloyd-Jones
Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing – Sally Lloyd-Jones


  1. Hi Lori. I appreciate all three posts in this series and I want to thank you for your great thinking and writing here. Good, good stuff. Have a nice weekend.

    1. Beth, thanks so much for your encouragement!