Of Guilt, Grace and Greater Affection
I had written a completely different article. I was initially writing directly in response to something that had been written recently by a "Cool Dad" about his approach to finding that his son had been viewing inappropriate media on the Internet. But as I wrote I began to realize that the issue at heart was not merely a "how do I talk to my son about porn?" question but really it was a question of how we address sin at all levels.
If you haven't read the post in question I recommend that you take a few minutes and do so. That will give you an idea of the alternative that this particular father chose to use. I'll summarize my take on what he wrote. He does a great job of approaching his son with respect and taking into account what might open further conversation. His reply was loaded with grace. I am fairly certain he and I may be trying to accomplish different things with our sons, though. Our differing goals will give some context to my further analysis. In his approach, Cool Dad goes beyond grace to facilitation. In essence, he downplays the action and rather tries to redirect it to more acceptable perversion. It might be something like trying to get an alcoholic to switch to 2.0 beer.
I think his approach may be more effective than the all-out guilt barrage to which we as parents sometimes default, but in truth, neither of them provides a true remedy for victorious living in the battle against sin. At this point I need to diverge from dealing with Cool Dad's approach because he apparently does not view his son's activity as sin (or at least didn't communicate as much on the internet) and therefore won't address it the same way.
My goal with my kids (and for myself) is not moral conformity devoid of reason nor is it "more acceptable" sins. My goal is that my kids and I grow more and more in our knowledge of Christ and our understanding of and love for his surpassing glory and what He has done to show us that glory.
To that end, it seems to me that I have a few wide categories of responses to sinful activity in the life of my son that are at my disposal:
Man-centered guilt: I can go the route of shame. I can talk about how disappointed I am and how disappointed God is. In fact, with religious kids, I don't even have to talk about God being disappointed. They will project the reaction of their earthly father onto their Heavenly Father on their own. The problem here is that while knowing the gravity of sin is essential, it is not the Gospel. Often what is bred in heavy-handed shame is not a desire for righteousness but compartmentalizing, secrecy and deceit. If my actions bring pain to the ones I love, then I will not be honest about them but rather try to battle them in seclusion - which is where our accusing adversary the devil thrives. He pulls us out of relationship with each other and with God and feasts on us with shame and guilt while whispering to us that sin is "just who (we) are." Soon we find ourselves estranged from God, seeing him as a disappointed father while we endeavor to win back his love by being good - only to find that we can't be.
Man-centered grace: This is the best way I could categorize Cool Dad's approach. I could be so supposedly concerned with my son's sense of acceptance that I completely disregard or downplay an action in his life that could lead to his spiritual death. In truth, this is not graceful at all. If I take this approach, I communicate to my son that his feeling accepted by me is more important than his KNOWING he is accepted by God by virtue of the accepted Christ. It is something more than curiosity that leads us to pursue sin. My son is looking for his identity. He may be looking for the acceptance that he does not know in the vaporous facade of two-dimensional images. If I merely assuage his guilt and point him in a "more-acceptable" direction I only push him further down the fatal path of chasing a shadow of wholeness in idols that will steal his life. It is a bitter irony of our age that, in order to combat what we see a low self-esteem, we have esteemed ourselves higher than ever and the one thing that cannot be tolerated is that I “feel bad” about something I have done.
Gospel-centered grace: A third alternative is the one I believe God employs with his children and therefore the one I want to aim at with my own. The problem that is presenting itself my children or I or anyone is seeking identity from something outside of Christ is not simply of wrong action, but of wrong affection. Simply, as C.S. Lewis coined, “We are far too easily pleased.” God employs conviction. God expresses grace. But He does both for a reason that is not centered on man but on Himself. HE is the satisfaction for his children. When I pursue sinful behaviors, I am sacrificing the ultimate for the immediate. The remedy is not to feel bad or to re-double my efforts in abstinence nor is it to simply assume that these passions are “who I am” and therefore acceptable to God. What is being revealed in a pursuit of sin is that I am not satisfied with the glory of Christ. Scripture's prohibitions come with a promise of something greater. It is a “this not that” admonition, not simply a “don't do that” command. To the issue at hand – when I discover that my son (or anyone) has been lured by pornography, my response is not simply “don't do that or I will punish you...” or “it's totally natural, God understands...” but “let's not settle for less. Sin gives Satan the open door he wants to separate you from the all-encompassing, beyond-comprehension love of God. Let's not give him that opportunity.”
For you moms and dads who may be dealing with the issue of pornography either personally or with your children or both, let me encourage you that the true remedy takes time. Guilt and giving up are “quick fixes” that fix nothing. That said, be wise. Build in some safeguards for both you and your children WHILE you seek to cultivate a love for Christ in you both. I highly recommend a resource that we have recently begun using at our house. OpenDNS (www.opendns.com) provides a free, router-based (meaning all the devices in your house that access the internet will have the same protection) utility that is customizable even with time restrictions. It's easy to set up and appears to be very effective.
Rather than guilt, let's talk about promised freedom. Rather than man-centered grace, let's talk about Christ-purchased redemption. Above all, pray for your children. Pray for yourself. Pray that the love for God will dwell in us richly and the sweetness of uninterrupted relationship with Him be the surpassing desire of our hearts.