When I was a kid I was taught by my Sunday school teachers and youth leaders that if I behaved well, if I was a moral person, good things would come my way. This is a bad bit of theology for a number of reasons. To tell this to kids may help the leaders to control them, but it is selfish of the leaders and harmful to the kids. It sets the stage for a theological crisis. One day this well-behaving kid will have the world crash around his ankles, and he’ll try to make sense of it. His thoughts will grope around for conclusions and probably come up with something like this; “I believed that if I was good, good things would happen to me. But because bad things are happening to me, I must conclude that I’m bad and that I deserve what is happening.” Or he might think; “I have been a pretty good kid, and this is not fair. I’ve held up my part of the bargain and God hasn’t. God is neither good nor loving after all.” I often worry about these silent, internal conversations because kids are using bad or incomplete information that leads to conclusions that will send them way off-course, far more than just three degrees.

I want my kids to behave well, and I want your kids to behave well. But I don’t want to create a theological crisis for them in the process. Luke 10:27 says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” There is the polar north of every disciple of Christ. Not self-sacrifice, not giving, not biblical knowledge, and not good behavior. Though these things are necessary, even indispensable tools on your journey toward becoming Christ-like, they must not be allowed to become the goal.

For years I’ve thought about the legalist as being on one end of the spectrum and the grace-filled person being on the opposite end. These days I think they are only three degrees apart. Many of the behaviors these two people do are the same. They both spend time reading the Bible, they both speak to God, and they both try to do the right things. The legalist does much of this out of guilt or in an effort to earn God’s approval. The legalist is driven by the strength of his own will. And though he fails routinely, he hopes that he will be able to muster up the discipline to do better. He also holds an ever-increasing disdain for those who do not work as hard as he does. Can you see the pattern? It is all about him! His thoughts are on himself; he is consumed by how he is doing. This is precisely the kind of self-absorption Christ came to save us from. The grace-filled person on the other hand is striving to not be self-absorbed; he wants to be lost in love for Jesus. He is doing many of the same things as the legalist, but his focus is on Jesus. With only three degrees of difference at the beginning, these two people will end up in different hemispheres.

If we teach our kids only morality, the undertow of legalism will be almost irresistible. I propose that we as parents, teachers, and children’s workers check our bearings and work to lead our kids to love God first. Not an icky, silly love, but an informed, well-thought-out and defensible love for God. Considering the character of God, a response of love is the only reasonable one. This is a difficult course to maintain. Along the way you will be a legalist sometimes, but just check your bearings and correct your course. I was probably a legalist twice last week, and I bet I will be again next week, so I need to check my bearings regularly.

So how do I do this? How can I be sure that Jesus is my polar north? Introspection is a helpful but underused tool. Ask yourself some tough questions like “Am I really seeking to know and love God, or am I just reading my Bible so that God will bless me?” Try this one; “Do I treat the lost sinner badly because he offends my morality, or am I filled with compassion for him like Jesus was?” Or “If I hate things that Jesus did not hate, am I willing to change?”