Posted in musings

principles vs. rules: parenting checklists and the pursuit of holiness

There are a lot of practical things I can do to help my family and take care of our home. I can keep the house relatively decluttered, I can make sure the clothes and linens are clean, I can cook good healthy food for our meals, and so on. On the next level up, I can take my boys outside to run around and explore, I can read them good books to capture their imaginations, I can spend quality time with them just being silly and creative, and so on. On a still higher level, I can pray with them, share with them the stories of redemptive history, bring them with me to Jesus when life is hard, and so on.

The list of possible beneficial and important things to do on any one of those levels is so long as to be overwhelming.

Life is complex and multi-layered, because it is made up of (often messy) relationships between (hopefully growing) people – and when we take that complexity and try to reduce it to a list of “should’s” and “ought’s” and “do’s” and “do not’s”, we find that the list has grown enormously in an attempt to cover all the different facets and situations a person might face. It just isn’t possible!

Maybe that is why, in the sermon on the Mount, Jesus decided to give us a calling to godliness, a set of principles to aspire to, instead of a moral rulebook. God had given Moses the law, and although it was designed for the specific situations dealt with by a specific group of people at a specific time, it was still incredibly long and detailed. With the new covenant, then, it wouldn’t have been feasible to extend that law to fit all the changing situations of the future world – so instead God chose to call us into a holiness that transcends the righteousness of the law, not by disregarding it, but by writing those moral principles on our heart instead of writing a list of moral rules on stone for us to follow.

So the unwritten lists of what makes a good parent aren’t the standard that really ought to matter for me. If we don’t get outside one day because we’ve been resting, or working on conflict and attitude, or recuperating from being sick, or enjoying each other’s company baking and reading and building, it’s not the end of the world, no matter what all the natural parenting advocates say. If we have boxed macaroni and cheese and fish sticks for dinner instead of an organic from-scratch meal, I haven’t committed a sin.

But if I let my anger control me, so that my relationships with my children are marred by resentment, harsh words, and bitterness, I have sinned. If I am lax with my own tendencies toward sin, petting my propensity towards gluttony by giving myself the last cookie before bed, fanning my vainglory by checking my WordPress stats one last time before shutting down the computer, or stoking the fires of my envy by scrolling through the Facebook statuses of my friends, so that those sins gain a greater foothold in my heart, I have sinned, even if I have broken no written rule, because I have let something interfere with my pursuit of God and my desire for holiness. If I let laziness and self-centeredness dominate my spirit, and if those things are the reason for the convenience food and lack of outdoor play I give my boys, then I have sinned – even though those same actions might be a sacrificial labor of love from another mom in another situation.

The principles Christ gives us are at once simpler to enumerate and more difficult to obey, because they demand all of us, and apply to every aspect of every situation of our lives. It’s overwhelming in a different way than those crazy lists that grow longer in my head every time I read a new piece of parenting advice! The difference here, though, is that Jesus offers us grace to grow in holiness – we don’t have to accomplish it on our own, although we do have to keep getting back up and trying again each time we fail and repent and are forgiven. And He promises that one day, some day, we truly will be holy from the inside out, and be able to live out those principles from the sermon on the mount as though they were our nature. For they will be our nature, and we will be a new creation, and all the mundane details of our lives (even doing the laundry and cleaning the bathrooms!) will be suffused with the glow and beauty of holiness, a light that we can see dimly even now as we strive to walk with Him.

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