Raising Very Nice Pagans

We’ve sat in pews; we’ve graduated from Sunday School, Youth Group, College & Careers; we’ve joined small groups, bought (and read) daily devotionals, made casseroles, packed Operation Christmas Child boxes, said prayers with our kids, joined worship teams. We are experts at Bible trivia and can self-GPS the nearest Christian bookstore. We visit nursing homes, take annual mission trips to Dominican Republic, leave bags of non-perishables in the donation bin at the grocery store. We are the people who were raised in good Christian homes, who populate churches and Christian schools and who pass the legacy down the generations. But sometimes we wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, take stock of our lives and wonder, “Is this it? Is this faith? Am I actually a Christian?”

Barrett Johnson’s article “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home” resonated with me before I even read it. As a poster child for Christian upbringing, I understand that title in a gut-gripping way. Johnson’s premise is that an awful lot of what we teach children about God, both at home and at church, ends up being moralistic codes of behavior rather than actual faith. We teach them to share and be kind and forgive and be generous and love others and cherish their purity and read the Bible and pray. Doing this, we turn them into very nice, well-behaved human beings. But do we teach them to know God? To understand that the core of faith is that we are forgiven, not that we are required to live perfectly? Johnson writes, “Do you teach your kids ‘be good because the Bible tells you to’ or do you teach your kids that they will never be good without Christ’s offer of grace? There is a huge difference. One leads to moralism; the other leads to brokenness. One leads to self-righteousness; the other leads to a life that realizes that Christ is everything and that nothing else matters.” Good behavior is often faith’s imposter.

The god of good behaviour

I am well acquainted with the god of good behavior. And I realize that I’m well on my way to teaching my daughter to know that god too. Yet my Bible tells me that Jesus came to liberate us from life under the law because we can’t behave well, no matter how hard we try. The law – the rules – are our death sentence, our certain failure. Paul said, “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway” (Romans 7:19, NLT). Paul said that. Saint Paul. If he couldn’t stay on the good behavior wagon of his own effort, goodness knows, neither can I. Am I setting my child up for certain failure, for a constant awareness of falling short of the very laws from which Jesus came to free us? As long as I focus on the behavior rather than the reason for it, I suppose I am.

The very practical question that has emerged from this this line of thinking is, how can I teach my daughter not so much to obey but to abide? How do I teach her to be a branch tapped into the source of all life, drawing Jesus into her very self like sap to twigs of the tree? How do I separate the rules of every day life which she must learn from the freedom and grace she has in Christ?

I really don’t know how to answer these questions, but I plan to pursue them. A friend recommended The Jesus Storybook Bible, which highlights the grace and purposes of Jesus through the whole biblical narrative, and we’ve been enjoying it. And I would love to get some input from other parents on how they teach their kids to distinguish between obeying the rules and living under grace.

There is increasing pressure in this secular postmodern era – in which everything is game for questioning – to walk this faith and live it, not just to talk about it. Theology can be challenged, but real life evidence is hard to dispute. Can we Christian parents soak in and soak up the truth of our forgiven-ness, our accepted-ness and then collaborate on practical ways to live this out in front of our kids? It has to begin with us. Waking up in the middle of the night to rehash the many ways I’ve failed to live up to the rules is not faith. I need to believe, right there in that moment in the dark, that still I am with my heavenly Father (Psalm 139), covered by grace and stamped with his approval, just as I am. And then I need to show my daughter how to do the same.


  • Emily Cramer

    Emily Cramer grew up in the Toronto area and spent most of her twenties living nomadically. She completed her English B.A. in New Brunswick (1999), burned through some existential angst in eastern Ontario and in Scotland, and finally wrapped up a Master’s in Christianity & the Arts in British Columbia (2008). She now lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband and daughter, where she works as a college Communications teacher and hopes to stay put, at least for awhile. She has been privileged with a number of writing opportunities over the years, such as a summer newspaper column on the natural environment and a novella for her graduating thesis, and is now feeling honoured to be able to explore the next leg of her travels - parenting and family life - with the CC.

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