Rewards, Punishment, and Jesus: Why Unconditional Parenting Resonates with my Picture of God

So I’ve been talking in my last several posts about Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting, and I explored why the style of parenting he advocates — i.e. doing away with rewards and punishment, in favour of gentle instruction — resonates with my experiences and convictions.

But it does more than that. Unconditional Parenting also resonates with my understanding of God.

Before I go any further, I want to repeat that Unconditional Parenting is a secular book, and Alfie Kohn appears to be decidedly non-religious.

In fact, he argues that an authoritarian approach to parenting – which emphasizes punishment and rewards – “has deep roots in certain religious belief systems” (p. 102). He writes:

While many religious people equate the idea of unconditionality with aspects of their faith, a case could be made, drawing on the holy books of Christianity and Judaism, that the deities in these religions offer the ultimate in conditional love. Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly promise extravagant rewards for those who are properly reverent, and horrific punishments for those who aren’t. . . . Do what you’re told; you’ll become rich and get to watch your enemies die. Stray from the faith; you’ll suffer a range of consequences. . . . And for some believers, of course, even more significant blessings or curses await us after death. (102)

But, you see, that’s not the God I know.

My God loves unconditionally.

He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:45). He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:35).

My Jesus loves even those who hate him, and wishes them well, begging the Father’s forgiveness on their behalf (Luke 23:34).

My Father loves to give good gifts to his children (Matthew 7:11). It doesn’t matter what great or horrible things we do – he still loves us. No matter what we do, we still have unsurpassable worth. Nothing we do can take that away.

I do not believe that God sentences anyone to eternal punishment. It does seem that God, out of respect for our free will, has made space for people who don’t want to be with him, and this is called hell; but this is not something God wants for anyone (2 Peter 3:9), and so he sent his Son to come and woo us into his Kingdom.

And it’s our job, as members of his Kingdom, to try to woo others, too.

If there’s one thing I know about God, it’s that he wants us to want him.

He wants our hearts. He wants us to offer them to him willingly — to pant after him like a deer pants for water (Psalm 42:1).

That’s why he gave us free will, and why he permits us to wander away from him. He wants us to have the choice to love him.

Reward and punishment can do nothing to foster genuine love.

And so that’s where Jesus comes in, with his free gift of grace to whoever will take it. Whoever seeks after him will find him; whoever asks for him will have him (Matthew 7:7).

And lastly, Jesus honours children just as much as adults.

(Mark 10:14-16). He treats them with dignity and respect. I want to follow his lead and never treat any children – including my own – with less respect than I would give an adult.

All of these characteristics of God line up with the kind of parenting Alfie Kohn advocates.

My Role as a Jesus-Following Parent

I believe that my role as a follower of Jesus is to BE Jesus here on earth. To act as his representative, so that when people see me, they see Jesus. We are to offer a picture of his likeness to everyone.

This role is especially important when it comes to my children. In fact, it is more urgently so, because children’s notions of who God is are shaped so strongly (for better or worse) by the way their parents treat them.

If Jesus loves unconditionally, offering lavish gifts of love at every opportunity, regardless of how we behave and with no strings attached, then I must do the same to everyone I meet . . . including my children.

So that’s why I want to parent the way Alfie Kohn describes: because that’s the way I believe God parents me, and I want to do the same for my children.

But what about all the punishments and rewards in the Old Testament? (A little theological rabbit-trail)

(Feel free to ignore this if you’re totally feeling my description of God above).

I suspect this might be a common objection to the picture of God I’ve painted above: Doesn’t God use extreme rewards and punishments in the Old Testament?

So let my clarify: I believe that Jesus is the ultimate and complete picture of God, and that we must look to him first and foremost when trying to understand God’s character.

And when we look at Jesus, we see a God who is merciful, self-sacrificing, and supremely non-violent.

I believe that the Old Testament offers us an incomplete picture of God. I believe that God has been revealing himself to us gradually throughout history, but he offered his complete and perfect revelation in Jesus Christ (Heb 1:3, Col 1:15, 19). In other words, Jesus was the culmination and completion of God’s self-revelation, and the ultimate expression of his nature was demonstrated on the cross.

I believe that all Scripture is written to bear witness to Christ (John 5:39-40, 46-47; Luke 24: 44-45), and so the Old Testament ought to be interpreted with that in mind. I believe that while all Scripture is divinely inspired, it was not intended to carry the same weight for all people throughout history. So we need to keep that in mind when the God of the Old Testament doesn’t seem to match up with the revelation we find in Jesus.

Though God “breathed” through all the biblical authors (2 Tim 3:16), the Old Testament authors did not all know “the Word of God in fullness,” which was the “mystery” that was “kept hidden for ages and generations” (Col. 1:25-26). As Greg Boyd explains, this “mystery” was the truth of God’s character: He is humble, unconditionally-loving, and self-sacrificial, willing to die so that we could be with him.

So in that case, God looks like a battered man, dying as a criminal on a cross, asking for the forgiveness of his executors.

All of this is to say:

If I want to help my children understand who God is, then, I believe I need to behave as much like Jesus as possible: with compassion, gentleness, and patience; never with violence.

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  1. I believe that God is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. I believe the Old Testament is an accurate, albeit, one-sided picture of our God. While Jesus and God are the same, they are ultimately two different roles. God definitely punishes; he hates evil and always shows justice. Most of the time, his punishments come out in consequences to help us learn (and obviously not every bad thing that occurs is punishment!!) Jesus is the go-between, the intermediary. When thinking of Jesus in the punishment/reward topic, my thoughts right away centre on the beatitudes, where He offers rewards for certain characteristics. Matthew 5:12 even says that He rewards us. Matthew 5 and 6 are clear pictures of the law, with 5:22 even saying that if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. That is punishment. Obviously, there is His grace and mercy which allows us to confess and be forgiven of absolutely anything, and that is a matter of our free will. I do think that God punishes, however. Ultimately, the punishment’s goal is for our best, for us to see the power and might of God, and to see that love His love is for our best. Jesus definitely woos us, and that is so important, but I believe it’s to save us from punishment of our own choices. Jesus said, “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them.” I believe that means the laws and punishments together, for they are always paired together. If we didn’t have Jesus, we would be constantly guilty of breaking this law, and then the next. Jesus save us by being able to call on His name, and if we don’t, we are punished. He is always just. And I believe that includes punishing. His punishments are always out of love, and to save us from ourselves.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Sandra. I intended to respond a million years ago — sorry! I totally agree with you that “God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” so at least we have the foundational stuff in common! :)

      I’m still trying to fully understand the passages in which Jesus talks of rewards and (more importantly) punishment, because they seem incongruous with most of what he did and taught. They don’t seem to sit quite right with the one whose dying words were, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And punishment seems totally out of place when Jesus already took the punishment for our sin upon himself.

      In terms of the Beatitudes, I feel like Jesus is describing the natural consequences of being a part of the Kingdom — living a life of humility, meekness, mercy, etc: because then God is with you. He comforts the poor, the grief-stricken, etc. The most obvious example of natural consequences, to me, is “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This goes along with his promise that “those who seek will find.”

      Moreover, many of the things on the Beatitudes list aren’t behaviours or things you can control (e.g. “those who mourn”), so it doesn’t really make sense to call God’s comfort to these people a “reward.” But you’re right, he does use the word “reward” in verse 12, so I may be missing something.

  2. Well, and even in the Old Testament, you still find God the loving parent. How many times did those bull-headed Israelites whine and complain and fail to trust Him when out in the desert? But He always provided: water from stones, manna from heaven. Because He loved and cared for them, even when they were obnoxious brats.

    And later, think of the kings. Good kings didn’t always have long reigns; bad kings didn’t always have short ones. God let many of the kings enjoy long and prosperous reigns despite the fact that they rejected him. And kings He blessed, like Solomon, still managed to get themselves into a whole bunch of trouble because they didn’t listen to Him–He didn’t protect them from the consequences of their actions, but He lavished love and blessings on them all the same.

    The Old Testament days were an interesting and unique time in history. The OT documents God’s relationship with one specific people whom He had chosen. His terms were more specific. The violence on all sides can be shocking, but, if anything, God was a much gentler God than many others. After all, the Stone and Bronze and Iron Ages were not exactly a gentle or happy time to live in no matter who you were or whom you worshipped.

    Yet, throughout, I think you can still glimpse the same God that was later revealed through Jesus. The God who saved the widow and her son with flour that never ran out. The God who saved a prostitute for her kindness and made her part of the earthly lineage of Jesus himself. The God who shepherded those whiny-brat wandering Israelites, who sent a son to faithful Hannah when even the priest mocked her, who inspired Solomon’s love song and the Psalms, who protected his people through their exile and brought them home again. The God who time and again chose the weak–a stuttering exile, a shepherd boy, a pretty Jewish girl in a foreign kingdom–to confound the strong.

    Modern people are uncomfortable with the Old Testament. It describes an entirely different world, a violent, bloody time when humans were still figuring out exactly what it means to be human (as if we have the answers now in the twenty-first century!). But that same loving Father-God is still there. He always was and always will be.

  3. We just bought the documentary Hellbound? On iTunes … Oh man it’s really good. Have you seen it? It looks at the history and implications of our beliefs about hell. I can’t help but wonder how much those beliefs stem from how we have been parented (primarily punitively) and how we parent that way because we think that’s how God treats us … Anyway I just sent a bunch of your posts to a friend looking for Christian articles on gentle parenting. Good stuff friend!!

    • I haven’t seen it, but I’m very interested in it. (I know that Greg Boyd is interviewed in it). I will definitely have to make it a priority — it sounds fascinating! And thanks for the support!

  4. Hi,

    I’m reading here for the first time but I just wanted to say I got the EXACT SAME feeling as I was reading the book…A secular and anti-religious author who put his finger right on divine Love. Before I became a Christian, I used to think that the Christian God used Heaven and hell as rewards and punishments. Now I know it can’t possibly be the case because He has given us the reward BEFORE we earned it! How crazy is that!!!! Totally on the same page about Jesus’ backwards Kingdom, and so excited about applying these principles…Thanks for your post.


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