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.