One of my wife’s colleagues put me on to this editorial from Phil Zuckerman in the LA Time yesterday entitled: “How Secular Family Values Stack Up“. It opens by highlighting some of the statistical trends in the growing demographic that self-identifies as “non-religious”. This is a statistic mirrored in Canada. As always, the statistics certainly warrant a closer look, but that’s for another time.
The point of Zuckerman’s piece was to say that, contrary to popular beliefs, families without religious beliefs were doing as well or even better than many religious families at producing morally upstanding children. He states:
“Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children, according to Vern Bengston, a USC professor of gerontology and sociology.”
“Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” Bengston told me. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”
The overall point of the piece is: “You don’t need to believe in God to be good.” And of course the side-bar for parents is: “You don’t need God to raise good kids.” But my concern is this: How on earth did Christians become identified with such a message in the first place? Is this really the ‘take away’ that people have gathered from the church in North America?
Well, to whatever extent it is or isn’t, fair or unfair criticisms like these provide me with a healthy reminder to keep the faith I live out in check. If I am going to be criticized for my faith, I want to make sure that it’s the gospel I’m being criticized for, and not something else.
Can you be a “good” person without God? Sure you can. I have many non-Christian friends who are fine, upstanding, honest, caring and good people, seeking to raise their children to be the same. Their problem isn’t that they are “bad” people. Their problem according to scripture is that they are “dead” people. I recall Ravi Zacharias once putting it this way: “Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good; he came to make dead people live.”
Obviously sin must work its way into the conversation at some point and confirm what the Bible teaches as true, namely that there are no truly ‘good’ people. [Recall Jesus’ words, “who is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19)] The point however, is that as Christians we should be identified with and even criticized for the right message. Our gospel has nothing to do with making other people or our children behave well, even if lifestyle transformation is a necessary and expected result of Christian faith. Yes, Christians ought to be moral exemplars for a watching world, so that “they may see our good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:16), but this is not our gospel message.
The Christian message is not that you need God to be good, but that you need God to live. This is our message because it was the message and mission of Jesus, who said:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)
And what is this “cross over” all about? Again, we need to keep our message and our living biblical if either have any hope of changing us and those we wish to reach for Christ. Here again is where I think we often miss the boat in our pre-occupation with heaven. Eternal life is not looking forward to life of never-ending bliss in heaven. What does Jesus say?
“Now this is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and Christ Jesus whom you’ve sent.” (John 17:3)
Yes the Bible talks about a future that includes a new heavens and a new earth; of streets of gold and pearly gates; of no more tears or pain, etc. But these are not the goals of our faith; they are merely the descriptors of the living environment in which we will realize the goal of our faith, which is life forever with God. Our message is nothing less than the gracious invitation of our Heavenly Father to be eternally restored to the life he made us for; life to be lived in its entirety FOR and WITH Him. And the Christian message is that for all who put their faith in Christ, through his redemptive work on the cross, they can enter into that life NOW.
Perhaps criticisms from Zuckerman and the like, even if somewhat unfair railings against religious straw men, are good reminders for us to check and see if our Christian living truly reflects the ‘eternal’ kind of living that Jesus came to give us. (cf. John 17:3) And more importantly for Christian parents, that this is the life I am bearing witness to for my children. I don’t just want my kids to be good children; I want them to enter into life with God. I want their faith to be, not just a framework for moral and ethical behaviour, but a living experience of daily relationship with Jesus that absolutely transforms their lives.
Of course, I cannot lead them or others where I have not been myself.