The Family: God’s Litmus Test of Applied Grace

If you want to know the depth of one’s character, observe how they treat children and the elderly.

Folks on the extreme ends of life’s timeline usually have enormous needs and limited capabilities. These built-ins to their age bracket often place their daily success and ongoing dignity at the mercy of the people around them. Character is an outwardly focused nobility that is consistently offered — often at high personal cost — to people who can’t necessarily return the favor. It doesn’t really matter, therefore, what we say we are as a person.

When it comes to true character, the kindness, patience, and honor we show to children and the elderly tends to tell the more accurate story. And we could add to our character-test list widows and orphans (James 1:27), as well as the “least of these” type of people Jesus listed in Matthew 25:31-46.

God’s Grace As Your Family’s Default Mode

Which brings us to the subject at hand — God’s grace. It’s easy to give theoretical assent to the reality of God’s grace, but the ultimate litmus test as to whether or not we’ve truly allowed his grace to become our default mode is how we treat the people in our family. Home has a best-of-times-and-worst-of-times nature about it. As such, family can either be a watershed opportunity for us to move from walking in the flesh to living in the power of God’s Spirit, or it can be our Waterloo.

If grace doesn’t show up in the crucible of our demanding family dynamics, it doesn’t mean that the gospel is impotent, but it may mean that we’re kidding ourselves if we say we’ve truly embraced the transforming work of God’s grace deep down in our lives.

We can give lip service to God’s grace all we want. But if our kids would prefer having their gums sanded over having to eat at the same table with us each day, and our spouse would rather wake up alone rather than next to us morning after morning, then most likely the grace we say we embrace is merely our lip-syncing to the real thing.

I’ve just listed two worst-case scenarios to make everybody feel better, but the truth is there are all kinds of things we can do — short of making our family members wish we weren’t in the Christmas photo — that still speak to the minimal presence of God’s grace in our relationships.

Grace for Conversion and for Everyday

So how does this happen to well-intended Christ followers? For too many followers of Christ, the grace we embrace at the cross unwittingly gets confined to God’s work of redemption. We tend to limit God’s grace to his “saving” grace — the lost-found, blind-see experience that moves us from spiritual death to life.

But then, for a lot of reasons (all lame), we proceed to stunt and blunt the work of God’s grace and move to a more performance arrangement with him. Kind of a “with all he’s done for me, I owe him so much, I’ve got to spend the rest of my life paying him back” type of nonsense. This mindset should have no place in the application of the gospel, but indeed often plops down on the Lazy-Boy positioned in the middle of our hearts and refuses to budge.

When this happens, it shouldn’t surprise us that the children we’re trying to impact with the gospel find our platitudes about God’s grace a hard sell for their hearts, and the spiritual performance we proceed to put them on to be a complete turn off as well. The generation being raised right now en masse operates under the presupposition, “If it works, then it’s true.” If our children don’t see God’s grace changing the way we deal with them — especially when they’re pushing all of our buttons — it’s hard for them to assume there’s much more to it than the cool song we all know the words to.

Confronting Fear-Based Parenting

If it’s not performance-based Christianity that blocks God’s grace from owning our hearts, then it’s one or a combination of other usual suspects. Probably the most prevalent is what I like to call “fear-based parenting.” We feel out-gunned, overwhelmed, and in over our heads when it comes to raising kids in the midst of such a contrary society. Fear should incline us to simply put our trust in God and not agonize about any of this, but when it’s our kids on the line, it tends to do just the opposite.

Next thing you know, our fears have driven us to create man-made systems that have all the evangelical trappings of legitimacy, but are actually just accommodations to our fears that factor out the mighty power and presence of God sustaining us in the middle of it all. We’re talking things like: cloistering, sin management, spiritual image control, and evangelical behavioral modification. We substitute knowledge about God for the actual work of God in our kid’s lives. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that they aren’t inclined towards a passionate relationship with Jesus.

It is the transforming work of God’s grace showing up as love, mercy, kindness, understanding, forgiveness, hope, freedom, and calm — when our kids are trafficking in their worst behavior — that indicates whether Jesus is driving our personal bus or merely just a passenger.

Joining God in the Miracle of Parenting

The grace in which God saved us is the very same grace he meant to wash over us, seep through us, and ultimately redefine us. That’s why the best advertisement for the gospel is a mother or father who are not only guided by God’s truth, but consistently tempered by his grace. That’s how God deals with us (John 1:14). Why not follow his example? In fact, that’s the bottom line of grace-based parenting — it’s simply treating your kids the way God treats you.

Parenting is our chance to take God’s hand and join him in a miracle. The transforming impact of God’s grace happens best in our children when it’s happened deeply in us first.