Morality is not the point.
Now stay with me. I bet you’ll agree when I’m finished. For a while now I’ve been asking the elementary-age kids I know, “What do you think God wants most from us?” Most of the time the answers are something like, “God wants us to be good” or “God wants us to pray a lot.” I was even pleased to get a “God wants us to help people.” These were the kind of answers I expected—but they are wrong. They are off by perhaps three degrees. If you start on a journey and you are three degrees off of your bearing, you will in a short time be half a mile off-course. In a few days you will be hundreds of miles off-course, and soon you’ll be in the wrong hemisphere. You will have completely missed your destination. That is why sailors have checked their compasses obsessively for thousands of years.
When I ask “What does God want most from us?” the words I hope to hear are “He wants us to love Him.” That’s the point. That’s what matters most. And in the pursuit of loving God we need to toss overboard whatever may distract us or cause us to drift off-course. The distractions are legion.
Christianity is complex; sin is easy. Those of us who have lived some years as followers of Christ are probably not going to stumble into a life of violent crime. We are probably not going to wake up one day and choose to wholly reject God and become angry atheists. However, we do need to be afraid of drift and distraction. As sinful humans, we will drift away from God, and we will be distracted—it’s unavoidable. Consequently, we need to discover these distractions early and get them corrected quickly. It's also important to note that these distractions come not only in the form of sinful temptations—they can come in any form. They can even look like good things. King Saul was distracted by his desire to be a good king, and the Pharisees were distracted by their devotion to Scripture, of all things. Abraham was distracted by his love for his son Isaac; it caused him to drift away from God. For those of us working to serve and teach kids through ministry, we need to be especially vigilant and stay on our course.
A wise man once observed that for ministers the one thing that hinders spiritual growth most is ministry. The very act of ministry can be a distraction from our relationship with God. Many enter into ministry with visions of making a difference in lives, of leading people toward growth and maturity. That’s the wrong motive. You’ve begun to drift by perhaps three degrees.
The right motive for ministry comes from loving God so much that you want to spill it over on others. If you go into ministry solely to serve either kids or adults, you are already distracted and drifting off-course. You will run aground. How? Kids certainly won’t appreciate your sacrifices; and adults won’t understand what you’re trying to do. They will even fight you and impede the very thing they hired you to come and accomplish! This scenario happens so often it has a name—burnout. To avoid this kind of disaster in ministry, in work, or in parenting, we need to honestly and humbly check our bearings and adjust our course constantly toward loving God.
Morality is not the point. When it becomes the point you will become corrupt. You will have lost sight of the main goal—loving God. This concept is very important when you are guiding a child or young believer in Christ. The Pharisees were moral, the most moral people around, and Jesus reserved His most scathing and condemning words for them (Matthew 23:27). Morality will not save you from hell; it will not even make you a better person. However, it will make life miserable for those around you. And eventually you will run aground. You won’t be able to keep it up; you won’t be able to keep mustering your will to step up and rescue you. Morality is not the point; it is merely a means to a much greater end.
When I was a kid I was taught by my Sunday school teachers and youth leaders that if I behaved well, if I was a moral person, good things would come my way. This is a bad bit of theology for a number of reasons. To tell this to kids may help the leaders to control them, but it is selfish of the leaders and harmful to the kids. It sets the stage for a theological crisis. One day this well-behaving kid will have the world crash around his ankles, and he’ll try to make sense of it. His thoughts will grope around for conclusions and probably come up with something like this: “I believed that if I was good, good things would happen to me. But because bad things are happening to me, I must conclude that I’m bad and that I deserve what is happening.” Or he might think, “I have been a pretty good kid, and this is not fair. I’ve held up my part of the bargain and God hasn’t. God is neither good nor loving after all.” I often worry about these silent, internal conversations because kids are using bad or incomplete information that leads to conclusions that will send them way off-course, far more than just three degrees.
I want my kids to behave well, and I want your kids to behave well. But I don’t want to create a theological crisis for them in the process. Luke 10:27 says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” There is the polar north of every disciple of Christ. Not self-sacrifice, not giving, not biblical knowledge, and not good behavior. Though these things are necessary, even indispensable tools on your journey toward becoming Christlike, they must not be allowed to become the goal.
For years I’ve thought about the legalist as being on one end of the spectrum and the grace-filled person being on the opposite end. These days I think they are only three degrees apart. Many of the behaviors of these two people are the same. They both spend time reading the Bible, they both speak to God, and they both try to do the right things. The legalist does much of this out of guilt or in an effort to earn God’s approval. The legalist is driven by the strength of his own will. And though he fails routinely, he hopes that he will be able to muster up the discipline to do better. He also holds an ever-increasing disdain for those who do not work as hard as he does. Can you see the pattern? It is all about him! His thoughts are on himself; he is consumed by how he is doing. This is precisely the kind of self-absorption Christ came to save us from. The grace-filled person on the other hand is striving to not be self-absorbed; he wants to be lost in love for Jesus. He is doing many of the same things as the legalist, but his focus is on Jesus. With only three degrees of difference at the beginning, these two people will end up in different hemispheres.
If we teach our kids only morality, the undertow of legalism will be almost irresistible. I propose that we as parents, teachers, and children’s workers check our bearings and work to lead our kids to love God first. Not an icky, silly love, but an informed, well-thought-out, and defensible love for God. Considering the character of God, a response of love is the only reasonable one. This is a difficult course to maintain. Along the way you will be a legalist sometimes, but just check your bearings and correct your course. I was probably a legalist twice last week, and I bet I will be again next week, so I need to check my bearings regularly.
So how do I do this? How can I be sure that Jesus is my polar north? Introspection is a helpful but underused tool. Ask yourself some tough questions like, “Am I really seeking to know and love God, or am I just reading my Bible so that God will bless me?” Try this one: “Do I treat the lost sinner badly because he offends my morality, or am I filled with compassion for him like Jesus was?” Or “If I hate things that Jesus did not hate, am I willing to change?”
I hope that you agree that loving God is the point—the only course worth following. If you do, you should then be asking something along the lines of, “Okay, so how do I do this? How do I love God more?” Even harder than that, “How do I help my kids to love God more?” These are exactly the questions to ask. Work on some answers yourself. Ask wise people around you. Be stubborn and intractable until you have a biblical plan that will lead you toward loving God more and guiding others to do the same. Next time I’ll tell you what I’ve come up with.
Listen to the radio interview Dave Carl did with the Moody Broadcasting station WDLM as they discuss Dave’s article “Morality Is Not the Point."