I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how children become the adults they become. Specifically, I’ve been pondering the ways in which ‘unpleasant’ things like responsibility, duty, and honor are learned. I know that some families have specific instruction in these topics, selecting stories or studies that focus on a specific character trait. But people were responsible long before someone wrote a curriculum about it. People displayed duty and honor without being told they should be dutiful and honorable. Even people who aren’t Christians can be and are responsible, dutiful and honorable… How? How have some people been able to instill these qualities in their kids? Install? Perhaps it’s just gleaned?
I have heard a lot of derision against the idea of Christian parents raising ‘righteous pagans’ almost as if we parents, by the quality of our parenting, can somehow convert our children into Christ-followers (look- no saving relationship required! Just be sure to read the Bible every night and don’t squash their little spirits and souls and they’ll love God!). I don’t believe we can ‘raise up’ Christians. We can certainly ‘raise up’ church-ified kids who know how to talk the talk, but we cannot create salvation in our children. Ultimately, their spiritual state is between them and our Father.
So what does it mean to ‘raise up’ children in the way they should go? What can it possibly mean since people don’t inherit holiness or salvation from their parents?
I’ve been thinking a lot about those righteous pagans. Sometimes (thanks Literature degree), I think about Dante’s ‘virtuous pagans’ who occupy the first (least horrible) circle of hell. These people are composed of the good people of the world who don’t know Jesus (perhaps an imagining of where He went during His 3 days in the tomb?). People like Virgil and Homer and Ovid- people who did nothing ‘bad’ and actually did some good things and yet, due to the basic corruption of all flesh apart from Christ, cannot enter Heaven…
Can Christian parents do anything BUT raise virtuous pagans? Since we can’t ‘save’ our kids- they need their own personal relationship with Jesus to do that (and we don’t control their hearts)- what ‘s the best we can do for our kids?
I’ve been thinking about my parenting instincts- why is it important that my kids learn to clean up after themselves? Why is it important that they know how to complete a project, offer people basic respect, understand how to accept ‘No’ without a melt down? It’s because the BEST I can give my kids is virtue- not holiness.
Virtue (perhaps Dear Charlotte would have called this magnanimity?)- is the ability to choose a way that is higher than base flesh. It’s the ability to exercise some control over the corrupt flesh. Virtue tells the man- Christian or not- that he must provide for his family and be faithful to his wife, even if his flesh pulls him toward self-indulgence and lust (second and third circles of hell, by the way). Virtue is what tells a woman she should give out of her own need and strive for a patience, even when she wants to hoard her money and scream whenever her will is frustrated (fourth and fifth circles). Instilling (allowing children to glean?) virtue in our children does two things for them:
First, on a completely material level, virtue allows our children to live quiet, peaceful, secure lives whether they become Christians or not. Since we can’t ‘bestow’ salvation, regardless of how well we parent, virtue literally IS the best we can possibly do for our kids. Virtue is what creates reliable employees (who then have some job security and basic material needs met), peaceful families (who then have fulfilled personal lives) and strong communities (who are then able to care for one another when times are hard). Virtue is the key to peace with this world.
Second, practiced virtue is a support to a Christ-following lifestyle. The child who has been taught to complete a task in honor of his parents has an easier time completing a task in honor of his God. The girl who understands what it means to deny her flesh and clean her room even when (especially when) she doesn’t feel like it, will better be able to deny her flesh and honor her God even when (especially when) she doesn’t feel like it.
Our witness of God’s intervention in our own lives is lived out in spirit and truth, word and deed in front of our children every day (Lord please cover my failings!) to invite our children to remember their Creator, to accept His invitation to make them new. But a careful and intentional focus on virtue is the most loving gift we can give our children of our own power. Let’s not overlook it.