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What Does the Bible Really Say About Parenting?

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I was reading Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins" recently, when I came across one of his early arguments for a broader look at salvation. He suggests that, if the notion some maintain about the risks of eternal damnation are real, the most compassionate thing to do is to kill all of our children before they reach an age at which they are held accountable for their actions. This, he says, would be the only way to ensure they aren't doomed to hell later in life.

A hyperbolic example for illustration's sake, of course, but as a father of two, something about it really shook me. How do we ever know until it's too late if we're doing the right thing in how we raise our kids?

Consider Abraham, one of the cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian faith. He's the man from whom we all descend. But according to his example, I should be willing to kill my own children to prove I am a faithful servant of God. Though I understand the idea of placing faith in God before all else, including my own family, mostly what I come away with from this story is a bitter taste in my mouth for a God that would require such a test.

Though many focus on the testing of Abraham in this story, there is another angle to consider. As Rebecca Bowman Woods points out in "Banned Questions About The Bible," the practice of child sacrifice was common in Abraham's time. It's reasonable to consider then, that the author of this story is claiming that the God of Abraham doesn't require such offerings, because he stopped Abraham.

Personally, I identify with this interpretation, since we see time and again that God inclines toward mercy in relationship with humanity. It does pose a serious theological hurdle for those who maintain a belief in substitutionary atonement: the belief that God sent Jesus to die for our sins.

Also in the "Banned Questions" book, David Lose writes that although we may not find a comfortable interpretation of such stories, there is a subtext of hope. "God will provide what is necessary," says Lose, "and the righteous anger against God it may cause cannot remove one from relationship with God."

It's reassuring to consider that God can handle my anger. I remember trying to punish my parents growing up with scowls and silent treatment. It was only after I became a dad myself that I understood what a welcome relief such self-imposed quiet can be. So if I can handle my kids' anger, it's fair to assume God can deal with mine.

Another premium for any parent is to try and be fair, especially if you have more than one child. From special attention to birthday presents and slices of cake, there's an obsession in our culture implying that fairness is the same as parity. Some minor issues, like the slices of cake are easy to solve; let one kid cut the cake, and let the other one pick the first slice.

But despite our best efforts, something will always come along that will be labeled as unfair. But in examining scripture, I've come away with the sense that God's fairness hardly resembles our human understanding of the word.

Consider the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), all of whom get the same wages, while some work all day and others labor only an hour. Imagine how the guy who sweated all day for the same reward felt. Or the Prodigal Son, who ignored parental advice and conventional wisdom, blowing his entire inheritance and coming back to dad poor and humiliated.

Instead of offering an "I told you so" lecture like I probably would, his father welcomes him with open arms, gives him a gift and throws a party. Personally, if I were the faithful son who had stood by my father's side the whole time, I'd be more than a little pissed off by his generosity.

The prophet Malachi recognized the frustration of faithful Jews who did not care for the idea that there was no separate justice for those who didn't follow God's law (Malachi 3:14-15). This concern about no different fate for good and evil also evidences itself in Ecclesiastes 8:14-15:

"There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun."

Here the speaker, who is thought to be Koheleth, a preacher, seems to decry the unfairness, and effectively says, "Why bother? We all get treated the same in the end." Jesus affirms this notion of justice in Matthew 5:45 when he says, "... your Father in heaven... makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous."

One of the best and worst things at the same time about scripture is that it can be used to make nearly any point. If we want to justify corporal punishment, testing our children or even handing them over to an angry mob to be gang-raped (see Lot and his daughters, Genesis 19:30-38), we can find scripture to point to.

But if there's one theme that seems to prevail in seeking the parental nature of God in the Bible, it is one of unconditional, inexhaustible forgiveness, mercy and love. I'm hardly there in my own parenting, but as many have said before me, God is God, and I'm not. And that bodes well for all of us.

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