Rotten Kids?

My son, who is 7, is a really sensitive kid.  I like that about him.  I especially like how he befriends other kids with special needs.  Whether it’s another kid on the basketball team who has autism or a relative with Cerebral Palsy, he seems to make special time and give special attention to those whom others might rather ignore.  As I wrote, I like that about him.  What I don’t like is how stubborn and selfish he can be around the house when he doesn’t get his way.  It can be a real chore, to put it mildly, to convince him to wear clothes to school he may not like.  I really don’t like that about him.

My other son, who is 5, is a cute kid and really cuddly.  He’s small enough still to curl up in a little ball and fall into your lap and chill for a while.  I really like that about him.  What I don’t like is that when his brother takes something from him or doesn’t follow his directions, he lashes out and strikes hard.  Really hard.  I really don’t like that about him.

As a parent I wonder, “what have I done?”  In other words, were these kids born bad and have I helped them find some good?  Or, were they born sensitive and cuddly and have I spoiled that good nature?  The Reformed tradition has answered these questions with two words: TOTAL DEPRAVITY.  They sound awful, I know.  It goes like this:

Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin. Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.Canons of Dordt, Point 3, Article 3

Some people take this to mean that there is no good we can do at all so that even the good things we appear to do are really only selfish in nature and therefore bad.  That’s depressing.  Other people take it to mean that there is no good we can do to save ourselves from the wrath under which we were born.  So, while there is “a certain light of nature remaining in all people after the fall, by viture of which they retain some notion of God” it is “far from enabling humans to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him” (Point 3, Article 4).  As a parent, some of that makes sense.  But, only some of it.  And, only some of the time.

A recent study came out that, I think, helps us understand human nature and sin and what “conversion to God” might look like (not to mention how we might raise our children).  The study showed children two dolls: one with similar food tastes and one with dissimilar.  Here’s a brief summary from an article I read:

Wynn and lead author, Kiley Hamlin, now of the University of British Columbia, wanted to know if infants’ preference for similar individuals meant that they hold negative attitudes toward those who are unlike themselves. In the new study, the researchers introduced babies to a puppet with the same food preference as the baby and to a puppet with the opposite preference. They then introduced two new puppets: One was helpful and retrieved a dropped rubber ball. The other was mean and took the ball away.

As expected babies of both ages preferred the helper over the meanies when the puppet being assisted liked the same food they did. But the next finding surprised the researchers: When the puppet that dropped the ball did not share the babies’ taste in food, the infants preferred the mean puppet to the helper. In other words: Babies prefer someone who is nice to an individual similar to themselves, but they also prefer someone who is mean to a dissimilar individual. (you can find the full article here).

Long story short, we like what we like and those people who share the same tastes.  As far as those who are different or “other” are concerned, eh, who cares?  Some of Jesus’ words come to mind:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. – Luke 6:32-34

“Help people who help you?” Jesus asks, “What’s the big deal? Everyone does that.”  Or:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:12-14

“Invite those who can invite you back?” Jesus asks, “Been there, done that.  Instead…”  You know the rest.

It’s not that we’re all bad.  It’s just that our goodness is limited to those we know will be good in return.  It seems that human nature is “depraved” because it is too narrow; “totally” defined by its own tastes and preferences and willing to exclude and harm others (and maybe even enjoy it) who are different.  According to the study we might be born that way.  Too often it seems that people stay that way.  So, God sent Jesus to show us another way, a wider way, a more inclusive way and will share Holy Spirit to convert us to that different kind of way.  I’m going to try to raise my kids that way.

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6 thoughts on “Rotten Kids?

  1. Wow…Peter…I really enjoyed this post, and it has me thinking about my own kids, and the hopes and dreams I have for them. This morning I was thinking about how I tend to project my own fears, anxieties, and hopes onto my kids. It’s almost like we’re hard-wired to only want for others what we want for ourselves. We assume everyone should prefer what we do, and hate what we hate. When that doesn’t happen, we have a problem, and often we solve that problem by clinging to our own tastes and rejecting others. An excellent tie in both to total depravity, and to Jesus’ words in Luke. Thanks for giving me something to “chew on” today!

  2. My child is much older than yours, Peter and April, and I know those hopes and dreams and thoughts, and I know my child has grown up to like a lot of what I like but not all of it. Sometimes, my child is not that easy to love, and I am sure he thinks that about me. Moving even beyond Luke, Jesus’ new commandment in John 13–Love one another–actively love whoever is in front of you, no matter what–becomes a much bigger challenge for us poor, deprave folk.

  3. Thanks April and James!

    We have a coaster in our house that reads: Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.

    I occasionally wonder what it will be like to raise a child who shares interests that I don’t have. It was really mundane stuff (i.e. basketball and golf), but I looked forward to enjoying those things for my kids. Then, for a long portion of their very short lives neither boy wanted anything to do with them. Why had God forsaken me?!

    Seriously, what if “the path” becomes an issue of faith? What if they want to join the military? What if they become millionaires and choose to jet-set rather than start a charity? Who knows for now, but the “other” could be right in my own family.

  4. Peter, this is a great post! I must admit I can often be caught muttering of my discontent with the term “total depravity.” It seems a bit of a misnomer if we always have to qualify what we do and do not mean by it. I also don’t like that it often makes fallenness/sinfulness/brokenness – whatever you want to call it – our starting point in theology rather than a secondary point after being made in the very image and likeness of God. To borrow from a book by book by Harry Boer that has profoundly shaped my own thinking on this subject, there is an ember of that image and likeness still glowing in each and everyone of us while no doubt we are also marred by sin and brokenness.

  5. This post falls right in line with one of the questions of my heart right now: “How do I ‘love my neighbor’ when my neighbor is each person I do or even DO NOT come in contact with? I live on the edge of a community that is imploding in on itself, and I feel an urging to go and be Jesus to them. But how do I do that when I’ve never met them, and why am I so gosh-darn scared??

  6. Wayne, I agree. I don’t know why we can’t hold more tightly to that “certain light” that shines in everyone. At the same time, I often remind people in church that if we really believe that people are sinful and bound by that sin until they are set free by Christ, then we should expect that they will take advantage of our kindness or resist our generosity or return evil for good. Too often Christians resent it and turn from it, but we shouldn’t be surprised by it. Instead, we should be inspired to uncover that little light that shines inside so that their “joy may be complete.”

    That’s the answer for Jill, I think, too. Jill, you should expect to be rejected and resisted and resented. Sin and grace are at odds with one another, after all. So, don’t take it personally and go search for that light/image that shines in each and every one of them. God be with you.

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