Just because it’s so good, here’s H. Richard Niebuhr’s characterization of mid-20th-century theological liberalism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” That may be the tightest summary of the evisceration of Scripture I know of.

More thoughts on parenting. It will take a few bullet points to get to the main idea, which is this: if the hearts of your kids are inclined to obey you, then they will obey God when they leave home — and that’s what we’re working toward. This isn’t a power-struggle. The goal is literally bigger than both of you.

Kids are natural tyrants, which is one way of describing original sin. Few things are as miserable as a child holding an entire store or restaurant hostage in a screaming fit. Children are marvelously devoted to the dominion of self (as are adults), and will gladly punish the world for violations of that dominion. At the time of Hitler and Stalin, W.H. Auden wrote Epitaph on a Tyrant:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

A self-worshiping child is a tyrant and the “perfection” she seeks is conformity to her will. She knows “human folly” remarkably well and plays the adults around her (“respectable senators”) like a violin. She can be agreeable and charming as it suits her, but the end is tragic. The tyranny of a spoiled child looks, on the surface, like a behavior problem, but it’s not. It’s an identity problem. What she needs to know is her humble role in the cosmos beneath the wonder and majesty of God.

One of the clearest biblical examples of all this is the sons of Eli (1 Sam 2:12-36). Eli’s sons are eventually condemned to death for dishonoring God by serving their own desires, but God makes clear he holds Eli accountable (v.29). Again, it may look like the essence of the offense is their conduct in and around the Tent of Meeting, but it’s not. The real problem is way back up in v.12: “they did not know the Lord.” And not knowing the Lord, as Calvin says in the beginning of the Institutes, they did not know themselves. When this is the case, for any human being, we live to honor ourselves and no one else.

It begins with us as parents. If what our kids see when they look at us is a servant of God, living for his will rather than our own (and that’s the real battle), it will help shape them. But it won’t solve everything. Some parents are so retiring that their kids become all the more tyrannical (Eli’s problem). We have to see what’s going on in the heart of a child and discern what’s really there. The world is filled with disciplined, agreeable kids who are self-absorbed, as well as hyper-crazy kids who are essentially humble but need to grow in self-control. What you’re aiming to shape is a heart that knows the showdown of self-will and God’s will, and has the character tools to make a wise decision. Obedience is just the sign that they know who they are.