I am going to start this review out a little differently than most. I am going to admit that I was initially reluctant to read this book. I mean, I was both excited and suspicious of it all at once if you can imagine that. Things were being said like, “It is the best parenting book ever written!” and “This book is the parenting book that all others will be compared to!”. In my mind I couldn’t help but think, this is some pretty high praise! It seemed as though people were claiming that the pages of Give Them Grace held some new, overlooked, and incredible parenting truth that hadn’t been tapped before.
Old but New
The truth is there is nothing new in the pages of Give Them Grace. In fact it simply reiterates a very, very old message: the gospel message. Surprisingly enough the gospel message is the new, overlooked, and incredible parenting truth that makes Give Them Grace such an important resource for parents (and ultimately for every other person who picks it up!).
It is a sad fact that this book is desperately needed in the church today. It is a sad truth that this book was desperately needed in my life today. It is a glorious truth that the message within its pages is able to transform and elevate our parenting to heights only God can foresee.
Parenting in Grace
In this book, Elyse Fitzpatrick and daughter Jessica Thompson often refer to two different types of parents. The first is the parent who is overwhelmed by the burden and weight of parenthood and the effect of every one of their failings on their children’s souls. The other parent is the parent who is somewhat confident in their parenting and their “methods” believing that if they simply do X, Y, and Z God will keep his end of the bargain and bless them with God-fearing offspring. Both of these parents need the gospel for themselves and both of them need the gospel for their parenting because both of them are relying on their own ability, rather than the grace of God for their children’s salvation.
This is where I began to awaken to my need for this book. I hadn’t realized before how much I was relying on my own strength to parent my children. Without knowing it I had been assuming or at least hoping that my efforts would not go unnoticed by my Savior and that he would reward me for all my hard work… as though my hard work were worth anything in heavenly currency! It is a funny paradox, but my adherence to the Biblical guidelines for parenting and my personal testimony to my children had become unholy bargaining chips with the Ruler of the Universe. This is a message that all of us need to hear, not just parents: our works are worthless, it is Christ who saves, Christ who transforms, Christ who accomplishes. God has a plan for each of my children, he will use me in that plan yes, but nothing I do or don’t do will thwart his plan. This call to yield to the grace of God in our children’s lives is reminiscent of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians when they were tempted to put too much stock in their spiritual leaders:
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.(1 Corinthians 3:7-9 ESV)
This is one of the key themes of the book, but as the title suggests raising our children in an atmosphere of gospel grace is the primary focus.
An Atmosphere of Grace
Elyse and Jessica begin, continue, and end with one premise throughout their book: our children (and ultimately us as well) do not need more law, we need more grace. They put forth the observation that most of what we call Christian parenting these days is in fact parenting under the law rather than under grace. The temptation to be law givers instead of grace givers is at the core of our natural idolatrous hearts:
“…every human heart is always and ever drawn to law. In the same way that iron filings follow a magnet, our hearts chase after rules-not because we ever really obey them but because we think they make life manageable. Rules elevate us to the position of lawgiver; they help us avoid the humiliation of prostrating ourselves before a bloody, despicable cross. We love to try to approve of ourselves and control others by generating more and more rules. ‘Our desire to please God, combined with human bent to prove our acceptance by comparison with and the control of others, makes us factories of human legislation.’” (Give Them Grace)
As Christians it is our goal to put Christ and his gospel at the center of every aspect of our lives and yet the thing Elyse and Jessica seem to want us to get more than anything is that we have missed it in our parenting. How can this be?
This is what I think it boils down to: We have been taught that good Christian parents teach their children how to be obedient (reflecting our obedience of God) and then when they disobey (just as we disobey God) we discipline them (just as we are disciplined by God) and then, on our best days, we share the gospel story with them reminding them that if they believe in Jesus he paid the price for their sins and they will never again have to suffer for them. In a gospel saturated home Elyse and Jessica propose that this is not enough. All of this is true, but there is one important piece of the puzzle that is missing, you named it-grace.
The temptation for children in this daily cycle of comparing themselves to the law is to see themselves as either good or bad children. The bad children, those who are always sinning, always being disciplined, are tempted to think that the gospel isn’t for them, that they aren’t good enough for the gospel or for God. The good children, on the other hand, those who find it easier to obey, are tempted to see themselves as good, earning the favor of God, and unknowingly without a need for a Savior. Both children live in perilous states of mind because they are not able to apply the gospel to their little hearts. One needs to see that the gospel is indeed for sinners and the other needs to see that each of us are sinners and are hopeless without the grace of God.
In a family where God’s grace is a living, breathing, reality (not just a piece of head knowledge) a parent would indeed call their child to obedience, after all the law is meant to show us our sin, but they would do so fully aware of their children’s inability to obey. When their children fail, and of course they will, we are to remind them that it is because of their sinful nature that they failed and that this is exactly why Jesus had to die on the cross- to pay for our sin and to liberate us from the power of sin. We should not be shocked when our children sin, but instead should identify with them and their need for a Savior in those moments. Our lips must be bursting forth with praise for the power we have to overcome sin through Jesus Christ. What Jessica and Elyse are encouraging us to do is to take the focus off of our children’s ability to obey and put it on Christ’s power to obey for them and to help them to see this glorious truth as well.
So where does discipline fit into this picture? This is an area I wish they had fleshed out a little more, though they did commit an entire chapter to it. Physical discipline is affirmed as Biblical and indeed necessary, but a very important point is made in this book: Though God does use the rod to drive foolishness from the heart of a child, the gospel is the only means by which your child will be saved. Foolishness can be driven out of a Muslim child’s heart by the rod just as easily as foolishness in a Christian child’s heart can. What makes our discipline life giving and Christ exalting is the message of God’s grace that motivates and surrounds it. It is the grace of God that will transform our children’s hearts, not spanking them. If we spank our children into submission, we may end up with very well behaved children who believe themselves to be good and without the need of a Savior. Though physical discipline is a useful and God ordained tool to train our children, it is not the tool that God uses to transform our children. That work must be left to the Holy Spirit and the grace of God. You may be thinking, of course I understand this! But the importance of this point is not the knowledge, but the application. It can be easy to think that we are doing well in our parenting as our children get more and more obedient, as we assume they are becoming more and more godly, when in reality they may simply be becoming greater hypocrites.
“You are Such a Good Boy! … or are you?”
The implications of Gospel saturated parenting are so far reaching that it can be overwhelming to try to reorient yourself. Elyse and Jessica liken it to a scary amusement park ride where your greatest fear is your utter lack of control. Learning to distance ourselves and our children from a works based relationship with God is harder than you might think. One great example given in the book is the common expression “You are such a good boy!”. Well is he really? Because the Bible says that no one is good, only God is good. In fact, even our good deeds are like filthy rags! Obviously we are not trying to tell our children that they are holy when we say such a thing, but the underlying message we are sending them is that they can be good by doing good things rather than trusting in the only Good One who did the good things for them! A more Biblical responce to your child’s “good” behavior would be to say something along the lines of, “That was a very good thing you did Elliot, I am so thankful that God gave you the grace to do it!” This might seem like an unnessesary change, but it makes a world of difference in what you are teaching your child. In this second interaction your child is learning that what he did was indeed good, but that it was the power of God that allowed him to do it.
This is the reason why I believe this book to be so important: because living a gospel driven life affects every aspect of our lives (including our speech). How important is it that we live our lives aware of our very real need for God’s grace and the God who delights to shed it on us? How important is it that we teach our children how great their need is for God’s grace and the abundance of grace available to them as well? There is no greater task that we can set ourselves to!
This book is like a whirlwind of pure unadulterated gospel, whipping up the sea of works-based parenting that has long saturated the Christian community. It is a glimpse into a way of parenting that is distinctly and honestly Christian. This is the atmosphere I want my children to grow up in. I want them to know that they are sinners, that I am a sinner, and that we have a great and mighty Savior who loved us so much that he lived a life of perfect obedience so that we too could obey, who died a horrific death so that we would never have to die, and who rose from the grave so that we too could rise with him for all of eternity!
Thank you Elyse and Jessica for stirring up a renewed vision for what it means to be a Christianmommy!