“Are you kidding me?”
My two year old turned and looked at me, wondering why I had stopped my usual story-telling cadence.
“Read, Mommy,” he said. I couldn’t.
The colors were bright. The illustrations cute. The story, an ancient one, and entirely familiar. I still am not sure why so many Christians are devoted to telling young ones the record of the annihilation of the earth as a happy story about animals, though I’d come to accept it, for better or for worse.
But this, I could not accept.
At the bottom of the page in a book about Noah read these words: “God loved Noah because he was good.” Maybe they’re saying God loved Noah because God was good, I thought. But, no. The context alluded that Noah earned God’s love by listening and obeying him.
I was furious.
A few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of those words. I probably would have read this book with a smile on my face, feeling good about myself for teaching a child an important staple of the biblical narrative. In fact, I’m sure many parents would have overlooked this little piece of heresy. The editors obviously had.
Here’s what the Bible actually says about Noah:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. Genesis 6:5-9, ESV
The text says Noah was righteous, yes, which I suppose can be translated as “good” for children (although Jesus says in Luke 18:19: “No one is good except God alone”). But the bigger question is: why was he righteous?
Because Noah walked with God, the author of righteousness. It’s because Noah had a relationship with God.
Why didn’t the author of the book choose to write that instead? Why this subtle doctrine of behaviorism?
Because we have been deceived into thinking that raising a morally good child is the same as raising a Christian child. Because we, too, have been deceived into thinking that if we are good, God will love us.
This has been a struggle for me all my life as a Christian. While no one ever preached works-based salvation from the pulpit, many have preached it to me through their actions and through subtle words and phrases. Good Christians do their devotions, go to church every Sunday, tithe, evangelize to their friends. Feel distant from God? Try doing something more: pray, go on a mission trip, read your Bible cover to cover, work harder. Good Christians don’t lie, do drugs, view porn, have pre-marital sex, struggle with doubt, or swear, so be sure not do any of those things, and if you do, don’t tell anyone about it.
The subtext to all of that: God loves us if we are good.
Could anything be further from the truth?
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:1-10, ESV
It is all grace. God saved us when we were at our ugliest; our pre-flood, disobedient, wicked, evil selves. That is unconditional love. And the good works come as a result of God’s grace in our lives, not as a prerequisite for God’s grace.
As a parent seeking to raise my child to love God, to desire to walk with him, I have to be wary of which gospel I am preaching to him: the true gospel of God’s grace and love, or the false gospel of moralism and self-righteousness. I struggle if I can even praise his goodness, for in my own life, goodness often gives birth to pride, which is, perhaps, the most wretched sin of all — nothing puts more distance between me and God than believing I got it all together and I don’t need him.
Instead, I want to teach my children of God’s great love, his grace. And the best way I can do that is by modeling my own need for God’s love and grace, by being transparent about my own failures, and showing them my walk – or stumble – with God.
After I put the book down, I took out a pen and scribbled out part of the text until it read: “God loved Noah.” I looked at my two-year-old in the eyes and said to him, “God loves if you are good or bad. He loves you when you are kind or mean. He loves you unconditionally, ok?” I’m sure he absorbed none of it. There will be many more opportunities to teach him the ways of God.
As for now, I want to teach him this lesson from the story of Noah: To walk with God, for He is good. The rest can wait.