Some Thoughts on Teaching Perseverance to Children & Young People: Part Three

This e-Pistle entry is the tenth article in a series begun in the previous nine posts and is a continuation of the last two articles.

Facing Consequences and Learning from Mistakes

As a Bible teacher in a Christian school, I was distressed to see parents frequently seeking to convince school authorities to lessen or dismiss disciplinary measures that had been assigned to their children. I understood. But I did not think it was wise for them to take such a position. Scriptural teaching on discipline (Hebrews 12:11, for example) and on the development of the quality of perseverance (2 Peter 1:6; Romans 5:4; James 1:2 - 4) teaches us that the difficulty or “suffering” endured under discipline is necessary for producing very desirable results.

This is not to say that, in certain circumstances, a parent should not “take up” for his child, particularly if there has clearly been an injustice. At other times, it may be a parent’s best judgment to alter consequences that he has decided upon when, upon further consideration, he deems such punishment to be excessive or precipitous. However, as a general rule, teaching our children to face up to the consequences of their actions is both Biblical and practical.

The acknowledgement of sin is fundamental to true repentance (Psalm 51). Our purpose in discipline is not a simple, forensic justice. The goal of our efforts in disciplining our children must be genuine contrition leading to restoration of right relationships with God and with those against whom they have sinned. The fleshly desire to minimize consequences is inconsistent with the sincere recognition of sinfulness and is contrary to the acceptance of personal responsibility. It encourages the sinner to focus on himself rather than the person whom he has offended. In fact, it leads to a certain kind of legalism. The sinner who remains focused upon the consequences sees sin in terms of broken rules instead of broken relationships. He limits his view to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. He sees restitution in terms of recompense rather than restoration.

If we, as Christian parents, are to communicate the Gospel faithfully to our children, we must represent sin correctly. We must help them to understand sin relationally. We must also point them to repentance that is motivated by love rather than allowing themselves to be satisfied with a disingenuous mea culpa that comes from fear or guilt or selfish interest.

When we hold our children accountable for wrongdoing by allowing them to endure the consequences of that sin, we must at the same time teach them the lessons that those consequences represent. If a young person steals a candy bar from a local shop and is caught or is so burdened by his guilt that he feels he must do something to correct his wrong-doing, he may feel that returning or paying for the item is the logical and suitable restitution, along with an apology. His confession and the return of or payment for the item may be appreciated by the shop keeper, but that will not be the end of the story, nor will it be the end of the restitution for the young person’s sin. Stealing the candy bar did not simply break a shoplifting law. The theft also broke trust in relationship to the shop keeper. Though the shopkeeper may be impressed with the youth’s effort to make up for his sin, the truth is that the next time the young person comes into the shop the shopkeeper will be noticing to see if he is trustworthy. And the next time. And the next, and perhaps for a long time. The merchant may want to believe in the young person, but he cannot neglect the fact of the theft, and continued, proven, trustworthiness is the only true restitution for the wrong-doing.

This is the lesson that parents must teach their children about facing up to the consequences of sin. It is also the lesson by which we can help them to develop the quality of perseverance. They need encouragement to endure the suffering of initial consequences, but they also need to be challenged as they persevere in rebuilding trust in relationships they have broken through their sin. It is interesting to note the quality that succeeds perseverance in Peter’s list of spiritual growth qualities (2 Peter 1:6). It is godliness. Likewise, the Apostle Paul says that perseverance produces character (Romans 5:4). What a marvelous conclusion to the scenario we have been considering!

I have often heard people speak about how much they had learned from the mistakes in their lives, and I have wondered about it. First of all, if a person does not face up to the consequences of his actions, or is rescued from the full consequences by a sympathetic but ill-advised parent, what lesson has he really learned? Secondly, if he is not led to understand his sin as that which breaks his relationship with God and others as opposed to simply a matter of rules and regulations, the lesson he learns will produce neither character nor godliness in his life and may do more damage to him spiritually than any other lesson he could learn.

Doing the Right Thing

Another thing I have heard people say is something like the following: “I’m the type of person who just has to learn from making my own mistakes.” While I acknowledge the genuine value of learning from mistakes, I must admit that this has always struck me as somewhat of a cop out or excuse. What the person seems to be saying is: “I am going to do what I want to do in spite of the fact that I know others would advise or have advised against it.” In other words, they essentially know that what they want to do will be a “mistake,” but they cannot overcome the present desire to do it in spite of the future consequences. They are not willing to suffer in resisting an immediate whim or pleasure while risking future suffering that might result from their choice.

It may be oversimplifying, but it has always seemed to me that a person could learn a lot more by doing what they know (or are taught) is right in the first place, rather than doing what they know (or are taught) is wrong and trying to learn from their mistakes. Hebrews 5:14 reads “…solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Look again at the order Peter uses when he lists spiritual growth qualities progressing to maturity: “…make every effort to add to your faith goodness: and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love…” (2 Peter 1:5 – 7). This suggests the other proactive strategy for teaching our children perseverance which I mentioned in last month’s article. They need to persevere in doing what is right – even though it may be difficult; even though they may “suffer” for it for a time; even though they have to resist strong immediate impulses to the contrary – because, in the end, they will learn more by doing what is right than by making mistakes and learning from them. They will develop perseverance and that will lead to godliness and character, as Paul wrote. That character produces hope. “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:3 - 5). Do you see the final connection? God’s love poured out into our hearts results in the brotherly kindness and love that Peter portrays as the culmination of our spiritual growth (2 Peter 1:7).

Claiming to have to learn from one’s mistakes is just a ruse to say that one is focused on self and doesn’t really care about the consequences of actions for one’s self or for others. A person who thinks this way does not understand sin correctly. Persevering in doing the right thing in the first place ultimately leads to the fulfillment of the greatest and the second greatest commandments: to love God with all our hearts, minds, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. A person who learns this will understand sin in the context of relationships, and even when he does make mistakes – commit sins – the lesson he will learn from those mistakes will be part of what restores him to unbroken fellowship with God and right relationships with others.

Our study of 1 Peter 2:5 – 8 will continue in next e-Pistle with “Final Thoughts on Teaching Perseverance to Children and Young People.”