Your kids will fail. This is both inevitable and also necessary. Apparently not many parents today want to hear this uncomfortable fact. And they certainly don't want to implement it in how they discipline their children. Writing the cover story for The Atlantic's July/August issue, therapist Lori Gottlieb alerts us that the cult of self-esteem is ruining our kids. Convinced they are the center of the universe and capable of anything, our children have become insufferable narcissists. Then, when these kids grow up and fail, as they must, they head for the nearest therapist, worried their lives have gone horribly wrong. Gottlieb writes:
[R]ates of anxiety and depression have also risen in tandem with self-esteem. Why is this? "Narcissists are happy when they're younger, because they're the center of the universe," [psychology professor Jean] Twenge explains. "Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are. This gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else."
As you might expect, this attitude wreaks havoc in the real world of adulthood. Try giving one of these college students a B, let alone a C. You better be prepared for a visit from the student and maybe even a phone call from a parent. Or try telling young adults in their first job that their work doesn't cut it. You just might be looking for a new employee when the offended party looks for a workplace where his creativity and brilliance will be "appreciated."
Whatsoever Does Not Please
It's not hard to see, then, why "moralistic therapeutic deism" (to borrow Christian Smith's famous descriptor) plagues our churches. This god wants what's best for us—chiefly, our happiness in all circumstances. He aims to please. Whatever does not please, then, must not come from god. Consider the latest findings of Smith and his colleagues, revealed in their forthcoming book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. They asked young adults age 18 to 23, "If you were unsure of what was right or wrong in a particular situation, how would you decide what to do?" The most popular answer (39 percent): "doing what would make you feel happy."
As you can hopefully see, this is a perfect recipe for discipleship disaster. Happiness is neither assured nor even God's ultimate aim for us. Sometimes, for example, he demonstrates the grace of his fatherly concern by disciplining those he loves (Prov. 3:11-12; Heb: 12:5-11). When we aim primarily for happiness in our parenting and discipleship, we actually set up these young adults for needless failure. They will be surprised and hopelessly discouraged when their faith is eventually challenged, whether by skeptical professors and classmates or the inevitable disappointment of life.
Searching Scripture in Vain
The God of the Bible does not seem so concerned to protect us from all failure. In fact, you'll search Scripture in vain for anyone but Jesus who avoids failure altogether. Abraham, the man of faith, displays his lack of faith when he lies about his wife to protect himself (Gen. 12:13). Moses, the man of bold and steadfast conviction in God's power to deliver his people, takes matters into his own hands to control a rebellious people (Num. 20:11-12). David, a man after God's own heart, indulges the lust of his flesh and takes another man's wife (2 Sam. 11:2-4). If these men failed, so will we.
Indeed, the whole Gospel of Mark seems to highlight the failure of the disciples. With hardened hearts, the disciples failed to understand the miracle Jesus performed by multiplying the loaves (Mark 6:40, 52). After Jesus explains that he will be delivered up to die, the disciples can think only of themselves (Mark 9:30, 34). And when Jesus needs them most, while preparing to offer himself on the cross, his best friends abandon him and scatter (Mark 14:27). Yet even then, Jesus promises to return to them after his resurrection (Mark 14:28).
In every case Mark juxtaposes the faithless disciples with Jesus, making an essential point: Jesus is Lord, and we are not. Get this wrong and you will not grow spiritually. You will be a sheep who does not recognize his need for a shepherd.
Failure is a vital means employed by God to reveal this spiritual reality. So if we want to help our loved ones grow in Christ, we need to account for failure—forgiving them when necessary, persevering with them through trials, and affording them freedom to learn life's painful lessons in their own timing.
Truth the Hard Way
This last part strikes me as most difficult for Christian parents. We rightly want to shield our children from the pain of sin, especially the sort we have shamefully and regrettably indulged in. To be clear, this is a good thing. Responsible parents keep pornography out of the home, take interest in education, and warn their children against bad influences.
At the same time, we must avoid leaving the impression that failure can be avoided altogether. How do we make this mistake? We might create false expectations by preventing our children from befriending any unbelievers. Or packing their schedules only with esteem-boosting, organized activities. Or letting them off the hook from doing household chores. Or teaching the moral lessons of Scripture and ignoring the litany of failures pointing toward our need for a Savior who never fails us.
And what if you don't teach your children how to overcome by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit by patiently enduring their failures? They'll find out the truth anyway, the hard way. They'll see failure in church with the backbiting, gossip, power plays, and judgmentalism. They'll see it in themselves when they struggle with doubts and no one will listen. They'll see it in you and wonder why you can't just admit it.
If you don't teach them that Christians sometimes fail, then they'll conclude Christianity has failed. But by the grace of God they'll add to the numbers of bitter adults who grew up in the church and rail against its destructive influence. Yet when they see us fail, repent, and ask God's forgiveness, they'll see in action the most glorious truth of all, that God himself took on flesh and walked among us, failures all, so we might walk with him in heaven forevermore. They'll know that when they fail, too, God's grace abounds to even the chief of sinners.
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of of Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists, and co-author with John Woodbridge of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. He earned an MDiv at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and an undergraduate degree in journalism and history from Northwestern University. He previously worked as an associate editor for Christianity Today magazine, co-edited Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, and co-edits the Cultural Renewal series with Tim Keller. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter.