“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector [the one on his face before God, unable even to lift his head for grief and repentance over his sin–my note]! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income” (Luke 18:11-12 NLT).

This religious man sits in our church pews. He looks like a good church member. He tithes, is honest, and doesn’t commit blatant sins. He fasts and prays. He has probably prayed “the prayer” and been baptized. Yet he does not belong to God.

“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours [the one so broken over his sin that he knows he doesn’t even deserve to be called a son any longer and has requested to serve his father as a slave–my note] comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf” (Luke 15:28-30 NLT)!

This older brother is diligent, works responsibility without arguing, and is faithful to serve his father. You can ask him to do anything and count on him to do it. He has never asked for special privileges, probably never complains about going to church, and is a model citizen. Yet he calls his own brother “this son of yours,” unwilling to identify himself as the sibling of his sinful younger brother. He does not belong to God.

If given these options, which would you want your child to grow up to become?  The tax collector (with all the vice entailed) or the Pharisee?  The prodigal son (with all that means) or the older brother?

If we didn’t see these descriptions within the context of such well-known parables, we would probably choose the faithful, church-attending, religious man and the obedient, hard-working, oldest son. Who doesn’t want that for their children? But in making that choice in this context, we would be choosing for our children not to come to salvation. The tax collector and the prodigal son were the ones who saw their unworthiness, repented, and yielded to God. The smug, complacent, well-regarded, outwardly-conforming Pharisee and older brother did not.

I was on this parenting path.

In the 1980s we joined a home-schooling association that promised to teach the world a “new way of life.” I was never quite comfortable with that slogan. Though outwardly conforming to the model promoted by this group, in my heart of hearts I knew I didn’t have anything to teach anybody at that point in my life. Yet I was smug because I thought I was somehow better, just by being part of this group and adopting their form of godliness. I was outwardly religious. All the while, I was failing hand over fists.

I was teaching my children a legalistic, works-based righteousness. I wasn’t teaching them how to walk by God’s grace, because I myself didn’t know how to walk humbly with God. I thought I had to live the Christian life in my own strength (as if I had any!). I was most concerned with what people thought of us, that we looked good to the public eye. I was a Pharisee. Needless to say, when my oldest children became teenagers (beginning in 1990) The Hypocrisy Police rose up against me and began to point out my inconsistencies. Thanks be to God!

A Christian writer I respect very much recently said, “Human obedience not motivated by gratitude for God’s grace is deadlier to the soul than immorality…Those who excel at the sort of obedience listed above may not see their need for a Savior; their hearts may be hardened and unfazed by God’s grace” (Elyze Fitzpatrick, quoted in World Magazine, November 5, 2011).

I’m glad my children called me on my sham of a Christian life, and I’m glad God sent years of trials to break me down so he could impress upon me my serious and complete need for him. I needed to recognize that we can only live the Christian life by God’s grace alone, that we are broken beyond repair and only God can do the work to bring us to himself, to cause us to grow, and to bring that work to completion.

Thank you, Lord, for smashing me flat so I could see my need for you. Thank you that you love my children even more than I do and will knock me out of the way, if necessary, in order to save them.