Teach these Things to Your Children

An Open Letter to Elizabeth Esther

in response to her article, "Teach Your Children They are Whole"

Dear Mrs. Esther,

First, thank you for sharing the obstacles you faced before finding Jesus. Your honesty and vulnerability are admirable, and I wish to take nothing away from the validity of your experience. I'm sorry the gospel was not presented clearly to you as a child--particularly as a child growing up in the Church. I appreciate the opportunity to engage in discussion on how to better our ministry to our children.

I, like you, believe that the most important task God has given us as mothers is to disciple our children. I, like you, eat and sleep and breathe motherhood; at times I don't eat or sleep or breathe--on account of mothering. Like you, I believe that above everything we do, the chores, the disciplining, the cheering, the loving... the most valuable gift we can give our children is a right view of who God is.

The foundation of a right view of God, of course, must begin with a high view of Scripture. That is, assuming we are talking about Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, Jesus, the Messiah and Head of the Church, and His Holy Spirit, we must accept the Bible as authoritative. So, while our experiences certainly account for some authority in our lives, they are not the final word. Scripture is.

It is under this appeal to Scripture, then, that I feel compelled to challenge your charge that we teach our children that they are whole, rather than broken.

In Deuteronomy 6.6-9, the Israelites are commanded to teach their children, "these words (*1)" and Moses goes on to state exactly what "words" they are to pass down. Interestingly, what follows is not a message of wholeness or self-esteem or how special they are to God. No, what follows are three points they are not to forget: #1 - They used to be slaves (Deut 6.12,21). #2 - God displayed His glory in rescuing them (Deut 6.22-23). #3 - God desires them to be righteous (Deut 6.24-25).

What is righteousness? Well, to those Israelite children, righteousness sure looked a lot like a list of dos and don'ts (Deut 5.7-21)! It was an unreachable standard of perfection. Surely they could never live up to such rigorous demands! It's not until chapter 7 that Moses finally gets to the message of God's love. However, even then it's not the happy "wholeness" message; instead it's preceded by a big ol' conditional clause:

"And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers." (Deut 7.12, emphasis mine)

Wait. What?? God's love is conditional upon my righteousness?

Yes! That's what it says. Time and time again, God explains that He loves righteousness (Ps 11.7; 33.5) and hates wickedness (Ps 11.5; 37.28; Is 61.8; Zec 8.17; Heb 1.9). That's why the great dilemma of Scripture, as we see it unfold, is so impossible: God chooses His people, He commands them to be righteous, yet they fail every single time!

Mrs. Esther, if you refuse to teach this to your children, if you choose to feed them the post-modern philosophy that they have some inherent good that is so valuable to God that He simply must have them, you are robbing them of their need for Jesus. After all, it's not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick (Lk 5.31)... The broken.

Teach your children they are broken, deeply broken.

Teach them they cannot attain righteousness on their own; it is a free gift (Ro 5.17) bought with the blood of Jesus (Eph 2.13; 1 Pet 1.18-29).

This is not my own opinion or the result of a big shiny university diploma. This is the word of God. To be honest, most of what your article presented sounded great to me. Yes, I thought, My children are beautiful! Lovely! They are whole! I need to tell them this more often... But then I snapped back into Berean mode and ran to Scripture to "see whether these things were so." (Acts 17.11)

Here's what I found:

  • The intent of man's heart is evil from his youth. (Gen 6.5; 8.21)
  • Our hearts are deceitful. (Jer 17.9; Prov 14.12)
  • None are righteous. (Ps 14.3; 53.3; Is 64.6; Rom 3.10)
  • We are sinners by birth. (Ps 51.5; 58.3; Rom 5.12)
  • Sinners have no ability to change themselves. (Jer 13.23; John 3.19; 8.34; Rom 8.7)
  • No one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him. (John 6.44)
  • An unregenerate man cannot even understand spiritual things (Matt 13.11; John 3.3; 1 Cor 2.14)

Again, this is not my assessment of my children (although to be honest, it would be an accurate assessment of my own heart before Jesus saved me); it is the word of God. It seems like God's omniscient account of history is that mankind chooses wickedness ten times out of ten. Now, I like the notion of free-will as much as the next gal. In fact, I take issue with some too-Calvinist-for-their-own-good arguments that try to erase free will from the pages of Scripture. All it takes is a simple word study (*2) on the Hebrew word בּחר, (bachar) "to choose," and you'll find that men do "choose" (and are commanded to, too!). But my observation is this: Whenever Scripture speaks of men choosing, it's either neutral (the result of the choosing not identified) or negative (Anti-Yahweh). If that's not the definition of broken, I don't know what is.

When Pastor Steve McCoy tweeted "Teach your children they are broken. Deeply broken," I believe he meant that they are unable to do what they are created to do. I like McCoy's term "broken" (*3) as a summation of all Scripture's terms for "fallen short" (Ro 3.23). However, more often in Scripture we find much harsher adjectives like "wicked," "evil," and "foolish." I can only imagine the uproar on Twitter if McCoy had instead written, "Teach your children they are depraved, wicked, evil, foolish little sinners!"

But he would have been right. They are. We all are. This is the teaching of Scripture.

Does this necessarily mean that our children are depraved of the ability to choose God? Hypothetically, no. Realistically, yes. It seems to me that they have been given a real, genuine option to obey. But without the Holy Spirit first changing their heart of stone, the road to life doesn't appeal to them any more than a vacation at the beach appeals to a child playing in the mud (*4). Consider the words of holocaust survivor Elie Weisel: "The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference." The brokenness Scripture teaches doesn't (necessarily) mean that our children hate God. It does mean they are indifferent toward Him (*5). Until their eyes have been opened, there is nothing about righteousness that is attractive to them.

Proverbs creates a clear picture of "foolishness" as the failure to value what is most valuable. If our children look at God's only Son nailed to the tree and say to the Father, "Worthless," or, "No big deal," their indifference is deserving of the fires of hell -- the full, unhindered wrath of God -- for all eternity. "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child." (Prov 22.15) "The fool says in his heart there is no God." (Ps 14.1) "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." (1 Cor 1.18)

By not giving our children an accurate understanding of their brokenness, we eclipse the beauty of what Christ did for them, loving them while they were yet sinners (Ro 5.8). By teaching them that they are whole rather than broken, we are actually working against the Holy Spirit, for it's the Spirit's job to convict the world of sin (Jn 16.8). While the Spirit is trying to convict our children of their sin and lead them to repentance (Lk 5.32), you are trying to unconvict them! That's dangerous business, if you ask me.

Again, I truly believe the way you were raised was lacking. Showing our children their brokenness and stopping there, is incomplete as well. I understand your struggle to accept a right view of God and empathize with the pain you must have gone through on that road. I'm thankful that our Good Shepherd found you anyway. Of course, no matter what theology we teach our kids, God is able to find them anyway. It's just the pain that comes next which we want to save them from, right? We want to spare them the heartache of having to redefine everything they know about God.

My dear sister, teaching our children they are whole will lead to just as much suffering as teaching them they are broken and stopping there. When Jesus does find them, they'll struggle against the self-love Paul warns against in Romans 12.3, the self-worth he scorns in Galatians 6.3, or the self-righteousness Solomon condemns in Ecclesiastes 7.16.

What then? If teaching brokenness leads to suffering and teaching wholeness leads to suffering, what are we to do?

All we have to do is teach our children what Scripture says. It's a story of redemption. The lost sheep is found, the prodigal son embraced, the lame man walks, the blind man sees... The whore becomes the Bride; the sinner is saved. This is why Paul writes so joyfully in 2 Corinthians 4.7, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." Mundane, fragile, made-of-dirt, clay jars. And God, in His all-surpassing power, makes all the glory of the life of Jesus to be revealed in us (2 Cor 4.10). As it is written,

"God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption." (1 Cor 1.30)

Redemption. Teach your children they are redeemed.

But most of all, teach your children the Bible. The Bible doesn't have a lot to say about self-esteem. I worry that all this talk over the most "emotionally edifying" way to raise kids takes more cues from the world than it does from the God who made them. To make an example of Henri Nouwen, (since you quoted him at the start of your article,) his distaste for self-rejection ultimately led him to reject the gospel (*6). I don't want my kids to come to the same conclusion he did. I won't teach them what society wants them to believe about self-esteem or being true to themselves. I'm just going to teach them the Bible.


It's a story of redemption. The lost sheep is found, the prodigal son embraced, the lame man walks, the blind man sees... The whore becomes the Bride; the sinner is saved.

(Kentsugi is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with gold.)



*1 - The word translated "commandments" in the ESV is actually דבר (dabar), which simply means "word." Because, in this case, they are authoritative words, it's not a mistranslation to call them commandments, but I believe the words being referred to are broader than the commandments alone; they include the whole story of Israel's redemption.

*2 - This method involves finding all the times the word is used and then cataloging the way in which it's used. In the case of בּחר, the word is used 161 times: 30 times it just means "valuable" so I threw those out. Of the other 131, 34 are applied to man choosing; in the other 97 God chooses. *Gets out calculator* That's like 26% or so. So yes, humanity has the ability to choose. But s case-by-case study on those 34 occurrences suggests we do not have the ability to choose wisely.

*3 - In fact, Isaiah 1.28, 30.26, 60.18, Jeremiah 6.14, 30.15, Lam 2.13 and Eze 32.9 all speak of the brokenness of humanity. שֶׁבַר (sheber) is the Hebrew word for broken. It is also translated "destruction," or "hurt." Interestingly, in most of its occurrences, God is the one doing the breaking and His people are the ones being broken. Like Hebrews says, "He disciplines those He loves." (Heb 12.6)

*4 - C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory

*5 - The Hebrew word most often translated "hate" in Scripture is שָׂנֵא (sane') and can actually mean "indifferent toward." We see this in Deuteronomy 22.13,16 in the laws concerning a man who takes a wife and then the next morning "hates" her. Does this mean he wakes up and suddenly despises her? No. It just means he feels nothing. The Septuagint translates this word μισέω (miseō) which is the same word Jesus uses in Luke 14.26 when He says, ""If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." Again, He doesn't mean you must loathe your earthly family, He just means they decline in importance. Likewise, to "hate" God is simply to not see His worth (Ex 20.5).

*6 - In his last book, Henri Nouwen wrote, "Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God's house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God." —From Sabbatical Journey, page 51, 1998 Hardcover Edition