The False Savior of Good Behavior

good boy

It all started when he became enthralled with the villains in Disney movies. I was sure he was destined to be a serial killer. Later, he began bringing home daily reports of landing on the yellow or red light in preschool. I was certain he was bound to be that kid that no teacher would want in their class for his entire academic career. Then, there was the acting silly in chapel and at church… well, I thought, he’s obviously already rejected the gospel and headed straight for eternal damnation!

Clearly, it doesn’t take much for my child’s behavior to quickly send me to the worst-case scenario.

Oh…and did I mention he’s only four?!

Since the day he was born, my philosophy has been that my child doesn’t have to be the best at everything—or even anything. I sure wasn’t! I don’t care if he’s the smartest or the most athletic or the most artistically gifted. I just want him to be the “good kid.” I want to hear teachers praise him for being attentive, for friends to talk about his kindness, and for other adults to comment on how respectful and well-mannered he is.

Here’s the thing, though: Jesus didn’t come only for the “good kids.” In fact, he told us in Mark 2:17 that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” This is a welcomed relief, as he tells us just eight chapters later that “no one is good except God alone.”

What my son needs isn’t to be a “good kid.” What he needs is to recognize is that he is one of the sick Jesus mentions here—a sinner—and that on his own, he has no ability to heal himself. Like me, he is in desperate need of the Savior.

It’s relatively painless to diagnose what my son does and does not need. It stings a bit more, however, to diagnose those things in myself. It will come as no surprise to those who know me well that my desire for my son to be the “good kid” is not completely altruistic.

As a first-born, type-A, rule-following, Enneagram 3 mother, it is quite tempting to derive a sense of pride from my son’s behavior. It is easy to allow my mood or my opinion of myself to ebb and flow with his daily behavior reports from school. But my pride is no better of a savior than his good behavior. Perhaps this is why in the middle of his strong admonition in chapter 4 of his epistle, James pauses to remind us that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

I’ve previously read that verse as a call to action for myself; that I somehow need to make myself humbler. However, as a mother, I have come to see James’ words as a relief.  As parents we have no choice—we will be humbled. We have no actual control over these little people we are raising. Their behavior, choices, and actions—even their horrible taste in music will daily bring us to our knees.

So when I read that our Lord gives grace to the humble, I exhale. It becomes easier to deny the false savior of my pride knowing that my actual Savior sees me in my humility (and humiliation) and continues to offer me his grace.

On my better days, I direct my mind away from all the ways my son’s behavior could lead to his eventual downfall. Instead, I pray that he comes to know and love Jesus, the Savior who ate with tax collectors, shunned the falsely pious religious leaders, forgave the woman caught in adultery. He is running to embrace each one of us as we tuck our prodigal tails and make our way home to ask for forgiveness for (once again) trying to do it our way.

This is not just my son’s only hope. It is my only hope, your only hope, and the only true hope for all of humanity.

So, while I’m eager to balance chastising my son’s misbehavior and affirming his brilliantly creative mind, fierce loyalty for his people, and strong sense of justice, I have to remember that just as his misbehavior is not what condemns him, his good behavior will never be what saves him.

I have to re-teach myself, even as I teach him, the truth we learn in Ephesians: “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 can boast” (emphasis mine). Thanks be to God!

Anne Sanford joined the Rooted team in March of 2023 as the Senior Director of Development. Originally from Mountain Brook, Alabama, Anne is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of Virginia. She and her husband, Will, live in Prattville, Alabama with their young sons Mack and Hardy. Anne enjoys travel, sports, reading, and music.

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