When our children were itty-bitty we made believe that Santa Claus was real. The excitement for Christmas morning always built up, as our girls couldn’t wait to see what gifts jolly ol’ Saint Nick was going to bring them. Then this illusion came crashing down when we informed them one day that Santa Claus, in fact, was not a real person. The whole thing: made up.
Except nothing came crashing down, really. Our youngest feigned a bit of surprise, but our oldest was unmoved, and both of our girls basically accepted the news with about as much weeping and gnashing of teeth as you might give the news that your favorite coffee drink had gone up $0.50. It’s a little disappointing, but nothing to get bent out of shape over. (The assurance that they’d still get presents on Christmas morning probably didn’t hurt.)
I’ve heard from many anti-Santa Claus people that you shouldn’t play Santa with your kids because of the way it can affect their Christian worldview, the way it can plant seeds of doubt and disillusionment, hurt over what else you might be deceiving them about, once they learn of Santa’s mythological status. And I sympathize with this concern. But I think the reason our girls weren’t sent spiraling into some crisis of unbelieving despair was precisely because Santa was not our worldview. We barely talked about him. We only brought him up around Christmas time, and we never used him as a guilt-trip or ascribed god-like qualities to him (for example, “You better be good, because Santa is watching you and he won’t bring you any presents”).
I imagine that it was not too difficult, even when our girls sort of believed Santa was a real person, to separate the importance of Santa from Jesus because our familial life didn’t revolve around Santa. We didn’t read every day about Santa or discuss how Santa would want us to treat our friends at school. We didn’t talk about the importance of Santa for our everyday life. Dad didn’t write books about Santa or preach on Sundays about Santa. When we sinned against our kids, we didn’t come to them for forgiveness out of a desire to make Santa look beautiful. We didn’t tuck them in with prayers to Santa. And the community of faith we raise our kids in isn’t devoted to Santa. In the grand scheme of things, learning Santa wasn’t real was not a huge deal.
In fact, our oldest daughter confessed she’d already begun to suspect Santa wasn’t real precisely because even though we talked about him bringing presents on Christmas morning, we didn’t really act like he was real otherwise.
And if you’re wondering what any of that has to do with the gospel, here it is:
If you talk a big game about “the gospel,” but don’t live like it’s true, the people you do life with will begin to suspect you don’t actually believe it. Worse yet, they may begin to disbelieve it themselves.
Consider these examples:
— Children grow up in a home where grace is articulated, perhaps even frequently, and yet the dominant culture of the home is one of law. The demeanor and the discipline of the parents reflects more a concern about behavioral compliance, not heart transformation. The rules and the expectations outside the home carry the chief concern of looking like a nice, tidy Christian family, an example to others, inordinately preoccupied with reputation and impression. There are more rules than necessary, and most of them seem to function less to train the kids up with godliness and more to make the parents’ lives more comfortable and convenient. The talk is gospel, but the climate is legalism. What happens to these kids? They grow up hearing about the gospel the same way they hear about a fairytale land. They hope it’s true, but all evidence seems to suggest it’s not.
— A married couple does all the right religious things but treat each other behind closed doors according to self-centered expectations and desires. They both know the gospel. But one spouse withholds affection and kindness from the other. The other, in turn, becomes overly needy, pouty. They are each making unreasonable demands of the other, one in coldness and the other in desperation. They can talk grace all the live-long day, but the culture of their marriage is law. After a while, the gospel begins to seem less real. Enough people talk about it that it has the appearance of truth, but the power of it is unfelt, unseen. The climate of their home is legal, and the gospel starts to sound like a rumor, some kind of urban legend.
— A church plasters the word ‘grace’ everywhere, but the substance of that word has not quite sunk down into the bloodstream. The pastor preaches on the gospel. The people read a lot of gospely books. They brand all their programming and resources with the word “gospel” and “grace.” And the message starts to attract messy people, sinners of all kinds, because that’s what happens when a message of grace is faithfully proclaimed. But the members aren’t really welcoming. They really treasure their own comfort. They value their preferences. They want their church to grow—until it does. And then it changes and change is disruptive, inconvenient. An “us vs. them” mentality creeps in, and eventually the new people start to creep away. Why?
The message of grace requires a culture of grace to make it look credible. In other words, you can un-say with your life what you’re saying with your mouth.
Tim Keller talks about what happens when the gospel is on audio but the world is on video. It is hard for the message to compete if everything around us is screaming the exact opposite.
So how about you? Is your gospel credible? Do you talk a big game about it but treat others like that’s all it is—a game?
Does your gospel sound like an urban legend? Something you like to repeat but doesn’t quite sound true? Is it just a curiosity to you, a message of interest but not of impact?
Would those you’re in relationship with struggle to believe the good news of grace because of the way you treat them? Do you make grace look true with your life? Or do you give your kids, your spouse, your brothers and sisters at church, your lost neighbors and co-workers reasons to doubt this message?
Do you tempt people to disbelieve with your posture what you tell them to believe with your mouth? A message of grace without a manner of grace is a message disbelieved.