Parental Expectations

Scripture:  1 John 3:1-7

I know many of you know this, but being a parent is tough.  One of the things that makes it hard is that it seems everyone has an opinion about how you are supposed to be a parent, and it does not matter what a parent does they are doing it wrong.  It seems not to matter what it is, if a parent does things one way then there is no shortage of voices telling them to do it the opposite way, and if they do it that way they are still told that is not right.  This constant criticism and a pressure to have perfect children, has led some parents to go to the extreme of helicopter parenting.   Helicopter parenting is understood as the parent constantly hovering over their children and trying to monitor and control their every move.  While there are a wide variety of reasons why a parent might go this route, helicopter parents tend to experience a lot of parental anxiety and they try to cope with that by becoming overly engaged with their children.  Helicopter parents tend to not what their children experience failure, setbacks, or difficulty so they will plow through and remove any potential difficulties.  Helicopter parents also tend to directly interfere whenever their child hits any kind of setback and they often try to arrange everything in advance for their children so that the kids do little to nothing for themselves.   At this point a lot of teachers from pre-school all the way up to college professors have horror stories of helicopter parents intervening in the education process, insisting grades be redone, or even attempting to do all the work for the student.

Again, I get that being a parent is hard and often the parents who engage in this helicopter style do so because they want to help their child, but an increasing amount of research is showing that helicopter parenting often does not have that effect.  Young people who grew up with helicopter parents report higher levels of symptoms of anxiety and depression.   When a person grows up never experiencing failure or consequences for less than great choices, then they become unequipped on how to deal with setbacks or problem solve.   Again, being a parent is hard and everyone is always trying to tell us how to do it right, but instead of hovering and trying to control everything a better approach is to set and communicate clear expectations.   Then provide the necessary support so that the expectations are reachable, but also give the child space to figure out how to meet those expectations on their own or fail in doing so.  Either way the parent is there at the end to encourage or support as the child begins to reach for a new set of expectations or to try again.   Obviously, that is all easier stated on paper than done in practice.   Yet, I think based on this scripture it could be stated this is the approach that God takes as our heavenly Father.   This morning’s scripture helps communicate God’s parental expectations of us and shows that ultimately God is a good, good Father.

1 John is one of my favorite books in the bible.  Some of the earliest church tradition associates the epistle with John the apostle.   This would have been written towards the end of John’s life, and 1 John has strong grandparent vibes.   The audience is often addressed as “dear children” and it reads like wisdom and advice being lovingly passed on to the next generation.  I also really like 1 John because the letter puts a lot of focus on God’s love and how we relate to that love.  We see that in this morning’s scripture when it begins with “See what great love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God!”

This idea of being God’s children goes beyond that all people are created by God with sacred worth.   It is an idea introduced in the very beginning of the gospel of John in 1:12-13 “Yet to all who did receive him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will but born of God.”   The gospel of John then develops this a bit further in chapter 3 when Jesus talks with Nicodemus about being born again.   The apostle Paul also writes in his epistles about how we are God’s children.  For instance in Romans 8:15-16 states, “The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry ‘Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our Spirit that we are God’s children.”

The message we find throughout the scripture and supported by this morning’s is that being children of God is not just poetic language, but that through a belief in Jesus as the risen savior is what makes us God’s children.  Because of Jesus, the understanding is that our relationship with God changes.   As the gospel of John puts it we are born again, as Paul explains it we become co-heirs to God’s kingdom with Christ.  This is not a gift that we earn or deserve, but it is an adoption that comes from God’s love, lavished upon us.  This scripture is consistent with a message found across scripture:  Those who believe in Jesus are God’s children.

If we are God’s children, then God is our heavenly Father and in this morning’s scripture I think we can find three of the parental expectations that God has for us.  We will consider them in reverse order, starting with the expectation found in verse 7.  There we find God’s parental expectation of us is to be righteous.  Righteousness is a very churchy concept, and like a lot of similar concepts it is one that is hard to properly define.  This morning’s scripture gives us the common sense but not entirely helpful definition of “The one who does what is right is righteous.”  Righteousness are the choices we make that keep ups in right relationship with God and with others.

When it comes to what it means to live a righteous way, I appreciate the guidance we get from our United Methodist tradition.  Going back to the time of John Wesley, the Methodist movement had three general rules to provide guidance for righteous living.   The first general rule is do no harm.  This means that we are conscientious about the choices we make so that they do not knowingly cause physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual harm to another person.  The second general rule is do good.  This is taking actions that are put others first, lead with compassion, and seek to transform the world into a more kind, loving, and just place.  Both of these general rule guide us in doing what is right because they are both focused on loving our neighbor as our self.  The third general rules focuses on loving God.  Officially the rule is “keep to the ordinances of God”, but in modern language we tend to refer to this rule as “stay in love with God.”   This rule encourages us to take the actions that build and maintain our relationship with God such as prayer, bible reading, corporate worship, and partaking in the sacraments.  Choosing to do these things is what is right because it keeps us connected to the God who loves us and calls us God’s children.   By keeping ordinances of God, by staying in love with God we are better equipped and we are best supported to live righteously and do what is right.

The second potential expectation we find in this morning’s scripture is found in verse 6: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.  No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”  The standard is sinless perfection that is the expectation that God has for us.  At first glance this can be incredibly demoralizing.   In fact, earlier in 1 John the author points out the impossibility of this.  In 1 John 8 and 10 we find “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And “If we claim we have not sinned we make him out be a liar and his word is not in us.”

Living in a way where we do not willfully sin, can feel like an impossibility, like we are being set up for failure.  However, if the expectations God has for us are easy then we will never grow.   When a parent snowplows through difficulty for their child and helicopters over them so they can never fail, then the child has little opportunity to grow and learn.   In the same way, God has a high standard so that we can grow to reach that standard.  High expectations can feel like we something we can never reach, but high expectations have the potential to be transformative and bring the very best out of us.  Often the difference between those two are how the person who is holding the expectation acts.   God’s expectation is that we do not sin, and when we do sin- God does not pile guilt and shame upon us.   God does not bend the universe to punish us and beat us down for messing it up.   God does not disown us or turn God’s back on us.   That is not how God acts as our heavenly father.

When we fall short, when we miss the expectation God forgives us.   Not only does God forgive us but through the ongoing empowering of the Holy Spirit God can equip us and helps us learn how to pick ourselves up again.   From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical record is clear.  God is slow to anger and quick to show mercy.   God is a God of second chances, and third chances, and fourth chances, and a God of whatever number you might be up to by this point.   God is a good, good Father because when we fail to reach the expectation then God forgives us, and God is there to help us try again.

We know this is who God is because of the third expectation we find in this morning’s scripture and that one appears in verse 2 which states, “But we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”   The final expectation is that we will be Christ like, and this comes with a promise that when Jesus comes again in all of his glory we shall be like him.   The power of Christ that brought about our redemption and made possible our salvation also has the power to transform us so that like Jesus we too can love God with our whole heart and willfully not sin.   There will be a day that this happens for all of us, but that day does not necessarily have to wait until our last day in this life.     This is why verse 3 of this morning’s scripture continues “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

One of the things that I appreciate about our United Methodist tradition is our doctrine of Christian perfection.   Being like Jesus and not continuing to sin is not a theoretical possibility and not something reserved for after we enter the heavenly realm.  Because Christian perfection is a work of God only brought about by the Spirit of God working in the life of a believer, we believe that Christian perfection is possible in this life.  If it is possible then we should strive for it.  Daily our goal should be to do no harm, to do good, and stay in love with God so that we live righteously and move on to perfection.    Because remember that is the standard God has for us, so we should strive for it.   We may not reach it, but that does not mean that we do not stop trying.  Every day of life is a new opportunity.   Practice makes progress, and progress leads to perfection.

This morning’s scripture is a reminder that God is a good father, but it is also a reminder that as our heavenly parent God does have expectations of us.  Those expectations to love righteously, not willfully sin, and be like Jesus are a tall order.  With great hope, may we try to move a little closer to those expectations today.   The expectations that God has for us are hard to reach, but they are not unrealistic because this morning’s tells us that there will be a day that we will get there.   We may not be there yet, but by the grace of God may we all go on to perfection.

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