This is a Best Of Faith post. It was originally published 7/3/16, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. My Justin Bieber joke never gets old. 

Teaching our kids the Gospel is not a data in-data out proposition. Too many parents make the mistake of thinking they’ve failed if Johnny and Susie fall away (or, if you’re in Utah, Ayebraeham and Aunisstee). What if it takes two to tango? Parents teach, kids choose; sometimes it’s like falling off a log, sometimes it’s like being rolled by a log. The kicker is that we almost never know—in real time—how our teaching is being received. Teenagers are spectacularly gifted in telling us what we want to hear and going through the motions right along with.

There are in reality four quadrants of the dance, each with an infinite number of combinations.

A – Parents who love the gospel and teach the Gospel to kids who love the Gospel and live the Gospel. – Your Abrahams, your Mitt Romneys, your Billy Grahams, your Joel Osteens. Good for them. I hate them. (Hate is not a Christian value, I know. But honesty is.)

B – Diligent, humble, and loving parents who teach the Gospel to kids who say, “No, thanks.” – Virtually every diligent, humble, and loving parent out there passes through this Refiners’ Fire at some point.

C – Justin Bieber.

D – Kids who choose to live the Gospel even when their parents don’t. – My friend who came home from his mission to find out that Dad, a former bishop, and Sister So-and-so, a stalwart member of the congregation, had both been ex-communicated for having an extra-marital affair. That friend is now a Seminary Teacher.

To teach the Gospel, we have to be clear on what the Gospel is (and isn’t). The Gospel is love, humility, service, dedication to family, faith, repentance, knowledge, integrity, etc. The Gospel is not church, scriptures, Temple attendance, missions, or family home evening; the latter are tools for and manifestations of living the Gospel, not the Gospel itself.

You can teach the Gospel without using Gospel language. Every single commandment and Gospel principle is the straightest shot to a calm and happy life—treat your body like a Temple; family is more important than anything; serve others; there is no higher calling than raising children; you are of inestimable worth; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The principles are true, even if the doctrine is a turn-off.

You can live Gospel standards whole-heartedly while honoring the agency of your kids to reject them; you can do this without taking it personally or having contention in your family. Kind of like God does with us when we fall short of or reject His commandments.

People are who they’re born to be. Devout religious parents can do everything “right” and raise sorry excuses for humanity. Irreligious parents can do everything “wrong” and raise Mother Teresas. We are held accountable for teaching our kids, NOT for the results. Parenting is for the parents.

It’s our job to love (another word for teach) our kids in this lifetime; it’s God’s job to judge (another word for reward) us all in the next. Parents who take upon themselves a job that only God can do are volunteering for the greater sin.

Fire, brimstone, and parental pressure don’t work. Fear and shame are counterproductive to a relationship with God, and nobody likes pressure. Pressure gives kids something to push back against and the energy and emotion they use to push back is energy and emotion they don’t have for seeking, knocking, and finding the life that God already knows they’re headed for. If they’re headed for the Gospel, they’ll get there; if not, any wedge you drive between you and them on the way there is a heaviness that permeates your relationship ever after.

I’m not saying don’t discuss tattoos or sex or gay marriage or alcohol or missions, but you can do it the same way God presents those things to us. “This is what I believe, this is why, it’s your call, I will love you no matter what, but there are consequences to every choice, and it will make me sad to see you denying yourself blessings you could have had…“

Once that tattoo is on the arm, it’s never coming off; once that chastity horse has left the outside-of-marriage barn for the first time, it’s never coming back. What’s the point in shaming anyone? If they’re on their way to the Gospel and amenable to gospel language, great; if not, “repentance” is not only strong soap but strong alienation. Joseph Fielding Smith said, “You can’t force your children into Heaven, but you can drag them into Hell by trying.”

The unique aspects of different religions (e.g., Catholics – Transubstantiation; Jews – Bar Mitzvah; Mormons – Baptism for the Dead) are graduate-level study. If your kid drops out of college to start Microsoft, he’s probably not interested in a PhD in organic chemistry. It doesn’t have to mean he’s lazy or weak. He gets to use his agency the same way you do, and we all do the best we can with what we have. That’s exactly why only God can judge our hearts. Isn’t that a relief? All we have to do is love the Gospel, love our kids, and recognize that happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.

All God wants of us (and our kids) is to be on the right path moving forward; that’s not a straight line, and it’s not interrupted progress. Reaching the goal in this lifetime is as easy as walking to the moon, but we get credit on our Gospel Fitbit for every step we take. You have no idea what impact you have had on your kids; it’s entirely possible that they embraced more of the Gospel being raised by you than they would have in any other home.

Despite our testimony, we may be wrong about God, our church, our faith, or our interpretation of scripture. What we call devout worship may be simply a placebo (or “opiate of the masses” as Karl Marx described his view of religious practice).

I would die for my church, and there isn’t a single fiber of my being that doesn’t know it’s true, but intellectual honesty requires me to admit I can’t prove it. It doesn’t change the way I live my life because I have a testimony of the fruit of peace the Gospel brings, but it sure makes for more humble dialogue between me and my differently-believing friends and family. “Oh, poor you, you’re not in the Church, let me help you” tends to turn people off. Go figure.

It’s also human nature to soften your heart toward someone whose heart is softened toward you. If you and your kids are not going to make identical choices, what’s the harm in having softer hearts toward each other anyway?

Adam fell that men might be; men are that they might have joy. That’s the gospel. If you live it, you teach it.

Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words. – St. Francis of Assisi