I remember well hearing a high school teacher plead for understanding when she failed to have our projects graded by the time she had promised us, her students. Her request seemed fair, her excuse reasonable: She had been ill and dealing with sick kids, to boot. Regardless of her reasons, some students faulted her, loudly and unreservedly, for failing to keep her word.
Now before you go judging them for failure to consider her plight, you need to realize the irony of the situation: This teacher accepted no excuses for her students’ lateness or failure to turn in work on time. The legalistic judgment her students passed on her was exactly the kind she had been doling out to them. Like fountains, what flows out of young people (and people in general, really) tends to reflect what’s been poured into them: namely, legalism or grace.
The Fountain of Legalism
Let’s be careful not to confuse “legalism” with the mere presence of rules or expectations and related rewards and consequences. The presence of such a framework is absolutely necessary for adolescents to develop into responsible adults as well as for society to function with some kind of order. I’m not even using the term here in the spiritual sense, where a legalist is one who believes that keeping a set of standards or rules would be required for salvation or even sanctification.
Instead, I’m talking about a legalistic attitude that leaves no room for legitimate exceptions or honest mistakes. When a young person is regularly addressed in legalistic, inconsiderate ways, that kind of bitter dye will not be easily removed from the fountain. Such individuals tend to become embittered and, in turn, judge others with the same legalistic spirit with which they have been judged.
The Fountain of Grace
Imagine that a different teacher made the same plea described above, only this teacher was one who listened to his students and allowed for reasonable exceptions to the rules, modeling grace for his students. Do you think their response would have been different? Probably. When any of us recognize the many undeserved kindnesses we’ve received by God and others, those doses of grace will eventually spill over into our dealing with others.
The parable in Matthew 18:23-35 indicates that it’s entirely possible to lack grace in our treatment of others, even when we have been treated graciously. In fact, that’s exactly what any unkind, legalistic person is doing, since we have all been given far more than we deserve by a loving God who is ready to forgive.
As we determine how to deal with the teens in our lives and respond to their behavior, we need to make sure we’re treating them with the same kind of grace we desire to receive and see them show to others. We also do well to focus on the grace we have received and teach them how that grace can both cover their sin and enable them to live for Christ.