I am thinking of the families of two sisters. The first, Joyce, ruled with the iron mace of legalism. Her five kids obeyed a long set of strict rules, "Because I say so, that's why!" The kids, now grown, tell me they acquiesced mainly out of fear of punishment.

Joyce's family devotions often centered on the Old Testament: Honor your parents, Fear the Lord, Stop complaining. The word grace rarely came up. When the children got married, Joyce told them, "If your marriage fails, don't bother coming back here. You made a vow to God, so keep it!"

All of Joyce's children have struggled with self-image problems, and all have sought professional counseling. They admit it has taken many years for them to think of God as loving, and even now that concept seems more intellectual than experiential. Joyce and her husband have softened into grandparents now, but affection still does not come easily to anyone in the family.

Yet here is a striking fact: defying an overwhelming national trend, all five of those children remain married to their original partners. All but one are raising their own children in the faith. At some level, legalism in this family produced results.

In contrast to Joyce, her sister, Annette, determined to break out of the legalism of their own upbringing. She vowed not to punish her children, rather to love them, comfort them, and calmly explain when they had done wrong. Her family devotions skipped right past the Old Testament and focused on Jesus' astonishing parables of grace and forgiveness.

Annette especially loved the story of the Prodigal Son. "We are those parents," she would tell her children. "No matter what you do, no matter what happens, we'll be here ...

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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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