Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. —Matthew 21:31b-32
Expectations play a vital but often misunderstood role in our relationships with teenagers. One of the main sources of discouragement and frustration with teenagers (actually, for all relationships) is their failure to behave as we expect them to in a particular situation. Among other things, we expect that good judgment will be exercised; we expect that the needs of others will be considered; we expect that they will not embarrass us by their behavior. Right? But—what are you thinking!? What are those expectations based upon? If your expectations are rooted in the realities of the gospel, then you understand that such behavior, behavior that flows from love for God, is not a natural response. Ah, but you say, I wasn’t expecting that kind of motivation, I was just hoping that my kids would show a little common sense. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
I believe that this exposes the root of the problem about expectations. Let’s restart the narrative of this parable again. Christ has just told the religious leaders that the bad people, the tax collectors and prostitutes, had gone out to see John and had repented. But these leaders still did not go and seek out John. They did not believe they had anything to repent of, and Jesus condemns them for not doing so. Now remember the beginning of the parable. The first son is likened to the obvious sinners that the religious leaders disdained. The second son, who acted properly on the outside but was inwardly bankrupt, is likened to the religious leaders.
As parents, we too often have expectations that are performance based. When the expectations are not met we become disappointed and disapproving. This is exactly what the religious leaders did with their “teenagers,” the ones who didn’t hold them in high esteem and acted like sinners. They disapproved of them and avoided them. But we must do more for our teenagers than that. Don't just demand that they behave properly and then shun their bad choices and bad friends. Ephesians 6:4 says this kind of expectation will provoke them to anger. Yes, you read correctly. Performance-based expectations will provoke your teenagers to anger, because such expectations are not consistent with raising them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Gospel-based expectations recognize that only the saving, sanctifying work of Christ will rescue your teenagers from walking in darkness. The religious leaders had the mentality that the “sinners” could do at least as well as they did if they simply chose to. This attitude exposed the leaders for what they were – hypocrites! Their very attitude of contempt for sinners exposes their own failure to love and care for God's covenant people. They could not keep God's standard themselves. Neither can you or your children. Gospel-based parenting means that you want to take your children to the cross, to repentance, forgiveness, and mercy in Christ. This means you can respond to your teenagers with loving compassion instead of anger and condemnation, and tell them that you know being pure and gracious in life is hard, even impossible, without Christ. Expect them to struggle with sin, and be thankful when they repent. Let them know that you have a long way to go as well. Hold out the way of righteousness for them. Talk about their issues. You struggled with them too, when you were a teenager, and perhaps you still do. This removes the stigma of hypocrisy from your parenting. You need repentance, forgiveness, and grace as much as your teenagers do. The religious leaders to whom Jesus was talking should have fled to find John and seek repentance alongside the other “sinners.”
The Bible gives us a much higher standard for our expectations than the world does:: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. But who can meet God's expectations? Neither you nor your children; only Jesus Christ alone. The gospel offers the only hope that we have. You should want nothing less for your teenagers. So hold up for your children "the more excellent way" of faith and obedience in Christ. Your expectations will then be based on the power of Christ to do what cannot be done in the flesh.
There is much to talk about on this theme. Let me know your thoughts.