Friday, July 01, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Objectively Bad

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Here we are, Immanuel Can. It’s 2016, and our old pal Rachel Held Evans is once again raising spiritual issues of importance.

I had not realized that she and husband Dan are expecting a baby, but it does explain why her blog output is down to about one post a month. And if my recollection of raising children remains unimpeded by creeping senility, her writing output is likely to remain at an all-time low for the indefinite future, assuming it does not tail off altogether.

Banning the “Bad Mom”

In honor of RHE’s impending blessing (I’ve seen a picture, and it’s seriously impending), I’d like to share with you some thoughts from her latest post:

“The single resolution I’m making as a new parent is to totally strike from my lexicon, both verbally and inwardly, the phrase: ‘I’m a bad mom.’

It is officially banished — named as the vicious lie that it is and condemned to the hellish pit from which it came. My husband, family, and friends are all on notice: If it is uttered, even in jest, call me out and set me straight. I’m not a bad mom.

I’m a good mom who’s having a bad day.

I’m a good mom who made a mistake.

I’m a good mom who bought way more newborn clothes than she needed because she has a pathological weakness for dinosaur pajamas.

I’m a good mom struggling to balance childcare and work.

I’m a good mom who lost her temper.

I’m a good mom who doesn’t know what to do next.

I’m a good mom who just needs a good cry.

I made this resolution because, as an older mom, I’ve had the chance to learn from friends and peers who took the leap before me. In observing their ups and downs, triumphs and fails, I’ve identified this as the great ‘mommy kryptonite,’ the one thing that can fell even the bravest, wisest parents who stand so tall in my esteem.

The truth is, if you care about being a good parent, you’re probably a good parent.”

Tom: Now I’m not really wanting to get into the subject of parenting at all here, IC, except insofar as it is one area of the Christian life that illustrates a general principle, but I do notice a little tiny quirk in RHE’s logic here, in that she willingly speaks of being a “good” mom over and over again, but will not countenance the notion of being a “bad” mom under any circumstances.

So my question has more to do with subjectivity and objectivity than it has to do with parenting, and that is this: Is it reasonable, biblically speaking, to talk about being a “good” person or “bad” person? I know we do it all the time ...

Relative Badness

Immanuel Can: I think it is possible to talk of being bad for a person, or of being good for a person.

Tom: You’re speaking of habits or associations that make for good or bad character?

IC: No. I’m just saying that the “good” and “bad” that can be applied to human beings is relative to what they are essentially, since no human being is genuinely good, as Christ himself so plainly said. Now Hitler, there was a “bad” human being, I’m sure everyone would agree. If not, we can take Pol Pot or Stalin or Torquemada or Ted Bundy or Charles Manson … we will not be hard-pressed to find exemplars of human badness, I think.

But what about human “goodness”? Some people might point to Mary, the mother of our Lord, for example. We know of no particular sins she committed, and she seems to have been, by all accounts, a very nice human being. But if we are prepared to believe the testimony of Mary’s own lips, she tells us otherwise. She confessed that she too was a sinner in need of a Savior.

It’s the old human nature problem. At its worst, it’s very bad; and at its best, it’s not really good.

Tom: So we can speak of good or bad people in a relative sense, but not in absolute terms. Or perhaps we should use the language of the Old Testament and speak of being “righteous” or “unrighteous” — though “righteous” is a word that is often misunderstood, so maybe we’d best be careful with that one.

Searching for Standards

IC: Yes. Now, you raise another point here. If there is such a thing as a “good” human being (or in your example, a “good” mother) then there must be an objective set of standards by which such a thing can be affirmed. One consequence of this is that there MUST be such a thing as a “bad” person or a “bad” mother. Otherwise, the term “good” simply refers to everyone and everything — and hence to no particular thing — and so no information is being added by the adjective “good”.

So if we even use the word “good” at all, we are inviting people to ask us “Good by what set of criteria?” or “Good in what scale of values?” If we have none to suggest, then our word “good” has no content.

Tom: Agreed. I’m sure Ms Evans, being a professing Christian, would tell us she plans to be “good” by the standard of biblical motherhood (notwithstanding all the mistakes she tell us she is about to make but obviously doesn’t feel are terribly serious). But I suspect what she really means, if we break it down further, is that she plans to be “good” by her own subjective interpretation of the limited subset of Bible verses she happens to know and thinks apply to motherhood. That’s a very different standard of “good”, and one that would inevitably change from mother to mother.

Can we truly say the word “good” has any objective, consistent content if that turns out to be the case?

The Inadequacy of Self-Affirmation

IC: Well, if it doesn’t, then there’s no sense in which anyone ought to agree she’s a good mother, since their own interpretation has to be just as valid as hers. But if all she means by “good” is “I feel satisfied with my mothering”, then anyone could begin to suspect she’s just being smug and perhaps has no reason to be so confident. There has to be some standard beyond her own feelings to which she’s appealing in her self-assessment.

Tom: Correct.

IC: You say you suppose it may be some biblical standard, however selective her understanding of the biblical teaching on motherhood may be. But I’m more suspicious of temperament than you, I suppose, since what I would take from her self-affirmation is that she has simply decided to refuse to feel guilty, no matter how badly she may fail any standard she has applied to herself in times past. It’s just possible she’s revising her opinion of past failures in such a way as to excuse them.

Does that seem harsh?

Tom: No, I think there’s more than a little solipsism at work in the quote, which is why I threw the red meat into this lion’s den in the first place.

IC: Well, let me ask this, then: why is she so concerned about reconstituting herself as a “good” mother, and why does she explicitly say she’s no longer prepared to see herself as a “bad” one, if she hasn’t already had the sneaking suspicion that maybe, just maybe, according to some standard, she IS a bad mother? If she doesn’t think that, then why would she broach the topic at all? It would seem a waste of time, were that the case.

Diagnosis and Remedy

Tom: I think you have reached the core of the issue. Let me just throw this out there: I think Rachel Held Evans and every other mother in human history is desperately, pathetically un-qualified to be the judge of their own mothering, just as every father in human history is desperately, pathetically un-qualified to stand in judgment on his own efforts as a father.

As to individual parental responsibilities and choices, sure, we are more than able to judge. We have actual scriptures for that. If I satisfy my own ego by hauling off and socking my teenage son on the jaw when I feel he’s stepped out of line, I can read, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” and remind myself that proving myself the man of the house is not part of my job description.

But as to the bird’s-eye view (or God’s-eye view) assessment of whether I have been a “good dad” or whether Rachel will be a “good mom”? Poppycock, I say. We have no means of knowing such a thing.

IC: I think parents always feel a certain amount of guilt about not having done adequately all that they hoped to do in the lives of their children. Some of that might well be misplaced … at least in some cases. But as you say, whether or not that guilt is misplaced could only ever be decided based on some objective standard. Therefore, nothing is achieved by denying standards; instead, guilt is made free-floating and unfocused thereby.

RHE’s strategy reminds me of the whole issue of sin. Our modern relativists imagine they’ve banished guilt because they’ve banished the standards that would define their conduct as sin. But what they’ve overlooked is that recognizing something as sin is a diagnosis; and without diagnosis, no remedy is possible. Until we know we are sinners, we do not even know that what we need is salvation. The sickness, however, remains very possible — fatally possible. So the denial of objective moral standards is a form of suicide.

The Lord Who Judges

Tom: I love what the apostle says about this:

“For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”

There is always a vast spectrum of potential moral violations in each of our lives about which most of us are, very likely, blissfully unaware. By all means we should deal with the things in our lives we know to be wrong. But on no account should that give us any sort of smug, satisfied illusion that we have somehow measured up.

So, sure, assess the things we are doing wrong with our kids, and God bless. Let’s weed those habits and practices out of our lives. But please, let’s not do so in the forlorn hope that if we exhaust the limits of our knowledge of sin, we have somehow exonerated ourselves in the eyes of God. That is sheer lunacy.


  1. "... of whether I have been a 'good dad' or whether Rachel will be a 'good mom'? Poppycock, I say. We have no means of knowing such a thing.'"

    I think you are overstating that a bit.

    Of course we have means of knowing that, in two ways even. First, as a parent you can observe the end result of your efforts by how your kids turn out, and second, the end result is capable of telling you that you have done a good job and that that is very much appreciated. And as a grandparent you will then see that your efforts will continue to produce good moms and dads.

    Naturally, there can sometimes be things not within your control (driven by your kid's free will and/or external circumstances) but you can still judge whether or not you acted rightly. As a matter of fact, I see it as a main problem that many parents are not able to assess, or are not interested in assessing, their own actions with regard to how they discharged their responsibility of child rearing. This is a serious lack of self awareness that may extend to other areas in their life as well. Synonyms might be disinterest, self-centeredness, poor judgement, misplaced priorities, lacking a sense of responsibility, and so on. Those are actually the things that produce poor parenting and that we all must continually address in our life to become successful parents.

  2. All the things you point out (disinterest, self-centeredness, poor judgement, misplaced priorities, lacking a sense of responsibility) are definite problems that lead to poor parenting. And I think it's actually pretty easy to recognize poor parenting on the basis of bad regular habits like the ones you suggest.

    Good parenting, on the other hand, is a lot tougher. I mean, where is the cut-off point? Can you say because your kid is obedient at 16 that you've been a good parent? He might be a terror at 23.

    All of it is, at best, a work in progress, and it seems to me we are better to leave the final judgment of our performance as parents to the Lord.