17164262_sI first got the idea from Grace Goh. She encouraged us to take our children out for a good celebratory meal just before they sit for a major exam. She said that when we do this, we send a very clear signal to them that they are loved for who they are and not for how they perform.

To understand why this suggestion is so counter cultural, you need to understand that diaspora Chinese parents usually encourage their children to excel academically by promising them all sorts of rewards. Diaspora Chinese see academic excellence as the main way for their children to survive and to thrive in the countries they had adopted. And so all sorts of carrots and sticks were used to push their children to work hard in school.

The intentions may have been good but often the child ends up feeling that dad and mum are pleased with them only when they excel in school, only when they perform. The unfortunate message received is that I have to earn dad and mums’ love by my performance. The lesson we learn is that love is conditional. It has to be earned. I must be good enough to receive love. You can see at once how this is at odds with a key biblical truth — the fact that God’s love is freely given. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:8-10:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (NLT)

This pattern of blessing freely given is seen right from the beginning of creation. Humankind’s first full day of existence was spent, not in caring for  creation, but in enjoying God’s blessings on the first Sabbath day (Genesis 1:26-2:3). Humankind was created to enjoy God’s unconditional love.

This is also seen in the fact that God the Father reminds Jesus that He is dearly loved, not as a reward for His ministry and His dying on the cross, but at His baptism, before Jesus embarked on His public ministry.

One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” (Mark 1:9-11 NLT)

The Bible is also clear that if we have truly tasted the goodness of God we would give ourselves to loving and serving Him. We are saved by grace but we are also saved “so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (NLT). And James tells us bluntly that faith that doesn’t issue forth in good deeds is not true faith.

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. (James 2:17 NLT)

We need to be on the watch out for the twin errors of conditional love and cheap grace.

I do want my children to work hard for their exams. But not because it is a way to earn the love of God or the love of their parents. I want my children to work hard because I want them to be good stewards of their lives and their potentialities (Matthew 25:14-30). I like to believe that if they are secure in their parents’ love, my children will know something of the love of their heavenly Father. And secure in that love, they can be free to be their creative best.

Above all I want my children to know that I love them for who they are. In pale imitation of how my Heavenly father delights in me, I want my children to know that I delight in them. And so I take my children out for a good meal before their exams begin, and not after their exams as a reward for good results. I want them to know that their exam results, whatever that may be, will not change the fact that I love them.

And so we took Andrew out for dinner a few nights ago. He is in the midst of his O-levels. At dinner we talked about some things he could do in his pre-university studies next year. He said he was looking forward to it. He also said that he intends to continue the family tradition. In future, if he has children, he will also take them out for a celebratory meal before every major exam. Way to go, son, way to go.