Even God Does Not Break Our Will--and why "breaking a child's will" is NOT Biblical

A few months ago, I wrote this piece as a guest post for my good friend, Rachel Held Evans. In light of the current discussion regarding "Biblical" child-training, Rachel has graciously agreed to let me re-post it here. Is "breaking a child's will" really how Christians ought to discipline their children? In the fundamentalist church of my childhood, parents spanked their children until the “will was broken.” To achieve this, parents started spanking their babies at 6 months old. The idea was that if you broke the child’s will in infancy, you primed them to obey God for the rest of their lives.

I’m not here to debate whether spanking is always wrong (I’ve seen it used both appropriately and abusively--and it should be noted that the mild, rare swat to the bottom is a far cry from the systematic, repetitive, cruel methodology advocated by Mike & Debi Pearl).

What really troubles me is the underlying belief that breaking a child's will is right and good. This is a belief found in many, many Christian circles. In my experience, that one belief was used as justification for all kinds of physical and spiritual abuse.

Even after leaving fundamentalism, I never really questioned the validity and necessity of breaking the human will. I simply concluded it was a good belief—just abusively misapplied.

It wasn’t until recently when I was reading about the persecution of Romanian Christians under Communist rule that something changed for me. According to the late Patriarch Theoctist of the Romanian Orthodox Church, “Man has a very powerful will—so powerful that even God Himself does not break it. And by this [God] is actually showing that man is in the likeness of God. Without man’s will he could not make any progress on the way to goodness. So out of all the gifts that God grants the human being, we believe that freedom is one of the most important.” (Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, p.126).

I found myself almost weeping with recognition at these words and their hard-won insight. It is a perspective born of suffering, an epiphany emerging from the ashes of an oppressive belief system. This man shepherded his beleaguered, persecuted church through the long, dark years of Communism and for those deprived of freedom, the gift of freedom becomes one of the most important.

Although the oppression I experienced was spiritual, not political; the dynamics of control were the same. By actively seeking to break a child's will, parents unwittingly engaged in an obliteration of their child's individual personhood and freedom. When humans attempt to break another human will, they desecrate the likeness of God in that person and violate their God-given gift of freedom.

I find it remarkably beautiful that we actually need our intact, unbroken wills to “make progress on the way to goodness." Indeed, the road to holiness requires strong, powerful wills. It’s such a different thought than the kind of thoughts from my childhood. The difference is a yielded will versus a broken one. When your focus is breaking the will, the only obedience you can ever really expect is obligatory, perhaps even begrudged. But when your focus is winning the heart, obedience becomes a joyful love offering—a heart and will freely given.

In other words, I don’t obey God because He broke my will. I obey Him because His love pursued me and won my heart.

That is the kind of love I want to demonstrate to my own five children. By God's grace, I will.

[NOTE ON COMMENTS: if you have pro-Mike & Debi Pearl comments to make, there are plenty of places on Internet to do that. But I will not allow those comments on my blog. Comments ARE open for discussion and safe sharing. It is my goal in writing these pieces to bring awareness to the errant "Christian" parenting methods that have hurt many children in the hope that when Christians know better, they do better. Together, we can build a culture of love where children are treated as fully human.]