When Education Becomes Deadly To a Child

When Education Becomes Deadly To a Child's Soul

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An unguarded strength is a double weakness because we rarely guard our strengths because we think of them as good, not realizing that our abilities can entrap us, keeping us from relying on God. Let me illustrate my point with a counseling session with a mother and daughter. The child’s strength was her intellect, propelling her to do well in school. The unguardedness of her skills created a darkness in the child’s life that brought them to counseling. If we are not wise in stewarding our strengths, we can become blind, too.

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Family Affair

Mable came to counseling to talk about her daughter, Biffina. Biffina is 13 years old and has been acting out recently. It has been chiefly anger and a sassy attitude toward her parents and little brother, Biffy. She added that Biffina had not been eating and may be struggling there, too. Her mom noted how her anger had escalated over the past year, and she did not know what to do about it. She talked to her husband, Biff, as well as her teachers. Typically, when a mom or dad comes to me for counseling regarding one of their children, there are some specific questions I need to ask the parents about the parents.

A 13-year-old child does not typically become as rebellious as Mable described regarding their daughter without assistance. In most cases of teen rebellion, this is more than just a child problem. I reject the cultural lie that says the teen years are predetermined to be years of rebellion, and you can do nothing about it. Christians can factor in the gospel’s transformative power into people’s lives, which is the perfect antidote for rebellion, regardless of age. Though there are exceptions in that some children rebel without the adverse shaping influences of their parents, more times than not, there are things the parents have been doing that facilitated the teen’s rebellion.

As things turned out for Biffina, there were some specific things Mable and Biff could have done differently. In this case, it was a kid’s problem and a parent’s problem. The interesting thing about this situation was that Mable knew it was a parent issue but would not admit it at the beginning of our counseling session. She presented the case as though it was all about Biffina, and what they needed to do about it baffled them. Ultimately, Mable did not want to tell me how her husband was a significant culprit in Biffina’s rebellion because Mable felt hopeless that Biff would ever change. Rather than being honest with me about the situation, she presented it as teen rebellion and wanted me to fix their daughter.


Counseling was a last-ditch effort for a mom who fell between a rock and a hard place. She could not change her husband, so she hoped she could hire me to fix their broken daughter. I understood her hopelessness, but Mable could not skirt the parenting problem if she wanted restoration. Biff was part of Biffina’s problem, and as long as he was unchanging, it would have a distinguishable impact on how Biffina chose to live through her teenage years. It is like trying to lose weight while stuffing down a six-pack of soda and three Snickers bars a day. You cannot maintain the wrong behavior and expect a different result.

Biff and Mable could not continue in their habits and hope Biffina changes magically. The intent of counseling was never to do what Mable wanted it to do. If the grace of God were to intervene mercifully, it would be within the scope of God’s domain and prerogative, not mine. God’s grace can overcome our foolishness, but we should never presume on His grace to do that (Psalm 19:13). With this re-clarification in view, I began asking Mable some specific questions: “You talked to her teachers; what did they say?” Mable told me that Biffina’s teachers were surprised she was rebellious. Their perception of Biffina was that she was a model child.

Mable talked to six of her teachers from this year’s class and some of her previous teachers. All six of them, past and present, had similar stories: Biffina is a wonderfully compliant child. She has never caused a minute’s trouble and is an academic example to all her classmates. The real truth about Biffina is that she is rebellious in every area except school. The school is the only place where she is a model child. This information was helpful on several fronts. First of all, it told me that Biffina could behave. There were some character issues in the play rather than physical limitations. Biffina could be nice if she wanted to be, and she could misbehave if she wanted to. She had the moral ability to choose right or wrong behaviors.

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Desiring Love

“What does your parenting model look like in your home?” Mable told me that she spends most of her time with Biffina, while Biff spends most of his time with Biffy. Mable was unsure why it was that way, but that is how they have always done it. During this part of the conversation, Mable told me that Biffina asked her when she was four or five years old, “Mommy, why does daddy play with Biffy and does not play with me?” The effects of their parenting stirred an instructive question from little Biffina. She was struggling with a situation that would soon set the trajectory for the rest of her life, though she did not know it then or now.

Mable did not know the significance of Biffina’s question about her daddy, though she was beginning to understand now what Biffina had been harboring in her heart all these years. What does Biff’s relationship with Biffina lack? Mable said Biff rarely encourages his daughter. Though their home is not overly hostile or discouraging, it is not where active and intentional building up and encouragement occurs. After chatting with Biffina, it became apparent that affection and attention from her daddy were paramount. From her perspective, Biff seemed preoccupied, disinterested, and distant. At times, he even came across as angry, according to Biffina.

Biffina assumed as a young child that Biff would be okay if something terrible happened to their family. He would be safe, but she was not as confident Daddy would protect her. When I finally met with Biffina, I asked her, during a long conversation and many questions, “Biffina, what are you more aware of your daddy’s correction and displeasure, or your daddy’s affection and encouragement?” It was incredible. Biffina’s eyes began to water immediately. She had already figured it out: “Daddy loves Biffy, but he does not love me.” Her dad’s lack of affection for her created confusion in her heart. It was a setup for personal failure. The results of their parenting also explained why she was so angry.

Father Pictures

Then she hesitated but finally murmured that her daddy rarely encouraged her and that she always felt he was displeased with her. She did clarify how many times it was not necessarily because of what he said, as much as it was about his quietness, distance, preoccupation, and obvious affection for Biffy. The church was one of the many contexts where Biffina was rebellious. She disdained church. The parent’s response to her hatred of religion was to press the issue. They saw it as another aspect of her rebellion they could change through force. Sadly, they were not discerning the problem.

Biffina rebelled because it was her way of working through her struggle with God. She did not know how to have a relationship with God because the primary authority figure in her life—her father—demotivated her to want to have a relationship with another father. Biffina felt her dad’s displeasure and naturally assumed God’s anger. “If Daddy does not like me, God must not like me either. There must be something wrong with me.” Biffina believed God was angry with her. From her perspective, it was like being thrown in a room with an angry person, so Biffina became angry too. She said God seemed distant, and Biffina did not know where she stood with the Lord.

Though she believed God saved her when she was nine, there was still this inward awkward nagging and uncertainty about her relationship with God. Biffina said she needed to perform for God to stand well with Him. Though she knew her thinking was incorrect, there was still this yearning in her heart to do right to be accepted by God. When I began to talk to Biffina about her school, I noticed an almost immediate change in her disposition. She perked up and was glad to tell me about her straight A’s. She told me three times in five minutes that she was an A student. One of the things her mother said to me was that Biffina learned in Kindergarten that she was brilliant. Shortly after entering Kindergarten, Biffina found her niche. Biffina had a gift, and that gift was her intelligence.

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Unguarded Strength

When Biffina began turning in her papers to her first-grade teacher, the papers would come back with stars and smiley faces at the top of them. How Biffina felt in those moments of getting her papers back was something she rarely felt at any time in her life. Biffina felt appreciated. She felt loved. She felt approved. Biffina had a God-given strength, which was her intelligence, and she learned how her intelligence would be the gateway to many good things, especially love, and significance. I asked Biffina about her excellent grades and what they meant to her.

She said, “Daddy told me a long time ago the best way I could make him happy was to make all A’s. Daddy doesn’t care for the lack of effort, particularly in school. He said he did not try hard in school, which was his worst mistake. He does not want me to do poorly in school.” Biffina took his warning to heart; from her perspective, she saw it as fortunate to be a bright girl. Biffina saw it as a gift, though it blinded her to how her greatest strength was also her biggest weakness. The raw truth was that neither she nor her father and mother could see how her pursuit of good grades and excellence through education was idolatry.

Biffina was an idolater, and her daddy was one of the culprits pushing her deeper into her idolatry. The more we talked, the more open Biffina became. She eventually shared with me how she cheated on a test on one occasion last year. I was the first person she ever let in on her secret. Biffina was so hungry for attention from her dad that she rationalized the cheating. Her guilt-ridden conscience had eaten away at her for over a year, but her craving for love was more significant than her temptation to sin. Her guilty conscience was another reason she had an aggravated relationship with God and almost everyone else. She was getting the love she craved through academic success, but in her heart of hearts, Biffina knew she was getting her fix on at a high price. Her frustration mounted.

A Little Idolator

To make matters worse, the unresolved guilt in her conscience began to work out in bad eating habits. She could not tell anyone what she had done, but Biffina knew there had to be some punishment for her sin, so she punished herself. As you break down her logic, it went along these lines. Dad was distant, so she could not tell him. God was displeased with her, so He could not help her. Therefore, she chose to punish herself by not eating. She lived in this ongoing dual tension:

  • Self-atonement: a desire to punish herself through fasting to soothe her guilty conscience.
  • Self-centeredness: a desire for love that she could attain through her grades, even if it meant cheating.

Biffina’s idolatrous craving for excellence, as defined by her dad, led her into an isolated, individualistic, and competitive way of thinking and behaving. The irony was that Biffina would bring her report card home to rave reviews at the end of each semester, the applause she longed to receive. Grandpa was happy. Grandma was happy. Daddy was happy. Mom was happy. Biffina was temporarily happy with their approval rating, but the gnawing away of her soul was an inconsolable burden that led to uncharacteristic acting-out behavior.

Sadly, her daddy was applauding her excellence while perplexed by her weight loss, oblivious to the acute longings of her soul and aiding her in the ongoing ensnaring to idolatry. Mable knew there was more to the issue but ignored the problems with Biff, hoping the counselor could correct everything. Biffina had all the answers but was not connecting the dots. The counselor collected the data and connected the dots, but now the family must determine if they want to address all the pertinent issues to help their daughter. Of course, that process would begin with Biff’s recognition of his improper leadership and active repentance.

Call to Action

  1. Describe how Biffina’s unguarded strength had captured her soul. How were Biff and Mable complicit in Biffina’s struggle? What were some of the dots they were not connecting, and what would you teach them to help them understand all the problems?
  2. What are some of the things Biff must do to practicalize active repentance toward God and his family?
  3. What would boasting in weakness mean to Biffina? How could Biff help her to implement this essential truth into her life?
  4. In what specific ways does Mable need to repent to God, Biff, and Biffina?
  5. What would you teach Biffina about God, and how would you work to make it stick? What would her repentance look like, practically speaking?

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