Abstract of a Sermon, Preached on June 23, 1996
“Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.” (Prov. 20:11).
A child is known by his doings, exactly as a tree is known by its fruit, whether it be pure, and whether it be right. And of course he is also known by his doings, if his work is not pure, and not right. What is known by his doings is his character. What a man does is the manifestation of what he is. It is the gauge of his character. And the same is true of “even a child.”
This plainly teaches us that children have character—-either good character, or bad character. A good many parents seem to have missed this. They seem to think that this verse, “Even a child is known by his doings,” means nothing more than that we may tell that a child is a child by his doings. When their child does something foolish, or reckless, or evil, they say, “Oh, he's just a child. He'll grow out of it.” And I tell you, he won't grow out of it. He may grow out of certain manifestations of his evil character, but he won't grow out of the character which produced them. When he is three years old, he may lie on the floor of the grocery store and kick and scream till he gets a candy bar, and his mother says, “He'll grow out of it.” Yes, of course he'll grow out of screaming for a candy bar in the grocery store, but he won't grow out of the character that prompted such acts. He'll find more sophisticated means to get his way, but he'll have the same character still. His character is what he is, and what he is is known by what he does. Children have character, either good or evil, and that character is known by their doings.
But parents somehow seem to miss this—-or to deny it. If they see a man of twenty years driving his car as fast as he can, for the mere pleasure of the speed, or for pride and worthless bravado, they will make a quick connection between his doings and his character. But if they see their boy of ten years doing exactly the same thing with his bicycle, they make no such connection. Yet such doings in the boy of ten proceed from the same kind of character that produce them in the man of twenty. “Even a child is known by his doings.” It is the same foolish recklessness, and the same pride and bravado, in the boy of ten as it is in the man of twenty—-and he is not going to grow out of it.
Now it is the business of parents to do something about that character. But how? You can't regulate character, but you can regulate conduct, and by regulating conduct you can indirectly regulate character. A saying I have often heard in evangelical preaching is, “Sow an act, and reap a habit. Sow a habit, and reap a character. Sow a character, and reap a destiny.” This is true. To sow an act means to indulge in it. To sow a habit means to indulge in that. When you commit an act once, it becomes much easier to repeat it. I remember very distinctly the first time in my life that I swore. It was when I was in the fifth grade, on the concrete pavement out behind the old Curran School. This was forty years ago, but I remember everything about it—-who was there, where we were standing, and every word I said. I remember my thoughts and my motives. But I have no recollection whatsoever of the second time I swore, nor the third, or fourth, or ten thousandth. It was easy the second time, and the third, and in a short time it was a habit. It was my character. By the time I was in the seventh grade I had as dirty and as profane a mouth as a man could have.
Again, I remember the first cigarette I ever smoked. I remember every circumstance, but I have no recollection whatsoever of the second, or the third, or the fourth—-no, nor even of the last, though I remember every detail of the morning I threw my last pack of them in the river. That which was in the first instance a very big step very soon became very ordinary, and we do not remember the ordinary. The evil act soon became an evil habit, and the habit became my character. But there is something else here, for that first act that I sowed of swearing or of smoking was a manifestation of the character which I already had. Our character is known by our doings. Yet by sowing those acts, and by indulging those habits, we greatly strengthen that evil character.
But it works in the opposite direction also. By denying ourselves the indulgence of evil acts, we weaken those evil habits, and so weaken that evil character. Self-indulgence strengthens the lusts of the flesh. Self-denial weakens them. This is common human experience, and every man knows it, unless he has a false theology which prevents him from knowing it. Discipline makes character, whether that discipline is self-imposed, or imposed by others, and this is the business of you parents. It is your business to regulate your child's conduct, and by regulating his conduct you can indirectly change his character. It is your business to watch the boy on the bike, and restrain him. Require him to slow down, until he learns self-restraint, which is character. I know, some parents expect to do this an easier way. Just get this child converted, and all will be well. Yes, yes, all will be well, no doubt, but how are you going to get him converted? By indulging him in his evil ways? You know very well that I do not believe in salvation by character, but neither do I believe in salvation without character. The Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is character, and this is godliness, and yet we all know that mere training, without conversion, is not enough. “Ye must be born again,” regardless of your training or your character. Yet if evil training—-or no training—-is as conducive to conversion as good training, then parents may disregard this scripture and this sermon, and disregard their children's conduct and character also.
There is such a thing—-so the Savior says—-as being “not far from the kingdom of God.” And there is such a thing as being very far from it. Of course some folks will think it makes no difference. They have a theology which knows more of Calvin and Augustine than it does of God or man, and I suppose their theology must dictate that when the Lord told a man he was “not far from the kingdom of God,” he was only revealing the secret purpose of God. It couldn't have any reference to anything good in the man. It must mean that God intended to convert him not many days hence. Not so, say I. The Lord said this in response to the man's speaking. He saw that the man was good soil. He saw that he had “an honest and good heart,” as the Lord himself defines the good soil in the parable of the sower. There was something in the man that made him “not far from the kingdom of God,” and it does make a difference.
It makes a great deal of difference, and I tell you that by requiring your children to deny themselves and cease sowing those evil acts, you may bring them near to the kingdom of God. But parents usually take just the opposite course. Instead of regulating their children's conduct, they excuse it. “He's just a child” is one of the most foolish and most hurtful of those excuses, for even a child is known by his doings. Another excuse, which I thank God I haven't heard here for a long time, is “He's tired.” He's tired, and therefore he's fussing. I used to hear this excuse every time we had a meeting. I was beginning to think some of these little folks were born tired, and would never get over it. But I guess I have preached so much about this that everyone here would be ashamed to say it any more, even if you think it. But what is this saying, anyway? He's tired, and therefore he has the right to manifest his evil character. He's tired, and therefore he has the right to indulge his evil ways. Imagine Ahab, when he took Naboth's vineyard, telling Elijah, “I was tired.” Or David, when he took Uriah's wife, telling Nathan, “I was tired.”
I was painting in the home of a well-to-do Jewish family nearly twenty-five years ago. The little five-year-old came home from kindergarten, and wanted some candy. His mother told him he couldn't have any. He went to the cupboard to get it, and she stood in front of the cupboard door. He stood there in front of her and commanded her, “Move out of my way.” She argued with him, reasoned with him, and reproached him, but his one answer was, “Move out of my way.” She begged and pleaded, and told him what a reproach he was bringing upon the whole family in front of this painter—-as if he cared a whit about that. Well, I must give the poor woman credit. Whatever she did wrong, she didn't excuse him. She didn't turn to me and say, “He's hungry.” But if she had, it wouldn't have been much more foolish than all this talk I used to hear about being tired. But you know, I have a secret suspicion that these excuses which parents make are more to excuse themselves for not dealing with their children's evil—-or for not being able to deal with it—-than they are to excuse the children.
But listen, I am not unreasonable. I know very well that that which is not wholly excusable may be partially so. I know that God himself will not judge us with the same severity if we sin under provocation, as if we sin without any. “He knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.” He does not judge harshly, but no doubt excuses us as far as he can, while yet holding us responsible for our failures. It is no doubt true that little Johnny behaves worse when he is tired. Johnny's father may behave worse when he has a headache. But that is no reason to allow his evil. If you want to excuse the little fellow because he's tired, that may be all right, if you only excuse him so far as to mix a little more mercy with his discipline. But if you excuse him so as to allow his evil ways, it is not all right, but all wrong. Eve would never have sinned if the devil hadn't tempted her, and Israel would never have murmured if God had given them a smorgasbord every day, instead of suffering them to hunger, and feeding them with manna. Yet God held Eve and Israel responsible for their sin.
Now I want you to understand something about character. Adverse circumstances are the test of character, but foolish parents begin at the wrong end, and regulate the child's circumstances instead of changing his character. Mother runs herself ragged to make sure the little tyrant is never tired and never hungry—-to make sure the door is always open when he wants it open—-to make sure that he always get his own way, and never has to face any trying or adverse circumstances. And you know, so long as everything is smooth and easy and pleasant, the little tyrant may act just like an angel. You may act like an angel too, when the pancakes aren't burnt, and the coffee isn't cold, and the plate isn't dirty, and the fork isn't missing, and the neighbor's dog isn't barking—-or when no one is challenging your doctrines or traditions. But you may act some other way when the circumstances aren't so pleasant. And you once let that little tyrant's will be crossed, and you'll find out in a hurry what sort of character he has.
But parents begin at the wrong end, and proceed in the wrong direction too. Adverse circumstances are the test of character, and God does not go out of his way to remove our adverse circumstances. Just the reverse. He leads us through poverty and hardship and trouble and pain and disappointment, and requires us to behave ourselves there. He says to Israel in Deuteronomy, “And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, and to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger,” etc. God did not lead them into a paradise, but into a desert. He did not give them easy circumstances, but hard ones, and this he did to know what was in their heart, for adverse circumstances are always the test of character.
But foolish parents make it their business to remove as far as possible every adverse circumstance—-every unpleasant commandment or duty—-and when the little tyrant acts like an angel, they deceive themselves to think he's an angel indeed. No, he's no angel. He just hasn't been tested. And when you make it your business to make everything easy and pleasant for him, you actually confirm him in his evil character, instead of rooting it out of him. When little Johnny stands at the door and fusses, and Mother opens the door for him, she teaches him to be selfish and demanding. She teaches him that it pays to be so. What ought she to do? When he fusses because he can't open the door, the first thing she ought to do is spank him. Next, she ought to tell him he can't go outside this time, because he fussed about the door. Make it plain to him that next time he wants to go outside he should come to Mother—-not stand at the door and yell for her—-and ask her nicely if she would open the door for him. And mothers, don't be afraid to say “No,” either—-or tell him he'll have to wait. He may need that test of his character also. Now when you take this course, you require him to deny himself. You require him to cease sowing those evil acts. You require him to sow some decency, and in a little while it will be his habit, and his character. You regulate his conduct, and you form his character. You neglect to regulate his conduct, and you let him form his own character, and it isn't likely to be a good one. You regulate his circumstances instead of his conduct, and you may keep him smiling now, but you are brewing a bitter cup of tears, which you will drink another day.