Two Decembers ago I took this photo of my son and captioned it: Wait… what naughty list?
The expression on his tiny face still makes me laugh every time I see it.
The other day, I saw a similar expression on his face when I told him (along with his older sister) some harrowing news about the naughty list. Here’s what happened:
I was reading the kids some cutesy Christmas book about a little boy who dreamed he was on the naughty list and woke up to a stocking full of coal. When the story was over, my daughter asked, “How do people get on the naughty list?”
“What do you mean?” I was buying some time. I do this a lot when answering her questions.
She proceeded to ask if her brother might be on the naughty list. “Because he does naughty things sometimes,” she said.
I nodded. Valid point. (Almost-three-year-old boys can be a bit of a handful.)
It could’ve been such an easy conversation. I could have said, “No, he’s not on the naughty list.” Then we could have moved on.
But I didn’t say that. Because apparently I’m not one for easy conversations. Instead, I felt a tremendous burden to take this opportunity to tell my little girl something. I asked her, “What does the Bible say about this? Does the Bible say we’re naughty?”
You could see the wheels in her head spinning. After a long time she answered, “The Bible says we’re… nice? Right?”
I shook my head. “No, sweetie. The Bible says we have all done naughty things. This is called sin. And we all have sin. We all belong on the naughty list.”
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 ESV)
My son, who had been shoving fistfuls of Cheerios into his mouth this whole time, paused, mid-bite. His eyes widened.
“Even me?” my daughter asked. “Do I belong on the naughty list?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Even you?” she asked.
My mind went back to a few days earlier, when I dropped a 42-pound double jogging stroller on my foot while unloading it from the van in a crowded parking lot. The pain was so fast and intense, without thinking I let a word fly out of my mouth that was neither holly nor jolly. I remembered a whole lot of other things, too. Things from long, long ago, that still have the power to make me cringe if I let myself dwell on them.
“Yes,” I said. “Even me. We all have sin. Every last one of us.”
“Does even Jesus belong on the naughty list?” she asked, her voice louder than before.
“Well, no, actually. That’s the whole point. Jesus did not have sin. But he took the sin of the whole world onto himself, and he died so that we could be free from the penalty of our sin.”
She furrowed her brow. I tried explaining it again, in terms more appropriate for a preschooler.
“Every last one of us belongs on the naughty list,” I told her. “There’s nothing any of us could do to earn our way off the naughty list. No matter how good we are, no matter how hard we try, we could never be good enough to measure up to God. The Bible says the only way to be right with God is to accept the free gift that Jesus gave to each of us. The gift is called salvation. Jesus saved us from being stuck on the naughty list forever. And even if you’ve done something really, really bad—even if you’ve done the worst thing you can imagine, you can still be saved because Jesus gave this gift to everyone. That’s what the Bible says.”
“So I belong on the naughty list?”
“Yes, sweetie. You belong on the naughty list, and so does your brother, and so does Mommy. We all belong on the naughty list, every last person. But because of Jesus, we don’t have to stay there. And that’s why Christmas is such a big deal. That’s why it’s so very, very special.”
We talked a lot more after that. My daughter learned a big new word, Redeemed. (Which, by the way, sounds super cute coming out of her mouth because she pronounces her R as W.)
And, as far as I can tell, getting the news that they belong on the naughty list didn’t ruin Christmas for my kids.
We focus a lot on that, as parents—on not “ruining” Christmas. We focus on making Christmas magical and perfect for our children. We feel this pressure to bring the wonder of the season to our kids. But I want to be ever so careful, in sharing the wonder of Christmas, not to miss the mark.
I want to be careful to avoid the cultural pressure to teach my kids that they need to strive to be good, because someone’s watching, and they’ll be judged on how well they strived to measure up to this standard of “good”. I want to avoid teaching them this because it’s just not true. The truth is none of us could be good enough. Ever. That’s the whole point of Christmas.
I want to be intentional about teaching them not to strive to make the cut, but rather to accept that they could never make the cut on their own. I want to teach them to embrace their spot on the naughty list, and my hope is that someday, they’ll embrace the Savior who was sent to rescue them.
Here’s the thing: I’ve talked to a lot of grown ups about this. We don’t use the phrase naughty list, of course. Instead, we talk about regrets, about shame, about feelings of not being good enough. We are living in a world that is very much focused on being good enough—on striving to be liked and accepted. Perhaps it’s because we start striving, as children, to be on the nice list. And perhaps we take this mentality of earning our way onto the nice list into our relationship with God. We think we first have to be on the nice list, and then we can have a relationship with God.
Then, this “try to be good” mentality turns into a very vague and dangerous lie: that if we’re generally a good person, we’ll hopefully make the team and go to Heaven.
That’s not what the Bible says at all. The Bible says the only way to go to Heaven is to accept that we’re not good enough, and that we need a Savior. The Bible is clear that our only hope is to accept the free gift of salvation that only Jesus can offer, because we can’t earn it, no matter what we do.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 ESV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8-9 ESV)
So let me be the one this Christmas to say something very important to you, if you haven’t heard it:
You don’t have to strive to measure up. You never will measure up. None of us will. Please don’t miss out on knowing Jesus because you think you’re not good enough. That’s the whole point! It’s why he came, and it’s why he died. Because you’re not good enough. Neither am I. We don’t have to pretend to be. I hear far too many people joke that, “If I walked into a church, it would burst into flames.” If that were true, there wouldn’t be a church still standing, because every person who will walk into a church this weekend has struggled and will struggle with sin. The truth is, all of Heaven rejoices when someone full of sin decides to drop the pretense, to stop pretending they’re okay, and come to Jesus, broken and real.
Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue. (Luke 15:7 MSG)
We all belong on the naughty list. But we don’t have to stay there.
If you haven’t embraced your place on the naughty list yet, if you’re still striving to measure up, and if you’re exhausted from all that striving, why not lay it down this Christmas? A good way to start is to head to church. You don’t necessarily have to be at church to get to know Jesus, but it helps. It helps to spend regular time learning about who God is and who you’re called to be. You might be very surprised at what you find out.
If you’re local, and you’re looking for a place to go, get in touch! I know a place, and you’ll even have someone to sit with… a fellow sinner who belongs on the naughty list, too.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 ESV)