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Bribes are sneaky, little creatures. They seem fun and innocent, and are brought out in the form of ice cream, stickers, and candies. They dance around, singing happy songs and encouraging children to behave rightly. What could go wrong?

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Bribes are cute and cuddly, all right, but bribes are little cheats. They help parents to look like good parents because they have an outwardly-obedient child. They help the child look like he is obeying and in so doing, loving God. But when we use bribes, we aren’t disciplining, and our children aren’t obeying because they love God, but because they are being motivated by their own selfishness.

Bribes can be effective, which is why parents use them. The problem is that they only work to coerce outward compliance; they do nothing to help children to confess their heart-sin or to rely on the Spirit to help them obey.

There are several reasons why these bribes are such insidious creatures:

  1. “Do not sweep my soul away with sinners… in whose hands are evil devices, and in whose right hands are full of bribes.” Psalm 26:10

Bribes are cheats for good parenting. Instead of doing the hard work of helping our disobedient child to love the law, we tie-up the law with a shiny bow and we teach the child to care more about the pretty wrapping than the law itself. We teach him to look like an obedient child, but we encourage him to have idols his heart. The book Shepherding a Child’s Heart (highly recommended!) puts it this way: “A change in behavior that does not stem from a change in heart is not commendable; it is condemnable. Is this not the hypocrisy that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees?” (4).

  1. “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live.” Prov. 15:27

Bribes trouble our households. Our disobedience in bribing instead of disciplining works its way into our children’s hearts and into our homes. Bribing can create a sense of entitlement – teaching our children to perform for rewards they don’t deserve, causing them to be “greedy for unjust gain.” As children feel they should be rewarded for helping around the house, doing their homework, and being kind to their family members, our households become troubled. Bribing can even become addictive to our children. They become accustomed to performing for bonuses, and over time they need bigger and better prizes to keep up their motivation. Eventually, they may be seduced by the world that can offer more immediate gratification than Mom and Dad. If we bribe our children, we teach them to perform for a reward, but someday we won’t be the highest bidder.

  1. “A bribe corrupts the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:7).

Bribes lead our children to idolatry. One way we corrupt the hearts of our children is to create counterfeit gods for them (Stickers! Candy! Mommy’s feelings!) and encourage our children to perform for these gods. We are carving out idols in their hearts, and ultimately teaching them how to be enslaved by these idols. We are also saying that God’s standards are not worth loving. We don’t believe God will sufficiently teach our children the joys of obedience, so we try to sweeten the pot.

  1. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7-8).

Bribes try to reap what they haven’t sown. Disciplining children is incredibly hard work. It doesn’t often yield fruit right away – it is a long-term process. Bribing, on the other hand, produces immediate results that look like fruit. It is a deceptive process. By circumventing the sowing and reaping principles laid out in Scripture, we are lying to our children about how God’s world works. We are teaching them that they can reap where they have not sown. We teach them to pretend to have fruitfulness that comes from being yielded to the Spirit, when what they really have is selfishness that motivates them to work just hard enough to receive a pseudo-reward.

  1. “For this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Bribes thwart the teaching of delayed gratification. One of the reasons it is so important to help our children understand the sowing and reaping principle is that it teaches our children the art of delaying gratification. Knowing how to be patient and wait for a just reward is fundamental to living the Christian life. Immediate gratification cannot serve as a motivator for resisting temptation, serving others who cannot return the favor, working hard in our God-given tasks, having self-control in any area, etc. Dependence on bribes, the most instant form of gratification, leaves our children ill-equipped in these areas – and ill-equipped to live the Christian life.

  1. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Proverbs 13:24

Bribes replace godly discipline. The Bible does not mince words in saying that we hate our children if we don’t discipline them. So while we may not feel hateful, our lack of discipline is nonetheless described as hatred. When we are bribing our children, we are not disciplining them. Proverbs says, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (22:15). We love our children and want to give them good gifts: the best gift we can give them is to discipline them rightly.

We want our children to be righteous and peaceful people, free from idols. We want them to be patient, able to delay gratification. We want them to sow good things in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. When we discipline rightly, we are demonstrating righteousness and peacefulness as we patiently wait for the discipline to have its effect. We are showing them to sow in hope, knowing that “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful [for the child AND the parent!]. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11 (NIV)

This is a difficult topic — incentives can look like bribes but are not harmful. Confused about the difference between an incentive and a bribe? I was too before I went on a long hunt for answers! Want some practical examples of the differences? Click here for Part 2 of the series.

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