We need to ask, “Why is the child lying?”

One Sunday morning after church, I stopped for gas. Inside the convenience store, I bumped into a student I knew from the college where I teach.

“What are you up to this morning?” I asked, making casual conversation.

“A bunch of us are headed to Chicago for a concert,” he said. We talked about the band they were seeing, musicians who weren’t afraid to call themselves Christians.

As I left the store, I noticed the others in the student’s car. Several of them were enrolled in my theology class that semester. On Friday they had told me they’d be missing Monday’s class. I hadn’t asked why. They hadn’t told me why. So they hadn’t exactly lied to me; they just held back the truth. They didn’t want to admit that their overnight obligation Sunday to Monday was an out-of-state music show. They were afraid of the dreaded “unexcused absence” from a college class.

When my students returned to class, I hassled them a bit, in a friendly way: “What have I done to make you think you need to hide things from me—that you can’t be open and honest with me?” As a college teacher—especially in a theology classroom—my biggest goal is fostering a closeness among us in Christ, so that we can share our hearts with one another fearlessly. An atmosphere of love in Christ invites such fearlessness. As described by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23): “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

As parents, our primary goal in our homes is fostering a closeness in Christ so that we always can share our hearts with one another fearlessly. A parent’s goal is not just policing behavior. When one of our children lies to us, we do well to ask ourselves, “Why is the child lying?” There could be many reasons, but one is that the child is afraid of what we’ll say or do if we learn the truth. If our actions when we do learn the truth confirm the child’s worst fears, we may not be preventing future lies but ensuring that the child will be less open, less honest in the future.

Please understand, I’m not suggesting we overlook a child’s lies or accept deceptive dishonesty. Discipline often is necessary—maybe even very stern discipline. But we want to be prudent. We measure our responses to our children’s behavior, weighing what’s best in how we respond, how we seek to shape their future thinking and activity.

It’s not just about how we react to what happened today or yesterday. More than anything, it’s about building up faith and hope and love in the hearts of our children. It’s about finding forgiveness in Christ, who is truth, who atoned for all that is false and wrong in us. It’s from faith in Christ, anchored deep in the heart, that truth flows and lies are overcome. So we aim to build up our children and one another in Christ, not just to penalize the lies that have occurred.

Dave Sellnow teaches at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn. He and his wife, Ellen, have four children ages 21-28.