Santa Claus Morality

Somewhere, right now, there is a mother encouraging her son to release his brother from a sleeper hold, or to stop lighting his sister’s Barbies on fire.

“You know, Santa is watching you.”

That’s right. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. He’s like the CIA.

And around this time every year, parents get to use him as a tool for behavior modification—If you want toys, you have to play by the rules.

We also have Elf on the Shelf. Have you seen this? It’s a creepy little elf doll you place throughout the house—preferably in high disobedience areas—to keep an eye on the children. He’s like Santa’s whistleblower. Parents tell their kids, “You better be good. Elf on the Shelf is watching, and he tells Santa everything. EVERYTHING.”

It’s adorable manipulation. And it works. At least until the kids forget about Old Saint Nick. I’m pretty sure my parents used the same tactic with us, but Santa must have been a pushover when we were young because somehow we kept getting toys.

The strategy always wore off in the warmer months. Fortunately, someone always stepped in to give Santa the summer off. Growing up in church, I learned that Jesus was watching me too.

I took this very seriously. I remember praying dozens of times every day for Jesus to forgive me of my sins.

I wanted to make sure my bases were covered. After all, Jesus was way more important than Santa, but after hundreds of prayers and guilt-ridden thoughts, one thing remained, and indeed remains to this day: my propensity to do wrong.

That’s because you can’t regulate morality with threats and incentives.

I realize parents aren’t trying to make their children into model citizens by using a Santa scare tactic; it’s merely an attempt to teach the benefits that follow obedience, but, in a way, society has stretched this logic into adulthood.

We create new laws and policies everyday to cut down on criminal behavior, but to what end? Even with the threat of death penalties and life behind bars, prisons remain overpopulated.

Many students laugh at the mention of expulsion or academic probation. For them, failing school is a minor issue. Authority is a joke.

So what is the problem? Not enough rules? Do we need better rewards?

The problem, I believe, is the human heart. Consider these statements:

I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.

Can you relate? Have you ever lost a battle with your conscience over the same issue repeatedly?

These words were written by a man whose accomplishments have been celebrated for centuries, the kind of man people build monuments for and name hospitals after. He fought against the racism that plagued early church history and wrote over half the New Testament.

Still, the Apostle Paul recognized wickedness in his heart that he could not overcome. He compared himself to a slave, a wretched person.

This was a man who could keep the rules better than most, a man fueled by moral incentives, yet he realized a problem within. The answer, according to Paul, is not more law or accountability. The answer is a person. Jesus Christ.

This is why Christians speak of being born again or becoming a new creature. It’s not simply a confession of faith or a vow to try harder while Jesus is watching. It refers to a radical change that happens to the heart of a believer, made possible by the cross of Christ.

This transformation isn’t earned. It is freely given to the ill-deserving, like a priceless gift handed to a kid who deserves nothing but coal in his stocking.

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