There are times as a parent when you get to see your children blossom like flowers. And being a parent means in many ways you are their gardener, responsible for watering, pruning, pulling weeds and working to cultivate the soil of their hearts. By God’s appointment as the Head Gardener, he works through parents to shape the hearts and lives of our children.
But it works in reverse as well. When we neglect them, they shrivel up, shrink back and the fruit of their lives gets choked out by weeds. Instead of obedience, we see a lot of eye rolling, sighing, whining, dragging of feet, and so on.
That’s usually the point when we get frustrated; I know I do. But we don’t often connect the dots between their present condition and our faithfulness as parental cultivators. And while there’s not a one-to-one correlation between our faithful cultivation and their behavior, God has ordered life in such a way that, over the long haul, you tend to reap what you sow.
I was reminded of this again the other night at the dinner table. Somebody raised the question, “Who loves Daddy?” and each child chimed in. Our 1-year-old screamed (I’ll take that as a sign of love), our 6-year-old happily said, “I do!” and our middle son stared at his plate. Mommy asked him the question again, to which he replied, “Um, not very much.”
Roll back the clock a day or two and the same son was on my lap after some discipline. We were reconciling and reading Ephesians 6, and I was reminding him of a son’s duty—children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right—and calling him to embrace the promise of life given to obedient sons. But then there’s verse 4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
It’s like Paul just knew our sinful tendency to make demands of others but not of ourselves. He knew fathers like me would demand obedience but fail to look ourselves in the mirror to examine our own harshness. When I read that verse it was like a kick in the gut.
I’ll be painfully honest, too—at times my 4-year-old is the hardest of the three for me to love. I’m a goal-oriented, performance-driven, results-matter kind of guy. I delight in competence, efficiency and productivity. In many ways I see myself as a coach pushing his team for a championship (think Will Ferrell in Kicking and Screaming). You can see where this is going.
Our middle son? Well, he’s a soft-hearted, playful boy. He’s the child picking daisies in left field during the little league baseball game (and I’m the obsessive coach who demands perfection from preschoolers). He’s jovial, lighthearted and bubbly. If you leave him to get dressed or put shoes on by himself, he’ll probably get distracted. You’ll come back an hour later and he’ll be naked with a pair of underwear on his head playing Legos, and his clothes drawer will be emptied on the floor.
And when you ask him what he’s doing, he’ll say “I don’t know” and give you one of the happiest, warmest smiles you’ve ever seen. Send him in to brush his teeth and in 20 minutes he’ll be playing with the bath toys…probably naked.
And you can probably guess what happens next: I crush him. I speak harshly, asking what he’s doing, and though I don’t say it, my tone inquires, “Are you stupid?”
We were reading in the Jesus Storybook Bible the other day about the wayward son, and as those stories always do, it leveled me. I’m the wayward son, and my Father continually welcomes me home. When you expect a stern talking-to, He runs to embrace you. He doesn’t treat you like you’re stupid or ask you what you were thinking.
The truth is, I’m not the father I need to be. I see how God is both tender and tough, but my own heart is incapable of such enduring patience. I feel utterly incapable of showing my son the kind of compassion God shows me. It’s a reality that really brings you to your knees.
And that is how God uses the rituals of parenting to teach us the truths of the gospel. My kids show me how much I need God to transform me into the image of His Son. Without the little ones, I feel pretty dang self-sufficient. With them, I realize I’m a stubborn-hearted child who needs a Father’s patient forbearance.