After church one Sunday my family was getting ready to visit with Mom-mom and Pop-pop for Easter dinner. When we need to coordinate our schedules, I try to give us plenty of advance notice so that everyone can plan their lives accordingly. So as we were getting ready to leave, I said to the kids, “Make sure you’ve got all your stuff together, because we’re going to go in about ten minutes.”
Ten minutes later, as I was about to walk out the door, I called out, “Okay, everybody, get in the van.” Immediately, they all jumped up from what they were doing and raced in every direction possible, except toward the van. This one ran to the bathroom. Another went to collect books and toys for the trip. Someone else needed their shoes. And I was left standing in the middle of the living room, alone, with nobody getting in the van.
Now, what are my options in that moment? Option 1: come down hard on people. I could stand there and yell: “I said, ‘Get in the van’ and I mean now!” Or I could follow people around, badgering and nagging them: “What do you think you’re doing? I know you heard me. What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you ever listen?” Or I might vent a little more strongly: “Your problem is you never listen because you don’t care about anyone else except yourself.” The list goes on of all the heavy-handed tactics I have tried in the past and that I could have used again.
What might happen if I went down that road (again)? Well, first of all, it would probably work. They’d get in the van—if for no other reason than to escape me. But there’d also be silence. There might be fear. Certainly they would resent being mistreated. There would be no relationship. They’d hate the way I lead the family, and I’d teach them that authority is overbearing.
There’s something much worse, however: I would communicate a false gospel. Because I engage them as God’s representative, I would teach my family, “This is the Jesus I know. Whenever I mess up, he’s harsh. He’s abusive and crushing. He can’t stand it when I do something wrong because it upsets his agenda. Then, because he didn’t get what he wanted, he lashes out at me and won’t let up until he’s beaten me back into place. You can expect him to do the same with you too.”
That’s Option 1. Option 2 is just as bad. I could do nothing as I watch everyone scatter until they slowly trickle out to the van in their own good time.
This time the dialogue would be more internal, but just as poisonous as I whine to myself, “No one ever listens to me. I do all the work around here and provide for everyone else, trying to get things ready and make things nice, but they don’t care. I don’t know why I even bother. The worst is, there’s nothing I can do about it except put up with it till they grow up and move out. Guess I’ll go sit in the van by myself and hope they don’t make me wait too long.”
This popular option results in relationships that are just as badly broken as the first, and it also paints an equally distorted picture of God. It communicates, “Jesus pulls away in self-pity whenever you hurt him. He doesn’t like it when you ignore him, but he has no real power or plan to help you, so he distances himself from you. He figures he has to guard his own heart since he has to put up with you being hopelessly broken. So go ahead, do whatever you like, whenever you like, but just realize, you’re on your own.”
Reconciliation Is the Point
Option 1 and Option 2 sound nothing like God. When God speaks, it is always for the purpose of reconciling you to himself— of bringing you back together with him when you’ve introduced a gap. He always intends his words with his children to restore relationship with himself. And when that’s been your experience, you long to pass it on to others.
That’s what happened in my living room. It would have been so easy to harangue my family or withdraw bitterly from them. But by God’s grace I chose a different option—one that was harder, but better—one that required me to step up and plead with my family to recognize that when I talk, I do so for their good and that they need to get on board with that reality for their sake.
Why did I do that? It’s not because I’m a wonderful guy. I have plenty of spectacular failures, as my family well knows. I’ve exploded angrily or pulled away in self-pity. I’m not a wonderful guy, but I have a wonderful God—a God who didn’t reject Adam and Eve when they rejected him and who hasn’t rejected me either.
That means I wasn’t completely alone in the living room that afternoon. I have a God who doesn’t treat me the way I’m tempted to treat my family. I have a God who hasn’t abandoned me or driven me away from him. He was there with me and still not treating me badly.
Therefore, regardless of what my family did next, I would lose nothing by trying to respond to them with grace. Even if everything went horribly wrong with my family from that moment forward, my God would still treat me well.
So I stepped into one of my little people’s pathway, held my palm up and said, “No. Stop. What are you doing?”
“Going to brush my hair,” they said with an edge.
“I told you earlier that we were leaving soon. Why didn’t you get ready then?” “I was reading a book,” they said defensively.
“So . . . you were thinking about what you wanted to do or what I asked you to do?”
A little softer this time: “What I wanted to do.”
“When I said, ‘Get in the van,’ I was thinking about what would be good for our whole family, the five of us, and for our grandparents. I was thinking about seven people. How many were you thinking about?”
“One,” came the much softer admission.
I need to speak in ways that represent the Creator’s heart to the people around me.
“Honey,” I said, “I love you . . . and that means you can’t live your life this small all the time, wrapped up in yourself like you’re the only person here. Get in the van.” What did I do? I used the voice God has given me to speak in such a way that I could quietly invite a little person to repent and realign with Jesus and realign with the rest of us.
What happened next was amazing. That person actually asked if we could pray as we were driving and led the rest of us in confessing to God and to each other how we had been so self-absorbed. Their change of heart rippled through the rest of the van.
Afterward, we spent the rest of the ride engaged in each other’s lives, talking and playing road-sign games together. And that outward movement toward others continued after the ride was over and influenced the way we engaged their grandparents.
I need to speak in ways that represent the Creator’s heart to the people around me. And I need to hear his heart from others when they speak into my life.
I need my wife Sally to step into my world when I’m frazzled by things at home and say to me, “I think you need to take a walk to get yourself right with the Lord so that you can live more patiently with us.”
I need my daughter, when she sees “the look” of frustration steal across my face to step up and caution, “Easy, Dad.”
I need my colleague to prop herself up on my office doorframe and say, “You don’t need me to tell you that your lifestyle isn’t healthy right now, do you?”
I need people to speak to me from the depths of grace that they have experienced from Jesus. He has put them in my life as his representatives so that I draw closer to Christ and closer to them.
You have that same calling with the people around you. The calling is to drink deeply of his grace and kindness to you and then gently, confidently, talk to your family and friends out of that grace. Talk to them so that they long to realign their lives with him and then reestablish relationship with you.
This article is adapted from Parenting with Words of Grace: Building Relationships with Your Children One Conversation at a Time by Wiliam P. Smith.
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