What parent doesn’t want to be a better parent to their kids?
And what Christian doesn’t desperately wish to be truly humble? (OK, almost no Christian actually wants any such thing, but play along with me here.)
What if I told you that I have the secret to attaining these two highly desirable goals all in one fell swoop? Well, I’d become a viral sensation and finally be discovered and recognized as the spiritual genius I am, of course!
Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Ah. Sorry, sometimes I just need a good laugh. (You may not find me so amusing, but from time to time I crack myself up. It always makes me happy to know that someone thinks I’m funny.)
Anyhow, in all seriousness, somewhere along the line I picked up a spiritual habit that actually does humble me far more than I want to be humbled. And it does make me a better, more compassionate parent. And I will share it with y’all in case any of you are stupid brave enough to want to follow in my footsteps and enjoy the horrible joyous spiritual misery benefits. (I’m feeling really up on life today. Can you tell?)
It goes back to something Jesus said:
“[Jesus] called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Now, the bible is filled with references to God as father. Which would make us children. But it’s often not a particularly helpful concept because we tend to want God the Father to be a grandiose, super hero version of dad rather than a real dad.
So we think that being dad, God is supposed to protect us from all harm. Which, as anyone who has ever watched Finding Nemo knows, doesn’t actually work in real life. And we want God to be the dad who makes sure his kids have everything they need. Which is no doubt what the father of every child who has ever gone to bed hungry wants as well. We want God to move heaven and earth, changing time and the rules of life itself if that’s what it takes to make things all better. Even though heaven, earth, time and life itself all work the way they do because God made them work that way, presumably for good reasons.
The truth is that we don’t actually want God the Father. We want God the personal body guard/Santa Claus/magician.
In real life, dads do provide and protect, to the best of their ability. But mostly they tell you to stop jumping on the couch. They spin you in circles and tickle you and make fart jokes. They refuse to give into your temper tantrums and tell you to wait your turn and share with your sister. They teach you how life works and strategies for coping with its difficulties. They tell you stories and give advice and keep your secrets.
Once you understand this, Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children takes on a whole new flavor. In fact, what I’ve learned is that when God is not responding to me the way I think he should, it’s because he’s dealing with me like a real father. And I’m acting like a real child. Which is hard to see when I think I’m the righteous heroine in distress and God’s supposed to be my father cum super hero/Santa Claus/magician.
For example, this spring, I realized that my ongoing anger at God was very much like when my kids would attempt to bend me to their will by throwing the world’s biggest temper tantrum. And that much of my time in the desert was basically God using my own super easy, super effective parenting trick on me. He was just standing by, waiting out my hurt and anger so we could both start to move forward.
And it makes me appreciate how much God puts up with from me. How rarely he chastises me for my anger and instead offers comfort and understanding. He bends down to my height and listens to my howls of pain and outrage and tells me I’m going to be OK. Then when I won’t be comforted, he withdraws a little to wait until I’m ready.
But he never mocks me. He doesn’t tell me to shut up and show some appreciation for everything he does for me. He never holds the things I say in anger against me. He doesn’t walk away in disgust. He doesn’t yell at me or tell me to pull myself together and grow up. He doesn’t get angry at me for not showing proper respect. He just loves me through it until I figure things out for myself.
Realizing how much pain I am in when I throw my spiritual little kid temper tantrums, forces me to look at my children’s temper tantrums with much more compassion. I can see how ridiculous they are sometimes being. But even when they know they’re being kind of ridiculous, they are in so much pain that they just can’t help themselves.
So I do for them what God does for me. I don’t mock, ridicule or yell at them. I offer comfort and if they won’t take it, I just stand by and wait it out. I understand that as annoying as a temper tantrum throwing little kid is, it’s much worse to be in that much distress.
Right now I’m in a period of waiting. My life is a disaster. Beyond repair, so far as I can tell. Yet I’ve had multiple people who I trust pass on messages telling me that it’s just a matter of time. God has very good plans for me. But he’s working on his own schedule and he’s not going to deviate from it, even though it’s painful for me.
This is very frustrating because every time I get upset and beg God to step in and help me and I get angry about my life, I am forcibly reminded of how my kids pester me when I tell them to wait. How they will come to me multiple times a day demanding to know why it’s not their birthday yet. Or asking, “are you ready yet?” over and over. Or wanting to know when their stomach flu will pass.
Frankly, my kids’ inability to wait irritates me like nothing else. Realizing that I’m in the same boat and that the waiting is unbearably painful both humbles me and gives me new compassion for my kids. I’m not sure I’ve really understood before how much I’m asking from them when I tell them to wait. Which has forced me to be more judicious about when I elevate my priorities over theirs and how long I ask them to wait.
It also makes me more cognizant of the burden of their trust. I cannot ask them to wait patiently if I cannot be trusted to do what I’ve said I will. I’ve learned to make very, very few promises or commitments with my kids. It drives them nuts, but then when I say I will do something, they can have full confidence that it will happen, no matter how long it takes.
I don’t honestly like the idea that my problems, which from a human perspective are not small, are so small in the eyes of God. It makes me feel less than. No one likes to feel less than. Like a lot of us, if you tell me that my problems are childish or my pain is caused by my immaturity, I feel angry and humiliated.
But this reveals a flaw in my thinking; God is not a man who would look on a child’s problems as foolish and inconsequential. The harm done to a child can stay with them for a lifetime. He’s not the sort of parent who demands that his child takes his perspective for their own. He respects our limits and doesn’t treat us with disrespect because we are not as mature, powerful and capable as he is. God asks us to be humble, but never, ever, ever wants us to be humiliated by our status as children.
We’re children. We have children’s problems. What Love knows, that we too often do not, is that children’s problems are real. The fact that we, from our vantage point as adults see them as foolish and unworthy of care or concern comes from our lack as parents. Yes, sometimes our kids frustrate us and sometimes the gap between their distress and the magnitude of the actual problem makes us laugh. But we should never shame them or humiliate them for seeing things from a child’s perspective.
Part of what I have learned from humbling myself enough to see that I really am like a child to God who really is like a father is how much is required of us as parents. We speak of child’s problems as if they are small, foolish things. But as I said, the harm done to a child can stay with them for a lifetime. And too often parents minimize the harm done to their children because they are unwilling to be strong, brave and sacrificial enough to help them.
Think of all the children who are abused by parents who believe they have the right (if not the obligation) to inflict pain on them for their own good, when really the parents are just too immature and out of control to handle the demands of parenting. Or the kids who seek help only to be turned away by adults who are unwilling to risk ruining a reputation or threaten a comfortable family dynamic. Or all the kids who are hurting and in trouble who get met with “tough love” or ignored by adults who want the child to carry all of the burdens placed on them rather than facing their own failures or disrupting long existing ideas about how things are done.
Then think of what God did for his hurting children on the cross.
When God asks us to humble ourselves to be little children, he’s not trying to humiliate us. He’s asking us to give him the chance to be the sort of parent that we actually need. To be the parent who is trustworthy and won’t turn away in our time of need. To be the parent who comforts rather than shames us. To be the parent who takes our hurts seriously rather than mocking them. To be the parent who lifts our burdens rather than telling us to buck up under them.
Which all sounds nice, but there’s a great deal at stake here. You see, it’s very hard to parent when you were never parented well yourself. No matter how much you love your children, when your back’s against the wall, your automatic response will come out of your brokeness rather than your love.
Children are vulnerable. It’s easy to hurt them without ever meaning to. And if you are unwilling to humble yourself, to allow God to parent you and show you the way, you may cause harm that can’t be undone in this lifetime. Which is why Jesus ended his words about becoming like little children with a promise and a warning for us:
“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”