Last night we ate TV in front of a film. We don’t often do this as a family, but it was late and I’d had an exhausting day. Bedtime came, the film wasn’t finished, but Daddy turned it off anyway as it was bathtime.
This is not my four-year-old. This is my oldest son, soon to be seven.
He wants to finish the film (though we’d warned him it wasn’t likely to happen at the start).
He wants more to eat.
He doesn’t want a bath.
His angry protests used to shock me, baffle me, send me running to my parenting books full of anxiety about spectrums and syndromes. I’d dredge google for the one article which would explain how to stop my son from rebelling against every single directive we gave him (from ‘brush your teeth now’ to ‘don’t hit mummy’).
Now my husband and I just exchange weary glances. Whose turn is it to field this new ten minute battle to get our son to comply?
Then son#2 pipes up.
“Ok, Daddy,” he says, as virtuously as a four-year-old covered in ice cream and sprinkles can.
At one level, I hear trumpets and angels singing.
Obedience! Compliance! Eagerness to please! This is what I expected in a small child (with pockets of rebellion). Not one long war since the age of 2.
So why does son#2’s response fill me with unease?
I think it’s because, about thirty seconds later (punctuated with machine-gun fired ‘no’s from son#1) he said, “I’m not shouting, Mummy. I said ‘ok’.”
My son is being good. I should be pleased. I am pleased.
But he is being good for all the wrong reasons.
* * * * *
We have sneaky, deceitful hearts. Those of us who cling to the notion that there is good in everyone just waiting to be tickled delightfully to life need a reality check.
I know just from looking at myself that my heart is like a giant pit. Light falls into the top and it looks ok. A bit dusty, a bit cluttered, but nothing too nasty. When I dare to delve deeper I find corners as black as pitch, and like tangled necklaces I find, with my love of helping people, other desires, like wanting to look good, a craving for praise and adulation, and just basic selfishness. Our motives are so mixed it can be hard to separate the good from the bad.
It was the Pharisees, who did all the right things, that Jesus opposed far more than the prostitutes and swindlers who came to him for help.
if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, I am nothing
Son#1’s sin is obvious. It is in-your-face, bare-faced rebellion.
Son#2 is outwardly a fairly good child. He is mischievous sometimes but his worst faults, at the moment, are mostly passive – forgetfulness, carelessness, impulsiveness. But self-righteousness?
These are big words. Hard to use on a four-year-old. In truth, his sins are seedlings, in their infancy. If I am able to train him conscientiously, many will not grow to a great height and he may learn to do good instead of evil.
But I want him to do good for the right reasons. I want him to seek to please God, not people, not even me and my husband. I want him to do good for love of goodness itself, not for selfish reasons.
* * * * *
This cultivating of little souls leaves me often overwhelmed, often out of my depth, often clutching for those certainties I thought I had before the reality of life with children swept all my parenting ideals out to sea.
But it also reveals much deeper truth and joy than I ever imagined. It reveals my own soul to me. I am both my children in my relationship to my Father.
I rebel. I scream ‘no!’ in the heavenly face. I pummel with my puny fists against the everlasting arms and I tantrum when the will of God dares to go against mine.
But I also have days when I manage, somehow, to do something good and then immediately I am tugging on my Father’s sleeve. “See? Look what I did!”
And more often than not it is like the time my children called me out into the garden to see their ‘work’. With beaming faces they showed me a pit of sodden mud, grass and stones which they had created.
They had forgotten that stones are not to be mixed in the flower bed, and that they must not play with the outside tap. They conveniently overlooked the black mud caked on their shoes, streaking their clothes, oozing between their fingers and smeared all over their faces. They honestly expected me to be overflowing with admiration.
We all walk this tightrope between willfulness and self-righteousness.
It is the cross which keeps us balanced. I look at Jesus and find forgiveness for all my rebellion, hope that I might learn submission like his which says ‘not my will but yours’.
I look at Jesus and cannot possibly hold onto pride. However much good I do it will always be mud-smeared and mixed with selfishness compared to his pure, burning love and utter self-sacrifice.
So I try, on my best days, to stop picking at my children’s outward behaviour. I try to take their gaze off themselves, and turn them to him. I try to do the same myself.