The other day I found myself in an interesting new situation, making a discovery I had not expected to make. Our family had just finished eating dinner and was preparing to go to the YMCA for a brief time of swimming with the kids before bedtime. Owen came up to me, sippy cup in hand, with a big smile on his face, but it was the kind of sly smile you have when you’ve just done something “wrong” and you know it, and you don’t care. I immediately looked behind him, at the couch and chair in our living room, and saw that he had chosen to spit apple juice all over them. In fact, he was still in the process of dribbling the last of it out of his mouth onto the ottoman. So far, the situation was not that new or interesting, but what happened next was.
First of all, of course, I felt angry. Of course I wanted to “swat him upside the head.” I even thought that it might be my duty as a father to punish him, severely! All my programming and wiring told me that this is what I should do, but underneath all of that, underneath all the emotion and the sense of outrage and even the sense that I HAD to do something to make him never do this again, I found a love that I had not expected to see, in my heart. I began to speak in carefully guarded tones to Dawn. “What do you do when your child spits all over the furniture and then laughs in your face about it?” I desperately wanted to control his behavior on all future occasions when he might feel tempted to do such a thing again and yet, something in me, dare I say it was my spirit, told me that I could never control him. I could not, by punishment or fear, truly change his choices. Sure, I could probably terrify him into never doing it again, or even patiently make him suffer some “consequence” that would “teach him a lesson” but Jesus was asking me in my heart to do something different. He was asking me to follow my heart and enter into this with Owen.
At first, Dawn wanted to just quickly mop it up and let it slide, and go off to the pool, but something inside me said no. I didn’t want to punish Owen, or just “teach him a lesson”, but I did not want to just let this go either.
“I feel sad,” I found myself saying,”because now Owen and I can’t go swimming. We need to stay here and clean up this mess. I don’t want our couches to be ruined.”
The look on Owen’s face was not so sly or triumphant anymore, which isn’t a surprise. In fact, he started crying. As we spent the next half hour spraying spot remover and scrubbing the couch with moist towels, Owen cried again and again, “I sad. We have to clean the couches. We can’t go swimming.” Over and over he repeated himself as he cried quietly and sometimes not so quietly. And again and again I was moved to wrap my arms around his skinny little shoulders and hug him, to cry with him, and to tell him how sad I was that we couldn’t go swimming.
Now, I knew that as a consequence this was probably working well. I knew that he was learning what he really wanted to do, in place of what he had actually done. I knew that the environment of love (instead of fear) was providing a place for him to learn and grow. Nobody learns well when they’re afraid, and punishment brings fear (1 John 4:17-18). However, I was so surprised at what was happening in my own heart. Instead of feeling self-righteous and smug as I doled out a consequence on my son, I felt grief and sadness as I participated in the suffering with him. I felt longing and connection and compassion for him, and it felt so good! It was the exact opposite of anger. As I cried with him and hugged him, and helped him get ready for bed, God was speaking into my heart. Jesus was simply saying to me, with a triumphant note in His voice, “See Charles, this is the way I am with you. Always remember that I enter into suffering with you. I took all the pain of your choices into myself. It is the whole reason I went to the cross. We learn together the tough lessons of this life. I never leave you or forsake you. Instead I feel what you feel with you, and I patiently teach you to follow your true heart’s desire, which is to love.”
A week later, Owen was still lisping about how he didn’t want to spit on the couch. Will he make other mistakes, and will he probably spit on the couch again? Yup. I can’t control him, and more and more I find don’t want to. Instead, I get to show him who he is and set him free to be fully himself, discovering his true desire through many mistakes and heart-aches. He’s a wild one, full of mischief and spit. I can’t control him, but I can love him. The lesson I learned that day – loving my kids in the midst of the mess is the best thing I can do for them and for myself, and that this is how Jesus loves me – is one I will carry in my heart forever, along with the joy of being fully loved.