This morning my kids and I visited a friend and her 4- and 6-year old sons. For the past week plus, our two oldest (4 1/2 and 2 1/2) have been going through a rough patch- one of those when you wonder, “Is there something in the water? What the heck is going on here?” Both have struggled with unusual moodiness, defiance, and difficulty holding it together over even minor issues. Sometimes kids just hit seasons like this for no clear reason and you just have to work with them patiently and help them ride it out. But it sure can make for taxing, head-scratching, prayerful seasons for the mom!
Before we arrived at my friend’s house, I talked with the kids about how we behave – polite to our hosts, kind to each other, share, etc. Fine. In we went, and within the first 10 minutes both behaved terribly. They fought over the same toy, displaying some of the grabbiest and rudest behavior I’ve seen. Nor were they receptive to my correction or direction to amend their ways. I was sorely vexed. Some of my annoyance no doubt stemmed from the fact that this was our first visit to these friends’ house and my kids’ behavior painted us all in a poor light (a good humility lesson for me); a bigger part was sheer discouragement – feeling like our childrearing efforts were pointless. I mean, why bother pouring into children at home and training them intentionally if they are going to act this way when we go out? Things did improve somewhat and we had a nice time, but other episodes of whining and disobedience occurred and my son left reluctantly in a pouty and less than polite manner. Among outings of this type, it was a low point.
When we returned home, I sat them on the couch to debrief. Had they been mostly kind or mostly mean to each other at our friends’ house? Were they thoughtful or selfish? How would we feel if someone came to our house and started fighting over our toys right away? They got the point pretty quick and offered, at my prompting, apologies.
“Children must, with your help, experience the sweetness of the forgiveness of all their sins. Most children are legalists to the core. They only think in terms of what they’ve done wrong, and if they can do enough right to fix it. We’ve got to break that! And you break it with the cross, with ‘He died for you; He died for you, and the only hope you have is to trust Him, trust Him. Hide in Jesus!” The human heart doesn’t want that; little children don’t get that… And when parents turn instruction in the Lord into teaching the do’s and don’ts, and (punishing when they don’t) – this is not helping. You’ve got t0 do that, but it’s all got to be inside the Gospel bubble. It’s got to be inside the blood; it’s got to be inside the righteousness of a Christ who saves another way. And little children don’t get this easily… because adults don’t get this easily.”
“Inside the Gospel bubble” — that’s the phrase that’s stuck with me since I listened to the message. Correction must occur “inside the Gospel bubble” or it’s incomplete and even unhelpful. I’d bawled them out; they knew they’d blown it and I was disappointed with them. What next? “Y’know, there’s good news guys,” I said. “When we mess up, God forgives us for our sins and we get to start again fresh. Let’s say sorry to God for how we acted and then we’ll get to go into the rest of the day with a new start.” We did. It helped. My theologian son even asked some questions about how God forgives sins.
And I realized – this is what it’s about, raising small, sinful human beings to love and trust Jesus. Being there to watch them mess up (as they will), over and over, and bringing them back to the Gospel. Helping them see and know the truth that we can’t do it on our own, but that God forgives us and washes every sin away. The behavior matters nothing compared to this reality: no matter how much we blow it, He’ll always be there and ready to cover our sins with His blood.
May all of us reside – intentionally and forever – in that sweet Gospel bubble.