One of my favourite things about being a parent is to give my children good things and see their smiles beam across their faces and their eyes light up with pure excitement. An even deeper joy is felt when I see the response of my almost 3 year old son with ecstatic fits of excitement. It fills my heart to overflowing with love for him, I cannot contain it and it feels like I’m going to burst with joy!
Recently we had a family outing and I knew we were coming up to an ice cream van. I had already decided that we were going to buy Hugo an ice cream, it’s a rare treat in our family, so I knew it would bring him much delight! As we walked towards the mobile ice cream man I could see his mind register where we were and what we were doing. “Ice cream! Ice cream! Ice cream!” That response in itself was enough for my treat for the day ;) We walked up to the counter and he said to me proudly “Mama, I’ve been a good boy, can I please have an ice cream?”
This seemingly simple and innocent question cut me to the very depths. In this moment of joy and delight that we were sharing between us as I was kneeling down next to him with his arms embraced around my neck, looking into my eyes with joyful anticipation of my answer, I was actually consumed with a grief and suddenly shattered on the inside.
Of course he could have an ice cream.
Of course he had been a good boy.
But why did these two things have to correlate?
This moment of revelation in my role as mother most likely occurred then and there because God has been powerfully speaking to me recently about his goodness as a Father and how and why and when he gives good gifts and blessings to us, his children. So many of us believe that God will bless us when we have been ‘good’ – when we have walked in obedience, lived righteously and avoided sin. Or perhaps we believe the opposite – if we fail, if we fall short, if we miss the mark, then he will hold back his blessings from us…even punishing us instead. But in truth, this isn’t how he works, because it isn’t who he is.
When we think we have to ‘earn’ God’s blessings and gifts in our life, we are missing the entire point of grace. We don’t have to earn anything. We don’t have to try and strive in our own strength. We don’t have to worry if we fall short or stuff up big time. Because you know what? We CAN’T earn it! If it were up to our own means we would never receive a good thing from him because in and of ourselves we simply cannot measure up, no matter how ‘good’ we are or how hard we try. We will always fall short. Fortunately, God doesn’t expect us to! He didn’t send his son to take our place for us to turn around and still continue trying to earn his love and blessing. It’s free. Available. Presented before us for the taking.
God didn’t send his son to take our place for us to turn around and still continue trying to earn his love and blessing
God gives good things because he is good. Not because we are good. Or not ‘good’ for that matter! In fact, he sees us as completely good (righteous), because he sees us through eyes of grace. Jesus earned that for us in his death and resurrection – he was perfect because we are not. God’s blessings in our life overflow from his goodness and love for us. It comes from him and there is nothing we can do or not do to earn it or lose it.
God gives good things because he is good, not because we are good
When the depth of the Fathers love for me is continually revealed, it challenges me to love my children in the same way. The reason Hugo’s statement broke my heart in that gentle moment is because it made me realise that I have unintentionally taught him that he should only expect good things when he is ‘good.’ I don’t want my children growing up thinking that they have to earn their gifts, blessings, treats and special things by behaving well or that they will be punished when they aren’t good by not getting good things from me. This doesn’t reflect how Jesus loves us or how God gives to us. God gives because of WHO HE IS. Who is he? He is good personified. He is LOVE!
God gives because of who he is. Who is he? He is good personified. He is love
And you know what? Sometimes my kids will be completely 100% well behaved, obedient and ‘good’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to receive anything from me. Or, they may be disobedient, but that also doesn’t mean I’m going to hold back good things from them. There will be consequences for poor decisions and behaviour, but it won’t be punishment and it’s not going to stop me from desiring to give them good things. I know I’m stepping into operant conditioning/reward and punishment theory of behavioural psychology here…and I’m not actually planning on talking about that, except to say that this revelation has certainly made me question my parenting style and I’m in the process of reshaping my methods of discipline to align more with how God disciplines us.
I think the key here is to understand the word ‘discipline’ – as I’ve said before, discipline isn’t about punishing, it’s about teaching and training, shaping and moulding, guiding and leading. If we think of God’s discipline toward us as reward and punishment, then it’s likely our discipline towards our children will be the same. The funny thing is, I’ve always thought that punishment was wrong, but rewarding was ok. Yet I look at God’s Fathering towards me and I see no reward system!!! Why? Because the ultimate reward has already been given to us (salvation, God’s unfailing love, grace Eph 2:8-9.) and because our greatest rewards are not here on earth, but wait for us in heaven. How we live our life on this earth determines how we live eternity, but again, it’s not about trying and striving to earn better and more and greater…it’s about stewarding everything God has given us with wisdom and faith and making the most of every opportunity and living a life worthy of our calling (Eph 4:1)!
So how do I translate this into my own parenting style? By teaching my children that good behaviour doesn’t ‘earn’ anything and bad behaviour doesn’t ‘lose’ my love or kindness or goodness towards them. I want my kids to grow up with intrinsic motivation rather than trying to please me by doing things because I say so or because they ‘should.’ I want it to come from within them, to be them, not some outward reward/punishment system. And I want them to learn the natural laws of life…all decisions have consequences – some are good, some are neutral and some are not so pleasant. But that’s life buddy and if you can figure that out at 3 then you’re going to be an amazing person at 23, 43, 83!!!
I walked up to the ice cream van and placed my order. As the man handed me a huge cone absolutely covered in chocolate and sprinkles I bathed in the sheer excitement of Hugo’s joy at the look of getting not just what he asked for (a small, plain ice cream) but waaaaaay more than he ever expected.
“Oh Mama!!! Chocolate AND sprinkles? Thank you Mama, thank you!!!”
I knelt down beside him again and captured his intense attention “Sweetheart, I’m giving you this ice cream not because you have been good, but because I love you.”
I don’t think I have ever seen anything distract him from his food before, let alone such a rare and favourite treat, but in that moment between us I could see that the words I had spoken to him then and there were far more special to him than the treat he was holding in his hand.