I remember when I first took Sarah into my arms. I was literally shocked at how much love I felt for her. I kissed her over and over and wept and held her and sang to her and stroked her at every moment. I was not prepared for my heart to be filled with so much wonder, such depth of emotion. Maybe it was because I was in my 30's and had wanted to get married for so long, and now found myself starting a family, which was a miracle to me. A baby from my own body created a life in the love channels of my heart that is beyond explanation.
When a baby is welcomed into the world and cherished and embraced and prayed over, it begins a pattern in the baby's brain that literally communicates and establishes brain pattern expectations of life: I am loved, I feel good, it makes me happy, I belong. These very patterns cause that same baby to already have patterns of significant theological implications that will be responded to when this same child is confronted with the reality of God. He is love, He accepts me, I have a place to belong, I can feel good about responding back to God's love, as it is already familiar to my brain.
When babies begin growing, and the issues of child discipline and training come to the fore, I have observed that many often leave that relational, heart-felt attachment and begin to behave differently toward them. I have seen that many, many moms, because they do love their babies and want to get it right, begin at a very early age responding and initiating to these very babies as though they are a challenge to be overcome, a contestant to be ruled over. And since so many extra-biblical books of advice (suggestions--but not necessarily taking into account the full counsel of scripture) abound in Christian circles, moms follow the rules and expectations of the voices they are reading and hearing. We all long for an easy formula to make parenting quick, predictable, and long-lasting.
I do not see that in my own relationship with God as my Father. He works slowly in my life to train, love, test, teach and to conform me to the image of Christ. It is little by little, bit by bit, one lesson at a time.
However, in all relationships, (parenting, friendship, marriage, work), people are designed by God to respond from their heart. If their hearts are attached and served by the people relating to them, and their felt needs are met, people will tend to respond to that love.
Let me give you an example. Suppose my husband came to me at home and said, "Now, Sally, we are married and I am your husband and these are my standards of what I expect in our home. I want a clean house, a homemade dinner on the table, with my preferences for food noted. I expect you to rule over the children so that they will behave, memorize scripture, be read to, learn to play a musical instrument well, be mannerly, have godly character, and learn a good work ethic.
Since we are also a Christian home, I expect you to read a chapter of the Old Testament every day and a chapter of the New Testament and I want the kids to have 3 books of the Bible memorized by the time they are 10. I will be checking with you every day to correct anything you have done that is not up to my standards and I expect you to live up to these goals because you are my wife. We are a Christian family and if we keep all of these ideals, our children will turn out to be moral, spiritual, hard working adults, agreed?”
What if, then, every day when my husband would come to me, he would say, “I noticed that someone left a sock on the den floor and you have not succeeded yet in training our children well. And I also did not appreciate that fast food dinner last night--it had 1000 grams of saturated fat and was filled with chemical additives and I think you are becoming a little bit lazy for not making me a homemade meal. I also noticed that two of the kids misspelled a word on their thank you notes to the grandparents, and and and.................and you need to work harder, get up earlier, and make a better schedule, since we are falling behind on our goals."
Goals given to me as a list by a husband who dictated what my behavior should be, without consideration of a relationship, would produce death, not life in my relationship to him.
I would never flourish in this kind of relationship--feeling always a failure, always a disappointment. Eventually, I would feel like giving up.
This kind of a relationship would demoralize me very quickly and defeat me, causing me to begin building up anger because the standards would be so far beyond what I could attain as a limited, sinful, selfish human being (and my children also being immature and unable to keep up with these high standards.)
All of these ideals are good as goals--they are filled with sound wisdom and can provide life and instruction, but as laws they would kill my soul if they were not given through a relationship of mutual love and respect.
Imagine instead if my husband invited me out to my favorite restaurant for dinner. When I got there, he had a vase with a beautiful rose on the table, a tiny gift wrapped up with ribbon, a new ipad with my wonderful playlists of music downloaded, a tiny speaker playing my favorite music. My heart would immediately be engaged. Now, if during the dinner we shared together, my husband communicated his love of me, his special commitment to me, his delight in me, I would have a heart ready to respond to ideals.
If then he said, "I want you to know that I am so excited to build a family with you. I will be here to support you in all of your hard work. I will see that you don't become exhausted. I will be your partner in this and we will build a great legacy together. We will not be able to accomplish this all at once, but I want to spend a lifetime with you building our dreams and vision. Whenever you need me, I will be there because I love you so much."
Please note— I am not writing this post to cause anyone to feel depressed because this is not their husband---there is no perfect husband and they all need grace like we do. I don't think this perfect husband exists--it was just an example! :)
But, as one of my friends has said many times, "A woman will do so much for so little if a man will just learn how to woo, love and communicate appreciation."
And so of course, when I feel cherished I am much more likely to give my all, especially if I have time to grow and develop and get rest along the way.
God is that kind of lover.
He is a provider (look at nature--gardens, colors, animals, and foods that He crafted for our pleasure.)
He gave us ideals and purpose, as we see through scripture.
He saw that we were lost and falling and ultimately, He came amongst us, giving up any comfort or honor that He held in heaven.
He served, washed feet, fed, laughed with, lived with, and encouraged his own precious disciples.
Similarly, our life with God is not measured in the rules or goals or laws that he gives. But, as the author of these ideals, and bound up in His love and care for us, God uses truth to work on our hearts in relationship.
He comes as the servant king, the one who lays down His life, the one who is humble and meek.
As a good parent, God gives us wisdom and guidance so that our lives will be healthy, strong, protected.
So God becomes our pattern for parenting.
He served and loved and sacrificed and gave of Himself, so that we would long to be holy out of our gratitude and reverence and love for Him. He called His disciples to serve, to love, to give and to be holy. He gave them true life, beauty, and love that filled their deepest needs and longings to live a purposeful life.
And so after 3 years of intense friendship, when He said, "Greater love has no one than this, that a man lays down his life for his friend," they had heard it, seen it modeled, felt the benefit of it, and seen the integrity of it in their teacher, and so they willingly embraced this high ideal.
Consequently, it is not in getting the rules right or in defining all of the right ways to do things, or believing perfect theology that will make our children want to serve God.
It is in laying down our life for them,
listening to them,
giving them our time,
loving who God made them within their limitations,
calling them to holiness as we model integrity and worship in front of them,
that will secure in them a desire to love God with all of their hearts.
By seeing our love, they will more easily understand and receive God's love, as it will already be familiar to their hearts and brains because they have seen it and experienced it every day.