My children are all telling me “no.” Each one of them is doing it somewhat differently, but the effect is the same. Jamilet, who just turned two, often yells the word in mid-air, squirming feverishly as I try to redirect her from some imminent catastrophe — an outlet, a stove knob, a pair of scissors — to a toy — any toy.
Liam, 7, uses a bit more sophistication with his no’s. Liam already understands that he shouldn’t say no to a parent and has decided to substitute “but” instead.
“Liam, time for bed.”
“But I’m not finished with my book.”
“Liam, put your socks in their drawer.”
“But Jacob didn’t put his away.”
Jacob, 10, occasionally falls back on Liam’s technique, but is moving towards something even more ingenious — the “yes” that means “no.”
“Jacob, pick up your school uniform from your bedroom floor.”
“Okay.” Fifteen minutes later, the uniform is still there.
When I first became a parent, I felt like I had a new understanding of God. I stared in wonder at newborn Jacob, overwhelmed by my love for him, and marveled that this love I felt for my son was just a sliver of God’s love for me.
Now, with the newborn years a cozy memory, my children continue to help me understand God as parent.
God the parent has requests and demands of us, just as I have demands and requests of my children. Sometimes we feel what God is asking of us in the deepness of our being — we hear God’s call in our souls. Other times, God speaks to us through scripture — a reading at church, a Bible verse at home. And still other times the Holy Spirit moves through a conversation and we sense what God is asking of us.
And while sometimes we say, “yes,” right away to what God asks of us, more often we respond like Jamilet, Liam and Jacob. Like toddler Jamilet, we don’t always see when we’re headed for self-destruction — we think if we can just get to that stove knob, everything will be great. Intent on our own pleasure, we ignore God’s warnings and pleas for our safety. Like Liam, we tell God “but.” We point out to God that He isn’t asking our neighbors to do the same thing. We make excuses for not doing God’s will. We try to put God on hold. And finally, perhaps we’re most often like 10-year-old Jacob. We hear a reading or homily in church — we know what God is asking of us and at that moment, we say “yes.” But then, too quickly, we forget what we agreed to do.
While I understand that my children’s “no’s” are all developmentally appropriate, I also know that for our family to function effectively and for my children to learn responsibility, I need to teach them to say “yes.”
I have to make Jamilet realize that when I say “no” and she doesn’t stop, she will be physically lifted away from the danger. Liam needs to know that no matter how many “buts” he comes up with, the end result will be the same — he’ll need to do as I asked. And Jacob needs to understand that if he doesn’t put the clothes away the first time, he will still need to do so 15 minutes later, and by then I probably will have added another job.
My experience is that God operates similarly. When we ignore God or tell God “no,” God the parent doesn’t back off. Instead, God continues to call us to what would be best for us or for the greater world. Just as my children don’t always understand why they need to go to bed, stop playing with the scissors or help keep the house neat, we, as adults don’t always fully appreciate where God is leading us. Too often, because we can’t see the bigger picture of where our life fits into God’s plan, we choose not to summon the courage to trust God’s vision over our own.
But when we do summon that courage to trust; when we do say “yes” to God’s call; it is then that we begin to glimpse the bigger picture. We start to see where it is we fit. And we begin to understand that everything God asks of us is within our capabilities.
My plan is that someday, I won’t even need to ask Jacob to pick up his uniform from the floor. He’ll do it on his own. On that day (and I hope it’s coming soon), Jacob and I will have a shared vision of a bedroom without crumpled clothes on the floor. Someday, Liam will notice on his own that he’s tired and should go to bed. And someday, Jamilet will realize that I really do have her best interest in mind when I don’t let her play with the knives.
I don’t know when that day is that my children will see the bigger picture — when their “yes” to me will come before I even make the request. Right now, it’s enough for me that I see progress. Liam, after all, no longer lunges for the stove knobs like his little sister. And despite Jacob’s struggles with the clothes on the floor, he has become very good at going to bed with just one reminder. Everyone’s moving forward, and as a parent, that’s all I’m asking for. Hopefully, God sees the same progress in us.