What a Two Year Old Taught Me About Grace and Bitterness

There is no question in my mind that being a parent has changed me in more ways than one. I have certainly repented of many of the attitudes that I held before stepping over the threshold and being thrust into the complete abyss that is the parental role. I remember flying once in my early 20’s. As I entered the plane I quickly noted the young child sitting behind me. I’ll bet he was about 4 years old. For most of the 4 hour flight he was either screaming, crying, or obnoxiously kicking my seat. Annoyed beyond measure, when we landed I posted a snarky comment on Facebook.  A friend with kids quickly answered me and said, “Someday when you have kids, that may be you.” In my college age mind, I was appalled by her comment. As if I somehow possessed the powers of mind control,  I thought, “I will never let my kids act that way.” If you are reading this and you have children, you ae probably laughing hysterically. As you can imagine I have since repented of that Facebook post many years ago and my attitude. You see, before I had kids, I thought I knew everything about raising children. I wondered why my friends with kids were having such a hard time. I wished they would come to me for advice so I could tell them what to do. Now….many days I wish someone would tell me what to do. Parenting is hard. It is one of the hardest things I have had to do in my whole life, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Children are amazing in so many ways, but perhaps the most unique thing about them is that in their innocence they have so many lessons to teach us. As parents we often focus on our role as the teacher, but your children have lessons to teach you too. The problem is that those lessons often come at the most difficult and inopportune times. Not so long ago, my wife and I decided to get out of the house and go do something fun. Maine winters can be brutal for kids, especially little ones. It is easy to feel trapped in your house by the inclement weather and the bitter cold. So that evening we packed up our two young children and went to the local bowling alley. The night was a success and we had a lot of fun, that is until it came time to leave. My two year old son not only did not want to leave, but he somehow believed that by exhibiting the strongest form of defiance he could muster we would not have to. To this day, I am thankful that the bowling alley was pretty empty. Only a few people witnessed the epic battle that took place between my son and I. Those moments are somewhat of a blur, but the screaming commenced about the time I tried to put his coat on. This was not merely a whining or complaining, it was a high pitched screaming with his mouth constantly forming the defiant word “NO!” over and over again. It was one of those moments where you can’t bring yourself to look around, but you just know that everyone within ear shot has stopped to stare at you. Their judgmental looks are familiar to me. They are the same ones that I used to give people before I had kids of my own. As if the yelling was not enough, the hitting soon began. Desperate to leave I grabbed my son, threw him over my shoulder, and stormed out the door; leaving my wife behind to deal with our newborn son. I could feel my face flushed with a combination of rage and embarrassment as I buckled him into his car seat. It was a breaking point for me, and the discipline I dealt out was swift.

We are the sum of a thousand different things we experience in our life. In my life, I have become increasingly sensitive to unjust abuses. I hate to feel belittled, to be unjustly accused,  and when I am disrespected I get angry. In these moments my pride takes over, and against my better judgment I become a willing pawn in its hand. That night in the bowling alley my 2 year old tapped into that. Normally for such injustices I am not quick to forgive. Years ago, I was severely belittled by a someone at my work for no apparent reason. It is a wound I often still carry with me and struggle to forgive. Bitterness is a toxic thing. It is a mental drug that is easy to start using, but hard to quit. Most people have fought with it at some point in their life and many have given in and allowed their lives to be swallowed up and enveloped in it. It breeds a deep seated hate in our lives. Hate and love cannot exist together. That is why 1 John 2:9 says, “He that sayeth he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.” You cannot possibly hope to show the love of Christ to others when you are consumed by bitterness. My toddler has taught me much about grace both as a result of his reactions to me and in my reactions to him.

The truth is that I cannot imagine suffering such indignities and injustices from others. If an adult screamed at me or hit me, that would likely be enough to start a fight. Even if I managed to offer no rebuttal, the seeds of bitterness would be planted in my heart. I would have a hard time forgiving that person and I might never view them the same way. As Christians we are told to “turn the other cheek” and to “love your enemies”. (Matthew 5:39 and 44), but how many of us really do that? The difference for me when I look in my two year olds eyes is that I don’t feel that bitterness. I may feel momentary anger, but I am quick to forgive. Often all it takes is one, “I love you Daddy,” and my heart melts. Of course I discipline my children and I don’t allow them to do wrong to me or others, but it is hard. It is hard because I love them. When I was punished as a child my father would always come back a few minutes later to say to me, “You know I punish you because I love you.” As a child I didn’t really understand what that meant, but as a parent now myself the meaning is all to clear. It is easy to give my children grace and forgiveness because I love them, but I am often all to woefully lacking when it comes to others. I think if we were honest we would likely admit that we hold our fellow sinners in this world to an even higher standard than we hold ourselves. In fact I would say that the amount of grace we give is directly proportional to the love we have for the object of that grace. Our inability to forgive or to show grace comes from a deficiency on our part, not from the magnitude of the transgression. We like to blame the transgression of the other person because it takes the responsibility off of ourselves, but we are merely fooling ourselves.

While my lack of bitterness toward my child is a lesson to me, his ability to forget my mistakes is as much, if not more of a lesson. You don’t have to be a parent very long before you mess up. With a toddler it feels like a weekly (perhaps even daily) occurrence. Yet, in spite of my occasional lost temper or lack of patience, his ability to move on is nothing short of amazing. Even when the discipline is justified, his anger usually doesn’t last more than a few minutes. There are no week long feuds or even going to bed angry with a toddler. Moments of struggle and frustration are quickly replaced with hugs and pleas for me to come and play. My son will often look up at me with tear stained eyes, hold his arms up and say in his unique way, “Wanna hold you!” Imagine if we as adults could act the same way. Ephesians 4:31-32 says, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” Sometimes I feel like my two year olds ability to forgive is much closer to God’s than mine. Perhaps it is because the hearts of children, while still sinful, have not been corrupted in the same ways as our own. Whatever the case, the heart of God is one of forgiveness and not of bitterness. God approaches our offenses with a heart that is tender, kind, and quick to forgive. Would that we would do the same, that our hearts would view forgiveness as a child does and more importantly as our Savior does.

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