Every stage of parenting brings new blessings. I often feel slightly mixed – sad that a phase of life is over, but at the same time, excited to see my child grow, progress and reach milestones. Some of them are particularly memorable – starting to crawl or the first steps taken, when the child can start to show some independence and get where he wants to go. Perhaps even more exciting for me has been the development of speech, as they children are increasingly able to communicate, reflecting their personalities, their questions, their interests, their formative sense of humour.... I try to not rush ahead, but to enjoy each day for what it brings, and that is one of the reasons we have chosen to home educate, as we have the time and the space to embrace these developments.
Having considered God’s unconditional love and then how the disobedience and continual need for discipline can help us see something of God’s great grace and forgiveness towards us, I now want to reflect upon a different element of the relationship. I want to think about encouragement. As with other areas, this is something we can struggle with whilst living in an achievement-focussed, results-orientated society. Do we judge ourselves on what we have achieved or produced during a day? Do we consider our lives to have more meaning and purpose when we can catalogue what we have done and display results? As I have previously mentioned, I know this is something which I battle with perhaps more than others. I was brought up to ‘achieve my potential’, and to develop perfectionist tendencies which are wont to stifle the enjoyment of anything. There was no point in doing anything if I could not be the best. Even a Grade A might not be good enough, if I did not win the prize. What is the point of running if you don’t win a medal? And so, I utterly missed the point. I missed the beauty in the world which surrounded me, I completely lost sight of the enjoyment that could be gained through arts, music and creativity, and I started to despise myself as I could not always achieve to the level I desired.
Is that how God sees us? Is that an attitude I would want any of my children to inherit? I pray not! I have previously considered what our highest aims for our children are.
Consider a child learning to walk. Can they do it perfectly from the very first day? Of course not! Unsteady standing, cautious looking around them, and then one day, wait, was that a step? Was it really their first step or was it just a shuffle of their foot before they fell? I’m going to call it a step! Fantastic! Let’s have another go. Stand up, try again....whoops! Never mind, let’s have another go. Camera at the ready, proud parents beaming, stumble bump. And again! We don’t look at our children and think, ‘That’s really pathetic’, or ‘Come on, how long is it going to take you to get the hang of it?’ Hopefully we also don’t think, ‘That’s useless; little Johnny down the road mastered it months ago!’ No, we delight in these first achievements, we celebrate them, we encourage and we continue to encourage. Some time later, the child can walk to the park. Do we chide them because they can only walk one mile rather than three? Of course not! But when the child is older, we would expect a reasonable amount more... I could draw the same analogy from many other milestones. Their first paintings, splotched colours on a sheet of paper... The first attempts to form letters and numbers, although they are unintelligible. Starting to sing... Dancing, which for my eldest resembles something that an embarrassingly extrovert uncle might do at a wedding! As parents, we are simply delighted to see the child develop, to gain and use new skills, to be able to express themselves and to learn and grow. It is worthy of celebration!
Where am I going with this analogy? The first thing is that we are just too hard on ourselves at times. Do we get frustrated when we don’t do something perfectly? Perhaps we are trying something we have not done before – baking a certain recipe, a new craft, leading a small group, public speaking, writing a blog... Do we give up, rather than enjoying the process? Secondly, we judge things wrongly. In Isaiah Chapter 11, we read how God ‘will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.’ He sees the attitudes and motives, and makes a correct assessment. Are we afraid to step out into new areas because of fear of failure? On the car radio last week, I heard part of a discussion regarding how fear of failure is almost endemic within British society today, and the negative consequences this can have on our lives. Often these discussions reach unhelpful conclusions, suggesting that we ‘have strength within us’ or that somehow there is something within ourselves which enables us to overcome the challenges we face; I would disagree entirely and suggest that it is only as we become new creations in Christ that we can do so. ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Corinthians 5 verse 17)
Do we encourage one another? It is one thing to think of cheering on our children, but what about more generally? What about people who are taking bold steps of faith in their lives? Sometimes these things may seem feeble to us, but do we ‘Consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ (Hebrews 10 verses 24 and 25) When we look at how we delight as our children step forward and try new things, sometimes in a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ manner, do we see that God our Father similarly delights when we seek to trust Him and live for Him? Hebrews Chapter 11 is often referred to as the ‘faith hall of fame’- we are given a summary of many of the men and women of faith encountered throughout history. Moving into Chapter 12, we are encouraged, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ (Hebrews 12 verses 1-3) A great cloud of witnesses… This is paraphrased in The Message as ‘pioneers who blazed the way…. Veterans cheering us on’. The imagery is of us running a race, exhausted, perhaps stumbling, but being cheered on and encouraged by those who have gone before. But who are these champions of faith? Were they all perfect? Did they all steadily develop in their faith without setbacks, episodes of disobedience, failure, doubt and outright sin? By no means! Look in more detail at some of their lives, and you can see clearly how God uses ‘real’ people, those who have weaknesses and shortcomings and failings, in His purposes. The key is not that they succeeded time after time, but that they came back to God as David did, praying, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions…. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me….’ Psalm 51 In the prophecy of Isaiah, we are reminded that ‘The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’ (Isaiah 40 verse 28-31).
As we look at our children, tentatively making their first steps and their first attempts at new things, holding tightly to our hands, let us seek a similar relationship with God. Let us trust that He is pleased with our efforts, and will guide us and strengthen us as we seek Him. Let us not be excessively discouraged by our shortcomings and failures, but quick to return to the Lord, quick to say that we are sorry and try again. Let us understand more of His fatherhood towards us.