One of the many challenges that all parents face is the issue of ownership. Children are very focused on what’s theirs and, by default, what is yours. The presence of additional children merely doubles (or triples) this concern, and much of the stay-at-home parent’s day is spent as a referee as you try to support each child in their quest to protect his property from the other children while teaching about the joys of sharing with others.
I have recently become fairly concerned that Will is growing up to have bully issues. Although he is the youngest, he is big enough to take what he wants – typically from Hannah – and strong enough to keep it. In fact, this behavior is almost so predictable that I sometimes put half of Will’s lunch on Hannah’s plate knowing that she will leave the table and he will eat it. He thinks that he is stealing her food, but I know that he is eating what he wouldn’t have eaten otherwise. I know this is reinforcing the negative behavior, but I am choosing my battles. The good news is that I will never have to send Will to school with lunch money.
At the same time I am trying to teach Will not to take whatever he wants, I am also working to teach Hannah the appropriate way to deal with adversity. I’ve tried to teach primary prevention (“Don’t leave your food lying on the coffee table.”), secondary prevention (“If you see your brother coming, pick your food up and keep it away from him.”) and crisis management (“If he takes your toy, ask for it back, and then come tell me.”). I’ve even tried reverse psychology (“If you act like you don’t care, he’ll stop playing with it and you can have it back.”). However, nothing seems to satisfy like a good blood-curdling scream when your brother is taking your stuff.
Often I will try to explain to Hannah the logic behind the situation, hoping to make her see that she is overreacting to a simple situation. For example, I often will give both children a small bowl of cereal for a snack. (Without milk, of course, because I am not a glutton for cleaning up messes.) Because Will is a faster, if not more focused, eater, he quickly finishes his and then goes to the next course, i.e. Hannah’s cereal. She screams, I come running (because I assume that she is mortally wounded), and she informs me not only that Will has taken her food but also that she is hungry, he is eating too much sugar for a little boy, and that he needs to be punished severely. It is at this time that I try to explain that there plenty of cereal, and that I will give her more. I reassure her that we will take care of her and won’t allow her to go hungry. If I’m feeling lucky I also try to reinforce that the cereal is actually mine because I bought it, and therefore belongs to all of us.
As a father I want my children to learn these lessons. I want them to be confident enough about the things we give them that they will willingly share them with each other. I want them to know that their needs will be met, and that if somebody takes their stuff we are more than capable of making it right. I don’t want them to be so afraid of losing their things that they begin to hoard them and refuse to help their siblings. I don’t want to raise children who are selfish and afraid, but children who are kind and generous.
So while I get frustrated with my children for their difficulty in grasping these concepts, I am embarrassed to realize my own failure as God the Father is trying to teach me the same things. There are so many times that I am afraid of losing what I have that I act like a child. I complain that others have more than I do. I refuse to share. I think of the things God has given me as my things rather than His. I am so focused on my stuff (or often my lack of it) that I become selfish and self-absorbed.
One of the Old Testament stories that challenges me every time I read it is the story of the widow at Zarephath in 1 Kings 17.
Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the LORD came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
“As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.’ ”
She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah. (1 Kings 17:7-16)
This woman woke up that morning, looked at her pantry, and realized that she had one more meal. She knew it had been coming for weeks. She had likely been rationing, and she and her son had probably been hungry for a long time, eating only what they needed to stay alive. Now it is over. Everything they have is used up. So she goes out with a heavy heart, maybe in tears, to gather the sticks she needs to make her last meal. Then some stranger asks for a loaf of bread like he is at the drive-thru at the local fast food place. Doesn’t he know? Doesn’t he care?
I don’t know if the woman was praying for deliverance. I don’t know if she expected God to help her. She evidently knew about God, but I don’t know what kind of relationship she had with Him. There must have been something there, however, since she responded to Elijah’s promise that He would provide for her. But the thing that strikes me is the woman’s complete selflessness. Despite her pain and grief, she trusted that by giving away the last of what she had she would be given all that she needed. She understood, or at least believed, that God has plenty for all His children, and it really isn’t ours to begin with.
So what would that look like in my life? I get so frustrated because I don’t have enough money saved up to get the things that I want/think I need. I don’t have the security I want in case my van breaks down or my air conditioner gives out. I am afraid of what will happen if there is a medical emergency that requires me to meet my deductible. So when I have five dollars in my pocket and a guy is standing on the side of the road holding a sign proclaiming his need, I speed up and pass by. Why? Because it is my money. It is all that I have left right now, and I don’t know what will happen next. I need to save it, protect it, hoard it. I don’t trust God, if you want to get right down to it. I can rationalize my decision all day long, but when it comes down to it it is because I don’t want to allow myself to be totally dependent on God.
If we want to take it a step further, Malachi records the words of God against the Israelites as He accuses them of robbing Him. They were robbing God when they refused their tithes and offerings, holding back for themselves. He offers them a challenge and asks them to test Him:
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the LORD Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:10-12)
So when I am screaming about the inequality that exists or complaining that somebody is trying to take my stuff, my Father gently and patiently tries to explain, for the hundredth time, that it isn’t mine anyway. It is His, and He has plenty to go around. If I give up what He has given me for the good of another of His children, He will make sure that I have all that I need. In fact, He “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”