Yesterday, I had the blessing of caring for a very strong-willed little boy who had just turned four. He was in a pretty good humor when he arrived, but then he chose to deliberately disobey me.
His older brother was in the room that was intended for older children, and the four year old asked me if he could go in the "big kid's room" and watch his brother play video games. I told the four-year-old that he was allowed to come in and watch his brother play video games, but that he wasn't allowed to play with any of the toys or games in the older kid's room because they were for the older kids only, and they weren't safe for him. I turned my back to talk to another child, and I caught him playing at the air hockey table. I reminded him that he wasn't allowed to play with it, and warned him he'd have to leave the "big kid's room" if he disobeyed again.
Well, after that warning, I turned to help another child with something. Not a minute later, I looked over and caught the four-year-old playing air hockey again. I told him he needed to leave the "big kid's room" because he broke the rules.
What happened next was one of the best tantrums I've ever had the honor of experiencing. And since I was the one at which the tantrum was being thrown, I didn't just observe like an innocent bystander. I got to be part of it. And that, friends, is a wonderful thing.
I'm not being sarcastic, for a change.
The tantrum lasted about an hour.
It started with screaming at the top of his lungs. This adorable four-year-old child stood in one spot and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
I first tried talking to him, calmly and rationally. And sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. Knowing how strong-willed this child was, I realized that he wasn't going to respond to calmness and reason. Basically, he was unknowingly trying to manipulate me into doing what he wanted by throwing a tantrum. But since I'm also a strong-willed child who has had a lot more practice at being strong-willed than he has, I wasn't going to give in to that sort of nonsense. So I tried ignoring him. I walked away and started singing a song to myself.
But there's a method to ignoring a tantrum-throwing child. You walk away. You don't look at the child. None of their screaming or attention-seeking behavior will get your attention. To that child, it looks like you are interested in everything besides them.
But in reality, that tantrum-throwing child was very much on my mind and heart. While he was standing rigidly in one spot and loudly, repetitively screaming, I was praying for his little heart. I was singing a hymn to remind myself of grace. I wasn't just ignoring him out of meanness or because I was fed up with him. I was ignoring him for his own good, to show him that he couldn't manipulate me.
And, of course, at the age of four he wasn't thinking all that through. He didn't realize that he was trying to manipulate me. It was all very innocent and natural for him, especially as a strong-willed child, to act out when he didn't get his way.
And he IS a very strong-willed child, because when he realized that I wasn't going to give him any attention for his tantrum, it didn't discourage him. It just made him madder--and louder. He didn't stop. He didn't slow down. After a good ten minutes of screaming, he just kept going.
And I realized that the ignoring method wasn't going to work. So I took his hand and dragged him, literally kicking and screaming, to the back of the room. I told him, "You are not in time out, but while you are crying and screaming, you have to sit in this chair. Whenever you're done screaming and crying, you can get up and come talk to me."
Of course, it was hard to say all this to him, because while I was saying it, he was screaming in my face. So I said it, not once or twice, but probably about ten times. I said it calmly and firmly, repeating it and praying that it was getting through.
But strong-willed little four year old boy wasn't going to take that. I was giving him some control over his situation, which was probably what he really wanted, but I wasn't giving it to him in the way that he wanted. I was letting him be the one who dictated when the tantrum was over, when he could get up and be free to play again. But he wanted it on his terms. He wanted to be able to play with the toys he wanted to play with, and not the ones that I said were okay. He saw the air hockey table, that was too tall for him to properly reach, as the Promised Land. He fixated on that so much that he couldn't see the huge room full of age-appropriate toys just ready for him to enjoy. And he was so angry with me for not allowing him what he thought he wanted. He was angry with me because I enforced the rules I'd set for him, even though he knew he was the one who had disobeyed them.
Because what we all want is control, but we want it on our terms. And that's not the way it works.
We think we want something, and we don't even want to let God stand in our way.
That's one of the biggest reasons why a lot of people just won't believe in a God that sets boundaries for His creation. That's one of the biggest reasons why people have stopped believing in things like absolute truth. That's one of the biggest reasons why people seem to want to create God in their image, instead of letting themselves be transformed into His image.
Boundaries aren't always fun, but children need them.
Boundaries aren't always fun, but we all need them.
But, as adults, we need to move past this childish mindset that boundaries mean we can't do anything fun or enjoyable. We're so quick to yearn for something we can't have, while right in front of us is more than we could ever imagine, more than we could ever deserve. We all want to be kings and queens, so we fight the King of Kings, when all along He's longing to adopt us and make us His children and heirs.
It's like what C. S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
That same day the child threw a tantrum, another little boy who had been so good while under my care suddenly turned into a beast when his mother arrived. He wanted to keep playing with the toys and games at the drop-in center. His mother told him that she was going to take him to "Frankie's Fun Park," but he was so focused on what he wanted that he couldn't imagine being happier elsewhere. And we're the same way. We are far too easily pleased.
But boundaries aren't meant to keep us from enjoyment; they're put in place for our own good. The trouble is that we like to believe that we know what's best for us, more so than God.
In my favorite novel, A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L'Engle), I've found one of the greatest illustrations of free will. One of the most interesting characters in all of literature (in my humble opinion), Mrs Whatsit, describes the human life as a sonnet. There is a strict form that must be followed, otherwise it is not a sonnet. But within that form, the poet has complete freedom to write whatever he or she desires.
God has given us a form. And I don't like having a form to follow, especially a strict one, because I'm a strong-willed kid. But when I stop being angry that I can't do everything my way, I realize that I actually do have a lot of freedom. I realize, when I stop being angry, that I have a lot of opportunity for joy.
We want things a certain way, and even if we're not throwing a deliberate tantrum, we're struggling to understand this life He's calling us to live. We're struggling to understand grace--sometimes throwing tantrums just so we can see how God will react, because our sinful hearts just don't understand things like unconditional love. Like Jacob, who was basically a weak mama's boy and a liar to boot, who didn't deserve any kind of grace, we need to wrestle with God. We don't deserve a blessing, but we need to be foolish and bold enough to hold out for it. And that takes a life-long wrestling match.
Because let me tell you something I've learned. If you think Christianity isn't meant to be a struggle, then you're doing it wrong. But I know that there's so much mercy in the struggle. And I know something more: There's joy in the struggle.
And after that precious little boy threw a tantrum for almost a solid hour, he was just exhausted. He was still trying to scream, but I could tell his throat was getting sore. He had fought me so hard, refusing to back down, and he was weakening. His strong-little will wasn't broken. I never meant to break it; I never meant to break him. But he needed to know that I wasn't going to break, either. As tired as I was, he was so much more tired; I'd had more practice, after all. His strong little will was just DONE. He was too tired to fight anymore. And it's sad that we have to get to that point sometimes, but that's why there's mercy in the struggle.
I finally pulled up a chair mere inches away from that screaming little boy. He tried to pull away from me, but he was too tired to fight that hard. I sat there, inches away from him. I put my hands out. I said his name. I said, "Come here. Come on, buddy. Come here." I kept repeating the call, kept saying his name. I probably said his name fifty times. He only had an inch to move.
And finally, after an hour of fighting, he stopped screaming. He said, "I want my mommy and daddy." And I said, "I know, buddy, and they're coming back soon, but I'm here now, and I love you so much." And he bridged that inch gap and leaned on me, too weak to even pull himself into my lap. But I picked him up and pulled him close to me. I held him and rocked him and told him that I loved him. I told him I loved him when he was good and that I loved him when he was bad. And he sobbed into my shoulder and hugged me so tight, because the fight was over, and he knew that he was safe with his Miss Ruth who loved him.
So tired from the fight, so secure now in my arms, he fell asleep. And, to me, that sweet, sweet moment was worth the entire tantrum. I was really blessed to be part of that, because I saw so much of how God relates to little strong-willed me in how I related to that little strong-willed boy.
Because I know there's times when I fight against God, either because I'm stubborn or stupid or just want my way, and I put up a really good tantrum. He might seem distant, ignoring me, but I'm on His mind and heart. He might be speaking to me calmly, reasoning with me, and I might be too angry to listen. He might be sitting right next to me, calling me to Him, waiting for me to come.
And when I do, there's not the anger and distance I expect from Him. I don't have to be afraid. He comforts me with His presence, reminding me of His unconditional love. I'm His kid. I never had to do anything to get His attention; I've always had it.
And in the times when I'm not exactly throwing that tantrum, I'm still forever struggling to understand God and who I am to Him. If I'm not struggling, it's because I'm not really living. I'm not seeking for the life He has for me.
But I know there's blessing beyond what I can understand, if I just keep holding on, if I just keep struggling and keep wrestling. The dawn is coming, though the battle has lasted all night.
And, hallelujah, there's mercy in the struggle.