Sibling rivalry. Sharing. As soon as child number two is on the way, these are the issues parents begin to ponder. How will baby number one deal with baby number two? Mom and Dad work hard to make sure both children feel loved, to make sure baby number one doesn't feel pushed aside by baby number two. Then comes baby number three, four, five. Each family with a different number.
Two children is fairly simple in theory. One for each side of mom when reading a story. One for each parent when on an outing. After two, things are less simple. You have to be creative at storytime. Someone drapes along the top of the couch, someone sits on your lap, and you have to peer around a head to read the book. You change seats in the middle of storytime. On outings the youngest children hold your hands, the older children walk in front where you can see them. Family dynamics shift with each new member. Big families seem overwhelming. How do they do it?
You also have the issue of sibling friendships. Who favors whom? Who plays with whom, and who doesn't get along with whom? The dynamics can shift from day to day, but they can also be fairly consistent. My husband and I enjoy watching the interplay of siblings as the context shifts.
Peter and Andrew and John and James loved their big brother Jesus. They wanted to be his favorites. Say you love me best. Say I can sit next to you in Heaven. Of course, Jesus gets to sit next to God in Heaven, so he really only has one side left, but the two sets of brothers are thinking of Jesus' two sides and wanting those seats for themselves. They quarrel over this issue frequently. And as frequently, Jesus reprimands them.
I, being a younger sibling, got to watch this from afar, from Scripture reading. And I learned from it. Don't want to be close to God. That is selfish. Be happy to be far away from Him. Be happy because at least you are part of the family. So you're not someone special! If you were close to God, someone else would have to be far away. Know your place. It's to be nothing special, but at least you're still family.
It wasn't just the disciples with Jesus. I saw it in the Israelites. Judah gets to be near the temple. Reuben and the others across the Jordan chose to be far away, so maybe that's okay. But what about the others, like Ephraim? And the new Israel prophesied seemed worse. It's not going to be a patchwork anymore. It's going to be nice and equitable, except for proximity to Jerusalem and the temple. Two are close. The rest get farther and farther away. I saw the priests with their special closeness to God, then the Levites, then the rest of the Israelites, then us.
To be honest with you, I wanted to be close to God. I was selfish. I felt resentful of my place of distance from Him. But, desiring to be good, I wrestled with those feelings. I tried to reason with myself and get rid of my selfish feelings. For years, I wrestled. But it didn't work. I still felt resentful, and I still wished I could be one of the ones close to God.
One day, three years ago, as I was sitting on my bed wrestling again with my selfishness, God leaned over me, and with a smile, He whispered something in my ear, "I am not two-sided." I knew instantly what He meant. He has a side just for me. I am one of those chosen to be close to Him. I remembered Paul saying that God's wisdom is many sided, like a diamond, and I understood.
I understood something else. I understood that I might be wrong in my definitions of right and wrong. I heard God again, "If you are trying to remove something from your heart, and it won't move, it may just be because I put it there. You can't remove what I put in your heart." I needed to reconsider my definitions of righteousness. I needed to ask God for His definition. There might be other areas where I am wrong. That is surprisingly very freeing.
There is a phrase, "There are none so blind as those who will not see." Well, there are none so enslaved as those who think they deserve slavery. I thought I was only fit to be a slave, so I saw the Gospel message as a list of assignments. Jesus said, "if you love me you will keep my commands." I didn't realize that Jesus was telling us to focus on getting to know Him and learning to love Him. I thought He was focusing on behavior. I searched Scripture to discern what behaviors God liked and pushed myself to do them: thankfulness, worship, service, evangelism, prayer, Bible reading, meditation, discipline, accountability, compassion, confession, giving, tithing, .... My duties expanded, and the weight of my shackles had me plodding more and more slowly.
I was troubled because I could see that my good actions were not coming from my heart. They were coming from obligation, not love. Phillis Wheatley, the poet who lived much of her life as a slave, wrote, "In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance." I could see this longing in my heart, but I tried to tell myself I was already free. My heart knew the truth. I was making myself a slave.
Three years ago, my husband and I were reading The Jesus Storybook Bible with the children. Wonderful book! In the chapter called "The Singer," Sally Lloyd Jones said that Jesus had come to teach us a song we were made to sing: "God made us. He loves us. He is very pleased with us." Shortly after we read it, I was talking with one of my daughters. At five years old, her eyes were already haunted with the failure I felt, and it bothered me. I remembered the song, and I told my daughter, "God is pleased with you." She answered in a voice of disbelief, "How can that be true?" Her voice and words were a knife in my heart, but I struggled to answer her, because I didn't believe that God was pleased with me.
(As a side note, at that time, God gave us another name for that daughter – Anastasia, which means resurrection. He also gave me a new verse to sing her about His love for her. It has been wonderful to watch her eyes lose their haunted look as God has been healing me. As I am healed, I am able to be part of God's healing of my children.)
Since them, God has been pouring the thought of His pleasure into my heart. I don't know how many times He has breathed those words into my heart. I do remember clearly the last time I heard them vividly. It was a few months ago. I was walking with a friend whom I dearly love and rarely see. We were taking our children to the park. It was a beautiful spring day. Everything was glorious except one thing, my heart would not rejoice.
I tried to make my heart rejoice. I tried to praise God. I knew when you are discouraged, you are supposed to find something good and praise God for it, yet here I was surrounded by wonder and glory, and my heart would not let me praise. The harder I tried to praise God for the wonder I could clearly see around me, the more my heart revolted. I despaired. My heart just wouldn't cooperate. If I couldn't make myself praise God about things which were wonderful, there was no hope. What would I do in hard times? I was still failing God.
It was at that moment that I heard clearly, "I am pleased with you." There was a smile in that voice. I could hear God's pleasure in His tone, and my pressured heart sank into God's embrace. It wasn't rebellious anymore. It was dancing! I could praise God when it came from my heart, and that was enough! I didn't have to manufacture praise! Since then, though my heart still rebels at times, I have found praise flowing from my heart more and more.