Thursday, May 3, 2012

On sin and discipline

Matthew 5:21-26 (NIV)

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."

For starters, I fully realize the use of the words brother and sister in this passage are not at all about familial relations, but instead about the broader notion of a brother or sister in Christ. Likewise, the notion of being angry with a fellow follower to the degree it puts you in the danger of the fire of hell is, at least in the way I am interpreting things, not exactly on the same level as your standard sibling rivalry — especially in the context of the grade school and younger crowd I run with these days.

So while perhaps this is not the best passage to reflect on in light of what it might say about parenting or families or what have you, my mind kept returning to it after going over all the other readings suggested for today a time or two. I like how Jesus reminds us here that the sin of murder — which we can all agree is pretty terrible — and the sin of anger are equally responsible for the sinner being subject to judgment. This is a good example of a theological tenet I’m pretty comfortable with, but I don’t do a good job applying it to myself when I’m being reflective.

Along the lines of something I wrote earlier, it’s easy to not kill people. It’s much harder to not get angry with people. To be honest with myself and with God, I can’t go along thinking I’m a generally good person because I’m not a murderer (or adulterer or thief or what have you). If I’m ever going to grow as a person, and a father, I have to take an honest accounting of my shortcomings. A good way to push myself in that direction is to remember that all sins will subject me to ultimate judgment, not just the ones that would land me in criminal court.

One of our parenting rules is an apology is an essential part of the punishment process. You hit your brother, you go to timeout. When your time is up, you must be able to explain your infraction and make a sincere apology to be returned to normal family life. Part of this is instructive — when you account for the wrongdoing, you are taking ownership of your actions but also confirming you are aware what you did was wrong. As for the apologies, one factor is offering consolation to the aggrieved party; the other is accepting your imperfections. In less fancy words, “I’m sorry” means “I wish I had not done what I did, and I also do not want to make the same mistake again.”

That’s the ideal scenario. We’ve spent many an hour haggling over the sincerity of an apology, if we can get the words uttered at all. Heck, our first year of giving Jack timeouts was more arguing about staying in timeout than going over the initial behavior. Sometimes one kid is ready to apologize and the other is in no mood to hear it. When the issue is between parent and child, the adult usually doesn’t need the consolation, but we must demand the apology regardless. In the short term, we’re simply trying to curb the behavior. But we’re also trying to establish a pattern of being accountable for your screw-ups, intentional or otherwise, because inevitably you’re going to offend someone who doesn’t have to forgive you or love you or sit at the same dinner table as you or so on.

In addition, I’d be lying if I said Kristie and I had some long, drawn out parenting strategy session where we decided how we’d handle discipline issues like this. I surprised myself the first time I told Jack no about something halfway serious (such as our epic “no babies in the street” battle) because for the first several months of his life, there was no reason to say no. Part of the deal with a baby is indulging their every need. I often think part of the reason Max and Charlie (if early returns are any indication) deal with the concept of “no” better than Jack ever did is because they grew up hearing that word every day.

Of course, their personalities are all very, very different, and consequently so are the ways we deal with discipline — even the way we counter disobedience with each of them. (A quick example is that Max has always been one to test every physical boundary, but Jack has always pushed buttons verbally, ironic because Max has outpaced Jack in terms of speech and language development every step of the way.) I imagine this process will only grow more complicated as we all get older. And that’s one of the reasons I don’t mind still being in the diaper-changing stage. Charlie’s problems are so easy to solve by comparison.

Then there is the issue of parents apologizing to their kids when the parent has acted inappropriately. That notion likely warrants its own post some day, but suffice it to say there is a lot to be learned along that path.

A prayer for May 3:

Lord, thank you for sending us your Son, not just for his sacrifice on the cross but also for his many teachings. I come to you as a sinner, unworthy of your love. I am overwhelmed by the grace and salvation you offer. While I know I will fall short, I pledge to continue working to live the life you would have me live. I seek your guidance as I discipline my children, and I seek your mercy for my own failings. Amen.

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