Wednesday, November 21, 2012

First Time, With a Happy Heart


There once was a man who needed help taking care of his vineyard. And who better to get help from then his two sons? So, he ordered his first son: "Go work in the vineyard for me today." The first son, for whatever reason, defiantly told his father, "I will not!" The father proceeded to his next son, and told him, "Son, go work for me in the vineyard." The second son responded willingly and respectfully, saying, "I will sir." 

Let's pause the story here for a moment. Which son demonstrates willing obedience? Which son responds to his father immediately, with respect? Which son sounds defiant, disrespectful, and angry? Which son would be swiftly punished in most Christian homes because he needs to learn to be obedient the first time, with a happy heart?

Wait! Before you respond, let me finish the story. As the day wore on, the oldest son began to regret his refusal to help his father, and finally decided to go ahead to the vineyard and work. But the second son, though he responded willingly and respectfully to his father initially, decided not to go to the vineyard after all. 

No fair! This story has an unexpected twist! Now I am really confused. The disobedient son seems to be the obedient son, and the obedient son seems to be the disobedient son. But I thought obedience entailed an immediate, happy, willing response to every parental request! 

Hmm...maybe I should keep reading to find the conclusion to the story, for, yes, I am reading it from that wonderful, inspired, living Word of God in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verses 28-31. I am reading a story told by the master storyteller himself. When the master finished telling his story, he queried his listeners, asking who the obedient son was: "Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the correct answer, given by the listeners?“The first.” The first son was truly obedient, because, you see, genuine obedience is making a reasoned decision to submit to someone else, and that decision does not always happen quickly or easily. 

I am reminded of the ultimate act of obedience demonstrated by Jesus when he went to the cross. Hebrews 5:7 tells us that Jesus, before He did His Father's will, before He obediently went to the cross, " offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death..." Jesus knew that he was about to face the deepest darkest agony ever known to any human. He struggled with it. He even begged his father, loudly, and with anguish, not to ask Him to go to the cross. Yet, in the end, Jesus, in a beautiful demonstration of genuine obedience, went to the cross. He chose to do His father's will, though he knew it would cost Him his very life. Hebrews 5:8 says that Jesus learned obedience from the things He suffered. Jesus learned what it meant to obey; He experienced the pain and agony that came with His decision. 


So where did we get the idea that obedience is demonstrated when children jump up and immediately do what we say, with a happy heart? We could teach a dog to do this. We expect soldiers in the military to do this. But labeling this carefully-trained response given by our children as obedience is a concept not found in the Bible. In fact, obedience that is an automatic, robotic-smiling response to our every command is very shallow. For, every child knows if he or she does not "obey," then he, or she, will suffer. Doing an action in order to avoid pain or suffering shows us nothing of the actual "obedience" or "disobedience" going on inside a child's heart.

How would our parenting outlook change if we realized that obedience is often about "counting the cost" OF THE ACT OF SUBMISSION, and then deciding to submit anyways? For, from a child's viewpoint, every parental request entails a giving up of his or her desires, followed by a doing of something he or she does not really feel like doing. It is hard to stop playing legos, and then set the table for supper. It is hard to give up the rights to one's toys, and then share them with someone else. It is hard to stop swimming in order to get home on time to fix daddy's dinner.

In our house, both of our children daily "count the cost" of obedience. The little lady, who is really very little, usually "counts the cost" to mamma's embrace and words of understanding. The little man sometimes counts the cost with shrieks of "I don't want to!" And we understand, obedience is hard. We give the little man all the time he needs to feel ready to willingly obey. And the outcome of little man's cries, always met with understanding, love, and compassion, mixed with some matter-of-factness? A red-eyed, smiling guy, cheerfully declaring "Ok, mom. I'll do what you say! I'm ready now!" And when the task is finished, the parental request genuinely submitted to, there is a real pride in that little guy's bearing, a knowledge that he is able to do the right thing, even when it's hard, a confidence that any river can be crossed, any mountain climbed: a true obedience learned from things suffered.

Oh, the joy of parenting that allows us to walk beside our children each step of the way; the insight gained as our children mature! Moms and dads, as I have said so many times before, parenting by grace can get so loud and messy, but it is worth more than all the treasures that money can buy.


  1. Thank you for this post. I really appreciate the heart. My question is this: what about situations where there just isn't that option to give the child as much time as they want to do what they've been asked to do? Take a school setting, for example. If my son's teacher says it's time to get the reading books out or time to clean up their craft activity and he doesn't feel ready, then what? What about when it's time to head out the door for a Dr's appt. or church service etc. Then what? (Asking sincerely since I don't know the answer.) :)


  2. Natalie Grace,

    Thank you for your question--it is an excellent one! The point of my post was really that we shouldn't always expect immediate, joyful obedience from our children, punishing them when they have a tough time with said obedience. Furthermore, our goal as parents should be to win the respect and honor of our children, who will then obey from the heart. However, I think we as parents still can teach our children to listen to instructions and to follow them. For our family, if we know we are going into a situation where our children will need to comply right away, we prepare them in advance. Sometimes, we role play. We inform them of what will happen if there is a tantrum (we will leave the store/restaurant and take you to a quiet place to calm down). Often, my husband or I will be heard telling our son and daughter--I know you don't want to hold my hand to cross the street, but that is what we have to do to keep you safe. And then we hold our ground, even if our child does not like it. In the school situation, talking to your child about expectations at school, practicing with them, etc., will help your child understand that at places like school, compliance to teacher directives is not an option (at the same time, you want your child to feel free to question a teacher's directives if what the teacher is asking the student to do is wrong). That is another thing we do--we teach our children how to respectfully say "no" to someone in authority, if what they are asking is wrong. We DO teach our children how to comply, but we also don't expect them to have an easy time with it. Please, ask any more questions you want. We are still new on our parenting journey, and learning as we go.

  3. Thanks for this article. I think it is right to consider the ultimately obedient son as disobedient to begin with. The fact that he repented is the key to understanding this story and this is what we hope for in our children. We are taught to Discipline our Children as they grow (Prov 22:6). And so, While I think your article is insightful, I would still aim to discipline my children for delayed obedience.