“Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
“Why can’t you behave more like your brother?”
I cringe at the thought of how many times my two young kids have heard me say those words. When one child refuses to eat their breakfast, the other refuses to finish their homework, or, as both refuse to clean their room, I get frustrated. At a certain point in these common battles, my short-tempered response is that familiar and unfavorable comparison with their sibling.
I know that I am not the only parent to justify this critique as a clever means of encouraging better behavior by inspiring a little healthy competition between siblings. Yet, if I am honest, I know that it is not clever, nor is its inspiration healthy. Growing directly out of my impatience, the underlying message is harsh but clear: in order to gain my approval, you need to be more like your sibling. These words fuel a sense of inadequacy in my children, sounding the alarm of parental favoritism, and communicating that my love for my child is dependent on their performance.
Simply put, this critique fails to communicate both my love for my child and the love of God I so desperately want them to understand.
The weight of that failure hit home for me recently. One recent morning, during the daily rush of getting the kids ready for school, I uttered my familiar critique (“Why can’t you just be ready on time like your sibling?”). I felt entirely justified in my frustration. It was true, after all, that one child was ready on time while the other was not.
Just a few minutes later, my morning devotional time brought me to the opening chapter of I Corinthians. There, in verses 4-8, these words cut through my pride and opened my eyes to how far short I had fallen that morning in my calling as a parent:
I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In a letter addressed to believers who are struggling with everything from common disunity (I Cor. 11:17-18) to a level of sexual immorality that apparently made even pagans blush (I Cor. 5:1), Paul had every reason to begin his letter with my tried-and-true complaint: Why can’t you just be more like …?
Just consider the numerous positive examples Paul could have cited!
- Why can’t you be more devoted like Timothy?
- Why can’t you be more mature like the Philippians?
- Or even, “Why can’t you be more like the Corinthians I once knew and served?”
Anyone of those examples could have been cited. Yet Paul makes no comparisons.
Instead, Paul opens his letter with a word of praise! Knowing full well the sins he is about to confront, Paul still knows they are defined not by their faults, but by their faith and the gifts that God had given them. His praise, of course, was not a form of manipulation. It was, quite incredibly, genuine. As Paul demonstrates throughout his letters, his view of his fellow believers in Corinth was never based entirely on how they were doing in the present, but on what he knew they would someday become – glorified saints.
While Paul certainly would confront sins in Corinth, he did so only after affirming what he knew to be true about these believers. In so doing, he not only demonstrates what discipleship grounded in the gospel looks like, but also what parenting grounded in the gospel looks like. In both cases, the primary goal is never the satisfaction of the parent or leader, nor is the primary example set by a fellow fallen human.
Instead, the goal of discipleship is sanctification. The focus of discipleship is always Christ and the work he will ultimately accomplish. Because Paul works out of that mindset, even when he is about to offer correction, he communicates a consistent love and hope for his brothers and sisters which reminds them of God’s infinitely greater and eternally unchanging love for them as his children.
As I read those opening verses of I Corinthians, I was deeply humbled by Paul’s encouraging message to a struggling church. His words contrasted completely with my response to my child, who was simply moving too slowly through their morning routine. Where Paul had communicated thankfulness for the Corinthians, I communicated annoyance with my child. Where Paul had communicated admiration for what the Corinthians possessed in their faith and spiritual gifts, I communicated disappointment in what my child was momentarily lacking. Where Paul communicated a love based in his confidence in the ongoing work of God in the lives of the Corinthians, I communicated a love based in my child’s most recent failure.
I did not intend to send those messages to my child. But by returning to “Why can’t you just be more like your sibling?” I was forgetting the most important role of every parent: to lovingly raise them in a way that points continually back to Christ and the love that he showed us while we were still sinners.
How grateful I am that, even in the midst of my sin, I will never hear my God say, “Why can’t you just be more like my other kids?” or even “Why can’t you just be a better parent?”
Regardless of my performance, I know that God’s love is certain and that it will never be diminished, no matter how far short I fall in my latest parenting failure (or how late I may be in getting the kids to school). God caused that truth to sink in a bit deeper that morning. I pray that he might use me to communicate that same uplifting truth to my kids as I continually, albeit imperfectly, strive to focus not on a frustrating present moment, but on the eternal hope set before us.