Copyright Allie Brosh, 2010
My five year old daughter is like any of us: there are some things she likes to hear, and some things she doesn’t like to hear. Like any of us, she likes to hear that she is going to get what she wants. Like any of us, she does not like to hear that she made a mistake, or that she needs to do something she does not want to do.
Very often, I tell her things that she likes to hear:
“Yes, you may have a cookie.”
“Yes, we can stay at the park for five more minutes.”
“Yes, I will read you this story.”
But other times, I have to tell her things that she does not want to hear:
“Even if you are tired, you have to brush your teeth.”
“You must not yell at the dinner table.”
“There is not enough time to make pancakes this morning.”
When she has heard “no” one too many times – when the bad news seems to be piling up on her, she begins to lose control, shouting and crying and making threats. Sometimes, she even goes so far as to wish that she were no longer part of the family, saying: “You are not my Mommy anymore!” and then fleeing to her room.
I suppose I could avoid all of this unpleasantness by never telling her anything she did not want to hear – never telling her to brush her teeth, never reminding her to be gentle with the cat, always making whatever food she wants whenever she wants it. And sometimes, admittedly, I take the easy way out. Sometimes, I don’t have the energy to hold the line, so I give in when I am pretty sure I shouldn’t. But most often, I speak to my daughter out of a conviction that I am telling her what she NEEDS to hear – even when she does not WANT to hear it.
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition… we speak not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts…” Paul illustates what he means by this kind of speech with the examples of a nurse gently tending to her infant, and a father encouraging his child. What is good for the child – what speech arises out of loving-kindness – does not always seem like good news to the child at the time. Loving that child well (and so pleasing God) may at times entail displeasing the child – thereby leading her to accuse that you do not love her, because she does not yet understand you.
It is interesting to me that Paul’s word “flattery” is echoed in Psalm 5: “Their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.”
It is so easy to want to simply please another – to tell them what they want to hear. Not just our children, but our friends and co-workers, our students or our teachers, our doctors or our patients, our spouses, our siblings, our parents… We are afraid of their displeasure – sometimes, we feel like we don’t have the energy to speak what we know to be true. But when we tell people what they WANT to hear instead of what they NEED to hear, we have set a trap for them with our speech – they fall into our words as into an empty grave.
Thanks be to God, the Psalmist does not get to make the call as to our ultimate fate. We shall neither be cast out nor destroyed; instead, nothing shall separate us from God’s love and forgiveness for us. Though in our fear we may have spoken with deadly flattery, we can try again: by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we have new opportunities to speak life and love to those we encounter this day.
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