Chapter 8: Every Good Gift
Sometimes she just knows. Her heart is set and there’s no changing her mind. From the moment she wakes up, to the time we walk together to her school bus, she’s unwavering. Other days it’s back and forth, weighing the pros and cons of each option, still undecided by the time she heads to school. Of course I’m referring to my daughter’s daily choice of sandwich for her kindergarten snack. Courtney and I believe in freedom and we want to give our children as many choices as possible, so Ellie can choose between peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and banana, or the ultimate combination of peanut butter, jelly, and banana. Some nights she’ll wake up in the middle of the night and walk into our room to let us know that she’s either decided on a sandwich for the following day or just to let us know that she’s still not sure which option she’ll choose. If I make a sandwich that she’s decided she no longer wants, the emotions come out strong and I frantically add banana slices just in the nick of time.
While Ellie usually overthinks her food choices, sometimes she just gets hungry and starts reaching for any food she can find. One afternoon I was slicing Thai chili peppers on the kitchen counter. Knowing that Ellie doesn’t like very spicy food, I figured the peppers were safe on the counter. I quickly forgot how Ellie’s love for bright colors trumps all other priorities in her decision making process. Seeing the red peppers on the counter, Ellie ran up and grabbed a handful as soon as I had walked away to clean the knife. I yelled and ran to stop her, but Ellie was determined to stuff everything she could into her mouth. After lots of coughing, tears, and milk, she finally recovered from the chili pepper overdose. I asked her why she wouldn’t listen to my warning, but Ellie’s explanation was simply that she thought she would like them.
One Saturday morning I decided to bless our family with bacon for breakfast. When it was finally done cooking, the boys were both insistent on grabbing handfuls of bacon. It’s still not clear whether or not Isaac had any intention of eating the bacon, as he just ran (waddled) around the house clutching handfuls of the greasy goodness. I’m not quite sure he knew what one uses bacon for, but he knew that his siblings wanted it so it was worth grabbing and keeping away from everyone else. I had to eventually convince Isaac that the bacon was also useful as food. Anything that fits in Isaac’s mouth will suffice, and he’s not on a strictly human food diet. Foods that Isaac spits out aren’t necessarily rejected; they’re often given a second chance after a few minutes once he’s seen how good they look chewed up and on the floor.
Francis, on the other hand, was well prepared to receive the gift of bacon. His problem was that he stuffed way too much in his mouth and began coughing as it lodged in his throat. Fearing that he would choke on the bacon, I ran over to give him water and urge him to slow down. Fearing that I was planning to take his precious pig fat away, Francis proceeded to shove the remaining bacon into his mouth even though he had just coughed from already having too much food in there. The addition of bacon to a mouth already overflowing with bacon only led to more coughing and Francis’ mouth ejecting all contents. Without skipping a beat, Francis proceeded to sift the visible bacon pieces from the vomit on the floor. I had to hold his hands back to prevent him from eating the bacon a second time. Reheated bacon is still good, but re-eated bacon isn’t as tasty.
Several years ago I brought several of my nieces and nephews to the circus. Knowing that the circus vendors would be out in force that night, we ate dinner just before arriving, and I promised the kids a treat at the end of the night. I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of obnoxious selling during the show, but then the intermission came. The arena lights were dimmed and salespeople walked up and down every aisle hawking 200 varieties of light-up toys sold at prices far too rich for my youth minister budget. One of my nephews was fixated on the spinning toy being processed up our aisle, and he turned to me and asked what it was. I replied, “That’s a rip-off.” He stood up immediately, pointed to the vendor, and yelled, “I’d like a rip-off please.”
As a kid, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were heroes of mine. They were an inspiration to an entire generation, teaching us that anything is possible with a little perseverance, team work, nuclear waste, and the mentorship of a rat. Growing up near the Ohio River, I had finally found superheroes with a relatable background. Michaelangelo was always my favorite ninja turtle, mostly because we shared a mutual love for pizza. One night my parents ordered pizza for our family and I insisted that we get at least one pizza topped with anchovies. I had seen enough episodes of the cartoon to know that I would love anchovies just like Michaelangelo did, so I wouldn’t listen to my parents’ insistence that we should stick with more traditional pizza toppings. My family relented and ordered half of a pizza just for me, covered in anchovies. One bite of those tiny, salty, hairy toppings was all it took for me realize my whole childhood had been a lie. That was the last time I ever trusted sewer-raised, rodent-trained reptiles with my meal planning.
It’s hilarious to see how passionate my kids get about things I know they don’t really want. Whether it’s a food that I know they’ll hate or a toy that’s guaranteed to fall apart within minutes of being unpackaged, it’s always a challenge to help children see that their momentary desire is fixed on something they wouldn’t even enjoy. As they get older, they’re more able to verbalize how much they want these things and how heartless Courtney and I are for denying them. I can empathize with my kids; for as long as I can remember I’ve been certain that the things I want right now will make me happier. Each time something new comes along, I’m convinced that it’s different, that this time I am wiser and more certain than the last time I wanted something. As a teenager I laughed at the things I thought I wanted as a 7-year-old. Now in my thirties I laugh at the things I swore I couldn’t live without in college. (I’m looking at you, sleep)
For so long, it felt like situations that didn’t go according to my plans were simply unanswered prayers. I figured that God either wasn’t listening to my requests or that His silence proved His apathy. My understanding of God the Father wasn’t all too different from Ellie reaching for the chili peppers. I saw God as the denier of what I wanted, and I kept reaching for what He warned me to avoid. Although I believed that God wanted me to go to heaven, I wasn’t so sure that He cared about my happiness here on earth.
There is nothing that brings Courtney and I more joy than providing for our kids. We’ll go to any lengths to care for them, and we’d sacrifice anything we have to protect our children. Whenever we do say “no” to what our children want, it’s only because we love them. It’s never from a place of resentment or a desire for our kids to suffer that we deny their requests. Even with our limitations and our imperfect efforts as parents, we are committed to doing everything in our power to love generously. Everything we have is theirs; there’s nothing we wouldn’t give to provide for our children.
If this is my experience of desiring the good for my children, amidst all of my distractedness and selfishness, how much infinitely more must God the Father care for me. If I who have so little to give would give everything to bring my kids joy, how much more must the Father desire to give us. As technology progresses and we become increasingly aware of the world around us, we can’t help but be humbled by our place in cosmos larger than we ever could’ve imagined. For some, this is a confirmation of our insignificance as humans, but for me, it is a resounding proof of the immeasurable generosity of our Heavenly Father creating a world in which we could encounter Him and marvel at His creativity. We prepared for Ellie’s birth by buying a car seat and assembling a crib; God the Father set the stage for humanity by breathing galaxies and solar systems into existence.
Much like Ellie’s daily sandwich dilemma, my desires change every minute and my heart remains a mystery even to me. In the first letter of John we are told, “God is greater than our hearts and knows everything” (1 John 3:20). We can be confident that the Father who fashioned our hearts knows better than we do what we really desire. As our perfect Father, He knows what will bring us joy, and He desires our joy even more than we do. Far from withholding anything from us, He only acts in our lives out of love. Love isn’t one of His many motives, it’s the heart of who He is.
So often in my life, I’ve fallen for temptations promising a fast path to satisfaction. I become convinced that happiness or peace can be found apart from God, and I fall for the lie that God and His laws are roadblocks preventing me from finding fulfillment. In the Letter of Saint James, we are reminded both of the deadly destination of sin’s pursuit and of the Father’s generosity. “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers: all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (James 1:16-17). God the Father’s goodness isn’t subject to change or dependent on our appreciation; His love is preemptive and His kindness doesn’t hinge on our response.
It’s impossible to overestimate the Father’s desire to give us good gifts. In teaching His disciples how to pray, Jesus draws their attention to God’s provision for birds and flowers (Mt. 6:25-33). I worry and plan as if my future and security are up in the air, forgetting that the very air I breathe is itself unmerited and beyond my ability to earn or create. Even when I’m at my best and feeling self-sufficient, my existence hangs on the sheer generosity of our Heavenly Father. In the story of the Exodus, we see God patiently teaching His people how to trust in His goodness. Like us, they often doubted and questioned God’s ability to provide as they focused on obstacles and lost sight of everything He’d already done for them. When the people needed food, God sent manna from heaven (Exodus 16). He insisted that they only collect enough for each day; this was to be an exercise in trust, not food storage. God gently reminds us that He remembers our needs even from one day to the next. He doesn’t sleep through His alarm; the Father is always laboring to care for His children.
Other than a few weird instances of demanding that I refrigerate their leftover pieces of toast, my kids are walking (and falling) reminders of what it means to trust in the provision of others. Ellie and Francis don’t ration what they’ve been given, they’ll happily use everything up with no regard for longevity. Batteries in our house don’t last long because flashlights are left on for weeks and toys with sound effects are pressed 500 times a day. Recently I was frustrated that a particular toy had been making the same insanity-inducing sound all day, so I tried to teach Francis a lesson about the importance of conserving resources.
When he had triggered the toy’s sound effects once more, I asked my son what he thought would happen when the batteries died. He simply responded, “You’ll get new batteries.” Of course he was right. My children operate from the assumption that they can freely use everything they’ve been given, because they trust we’ll give them more when they run out. Yet I check my bank account balance religiously and lie awake at night thinking about our family budget because I struggle to trust that my security and my future lie in the hands of a Father who desires to provide for my needs.
Courtney and I don’t just feed our kids because we’d be arrested for failing to do so; we simply love providing for them and we want them to be healthy and fully alive. Despite their protests, we occasionally limit their chocolate intake because we value their well-being more than we fear their tantrums. Any time we withhold anything from our children, it’s simply because we love them and we know that we have something better in store for them. Given the generosity of God the Father, my adult fear of scarcity is more laughable than my daughter’s insistence that I refrigerate her toast.
Giving our kids the best life possible also involves a lot of saying “no” to their requests. No, Isaac cannot have only marshmallows for dinner. No, our six-year-old daughter Ellie can’t have an iPhone. No, we don’t agree with Francis that his bed is the best place to store his stick collection. Attempts to explain our perspective are usually futile because the attention span of the inquirer isn’t long enough to last through our rationale. Courtney and I are aware of more pitfalls, opportunities, obstacles, and options than our kids can imagine. We keep these in mind, as best we can, in caring for each of our children. Our knowledge and experience provide us with a vantage point to see beyond the myopic perspectives of our kids.
Infinitely more than I can anticipate the needs of my children, God the Father has an eternal perspective in mind as He supplies for my needs. He patiently endures my questions, my demands for explanations, and my impatience with His timing. Through every “yes” and “no,” every “not now” and even His silent responses to our prayers, what the Father has in store for us is beyond anything we could hope for (1 Cor. 2:9). On my good days I’m able to look back and remember what God has done already in my life. When I struggle to trust Him, I can at least be certain that the Father has proven Himself trustworthy thus far in my life. There’s no reason for me to hesitate in asking or to minimize my requests; His desire to give will always exceed my desire to receive.