We live in a world where self-impression is of paramount importance, where seemingly objective facts like biology and more elusive concepts like morality are subject to individual and cultural whims. We want the jobs that we want, the children that we want, the lifestyles that we want, the sexuality that we want, even the gender that we want, and we want it all right now! Our society thinks that we can dance to the rhythm of our own drum, but the lessons of childhood remind us that gracefulness comes by cooperating with the external world and learning from experts how best to sail across the stage.
One of the hallmarks of becoming a mature, respectable human being is realizing your limitations. It’s not a crass matter of resigning yourself to your fate, but there is an element to becoming a “grown up” in accepting that wanting isn’t getting. We recognize this in raising our children, that part of our job as parents is to help them to learn the importance of patience and self-discipline, of not eating what we want but eating what we need, of respecting that our bodies can’t always do what we want them to do. To grow we must learn that our perceptions and desires do not always align with reality.
Anyone who’s been around children for any length of time knows this about kids. How many parents have heard “But I don’t want to!!!” Maybe it’s bedtime, or dinnertime, or you-have-to-come-inside-because-it’s-storming time. Whatever the case, inevitably a child will stamp her little foot and demand to have her way. It is a mark of children to demand that the world and all it in dance to their impassioned tune, no matter how inconvenient it is for others or harmful to themselves.
They haven’t yet learned that reality doesn’t always come in user-friendly packaging. They don’t yet know that just because they want a thing, it doesn’t mean that they get it. Contrary to the bulk of kids’ movies out there, the sign of growth as a human being is more likely to involve choosing to follow principle over passion, acceptance of boundaries over demands for immediate gratification, realizing that older, tested ways may have more merit than our own sui generis plans and schemes. Maturity requires learning from masters.
Think of the many ways we do this in our lives. Sometimes it’s familial or cultural. We learn from our parents and grandparents the way our own group does certain things. Some families have pancakes and eggs on Saturday morning, and some go for a stroll each evening after dinner. Little boys in Scotland learn how to wear a kilt, and little girls in south Asia to wear a sari. American children eat turkey at the end of November, and Russian kids often have herring to celebrate the New Year. Rarely would anyone suggest a moral imperative with any of these, yet with these customs or cultural liturgies, we are shaped, molded, and otherwise led into becoming a member of our group. We aren’t consulted in this; we are taught.
Then, there are the more practical sorts of ways we learn of the world around us and our place in it. With our children we encourage them to create and praise them even when their efforts are just awful. We may display their works with pride on our office wall or refrigerator door, but only a foolish parent would expect the outside world to share in our admittedly biased joy. If our children show an interest or ability in a certain area, we lead and sometimes push them to pursue it, but this pursuit, if healthy, will not involve mere self-expression. It will entail work, hard work. It will require learning to bend habits to the nature of the world, to appreciate the wisdom accumulated in the generations before us, and to accept that desires and talents may coincide only in our dreams.
Finally, there are moral concerns of life. When we are children, selfishness is the name of the game. There’s a reason we call self-centered, petty people “childish,” and it isn’t because of innocence. It’s because they haven’t learned at that point that desire for this toy or that bit of food doesn’t mean they get it. At first children have a naïve devilry about them. Infants grab at one another’s possessions barely aware that anyone else is involved. Toddlers learn to be more malicious, knowingly stealing what another has. Older children learn to be sneaky about it, but the impulse is the same. I want it, so I should have it.
Over time we learn otherwise. We learn that wanting isn’t getting. We learn that when take from someone else, we can get into trouble and so we alter our behavior in an act of enlightened self-interest. We further learn that when we act selfishly, we give others pain and so begin to have sympathy with the hurt they feel. At this point our morality can still be selfish. We avoid stealing only because we might be punished. We avoid hitting only because we see ourselves in their pain. That’s not bad, but it’s not really good, either.
Ultimately, we have to become truly moral beings, those who seek to do the right thing at all times, at times when protecting ourselves and pleasing others is not involved. We learn to follow a moral code that isn’t based on our immediate desires, and can even be contrary to it. We learn to do the right thing when others push us to do the wrong, even when we stand alone in this opinion.
At these times, the times when the right thing and the popular thing stand in contradiction, we are acting the very opposite of selfishness. We are following the guidance of something greater than familial or cultural custom, more permanent than practical counsel, and more absolute than the politeness of sociological law. We are following what C. S. Lewis called the “Tao,” the higher principle of life and the universe, a guide neither subject to evolution or “progress” nor determined by culture but set by the will and the word of God. As Christians we have something even more certain than the received wisdom of general revelation; we have the sure testimony of special revelation in the Bible. In following His steps, we find our true path.
Many fear this. They look at such calls to conform as a threat to human freedom and dignity, seeing God as making the world into Madeline L’Engle’s Camazotz or the “Shift Change” scene from “Metropolis.” May it never be! God is the one who made billions of galaxies in a universe which, so far as we know, has life on only one planet. He’s the one who demanded intricate artwork on the inside of a tent only one person would ever see and that only once a year! He’s the one who came to a wedding and miraculously made 60 bottles of the finest wine. He is the one who will one day give to his Bride streets of gold, trees always in season, and life unending.
Following God’s law isn’t like obeying the diktats of a tyrant. It’s following the lead of an all-knowing teacher granting us insight or a coach showing how to play the game of life with skill. When we listen to His voice, we aren’t hearing the words of someone who craves only our obedience but the guidance of someone who longs for us to thrive. He knows that without Him, we cannot thrive, but with Him, with His Fatherly instruction, we can move from childish crawling and stumbling onto the stage of His world and soar. When God calls us in His word to follow His ways, He’s not leading us to a life of drudgery but of dance.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30