When it comes to the raising of children, one-way love is both the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. How many of us have responded to the experience of becoming a parent for the first time by saying, “I finally understand how powerful and profound of a thing it is that God considers us His children!” The relationship we have with a baby, after all, is about as one-way as it gets. They need and we give, period. They have no illusions about their own power. The very idea that a baby might do something to deserve our love — other than exist — is laughable. It’s no coincidence that Jesus speaks so highly of children; he praises their ability to receive love.
It’s once our kids grow up that understanding the difference between law and grace becomes so difficult — but also so urgent. I’ll give you an example.
A couple years back, my wife and I had a really rough year with one of our sons. His hardheartedness and willful defiance was not only affecting the rest of the family but it was breaking our hearts because he was enslaving himself, and he didn’t know it. Needless to say, he was not as convinced of the gravity of his misbehavior as Kim and I were. His unrepentant attitude was driving us crazy, so it was decided that he would be put on social lock-down — no car, no phone, no nothing. If he wasn’t at school, he was to be at home. No exceptions. The law had to do its crushing work. He needed to realize the seriousness of what he had been getting involved in. Being the social butterfly that he is, social lock-down was his worst fear, so that was what we chose. To make things even worse, we sold his smart phone.
He wasn’t happy about any of this, and it wasn’t a walk in the park for Kim, me, or the other kids either. It actually made things harder. Without his phone and his friends, he haunted the house like a drug addict going through detox. He couldn’t help out by giving his brother and sister rides, so Kim and I had to go back to serving as chauffeurs.
A month or so after the clampdown had gone into effect, I was traveling back from speaking at a conference. Before I left, I had told my son, in my most earnest, authoritative-father voice, that there was only one thing he needed to do while I was gone and that was to not give his mother a hard time. If he didn’t give her any unnecessary headaches, when I got back, we might revisit the phone issue. Midway through my 48 hour trip, I received a call from Kim, who told me that my request was not, shall we say, being respected. I couldn’t believe it — one thing, 48 hours. He couldn’t do it. I was furious.
Battling with God
I spent the plane ride home battling with God. I mean, really going back and forth with Him about what I should do. I knew I had to deal with the situation as soon as I returned. I was angry with my son for putting me in this situation, and I was tired of dealing with his ingratitude. Clearly my son had not learned his lesson. As far as I was concerned, more law was needed. Yet as I prayed about it, I had this haunting sense that God was telling me it was time to relent. Time to, at least, give the boy his phone back. What? No way, God! Every fiber of my being was resistant to that idea. Not only did the law afford me control over my son (a boy who had proved that he didn’t know how to handle his freedom), but he didn’t deserve to get his phone back. The one thing I had asked him to do, he hadn’t done. He’d understood the condition before I left: be good, and you’ll get a phone. Well, he hadn’t been good, so no phone — very reasonable to me. I was looking for an excuse, any excuse, to keep the handcuffs on. That I was flying back from a conference where I had spoken about one-way love was not lost on me.
An unexpected result
Well, I got home, called my son out of his room, and told him we needed to talk. I reminded him of everything I’d said before I left — the conditions under which he would get a phone. He looked at me very sheepishly, knowing he was guilty — again! I talked to him for a while about life and choices and sin and how much we loved him. He listened intently — really listened. In fact, it was the first time he had looked at me in the eyes and really paid attention to what I was telling him. I could tell that what I was saying was finally making sense to him. After we were done talking, we prayed together: first me, then him. When we finished praying, I looked at him and said, “Now go put your shoes on, and let’s go to the phone store and get you a new phone.” He was completely shocked. His lip started to quiver, and he finally burst into tears. In the months since we first caught him doing the stuff that originally got him in trouble, he had shown no remorse, no sorrow. This was the first time I had seen tears, real tears. I asked him what was wrong. With tears streaming down his face, he looked at me and said, “But, Dad, I don’t deserve a phone.” He was right. He didn’t deserve a phone. He didn’t deserve a pad of paper and a stamp. His words revealed that God knew a lot better how to handle my son than I did. The contrition was genuine. The law had leveled him. It had shown him who he was in a way that left no doubt about his need. It was time for a word of grace.
Notice that his humility did not precede the invitation. The chronology is crucial. His admission was not a condition for mercy; it was its fruit! I looked at him and said, “Listen, son. God takes me to the phone store ten thousand times a day, and I have never ever deserved one…so go get your shoes on and let’s get you a phone.”
It was a happy day.
Lessons on law and grace
Now, before you line up to give me the father-of-the-year award, know that the reason I tell the story is because it was such a surprise to me too. My son had come by his rebelliousness honestly, after all. One of the main reasons his behavior bugged me so much was that he reminded me so much of myself when I was his age (except I was way, way worse).
One, it illustrates that the law is useful. Grace could not have done its curing work if the law had not first done its crushing work.
But two, it illustrates how resistant we are to grace. We feel much safer with our hands on the wheel. I was so afraid that he would go nuts, that he would prove himself to be his father’s son once again. It was as hard for me to give up the sense of manageability the law provided as it was for him to lose his phone. It had to be taken from me.
And three, the emotional response at being let off the hook was a powerful reminder that only grace can inspire what the law demands. The law was able to accuse him, but only grace could acquit him. The law was able to expose him, but only grace could exonerate him. The law was able to diagnose him, but only grace was able to deliver him.
God showed me one more time that, when it’s all said and done, love (not law) is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience.
Excerpted from One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World.
Tullian Tchividjian is a South Florida native, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a visiting professor at Knox Reformed Theological Seminary, and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He is the founder of LIBERATE (liberatenet.org), a bestselling author, a contributing editor to Leadership Journal and a popular conference speaker. Follow Tullian on twitter at: @pastortullian