Three small words which have had the profoundest effect on me, "Are you happy?". Honestly, I didn't know. I'd never asked myself before, neither had anyone else for that matter. I was 17 years old and for the first time it seemed, being prompted to self-awareness. I paused for a moment, yes, I was happy. Sitting there with a friend, who minutes prior had given me a gift of a cuddly panda, laughing with family as we played a Christmas game, a warmth began to seep deep into my bones. For the first time that I could remember, I felt picked out from the crowd of life. I felt seen, understood and by default, I
felt loved. Now that's not to say up to this point I hadn't been loved or felt happiness in my life, but this intentionality was a new experience. Someone had looked beyond themselves and cared to reach out to my heart and in doing so left an impression that would endure for years to follow.
Deep within the heart of every person, regardless of age, is the longing to be seen, and the need to feel loved. Teenagers are no exception.
I think one of the biggest discouragements for my teenagers is when they don't feel understood. If we're to reach their hearts and lead them to friendship with Christ we need to seek to understand, and to be the safe place our children can turn to. So how does Jesus understand me?
As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; (understands our constitution) He remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:13-14 - ESV
It's all too easy to forget what it's like to be young, to navigate new emotions, thoughts or experiences
for the first time. We forget our 'frame'. But as a potter with his handiwork, God understands how
we're made and responds with that in mind. The word pity means; love, compassion, to fondle, which
biblically means; to handle tenderly. Being careful with our children's hearts, handling frustrations and outbursts tenderly, demonstrates how God responds to us. I am still growing in this but I've learned
some lessons along the way. Because of this I'm learning to respond in a more Christlike way, rather
than live reactively out of hot emotion. One thing I've learned is to make time and leave room for margin which gives me a pace to live more in the moment. I had to make choices about my time and energies, being less busy in order to achieve a peaceful me. Saying no to over-committing meant I was saying yes to being more present for my family.
As a mum of two teenagers, a 19 daughter and 13 year old son, I am so thankful for God's grace towards me and to be honest, mercy, as a mother. At 29 years of age I found myself holding my daughter, the first baby I had probably held in my life! I was also a new follower of Christ, we were like two babies together in many ways, both learning for the first time. The map before me was blank, an empty page. Yet the Lord said he would gently lead those who have young. As a new mum I committed to seek and follow him where he led at every step, because quite simply I had no where and no one else to turn to. I remember early on making a decision not to buy into certain negative categorisations about my children, I was passionate about seeing the beauty of God in our relationships, to see fruit in every season, to experience joy and deep connection. The 'terrible two's' might be a challenge but I was going to delight in it none the less and had a picture in my heart of how we would walk together as friends when the 'teen beast' years arrived. How quickly they arrived! In my new found relationship with Christ, as I learned more about God as a Father, I just could not accept that motherhood was designed to be anything less than a beautiful gift to me, no matter how challenging some of the seasons were. Why would the Lord bless with me a 'reward' if that reward was only going to be a war with me all my parenting life? I knew I had to reject those stereotypes and listen to the voice of God's word instead. I desired to reach the hearts of my children and cultivate deep friendships and write a new story for our family. I came to understand more and more that it was up to me, I was the gardener, the cultivator of their hearts, and my own. A garden does not become choked with weeds because a person sets out to sow weeds, they simply need do nothing. From early on I understood I had an active work to do and it would be required of me every day if I was to reach the hearts of my children.
So, what is the goal behind our commitment to reach the hearts of our children? It is to draw them to friendship with Christ. We desire that they would know him, walk with him, live passionate lives dedicated to honouring him in whatever sphere of life they are led. In order for them to know Jesus and love him we must show them what he's like as their friend.
He doesn’t endlessly nag and scold, nor hold grudges forever. He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve, nor pay us back in full for our wrongs. As high as heaven is over the earth, so strong is his love to those who fear him. And as far as sunrise is from sunset, he has separated us from our sins. As parents feel for their children, God feels for those who fear him. He knows us inside and out, keeps in mind that we’re made of mud.
Psalm 103:13-14 - Message
I love this first line, ouch! Sometimes it can feel like I'm endlessly nagging, scolding and consequently simmer on a grudge over conflicts which ensue. Not that we're to throw all repetitious training out of the window, Paul clearly says he didn't think it a burden to keep going over the same things as it was for the disciples' safety (Phil 3:1), but for successful long-haul training we need to be committed to providing that in a tone of love and all patience. Like Paul, I cannot claim to have laid hold of this yet, but forgetting what lies behind I can press forward towards the goal.
The work of my children's heart starts with the work in my own.
Do we remember what it was like to feel overwhelmed by study, exam preparation? Can we recall that first heart break or the unexpected tsunami of feelings? Maybe not depending on our age, but we can always relate in understanding work stresses, a demanding unreasonable boss, a challenging family member, sickness or financial pressures. The circumstances might be different but the 'frame', the emotions are the same.
God feels for us, he gets us, he's been there!
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Jesus has literally walked a mile in our earthly shoes. He was born a baby and grew as a child, he
learned obedience to his parents, he ate good food, drank refreshing water after a full day's work in the heat and dust. Jesus washed the dirty feet of his disciples, he experienced hateful words, physical beatings. He was betrayed, he was loved, adored, wept over at his feet. He felt the cool breeze of the hillside and the storms of the sea as he travelled. He understands the pressures and cruelties of life, he has experienced the deep joy from sacrificially serving others. He is more than qualified to lead us in loving God's way. As I look to Jesus and see how he responds I gain a clearer picture of the target I am to aim for in handling the hearts of my children.
Even as an adult I struggle with various emotions at times, it's an act of my will to choose to respond the right way when my sinful nature wants to go the opposite direction. I can't expect my teenager to master things I am still maturing in myself. If we're not careful we can put mature expectations on immature young hearts. Remember their frame, be compassionate.
Becoming best friends with our teenagers isn't about running along with unhealthy or destructive interests, it's about walking beside them with grace, giving unconditional love and gently showing them the path of life.
Somewhere in our parenting walk we have to make a decision, to either be for our children or risk pitting ourselves against them. As author and mum-mentor Sally Clarkson explains it, we can either be an Advocate or an Adversary parent. In leadership terms I can either be a Positional leader or Relational, which was Jesus?
But Jesus called them aside and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus doesn't Lord it over us even though he is Lord, he takes up the servant's towel and tenderly serves us, and how does this impress our hearts to respond? We love him all the more, we're drawn to him, we want to know him more deeply. God's word says that faith, hope and love abide and that love is the greatest of the three (1 Cor 13:13), so serving my family in the power of his love is the greatest, most enduring and powerful force to shape heart and home.
As I sign off I'd like to take you to these powerful words which should be the fuel in the engine room of loving my teenagers;
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
"Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" John 15:13
How has God led you in cultivating friendship with your teen? What are the biggest challenges you face in reaching their heart? I'd love to hear from you.
FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
NEXT WEEK - Part Two: Practical Tips on Reaching the Heart of Your Teen.