Sometimes I find myself concerned that I lack the right level of wisdom or understanding when it comes to knowing how to say the right thing. Teaching in a public school, I felt this tension to an even greater degree when children responded in ways that failed to align with what any class or textbook shared. More often than not, I found myself focusing so much on what I should say that the better alternative–just to listen–failed to be an option. Far too often, my mouth got in the way of the more appropriate response. So many times I got it wrong, perhaps that’s why I can so distinctly remember the hand full of times that in my own flawed way, I got it right.
D.J. (pseudonym) was a student known by all for many of the wrong reasons. Academic and social struggles often manifested themselves in explosive outbursts. Spending each day attempting to motivate him to do anything other than pull his hood over his head and sleep, often led to less than desirable outcomes.
One Friday, my fifth grade class and I walked downstairs to read with some first graders. As I scanned the room, I noticed the six year-old D.J. was paired up with in tears. Fed up and frustrated, I walked across the room fully prepared to lose it. In my eyes it was one thing to defy authority or other ten year-olds, but quite another to wound a younger child, especially after the detailed conversation we had just had about being a role model. I clenched my fists and marched D.J. out to the hallway. I opened my mouth prepared to do nothing but lecture, but by only the grace of God, something else came out that even surprised me.
“Why did you do that?”
His response was even more shocking. I expected a shoulder shrug. A defiant come-back. An eye-roll. A curse-word. Instead what I got were tears from the self-proclaimed tough guy taller than me.
“You said that we were role models. You said that they looked up to us and wanted to be like us. I don’t want anybody to grow up to be like me.”
Questions don’t always lead to such outcomes. One response over the other doesn’t always yield a glimpse into someone else’s heart. For whatever reason, in that moment, I got to see the why behind the behavior. I got to see the brokenness behind all those hurtful responses; I got to see the insecurity so often covered over by swagger. In his mind, a moment of hurt protected someone else from a lifetime of heartache. As you can imagine, listening to his response changed my own.
As I mentioned earlier, I will be the last to ever pretend that I always or even usually handled situations like this with the same degree of grace. As a sinner teaching sinners, my own selfishness often did and still does get in the way. That moment with D.J., however, still serves as an imperfect, yet powerful picture of what Tedd Tripp talks about in his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart.
“God is concerned about the heart—the well-spring of life (Proverbs 4:23). Parents (*teachers) tend to focus on the externals of behavior rather than the internal overflow of the heart. We tend to worry more about the “what” of behavior than the “why”. Accordingly, most of us spend an enormous amount of energy in controlling and constraining behavior. To the degree and extent to which our focus is on behavior, we miss the heart…What is my role as someone in authority? Jesus is an example of this. The One who commands you, the One who possesses all authority, came as a servant. He is a ruler who serves; he is also a servant who rules…You must exercise authority, not as a cruel taskmaster, but as one who truly loves.”
Not as a cruel taskmaster, but as one who truly loves. Apart from God’s grace, this calling is far too lofty for any of us to attain. It’s a calling this side of heaven, we’ll always perform imperfectly. Yet, it’s a calling worth praying for and pursuing whether you’re a parent, a Sunday morning volunteer, a teacher by trade, or a person serving in any type of authority.
The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water,
but a man of understanding will draw it out.