Anxiety in the midst of a thunderstorm

I was cleaning up some dishes in the kitchen the other day while my son took his nap and heard the first roll of thunder outside. A storm was approaching – the NWS had issued a severe weather warning – and while I typically enjoy daytime thunderstorms, the introduction of “nap time” into my life via parenthood has changed that to some extent. I haven’t figured out how to balance my attention when kiddo is awake, so when he sleeps is when I get my errands done. Anything that threatens to cut short that block of time is now the enemy.

I began washing dishes faster and I could feel my pulse quicken. The thunder was getting louder and I was certain that any minute I’d hear the cries of my now-awake kiddo in the baby monitor.

Matthew 6:25 says “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” Jesus tacks on later “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (v.27). This passage comes on the heels of admonitions against hoarding treasures and resources here on this Earth, “where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal” (v.19), and can be understood plainly as an illustration that storing up treasures on Earth is a symptom of worrying about one’s life. Jesus says that there is no need to store up treasures on Earth because (a) forces of this world only lead to their breakdown and (b) God is the one who takes care of His people and provides all that is needed. Jesus calls God the “heavenly Father” (v.26) and in the same thought describes our heavenly Father as one who gives “good gifts” to those who ask of Him (7:11). God knows our needs, and provides for our needs, because He is a good Father – not a fickle, domineering deity like those that appear in other religions past and present – and therefore we should trust him rather than worry or be anxious.

1 Peter 5:7 reiterates this, saying “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” While Matthew 6:25 might possibly be read to limit itself to matters of urgent necessity – food and protection from the elements (clothing) – this verse in 1 Peter is all-encompassing. “Cast ALL your anxiety on Him” (emphasis added). God sees our day-to-day lives in their entirety and knows the things that make us anxious. These things frequently go beyond the urgent necessity and include other matters of the day like “will I be able to finish my assignment on time?”, “can I pass this test?”, “is my boss satisfied with my work?”, and any number of other things. Some things may not be truly urgent, being seen in hindsight as fleeting or baseless worries, while others may be urgent even if they are not a matter of life and death. 1 Peter says that all things that make us anxious can be lifted up to our Father in heaven, because He hears them and He cares about what gives us distress. This includes the worry I was having about my son being awakened from his nap early by an approaching thunderstorm.

Paul gives us some instruction regarding how to approach God with our worries. In Philippians 4:6-7 he writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Verse 6 is prescriptive: approach God with your petitions along with your gratitude for the ways in which He has already blessed and provided for you. It’s important to have both, it seems, and this makes sense because it helps keep our perspective balanced. Without practicing gratitude, we aren’t acknowledging that God does provide for us. God is infinitely more gracious and loving than any human, but given that human relationships become strained if there is only petition and no thanksgiving it seems logical to reason that one’s relationship with God might become similarly strained in the absence of gratitude. We can feel free to ask God for what we feel we need, and bring to Him our anxieties, all the while thanking Him for the ways that He has provided for our needs and alleviated our anxieties in the past.

And what is God’s response to this prescribed approach? Verse 7 does not say “And God will give you that which you request” because this isn’t the point of this verse. Elsewhere the Bible addresses what God will give in response to requests, but here it says that God will give us His peace “which transcends all understanding”. I love the sound of this because in the midst of my own worries I sometimes wonder how I am going to “snap out of it”, or if I can at all. And the answer is that I cannot, on my own. But the peace of God transcends all that we can wrap our minds around and allows us to feel His peace in the midst of any storm, trial, or anxiety. What relief!

God sees all of our anxieties and hears all of the worry in our heart. And how does He respond? Like a good Father would: patience, provision, and love. 1 John 3:1 says “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” My own “fathering” is flawed by my sinfulness and fallenness, but God’s fathering is perfect and the ways He responds to our distress and anxious cries is perfectly fit into the big picture, which we cannot see but which He can see, residing beyond the limitations of our temporal dimension. The ways in which the Father lavishes His love upon us are done so in the ways that we truly need – not necessarily the ways that we ask for at the time. Romans 8:28 says “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Part of love is trust, and when we trust in God’s workings in our lives we trust that the ways in which He responds to our cries is for our greater good – even if it doesn’t seem to match what we were hoping for in the moment.

Trust in God, faith in God, therefore, means believing that God sees us, hears us, knows us, and cares for us. He is a good Father and cares about the things we worry about, and provides for those things we need and those things that will help us work within the plan He has laid out for us (His purpose, cf. Rom. 8:28). And given that this plan is “for [our] good”, this means that the way in which something plays out is the way in which God anticipated it playing out. It might be wonderful for us now, or it might not be. Near the end of Jesus’ ministry on this Earth, He told His disciples “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). We worry about things, and God knows our worry and wants us to bring those worries to Him. Things may not turn out all sunshine-and-rainbows, but God gives us peace to reside even within the troubles of this world if we can cling to the knowledge that He is fitting this all together into a plan that will turn out beautifully in the end. If we can cling to that knowledge in faith, then we can let go of our anxiety and know that what happens is what God allows to happen, and what God allows to happen is ultimately good for His people. If what is about to happen is good, then instead of worrying about what might happen it may be possible to actually look forward to what will happen. But clinging to that knowledge in faith takes practice – it doesn’t magically happen, and it doesn’t continually happen. Reminders to oneself about God’s faithfulness are vital.

The thunderstorm ended up bringing very little rain to our neighborhood, and the thunder seemed to remain in the distance. My son slept through his nap time peacefully and woke up at the normal time in a wonderful mood.

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Fatherhood

My son is a toddler and just beginning to get into mischief. Despite my “advice” (warnings) to him about the risks related to some of the things he might try, he goes ahead and does them anyway. Standing on toys inevitably results in a fall, and this morning he almost fell on the stairs before catching himself (I was there to catch him if he hadn’t caught himself). At that point he looked at me and said “that was close!” – and I agreed with him. He’s a silly boy, learning his limits and pushing those limits outward like any growing boy should.

As I watch him, during those times but also during other times when he is sweet and loving, my mind always comes back to two thoughts:

  1. Every person on this earth who has ever lived has been born to somebody. A human being. A woman with thoughts and feelings, dreams and hopes and goals, fears and concerns. A woman who felt a certain way about her pregnancy and growing baby – feelings which at the very least didn’t lead to abortion but which at the very most may have been what my wife felt: nervousness about being a parent, but love for the child that sprang up like a plant in fertile soil, growing stronger with each passing day and blooming into something beautiful. While the feelings of all mothers fall somewhere on that spectrum, most mothers, I hope, would fall closer to the loving end. Those mothers – and fathers – looked at their child(ren) with love that goes beyond words, an emotion that the English language can’t quite name but which resides deep in the soul of a parent. As I look at my son, I love him so much that I know I’ll do whatever it takes to raise him right. I’ll put all the energy I have into it. Even when there are times that he challenges me, I won’t give up on him. And there’s nothing he can do that will make me stop loving him. Nothing. This is something that every child deserves to have from their parents – unconditional love. But not every child gets this from their parents. It pains me to think about the children that have been born to parents who didn’t want them, or children who were born to parents who have no business being parents. Instead of receiving from their parents what they most desperately need, they receive dismissal, abuse, or neglect. This reality hurts my heart.
  2. A child is undeveloped – immature in many things. Language is simple, wants are many, and frustration/whining comes quickly. As adults, we look at this behavior and are too easily drawn into the misguided belief that we are “better” than that. But let’s consider what we do as adults: use vulgar and/or profane language instead of really digging into our vocabulary; waste money on frivolous things like expensive cars, enormous televisions, and overpriced clothing (to name a few); complain to God when things just don’t go our way or when life isn’t easy. These are the adult parallels to childish behavior. It is God who sees us for who we really are – grown up children whose behaviors really didn’t ever go away so much as change focus. When I see this behavior in my son, I grow irritated and impatient because I’m a fallen person, prone to the same misbehavior. But God, the Almighty Father, sees us from a glorified perspective. He is not characterized by sinfulness but by perfection. Where we hate, He loves. Where we are impatient, He is patient. Where we are angry, He is merciful. This isn’t to say He is a pushover – God fully allows for natural consequences to occur, but the love He offers to us is perfectly unconditional. While I may think that my love for my son is unconditional, I can only think this easily now because he is a toddler and not yet a full-grown adult capable of making poor choices or lashing out at me viciously. I can say that I love him unconditionally with ease because it is easy to do so and the belief has not yet been challenged.

God’s love for humanity is perfectly unconditional, and we can know this because we have a record of the multitude of instances and ways in which it was challenged. The Bible describes centuries of misbehavior by the Israelites, the people to whom God revealed Himself. God allowed for consequences to their actions to occur, but throughout it He continually reminded them that He loves them anyway and that if they would just come back to Him He would once again bless them in abundance. Some of the most powerful verses in the Old Testament are about the love of God toward His people who rejected Him.

It’s easy to read the Old Testament and see the common thread of Israelite misbehavior and God’s anger against them pouring out. I can even understand why this might drive many to reject God because of the descriptions of His wrath. Who would want to give their life to a God of wrath? The important thing to do is ask “why is God so angry?” He is angry because he is jealous. Humans get jealous when somebody has something they want but can’t have (what I’ll call an “unrighteous jealousy” because it stems from covetousness and selfish pride) or when they are not getting the attention they feel they deserve (which may be unrighteous jealousy but is not always so).

There are justified situations of righteous jealousy. For example, if a husband is showing too much attention to a woman who is not his wife, his wife can (and ought to) become jealous. His wife deserves his full attention, and her jealousy stems from the fact that she has devoted herself to her husband – given her life to him – and she expects and deserves the same devotion in return. Similarly, God’s anger stemming from jealousy is a righteous jealousy and thus a righteous anger. God’s love is so completely unconditional – even more so than a spouse’s love or a parent’s love – that He is entirely deserving of our love, affections, and attention back. In any instance where we fail to show Him our love and attention, we deserve the righteous anger of God.

But the New Testament gives one more example of God’s unconditional love: the sacrifice of Jesus, God’s own son and a part of Himself. By taking upon Himself all of God’s righteous anger, He has made it so that we do not receive what we deserve. Instead, we receive grace upon grace. Forgiveness upon forgiveness.

God’s love is so unconditional that He took it upon Himself to be the recipient of His own righteous anger, so that we wouldn’t have to.

That, in my mind, is what being a Father is all about.

Regression

Potty training is hard. Really hard. And talking with people who have potty trained children before is also hard. Really hard. So many people have stories of “oh, my little boy/girl took right to it and figured it out in a weekend.” When I first heard stories like this, they were the only stories I heard, which set some expectations in my mind that I now know are unrealistic. It turns out that most of the people who take the initiative to offer up their account unsolicited are those who did see some quick success. But it’s difficult to discern what they mean by ‘success.’ After all, for a child to be completely potty trained they need to be to the point of recognizing that they need to go potty, head to the potty themselves, do their business in there with no assistance (including handling pants and wiping), and never have an accident. They need to hold it through the night, and they need to be able to communicate to an adult their need to go potty consistently. Finally, they need to do this of their own choice – that is, free of external rewards.

So, for those stories of children who “just picked it right up,” I ask whether or not the above criteria were met right off the bat. My inclination is to presume the answer to this question is ‘no.’ I say this because the criteria I defined are hard to accomplish. Holding it requires muscle development and body awareness – two things that are developmental and not automatic. Distinguishing whether one has to pee or poop is not automatic when a child has lived for a couple years (at least) NOT having to think about that. The same goes for the development of muscles involved in holding it. Muscles that are not accustomed to an action need to be trained to perform that action. Manipulating one’s pants to get them out of the way is also tough when a child has never had to do that before. All of these tasks are not simply something that a child “picks up” in a weekend.

My conversations with people bear out my presumption as well. While there are many who proffer their experience of having a child (or being that child) who nailed it immediately, there are many more who don’t have that story but don’t share it until they are asked. Unfortunately, the best words of advice on potty training don’t come from people who willingly share it.

My expectations were unreasonable, and it showed. My son is going through potty training and I expected it to be quick because I didn’t think about it. Over the past few weeks, he has learned to hold it or tell us he needs to pee/poop, and the number of accidents went way down. But…it took several weeks to make this progress and he still doesn’t reliably push his pants down or poop in the potty (he prefers to poop on the ground outside if he can get away with it). However, he was making good progress until…we broke him.

Recently my son spent the majority of a weekend in pull-ups. While we still took him to the potty every 30-45 minutes initially, it didn’t take long for us to begin forgetting and those intervals became longer. He began peeing in his pull-up. By Monday, he was peeing in every pull-up even when the intervals returned to 30 minutes. So now we are back to square one – trying to avoid him peeing his pants by having a couple naked days. It’s disappointing.

Regression is bound to occur with any skill that is not constantly nurtured or practiced until it becomes second nature. For example, I used to know how to solve some pretty devious differential equations. However, after many years not doing so I’ve lost that skill and can now only handle the easy separable ones without guidance. It’s disappointing.

In this process of potty training, I’ve learned that I’m not nearly as patient as I thought I was. It seems like a toddler was designed to push my buttons, and this toddler of mine really knows which buttons to work. But I need to distinguish between those times when he pushes my buttons intentionally and those times when he does so unintentionally. Having pee accidents fall in that second category, I believe. It’s not misbehavior – it’s just a failure on my part to properly train him in a skill. I need to get a hold of my patience before I lose it, because it’s important for me to remember that he is just having a hard time with a skill that is still under construction. It’s not his fault.

I lose my patience pretty regularly now, it seems. Several times a day. I hate that part of me. But that’s a subject for another day.