I think it was Peter Leithart who said, “Let there be a garden of Yes surrounding your tree of No.” I love that. It’s hard, if you are an engaged parent, to keep from saying “No” all day long. There are so many opportunities! So it’s a gift when you can seize upon a Yes. It’s a beautiful thing, that word yes. Often it’s a magic incantation to unlock a door in your relationship with your kids. So, count me as firmly on Team Yes.
But saying “no” can also be a gift.
Have you met children who seem to have rarely ever heard the word no? Have you seen how they react when that word is used? We tend to use words like “spoiled,” “entitled,” “brat,” “undisciplined,” and some less friendly ones.
Sure, it’s a gift to say “yes” to our kids. But it is also a gift to coach them to hear and receive the no. Every no is a yes to something else.
Life is not going to stop throwing noes at them till the coffin closes, so how can we help our kids grow into maturity in this way?
Hearing no with humility is a great heresy of our era. You can be forgiven much, but when you feel like you want to do something and a mean old person (or institution) says “no,” you are considered a fool for listening to that “no.” We are so many spoiled children, kicking in the aisles and stuffing rat poison in our mouths. “You can’t tell me what to do!” we cry.
It seems like nearly every dad in every movie is an over-reacting fool and taking his no seriously is joke. He is a forbidding punch-line. We love the young anti-hero, the selfish, brooding loner who is all about peeling out in his motorcycle and going from girl to girl on a whim. He is admiringly referred to as a heart-breaker. Way to go fella, you’re using girls for your pleasure and then discarding them like candy-wrappers. I think we’ll call you the protagonist. “Nobody tells me what to do!”
The fact is mature people need to hear “no” –and they know it. It’s hard, yes, to be thus thwarted. But it’s good for us. Every no is a yes to something else.
[Caveat: I understand that some noes are just evil. When Daniel was told to stop praying to the True God, he took that no and happily ignored it. Thus always to idolaters. But I think the key might be, especially in this discussion, where we are getting our Noes and Yeses from. Remember that The Church of the Holy Zeitgeist features that popular marvel of construction, a foundation of sand.]
Our first parents had a garden of yeses. They had fruit trees everywhere and “sure thing, knock yourself out” as far as the eye could see. All clear with one very minor exception. And the dragon moved in, as he has ever since, on the Lonely No.
Has God really said?
Pick up a newspaper and read “Has God really said?” in a hundred stories. Sons and daughters of the fallen firstlings, nodding at the smooth-scaled dragon’s explanations. “You have to be yourself.” “Don’t let anybody tell you what to do.” “You have a right to…” “It’s who you are.”
Who I am is a liar. By nature. A rebel, by nature. By nature, I’m a selfish usurper to heaven’s throne –like my fathers before me. Now, that’s not the end of the story. I’m more than that and less of that than ever, by Christ. I’m a beloved son in the Kingdom of Light where everything is Yes and Amen in Jesus.
“It’s who you are,” can really be a call to surrender. It’s also only partly true –a favorite tactic of dragons. “It’s who you are” is an invitation to ignore The Story and a narrative arc bigger than our immediate, perilous challenges. (Though these challenges are very, very real.)
Jesus is the Last Adam and he is in the head-crushing business. Unlike the first Adam, mutely standing by while his bride became captive to the dragon, Christ has stepped in to rescue. That’s the good news and a great story.
Part of the result of the good news in us, his children, is that we are being taught to say no to the vapid, rotting corpse of open rebellion to God. We are being trained to hear that no as a yes.
Every no is a yes to something else. Can we see it?
I know it’s hard! When our bodies say “I need this” it is hard. When it feels like the core of our identity is wrapped up in this struggle, it’s so hard to hear the no! I’m not pretending it’s easy and I’m not pretending it’s “those other people’s” problem. No. It’s my problem. I don’t know anyone for whom sin doesn’t come naturally. It’s part of our awful inheritance. But keeping the alliance with the dragon, though it comes naturally, is not a good war policy. We need to make a stand and help our children learn to do the same.
It is essentially a question of humility vs. pride. Will we join the (currently –and perennially– chart-topping) chorus of, “Has God really said?” or will we humble ourselves before God, so that he may lift us up? How can we help our kids live –really live? We can call them to mature humility, surround them with tales of humble heros. We can invite them into the humble adventure of obedience –the hard and happy tale of neither rebelling against, or pretending to be, God.
I want to raise my children to hear the necessary no as a yes to something else, something better. This should, I hope, be true in our homes. It is certainly –yes, certainly— true of the promises of God. At least in the big story. And that is what we are in for, the long story. This is who Christians are, characters in the story God is telling in the world.
What sort of characters are we? Of course this essay is very challenging to me, personally. Convicting. But my own struggle with the no isn’t a good reason to abandon my kids to the dragon. We must all fight on, wounded as we are.
What sort of characters are we helping create in our children?
The story at this moment is always a hard place to hear the dreaded no. It’s hard to see how denying what feels like my most basic desires can possibly be a good thing.
But there is a big Yes in this story. This story is Yes and Amen.
So, yes, let’s say “yes” every time we can. But let’s remember who we are, characters in a bigger story than just what we can see and feel in this moment. Helping a child see a no as a possible yes to something better in little ways will equip her, or him, for the ever-expanding challenges of life under the sun.
As the man said, Christianity is a dragon-fighting religion. Fight on, under God, with humble hearts. This is a very real battle.
You will need courage. And grace.
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Featured image taken from Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon, 1470