I made a kid cry at work the other day.
Currently, I work as a tutor in an after school program. It’s sort of like a program I did in Richmond, except this one isn’t a Christian organization. It’s government funded so the thrust of the program is not personal growth or real learning, but rather results results results. I hate it. Nevertheless, anyone that knows me knows I would find some way to actually try and mentor these kids and not just tutor them.
Well this past week, these two fourth graders were teasing eachother. She kept calling him gay and he kept calling her a lesbian. Yeah, fourth grade. I immediately stood behind the boy (who was seated in the corner) and placed my hands on either side of him on the table he was seated at and leaned in to talk directly in his ear from behind him (did I explain that posture well enough? It is relevant to the rest of the story.) Anyway, I spoke very firmly and directly to the boy. Here was the exchange:
P: “You do not call a girl that!”
M: “Why? She called me a name first!”
P: “That doesn’t matter!”
M: “Why not? I get it at home, and then I come here and get it here too!”
P: “That’s not the point, Mike. Mike, what she says does not change who you are or effect you in any way. Mike, I’m telling you, if you don’t get over this whole hypersensitivity to other people, it will affect the rest of your life.”
M: “No it won’t . . .”
P: “Mike, you can’t do this. This shows that you’re putting all of your security and identity in what other people say. You have to rest your security and who you are in something other than the approval of others. If you don’t, it will kill you later on in life. You will face more heartache, failed relationships, and insecurity than you can possibly fathom now. You can’t just react to what others say. You’re putting too much stock in the words of others and it will ended up hurting both you and other people in ways you can’t see right now. So please, just stop talking and get your work done.”
Yes, I talk to the kids like that. They get a whole lot more than you think. He pulled his folder of work to himself and at least looked like he started to work. Finally, I had some peace to work with my other students. He looked self-sufficient, so I went on doing my job. About 20 minutes later, I look over to his table and ask, “Mike, how are you doing?” He doesn’t answer. He’s just sitting there leaning forward over his work, staring it at. I get up, only slightly frustrated and angry. I assume my previous position, staring at the back of his head as I stood over him. I said slowly and sternly: “Mike, you need to do your work! You haven’t even done anything! Mike, I-“
I was cut short as I saw over his shoulder tears falling on his folder. I asked if he was okay. He said no and I asked why. He told me it was because of what I said. Ouch. I apologized to him for having not been sensitive to the way he was or what he was going through and just blindly going the stern, rough, “bad cop” routine. I thanked him for once more reminding me that there wasn’t just one singular formula to dealing with kids, but we have to wisely play off of who they are. I told him that he had helped teach me a lesson that would make me a better father someday. Later I found out that he actually is gay. God only knows the ridicule and frustration he goes through that I had just added to. We got him some tissues, I asked for his forgiveness, he gave it, and that was it.
But it wasn’t. Thinking about it later, I realized something: I had been giving him the bad news of the Gospel. On account of being sinful humans, we all so crave relief from the abiding sense of guilt and shame inherent to us. We do this by finding our approval and security in things and people we can see and measure. This is just psychological language for idol worship. We worship and make idols out of things less than God because we think those things can give us what we feel God cannot. Mike had placed his security and identity in what others said about him. So whenever that is challenged by a passing word or name, he feels like this is a challenge to the very system he has placed his faith in. He cannot let that “sin against him” pass without responding in “just” and “righteous” wrath against the transgressor. We can’t judge Mike too harshly. I hope we see the more “mature” ways we do this as adults.
But there is truth in what Mike was doing. Transgressions are first relational. We feel personally hurt and impacted when people act in a negative way towards whatever it is we have put our faith in. Secondly, transgression always demands a response. Sin does not just exist in a vacuum. It exists in a system – a relational system – that doesn’t “feel right” when there is no just response for evil. That’s why Mike couldn’t just let those words of ridicule go. So here’s the essence of the bad news I was giving Mike: you have placed your security, identity, and – ultimately – your trust and faith in something so far lesser than what they were intended to be placed in. Your every thought, motive, desire, and act is geared towards everything else but God, namely your own security and affirmation. At some level, I think Mike’s soul heard this, and it broke and felt the pain and hurt of true accusations at his wicked heart. The bad news really is bad news.
But it’s not the only news. If this same thing had happened at the tutoring program in Richmond, I would have been able to tell Mike the flip-side: Yes, you are that bad. Yes, you should cry – you should hurt. And what’s even worse, you can’t change yourself from doing this. But, God has found it to be his pleasure – His delight – to do for you what you could not do for yourself: to live that life that places it’s whole trust, security, and identity in Who God is. That life that could let anyone say or do anything to him because he knew that those transgressions spoken and done against him would in fact receive a just retribution. The life that was free to obey, free to worship, free to love God in joy and peace. The life of Jesus Christ. And what’s more, he died the death that you deserve to die for your improper worship of things and people rather than God. And when you believe that yes, you really are that evil; and trust that yes, He really is that good; then both that life and death are credited to you, so you can experience and taste a growing degree of that life of Christ lived out in your own while heading towards a climax only to be known and fully enjoyed in ages to come. A consummation he has promised to get you to.
But, unfortunately, Mike doesn’t live in Richmond, and he isn’t a part of the Youth Life Foundation, so I couldn’t tell him this, no matter how much I wanted to. If you’re inspired to, pray for Mike. Ultimately his salvation doesn’t rest in my words of rebuke or encouragement, but in the Sovereign God I love and serve, who reveals Himself even in the most mundane of interactions.