Bah Humble Brag

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I’m sitting amongst some serious Weetabix crumbs here, but I feel the urge to get in touch. The crummage I will always have with me… it can wait half an hour.

I’m reading an advent devotion, Love Came Down at Christmas. I know it’s November, but I started early because a) I wanted to be able to recommend it in time for Advent, and b) it might take me two months to read because I’m a genuine failure.  But it’s OK, because Jesus succeeds where I fail.

Yesterday I read a chapter about the truth that “love does not boast.” And it got me thinking about how Christmas can be a prime opportunity for boasting.  All of the opportunities we have to love people can instead be used to inflate ourselves and say, ‘look how marvellous I am.’ Better still if we can do it in a self-deprecating way – so en vogue. You know how it can go on Social Media/the local toddler group:

“I’m a bit disappointed with my bouche de Noel this year – it’s a little on the dry side.”

“I’m one of those total losers who is ready for Christmas by Black Friday.  Maybe I should use Black Friday for next year’s Christmas shopping…”

“My children are so grateful and happy – they’re content with an orange and a new pair of socks each year.”

“Look how well I directed my family Nativity play – the home made costumes worked much better than I expected this year.”

“I just want to bless you all with the amazing Christmas dinner I’ve cooked from scratch, with no help from Marks and Spencer.”

“Sorry your Christmas gifts are a bit rustic; my two year old and I made them together in a bit of a rush.”

Am I making sense, here? I love Christmas – as you well know.  If I didn’t despise Santa and all he stands for, you’d be making me don a red cape and calling me Mrs Claus.  However, I can easily see how all of these wonderful ways to bless my family and the community can be completely ruined by my own selfish attitude.  In fact, selfishness is my default setting.  So with each of these things, I need to pray and ask God to help me love people well.

Wouldn’t it be terrible, such a travesty, if I were to abuse Christmas by making it a means of boasting?  We’re celebrating (arguably) the most humble act in history.  Christ, the glorious King of the universe, the eternal Son of God, by whom all things were made, came down.  And he was born in a place you or I wouldn’t sit down in. He was laid in a trough you or I wouldn’t let our children touch.  He was welcomed by dirty outcasts on the night of his birth.  It’s truly astonishing.

If I really want to celebrate Christmas by showing people Jesus, then humility must be my soundtrack and my heartbeat this Christmas.

“… love… does not draw attention to itself.  It deliberately seeks to follow the way of humility – and not in order to show how humble it is!” (Love Came Down at Christmas, p. 50)

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8v9.

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All Grace

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I recently read a really good secular parenting book.  It was practical, insightful and loving. And it got me thinking about grace.

I know loads of fantastic parents who wouldn’t consider themselves Christians, so this is in no way a dig at non-Christian parents.  If anything, it’s a dig at myself. 

Advice given in this book included (these aren’t direct quotes):

Start each day with a clean slate – no matter how badly yesterday went.
Don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes – give yourself a break and look ahead, not behind.
Teach the children to be kind to one another, because in this family that’s how we do things.
Family traditions should be kept, no matter how people have behaved.

These are all really important, in my opinion. Great advice.  But how do you do this without grace? When you’ve been called names and had things thrown at you, how do you put your child to bed with a goodnight kiss and, “I love you” and start the next morning with, “Good to see you, how are you feeling?” How do you forgive?

And how do you forgive yourself when you realise that they’ve learnt their bad anger from you, or when you snap at them again because you were distracted by something else?

When her brother deliberately ruins the craft she’s been working on for three days, how can I tell her to forgive him and love him anyway?

And how can I hand my daughter a Christmas Eve Krispy Kreme when she’s tantrummed all the way there because no, she will not be getting a Segway for Christmas?*

For all of these predicaments and more, I need the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  When I consider his grace to me, that the Son of God should die for me, an ungrateful sinner, then forgiving others becomes possible.

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32.

When I come to the cross of Christ with my parenting failures, confessing again that I’ve fallen short, again, and that it was completely my own selfish fault, I find sweet forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16

And none of this – the forgiving others and the confessing my own sin – would be possible without the Holy Spirit, who changes my heart daily.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.

I suppose if you don’t believe in the grace of God and you’re not filled with the Spirit, then you need to summon the strength from within you to forgive your family and yourself.  It can help to believe that your children ‘don’t mean it.’  He didn’t know it would make her sad if he did that; she doesn’t know how expensive Segways are.  It’s only natural they should fight – all children do.  He’s calling me names because he’s upset about something – he doesn’t mean to hurt me.

Sometimes these are the things I tell myself.  But that’s not what the Gospel tells me.

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The Gospel says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3.23-24.) There is no difference between parent and child.  We’re all sinners in need of mercy.

So if you’re reading this and you’re not a believer, I marvel at your ability to parent well. I marvel partly because you’re doing it without a church family to help you, and without the wisdom that the Bible gives us, but mainly because you’re doing it without the daily supply of grace that I desperately need.

To learn more about this grace, try clicking here. Or you could watch this award-winning Christmas video.

*I should say that the examples I’ve used about things children do are not specific to my own children.  My daughter has never actually had a tantrum over a Segway!  I don’t want to defame them.  

(Belated) Back to School

 

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September is a bit like January, with all of its good intentions and naïve dreams of being a better version of myself.  Over the summer I scheme and daydream and about being more on top of things, and wonder whether this is finally the year we’ll get “the balance right.”

When my children returned to school this term, I felt quite lost for a couple of days.  Suddenly the flat was quiet and I had time to do all the things I had been putting off during the holidays. But where to start?

By week two, we’re were off to the proverbial races and we have to remember PE kits, after-school clubs, homework and consent forms.  I feel like now that it’s all in full swing, there isn’t much time for quiet reflection.  But I have noticed one thing:

I’m still me.

I’m not the slick, imaginary version of myself I’d dared to hope I might be.

As it’s a ‘new year’ I’ve been using some new Bible reading notes, and I’m slowly reading John Chapters 14-16.  I keep thinking about these words:

 

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15)

If you can relate to my emotional ups and downs, here are a few encouragements from Jesus’ words here:

You’re in Christ.  If you believe in the Son, and he’s your Lord, then you’re secure in him. This is the same whether your kids are at home, at school, or at the hospital.  It’s true when your morning is running smoothly, and it’s true when someone spills the cereal and the cucumber lands in your tea.  It’s true at the Seaside in August, and it’s true on the school run in September.

You’re bearing fruit.  If you’re in Christ, then he’s making sure you bear fruit.  He’s making you more like himself.  It’s not just my children who’ll be learning a thing or two this year.  Jesus has a curriculum ready for me, too.

If you’re bearing fruit, you’ll be pruned.  Jesus’ curriculum for me will at times be painful, because he’s chopping off the selfishness; the pride; the impatience; the harshness; the self-pity; the badness etc.  And this is good news! He’s getting rid of it, so I need to get with the programme.

Apart from Him you can do nothing.  I don’t need to be slick (there’s no danger of that, so phew!), and I don’t need anyone to think I’m on top of things.  I don’t need to depend on a new system or regime for getting out of the door and through the school gate on time and in a state of calm serenity.  I need to depend on Him.  Seriously, I need to remain in him.  Jesus repeats this phrase to emphasise that this is what we need.  We must depend on him.  We must trust and obey him.  I need to take my eyes off my ‘to-do’ list and wish lists, and fix them on Christ.

It’s for the Father’s glory, not mine.  “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15v8) When I remember and acknowledge that I’m completely dependant on Christ, I will give the glory to the Father.  What’s my goal for this term?  Is it to keep a neat hallway?  Is it to donate more stuff to the charity shop?  Is it to finally teach my daughter the piano?  Well, those could be my mini goals, but my ultimate goal must be to glorify my Father in heaven.  That is obedience.  And let’s face it, that is much, much more worthwhile.

Let’s pray for a fruitful term, to the Father’s glory, knowing that the Gardener will have some pruning to do.  (And try not to forget the packed lunches.)

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Two Women

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I’ve been thinking a bit lately about Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42).  Please don’t switch off – I know you’ve probably read many a blog post about them but this won’t take long!

I, of course, identify with Martha.  She’s so busy.  She can’t see the wood for the trees.  She hasn’t chosen “what is better,” which is to listen to Jesus.  As parents, we are so busy.  Sometimes I’m a slave to my own – or other people’s – expectations of what can be achieved in a day.  And so I fail to make time to sit down and listen to Jesus.

If only I could be more like Mary. There she is in my children’s bible, sitting at Jesus’ feet and smiling serenely.  She’s a woman with the right priorities.  She doesn’t seem to care about her culture’s expectations of her.  She puts Jesus first.  I must be more like that.

The problem is, that feeling guilty about not being more like Mary isn’t actually going to drive me to the feet of Jesus to listen to him.  It might for a day or two, but not for a lifetime.

There’s another woman I’ve been thinking about.  She’s not serene or sensible.  She’s not had the right priorities.  She hasn’t been putting Jesus first.  She’s a “sinful woman.” She’s found in each of the four gospels, and Jesus honoured her for her devotion to him.  The two things – her sinfulness and her devotion – go hand in hand, as Jesus explains to the Pharisee in Luke Chapter 7: “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much.  But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (See Luke 7:41-47).  It’s logical, right?  She’s desperate for forgiveness, and when she receives it she’s overwhelmed with gratitude and love for Jesus.  In a simple but extravagant act which would make her famous, she gives up her greatest treasure so that she can worship him.

So we’ve got these two women.  One (Mary) puts Jesus first, as I know I should.  One is sinful – and I know I’m that.  But sisters, let’s not forget that these two women are in fact the same woman.

John is very clear about that in chapter 11:
“This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.” (v2)
and chapter 12: “Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour… Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.” (v3)

It turns out, therefore, that I can be like Mary.  I am a sinful woman, and I need to be forgiven much.  So when I come to Jesus it’s as someone who has been forgiven much, and who needs to be reminded of that forgiveness which is only found in Christ.  I come as a desperate woman, needing grace and to know the Father’s love for me.  I come knowing that I have other things I could be doing, but I am free – free to choose what is better.

And how do I come to Jesus?  Well, I pray, read the Bible, and pray.  I feed on his living and active word, which wonderfully I can do because I have it in my language.

Our God speaks: let’s listen to him.

As often happens, this brings to mind a Colin Buchanan song:

“If you’re a fusser or a fretter
Take the plunge and choose the better 
and Pray for help, when you’re stressed,
Leave the good, and choose the best!”

Come on Over

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Did you have a wedding gift list?  Oh the joy.  It’s particularly satisfying if you haven’t got two pennies to rub together.  You get to go round a department store with one of those bar code guns (they’re probably not called guns) and scan to your heart’s content.  You choose plates and bowls and pots and pans, and look forward to all the entertaining you’re going to do when you have a home that’s just yours.  I remember hoping and praying that we’d have a really welcoming home, showing hospitality and blessing our community.

And this sort of happened.  I’ve certainly got better at it over the years.  And as I’ve learnt how to cook, and how to tidy up, I’ve also learnt that what really matters in hospitality is that you love people.  That can be costly, but not in a monetary sense.

We are, as Christians, commanded to be hospitable.  It’s one way we show God’s love to others.  Since God is love and we are his ambassadors, it’s pretty important that we show hospitality.  But you don’t have to take it from me:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality. (Romans 12: 12-13)

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:8-9)

It seems from these verses that hospitality isn’t an optional extra, for those who are really good at cooking and into that sort of thing.  I don’t think, by the way, that you need your own home or your own kitchen or a dinner table to show hospitality, but since this is a parenting blog I’m assuming you do have somewhere to cook and eat food.

So going back to my enthusiasm as a newlywed – life has changed more than a little since then.  Life got busy.  My home got smaller, and the number of inhabitants got bigger.  Now when people come through the front door, they have to trample past my children’s bedroom door.  I can’t really expect them to come through the living room window (no… I really shouldn’t).

Plus, you know, I’m tired from feeding and looking after my children all day every day.  Doesn’t that count as hospitality?

No. It doesn’t.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad, but I’ve noticed something about hospitality.  We all find reasons not to do it.  We all seem to think that we would do it under more suitable circumstances.  When the children are older.  Once we move that wall.  When we get an oven*.  Once I’ve had big clear-out.  My home just isn’t welcoming enough. Nobody would enjoy coming here.

Can I suggest that we should all remember that we’re in a spiritual battle?  Since we’re commanded to be hospitable, we can be sure that the Lord will use it for his glory.  And therefore we can also expect that we’ll be tempted not to do it.  So let’s fight that battle, instead of just surrendering to the inconveniences.  It might be that you’ve had some hospitality disasters.  In fact, this is pretty likely.  But that’s OK.  We pick ourselves up and fight on.

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Also I’ve noticed that people on the receiving end of hospitality are rarely aware of our alleged shortcomings.  If you think your house is too dark or too messy or too small or too full, it’s unlikely that the person coming round for a cuppa will think so too.

I was amazed to hear from a friend recently that she’s never thought that my living room was not very conducive to hospitality.  I mean, really amazed.  It just shows that my perception of my home is not the same as my guests’. (My living room, by the way, has nine walls.)

I remember another friend saying to me, “I either need to keep my flat tidier, or lower my standards of how tidy it needs to be before I invite my neighbour in.” I think she put it better than that but hopefully you see the point.  If your house is too messy, then tidy it.  If you can’t tidy it, then invite people over anyway.

Maybe you think your own family will feel neglected if you have people over.  But let’s not underestimate how much our children will learn from seeing us love people, especially people who aren’t like us.

The Lord doesn’t make commands and then add, ‘when it’s convenient.’ He himself invites us to a feast – was it easy for him to make that happen?  Was it convenient for Jesus to leave his home in heaven to come down into our neighbourhood and invite us to his party? Were we grateful guests? Were we attractive guests? Did that stop him?

What a blessing we’ll be to our communities if we pray to God and ask him to help us to be more hospitable.  Maybe we need to pile everything into the kitchen sink before the school run so we’re able to invite someone in for a cuppa.  Maybe we could start by inviting someone for lunch after church.  Tinned soup and supermarket bread goes down a treat, in my experience.

Let’s not think that, if we’re parents, we’re exempt from showing hospitality.  It might be really hard for us, but the Lord sees that even if nobody else does.  And remember that if your guests don’t have a family, your family will most probably be a blessing to them. By God’s grace, the family home is a powerful thing.

I do believe that God wants to help us grow in hospitality. Who knows what blessings he has in store?  And when it goes wrong, let’s laugh it off, dust ourselves down and try again soon.  Grace be with you!

For more on this, I’d love to recommend ‘The Ministry of a Messy House’ by Amanda Robbie.

(If the title of this blog post made you think of Shania Twain, then we are on the smart wavelengh my friend. Ah – ah – aoooh…)

*we did once spend some time in a very big house with no oven. We used a microwave.

Go the Distance

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After a run in the snow.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12.)

I’ve been doing a bit of running.  I started with the Couch to 5k app about a year ago, and now I try to go to my local parkrun* when I can.  I’m very slow, but it turns out that even if you’re slow, it still counts. It’s better than not running.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to watch a marathon, or any other long distance race.  About ten years ago my parents, husband and I went to watch the Great North Run (a half-marathon) because my brother and his wife were running it.  It’s such a fantastic day out.

There’s something very moving about watching people run and cheering them on.  Many people wear their name on their vest so you can call it out as they run by.  We discovered that one of the best things to shout is, “Keep going, [Dave]!  You’re looking really good!”  It usually made people smile.

We positioned ourselves quite near the end of the race, so some people we saw were really flagging.  And of course, what do you do when you see someone who looks half dead?  You cheer all the louder!  “Come on, keep going!  Don’t give up! You can do this! Not much further!”

I think one of the reasons I got so choked up about all of this was that it brought to mind the fact that the Christian life is like a race.  Scripture mentions this several times.  It’s a race in which everyone who crosses the finish line receives their reward, whether they were elites at the front or power-walkers at the back.

Sometimes we go through seasons in our Christian life when we’re flagging.  We look like we might not even finish.  Sometimes this happens because of big life events, like the birth of our first child, or an illness in the family, or the death of a loved one.  Sometimes it’s caused by other factors.  But at those times, we need encouragement to keep going.  We need our friends to cheer us on and remind us why we’re in this race and what the prize is at the end.

At my local parkrun on Saturday, there was a group who all knew each other from a running club.  Some of them finished fifteen or twenty minutes after others.  But the last ones to finish got the biggest cheer, because in some ways it’s more magnificent when someone who’s struggled more crosses the line.

Think of your friends who have struggled in this Christian race.  The ones who need reminding to come to Bible study, or who need persuading to come to church.  The ones who you’ve spent so much time with explaining the simple gospel over and over again, because that’s what they’ve needed.  The ones who you weren’t sure were going to finish.  How overjoyed will you be to see them cross the finish line!  When you see them in the new creation, won’t you be thrilled that they made it?  And won’t they be thrilled that you didn’t stop cheering them on?

To God be the glory – it’s by His grace we’re saved and begin the race, and by His grace we make it to the Finish.  However, we do also have a responsibility to make it to the finish line, and to help our brothers and sisters to get there, too.  Paul tells us, Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.”  It won’t be easy, but the prize is disproportionately rewarding.

Thinking of his death, Paul wrote: For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

I want to be able to say that at the end: that I’ve kept fighting; kept running; kept believing.  I want to receive that crown, so that I can cast it down before Him, lost in wonder, love and praise.

Let’s not get distracted or held back, by babies or wealth or sin.  Let’s remember that we’re not running aimlessly, but we’re heading for a goal.  Let’s remember that we’re in this race together, and we don’t want anyone to give up.

Keep going, sister.  You’re looking really good.

“I’m Ungrateful!”

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“That ain’t fair, miss.”

This is one of the most commonly used phrases in the classroom.  Sometimes, when teaching teenagers in East London, I used to respond with a lecture about how they were absolutely right, things aren’t fair because they get an education they don’t have to pay for, in safety and comfort and with all the resources they need, while some children have no opportunity to go to school and have to slave away seven days a week just to survive.  So no, life isn’t fair. As you can imagine, this went down really well.

It doesn’t take long for small children to learn to say “that’s not fair.” Some children I’ve met seem to begin each sentence with this phrase – I’m not sure they’re quite sure they’re even saying it.  But it’s not just children.  Of course, they’re only expressing an attitude which many of us, as adults, still have.  We might not say that same phrase as much, but we might harbour resentments or appeal for sympathy because we, deep down, feel that things are not fair.  “I’m fine, it’s just really hard because, you know, I don’t have a tumble dryer.” Or “It’d just be much easier if I had a car, that’s all.” Or “That’s good advice but I can’t do that because I don’t have the time/space/money/figure/teeth.”  Poor me.

In our home we’re not allowed to say “that’s not fair.” Of course, people do say it, but I won’t just let that go unchecked.  (There is, of course, a way to say “that’s not fair” and not be whinging, but I’ve never heard my children use it that way.  When they say “that’s not fair”, what I hear is, “I’m ungrateful.”) Instead of being thankful for what they have, they’re looking at what someone else has or what they feel they deserve, and being discontent with their own lot. When I hear them say, “that’s not fair,” I try to have them rephrase it and apologise, e.g.

“No you can’t have another biscuit.”
“That’s not fair!”
“What you mean is, ‘I’m ungrateful that I got to have one biscuit.’ What do you need to say?”
“Sorry that I’m ungrateful that I got to have one biscuit.”

I’m sure you can find many flaws with this approach, but hopefully it’ll go some way to showing the children that nothing good (not even a biscuit) can be gained by being ungrateful and discontent.  Lord, may they not become “that ain’t fair, miss” teenagers.

During Lent I’m reading through Proverbs and also The Way of Wisdom by Timothy Keller.  There’s a lot in Proverbs about envy:

Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
    when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice,
or the Lord will see and disapprove
    and turn his wrath away from them. (Proverbs 24.17-18)

Keller writes about the German word Schadenfreude, which means joy in someone else’s sorrow/shame.  You know, like tabloid newspapers? But it’s a problem we all have in our hearts at times.  We might not want to be, but we’re secretly pleased when something finally goes wrong for someone.  Or there’s the opposite, which is secretly being upset when someone else does well.  What ugliness.

When I envy my friend’s gifts, house, cooking skills, church community, success at work etc. I’m actually being really unloving towards her.  Do I get that?  I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of envy.  If you envy me because I can go on a super duper holiday, for example, you’re essentially saying that you wish I didn’t have that blessing.   (And by the way, isn’t Social Media the perfect breeding ground for envy?)

That’s not love.

A heart at peace gives life to the body,
    but envy rots the bones. Proverbs 14:30.

A heart at peace is thankful to God.  Comparisons and envy will destroy me.  As Keller said, ‘envy is being unhappy at other people’s happiness.’  How horrifying!  I think we know this is bad, but it’s good to be reminded.  I also think that we don’t recognise this very well in children.  Envy becomes an accepted part of life, and we can even plan things around it.  We don’t challenge the child who says, “How come she gets to go there/do that, I’ve never been/done it, it’s not fair!” Or we even withhold good things from one child because we know the others will be envious. “I can’t let them go to that party/have that free drama class because it wouldn’t be fair on the others” (i.e. the others would have a tantrum about how unfair everything is).  When they’re crying over someone else’s birthday presents we try to placate them by saying, “Oh well I’m sure you’ll get something nice for your birthday.”

“It’s only natural they should be envious,” we say.  It is natural, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.  As Christians, we wage war against our natural, sinful natures.  Instead, we can encourage them to be thankful for their brother or sister’s joy and success, and we can remind them of everything they have to thank God for.  If we train them early, what a blessing it will be for them later in life if they’ve learnt to be thankful for God’s grace in the lives of others.

For more on comparisons, please see here and here.