Ask someone who’s raised a two-year old how it went. Kids are, of course, different from each other, so the “terrible twos” aren’t equally terrible for everyone. But many parents will tell you how their sweet, adorable toddler suddenly became more willful, more stubborn, more rebellious — leaving Mom and Dad a bit mystified.
To put that behavior in context: this is the awkward period in which kids are learning that they’re separate people from their parents. They’re learning that they can make choices, and those choices make a difference. Some families navigate the period relatively peacefully. But others, unfortunately, seem to go from one contest of wills to the next.
Let me be clear, though: I’m not at all fond of the idea of the “strong-willed child,” especially when it promotes the belief that parents need to be equally strong-willed in return, like two generals lining up for battle. Children are not little adults. They may be able to yell just as loudly, and get just as red in the face, but their power is not equal.
The moral and emotional lesson children need to learn is, what do you do with the power you have? They don’t need parents who will squash their supposed “willfulness”; they need parents who can calmly redirect their will. They don’t need parents who will show them who’s boss; they need parents who will show them, by teaching and by example, how to get along.
Will it take firmness on the parents’ part? Absolutely — but also calm confidence in their own moral authority. Parents should have much to teach and show their kids, but nothing to prove. These are the lessons kids will take into adolescence and adulthood. Will they grow up with a chip on their shoulder, needing to prove their power to others, needing to be their own boss?
We might even wonder these things about the psalmists.
. . .
There’s no way to know, of course, how any of the psalmists grew up. We don’t know how they and their families navigated the terrible twos, or if there even was such a thing. But it does seem like the psalmists were capable of their own kind of stubbornness as adults. As we’ve seen in Psalm 32, the psalmist tried to hide his sin from God. I imagine a parent coming up to a child who is engaged in suspicious behavior, asking, “What’s that you’ve got there?” Startled, the child whisks the contraband behind his back. “Nothing,” he says with mock innocence.
What was the author of Psalm 32 hiding behind his back? He doesn’t say. But the secret costs him dearly until, tired of groaning and suffering, he admits his guilt to God and finds freedom. Thus, at the end of the psalm, he wants to share his hard-won wisdom with others:
I will instruct you and teach you
about the direction you should go.
I’ll advise you and keep my eye on you.
Don’t be like some senseless horse or mule,
whose movement must be controlled
with a bit and a bridle.
Don’t be anything like that!
The pain of the wicked is severe,
but faithful love surrounds the one who trusts the Lord.
You who are righteous, rejoice in the Lord and be glad!
All you whose hearts are right, sing out in joy! (vss. 8-11, CEB)
Interpreters debate who the “I” is in verse 8: is it God, or the psalmist? Either is possible, but in context, I think the latter makes more sense. The psalmist is saying, “Learn from my mistake. Don’t be as stubborn as a mule! Don’t be like a senseless animal whose behavior has to be controlled by someone else! Remember that there are two paths in life. The path of wickedness leads to terrible pain; I can tell you from experience what that feels like. The path of righteousness, of trusting God, is the path you want. That’s the path on which you’ll know the faithful love of God. That’s the path of joy and gladness! If that’s your path, then sing with me!”
. . .
There is, I suspect, a bit of the two-year-old in all of us. Even if we’ve had the best of parents, we may grow up with something to prove. We don’t like to admit our mistakes. We have to show ourselves and others that we can do things on our own. It doesn’t matter that we “know” better; what we say we believe may be at odds with what we feel deep down. We’re like spiritual toddlers, crossing our arms and shouting, “No! Me do it!”
Please don’t be like that, the psalmist advises. I was, and it wasn’t pretty.
Maybe we have to go through our own period of stubborn rebellion before we grow out of it. But even if we do, the psalmist has good news for us. When we finally decide to run to God, we’ll be welcomed with open arms.