No one likes being told what to do. The grown son chafes at his father’s well-meaning reminder to change his oil. As a display of his autonomy, he may even refuse to change his oil merely because his father suggested it. Well-intentioned or not, we instinctively become unbending and resistant when we sense we are being manipulated or controlled. The impulse to freely choose for ourselves, based on our surroundings, is wired into us.
It is always better to tell people who they are instead of telling them what you think they need. Some people have been bossed around or at least told what they want as long as they can remember: what sport or instrument they should play, what university they should or shouldn’t attend, and so on.
Unfortunately, this is common in the church as well. We are prescribed a narrow range of activities that constitute a genuine life of faith, like consistent “quiet times,” weekly church attendance, and starting conversations about God with the pagans. These aren’t “bad” things in themselves, but the way they’ve been presented has a way of cultivating a culture of compliance instead of genuine faith. Compliance can make us actors rehearsing lines instead of genuinely pursuing faith of our own volition.
This is not how God operates. He is not trying to control our behavior, to burden us with a crushing load of directives. He wants our hearts, and he turns us toward himself by reminding us of who we are. Jesus tells a parable of a son who abandons his father and squanders his father’s wealth. When he reaches rock bottom, he comes back to his father, ashamed and willing to take up a post as a servant. He wants to enter the father’s good graces by following orders. But the father eagerly welcomes his son back and throws him a party. He reminds the runaway who he is: the father’s son.
Shame has a way of driving us from safe places and disrupting rhythms of life and community. Trivial arguments, pride, and burdensome expectations placed on self create this. We hide in isolation, our words and security stolen from us. Don’t stay there. Return to the people whom you love and who have loved you well—not once or twice, but all the time. And, ultimately, return to the Father, who is eager to remind you of who you are.