So there I am, trying to follow my daily routine and put in two hours of work while Evangeline plays and Irene naps. Evangeline approaches my desk with a large bag of raisins she managed to pull out of the bungee-corded snack drawer (so much for my toddler proofing; she always finds a way). She came to beg, not for permission to eat them, but for help opening the bag. After using her manners by saying “please,” I quickly open it and tell her she must go to the table to eat. Smiling excitedly, she runs off with her snack. At this point, I know she is probably not heading towards the table as I asked, but I choose to be ignorant of the fact by not turning around, and I continue to do my work.
After my work time is up, I clock out and go to check on Evangeline. I walk into her room to find raisins scattered all over the floor among her toys. I laugh to myself as I recall the image of Psyche being commanded by Venus to do that first impossible task of sorting the seeds. How appropriate that she would make this mess after I was just reflecting on this scene. The circumstances here, however, are different than how I had been relating to the story before. I am no longer sympathizing with Psyche as she is commanded to do this tedious task. I am in the place of Venus as I ponder how to go about ordering Evangeline to pick up her raisins.
It’s amazing how God designed a hierarchy among his creatures, allowing us to participate in His divine authority by becoming a means for lower creatures to participate in higher goods. As parents, we are given authority over our children, and we are responsible for giving them a first impression of God’s authority over us. It is a great duty, and one that we may not be eager to embrace if we succumb to fear. But, in every situation we find ourselves, God provides the grace needed to choose the good. So, in our authority over our children, He gives us the means to reflect both His justice and His mercy.
In this situation, I stand with a rebellious creature before me, somewhat similar to how God stood before the rebellious Adam and Eve. My two year old daughter went against my command by 1) grasping beyond her reach into the forbidden snack drawer, 2) not eating at the table as she was asked, and 3) scattering her raisins all over the floor – which goes against the very nature of the raisin as an edible good not being eaten and also disrupts the beauty and order of the room intended for play. How am I to face this situation in a way that reflects God’s love, both under the aspect of justice and under the aspect of mercy?
To reflect God’s justice, I must command her to pick them up. After all, she is responsible for the mess. I could give her the blunt command and lock her in her room until the job is finished. Chances are, that would be too hard for her and she would not get the job done. On the other side, I could exaggerate God’s mercy by picking up the raisins for her. Practically, this would be a much easier, more effective way to restore order to the room. I could even convince myself that I was reflecting God’s mercy by cleaning it up for her. But in reality, I would be submitting to impatience and gratifying my own desire for cleanliness. No, there must be a happy medium here.
First, out of justice, I command her to pick up the raisins. But, out of mercy, I also get down on the floor and begin to pick up the raisins myself, showing her how and inviting her to join in. When she refuses to join in, telling me no and scattering raisins with her feet, I lean back towards the side of justice and rebuke her. To confess it more accurately, I respond with rash anger and spank her leg. I am frustrated and impatient and I allow myself to be overwhelmed by these emotions, which is not a good reflection of God’s divine authority. In my frustration, I simultaneously feel the temptation to leave her alone in the room with the raisins as well as the desire to ignore her and pick them all up myself. These are opposite extremes but I think they are both rooted in selfishness and neither are good reflections of God’s justice or mercy.
I take a minute to step away and reset. Why am I letting my child’s disordered passions disrupt my peace? What am I trying to get out of all of this? Why am I fighting this battle? Ultimately, our goal as parents is to lead our children to grow in charity. In this particular instance, I am inviting Evangeline to participate in the higher good of restoring order to her space, and I am also giving her a kind of penance for her former disobedience. Although done with anger, the spanking itself is not necessarily unjust. But, if I want her to participate in the higher good of restoring order, I must imitate God’s mercy by showing her how and inviting her to participate. Again, it’s a balance of justice and mercy.
At this point, Evangeline is whining that her leg hurts where I had spanked her. Out of mercy, I stoop down and kiss her leg. But immediately afterwards, out of justice, I reiterate the command to pick up the raisins. And I also begin picking up the raisins myself, attempting to do it joyfully and lovingly, forcing myself to recall the doctrine of the little way. Then, although it takes a little while, an amazing thing occurs. Evangeline wants to help me pick up the raisins! She joins in and starts to put them in the bag!
However, like the seed that’s sown on rocky ground, she springs up quickly but her spirits soon die away. She picks up maybe five raisins before she grows tired of it and again tells me no. The battle is not lost, however; but it is not yet over. In mercy, I pick up most of the remaining raisins and put the last few near her. But in justice, I demand that she pick up the last few. With a little grace and a little patience, she pulls through and reaches down to pick up a raisin. As soon as she shows that obedience, that desire to align her will with my own, I hurry to pick up the last handful and congratulate her on a job well done. It’s not perfect, of course. If I had made her pick up all of the raisins, she may not have endured to the end. But she showed a moment of goodwill, and so we ended on that good note.
Reflecting on Evangeline’s relation to me in this incident also sheds light on our relation as children under God’s authority. Consider again Psyche’s impossible task of sorting the seeds (Story of Psyche and Eros). On the one hand, this is a cruel command from a jealous goddess who is overly possessive of her son. On the other hand, Venus is the goddess of love, and she is trying to teach Psyche the ways of love by giving her these tasks. From our perspective, God can be a cruel master, forcing us to labor endlessly in this world with no rest. On the other hand, He allows our toil and labor in this life to be a means to our happiness, if we do it out of love for Him.
The tasks required for Psyche to win union with her beloved are truly impossible for her to complete on her own. And yet, when she submits to Venus’ will and does them out of love for Eros, she receives the help needed to complete each one. The ants come to help her with the sorting of the seeds. A talking reed tells her how to safely gather the golden fleece of the fierce sheep. An eagle takes her flask to fetch the black water from the rocky waterfalls of the River Styx. A tower guides her on how to find Persephone and return unharmed in and out of the underworld. And Eros Himself comes to her rescue when she falls into a deep sleep as a result of her vain curiosity. In the end, because she submitting to doing those tasks out of love, she wooed her beloved, she was blessed with immortality, and she was united with Him forever in a divine marriage.
So, when Evangeline showed me the desire to align her will with mine, when she started to pick up the raisins out of a desire to please me, even though she couldn’t complete the task it all by herself, it was enough to win my love and affection. Likewise, when we show the desire to align our wills with God’s, when we begin to do the tasks he sets before us, even though we need His help to do them, he is pleased when we do it for love of Him. Justice demands that we do impossible tasks, but mercy gives us the means to complete those tasks; all that is required is love. And we can love God even through our seemingly pointless tasks, even by picking up raisins.
* C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces is a beautiful retelling of the story of Psyche and Eros from a Christian perspective, which reveals many of the mysteries of our own love story with God. If you at all enjoy the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros, I highly recommend Lewis’ novel.