Four of my five children can speak, so they have the mixed pleasure of memorizing Bible verses with their father. If you’ve never attempted to help grade school children memorize things, it’s kind of like driving home nails with a No. 2 pencil.
Last night, we memorized Proverbs 23:12—“Apply your heart to discipline, and your ears to words of knowledge.” Did I have to look that verse up just now? No. No, I did not. Because it has been tattooed onto my cerebral cortex with all the subtlety of Mike Tyson’s facial ink. I’m fairly certain that my three oldest can still recall it as easily as the refrain from “Everything is Awesome.”
But Ephrem, my three-year-old, didn’t quite get it during our rather grueling drill session yesterday evening. My three oldest sat on the couch gnawing on their knees or mouthing the words while Ephrem sat silent and slackjawed, his head cocked and his eyes wide—waiting on me for every word.
Each one of my children, even my apparently identical twins, is quite different from all the others. But my fourth child, Ephrem—the overclocked three-year-old—is the differentest of all. I love him so deeply it aches in my heart, but I am not going to lie—he’s a challenge. Here’s a picture of him making one of his favorite faces:
Most people don’t understand him. In a world that values few things more than the familiar feeling of conformity (despite society’s superficial lip service to individualism), Ephrem just doesn’t fit in.
I have received not a few nuggets of parental advice concerning Ephrem. Almost all of them range around this idea of “getting him under control.” The givers of the advice all mean well, but I don’t think they fully appreciate Ephrem’s unique potential in the world.
When I look at society, I see the vast majority of people living in abject fear and blindly clinging to the coattails of equally blind leaders who are veering off every cliff within driving distance. Sincere convictions are probably the most debilitating things a person can possess if he wants to get ahead in this world. It makes sense then that I see so few men and women who are willing to stand for anything.
Do I want Ephrem to be like them? No. In that sense, I actually cherish his stubbornness and his defiance. I bet Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an unruly child, too. I’m grateful that he, and Jesus, and you know, all the best people in the whole world, haven’t been willing to go along to get along.
I don’t want to crush that rare spirit. I just want to help Ephrem point his spirit in the right direction. But that’s the challenge. How am I supposed to do that?
Well, I had another hour-long private session with Ephrem after breakfast this morning. While he and I repeated Proverbs 23:12 together—until the words floated in my mental swirl like disconnected letters in alphabet soup and became as languageless as the mating calls of flightless birds … while my hands automatically gestured every meaning and my foot pounded a monotonous slow beat for cadence … somewhere around the time when I had Ephrem get up from his slouch-inducing chair with, “Stand up and support your own weight for a while” … the meaning of the words finally hit me.
Apply your heart to discipline, and your ears to words of knowledge. Like so much of Scripture, these are not complicated ideas, and it’s easy to overlook how much wisdom is in them.
The verse has it backwards, doesn’t it? Discipline is usually applied to your heart. Words of knowledge are usually applied to your ears. Not the other way around, right?
Every day, God repeats the words. Every day he applies them to us—in the Scriptures, in Creation, in experience. Every day he brings the disciplines of pain and failure to redirect us and to shepherd us away from destruction. Every moment he says the same thing over and over again. And the angels, like God’s older children, all crowd around gnawing their knees and mouthing the words for us, not even fully understanding what they mean. And we look at God with our heads cocked and our eyes expectant, waiting for him to say the next sound so we can repeat it, be done with this exercise, and collect our treat.
But God won’t allow us to end there. The truth is that God wants us to apply our hearts to discipline so that he does not have to apply discipline to our hearts. He wants us to apply our ears to words of knowledge, rather than continuing as those who have ears but do not hear. The path for us must not be conformity from the outside in. It is discipline from the inside out. Not conditioning, but self-control.
This is my prayer for Ephrem, who is now able to recite the verse on his own two feet without assistance. I pray that his heart is so conformed to the discipline of God’s heart that he will be free to be his overclocked self and be righteous at the same time. If God answers my prayers for him, that boy will grow up to be a rare kind of warrior.