Reproving Betimes With Sharpness

41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy. (D&C 121:41-43)

These verses from the Doctrine and Covenants are often used in the context of parenting and family relationships, and I think they can teach us so much. But it wasn’t until I studied verse 43 in a little more depth that I really understood all it was saying. I used to think it was talking about the necessity to be stern or harsh with our children at times when we discipline them, but then to show them love after the fact. As though it’s okay to spank a child or deliver some “tough love” punishment as long as you follow it up with love afterwards. To me that seemed a little contradictory to the counsel in verses 41 and 42 that urge us to use persuasion and gentleness. It turns out that what I learned in my studies fits a lot better with the other two verses. So let’s break verse 43 down and look at it a little more closely.

Reproving betimes

Reproving means ‘correcting,’ and betimes means ‘early on.’ We need to correct a potentially harmful (particularly in a spiritual or eternal sense) situation early on. But I think it’s important to make the distinction between intervening before real damage has been done, and acting in the moment when we’re in fight or flight. Usually when we feel like we have to do something about a child’s behavior right this second it’s because we’re triggered and in fight or flight, and is actually the absolute worst time to take action. Our rational brain is out of commission when in fight or flight, and if there is no true life-or-death emergency (as is usually the case with a child’s misbehavior), we tend to do things we later regret when we act in these moments. As we’ll see momentarily, it’s important that this correction isn’t done in anger.

…with sharpness…

This is where I learned the most. What does ‘sharpness’ mean? If you follow the chain of footnotes beginning with the one next to this word you will be led to verses that talk about the Word of God being quick and powerful and “sharper than a two edged sword.” The Word of God is plain and bold, quick (alive, living, lively) and powerful (full of energy, energized, active, effective). I loved this explanation from the February 2017 Ensign:

Two-edged swords have been around about as long as there have been swords. A sword whose blade is sharpened on both sides is able to penetrate and cut at every contact point and with every movement. This means that it can be thrust more quickly and deeply and can cut more easily.

What We Can Learn

A two-edged sword:

Penetrates. Through the Spirit, God reveals things “to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith[2007], 475). His word can also cut through culture, habits, biases, preconceptions, and doubts to speak to the innermost part of us, whether we are righteous or wicked. When people hear His word preached with power, they are often “pricked [or pierced] in their heart” (Acts 2:37) and desire to repent. In fact, the word of God has a more powerful effect on people’s minds than the literal sword (see Alma 31:5) and is one of the catalysts for developing faith (see Romans 10:17).

Divides. God’s word can separate truth from error and “divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil” (Helaman 3:29). It can help us identify the half-truths and complications that cloud our thinking by setting them up against God’s plain and precious truths.

Cuts in any direction. The word of God as revealed in the scriptures and teachings of living prophets is versatile and applicable in many situations for our blessing or condemnation, our edification, inspiration, instruction, or chastisement. And as we “treasure up in [our] minds continually the words of life” (D&C 84:85), the word of God is then “quick and powerful,” “lively and active” as we share it with others and apply it in our own lives.

…when moved upon by the Holy Ghost…

If we are truly being moved upon by the Holy Ghost to correct our child’s behavior, we will feel only the fruits of the Spirit – love, peace, compassion, etc. There will be no anger or pridefulness or resentment driving this correction. Also, since this verse specifies that we should reprove when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, maybe it’s not necessary or beneficial to correct every little thing? Children learn more by our modeling than anything, and when they’re constantly being reprimanded for every little thing they’re probably learning that they’re bad, or to criticize others, more than they’re learning correct behavior. Might it be more effective to focus on solutions with them? To show them the appropriate behavior? I think so.

and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.

First, if we’re showing forth an increase of love, this reaffirms to me that the correction itself must be done with a feeling of love. We must be feeling and conveying love already and then increasing that love to remove any doubt about our feelings for the child. Second, the plainness of the Word of God can feel kind of harsh or uncomfortable when we are in need of correction, and while the truth needs to be plainly understood in order to affect change, I believe that the greatest motivator is love. Simply being right isn’t enough to be effective in getting people to do the right thing if we’re angry or condescending or condemning in our approach. But when we (human beings) feel cherished and accepted and of great worth, when we feel pure truth, we want to continue feeling that way. We want to be near people who make us feel that way. We want more of the Spirit in our lives. We feel motivated to follow that feeling and act on it. And if we want to have positive, Christlike influence in our children’s lives then they need to feel our love and know that we’re on their team. 

So putting it all together, this verse is teaching us about correcting early on with the word of God which is sharper than a two edged sword (the plain and precious truths of the gospel), when moved upon by the Holy Ghost. This must be done with a feeling of love and with peace, which are fruits of the spirit. If it is done in frustration or anger then it is clearly not coming from the Lord and His spirit. We are then told to show forth an increase of love, which, to me, means that we have already been showing forth love but we then increase our show of love. It is imperative that our children know we are on their side, that we are not interested in fighting against them or being their enemy. If we want to be able to persuade them as verse 41 suggests, then our relationship must be one of cooperation and respect and kindness and genuine love. 

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Our Job As Parents

Mainstream parenting experts tell us our job is to control our children, and they are full of secrets and tricks to get our kids to do what we want (whether it’s fear and shame and coercion, or bribes and rewards).

But I’m not buying it.

The scriptures and counsel from modern-day prophets make clear that coercion is not the Lord’s way nor His desire for our relationships.

“Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man.” –David O. McKay

I firmly believe that our job is actually to connect and nurture and inspire. To lead by example and to guide. It’s to create an environment where they are safe and free to learn and make mistakes and try again, to feel encouraged and supported rather than ashamed or afraid. Our job is to set personal boundaries and to ensure everyone feels safe in their home and gets their needs met, to protect property and the rights of every family member, but always to do so with kindness and firmness and clarity. Our job is to work with our children, to solve problems together, to treat them as people worthy of respect, and to trust them to make good choices when they are given the conditions they need to thrive. Essentially, our job is to build and strengthen relationships with our children, and then live how we want them to live. Treat them how we hope they will treat others. Nurture and support them as they become the people they are meant to become, not try to force them into the people we think they should become. 

It struck me recently that our children were individuals before they came to this earth. They had and have unique strengths and weaknesses, talents and gifts. They had agency and they have already used it wisely. They are not blank slates for us to make something of (or worse, naturally bad people that we have to “civilize” and make good) — they are people who chose to keep their first estate, to follow the Savior and come to earth to gain experience and become more like Him. They are so capable of becoming greater than they already are, by His grace and their free will. They are so capable and have so much potential to continue choosing Him. They don’t need us to force them to choose Him, or to choose for them. They need us to provide an atmosphere for growth and learning and light, opportunities to learn of Him without compulsion or fear, so they can feel of His love and His spirit. Then they will be motivated to choose Him again and again.