When our daughter was around 18 months old, she entered a stage where she became incredibly picky about her food. (I know that’s hard to imagine.)
Around this time, my parents flew in to spend some time with us, and we all sat down for dinner one night. I barely ate any of my own food as I watched Sienna to see what she would do with the plate in front of her. After eating only a bite or two, she asked to get down from her chair.
Being the gracious parent that I was, I looked right at her and said, “No. Not until you eat at least half of everything you’ve been given.” Sitting right in front of her was a balanced meal that perfectly filled in every section of the food pyramid we learned about in elementary school.
When she still wouldn’t eat, I decided on a new tactic: I would try to reason with my toddler. Brilliant, right?
“Sienna, you need to eat these things. This is how you grow strong. This is going to help you develop.”
As she stared back at me with absolutely no intention of following through on my demands, I determined that God had hardened her heart like Pharaoh’s.
For the next 10 minutes or so, we repeated the same conversation about two dozen times. She asked to get down, and I said no. The longer we went on, the warmer my face got. I felt something tighten up in my chest. I noticed my clenched fist was now pounding on the table, trying to bully my daughter into eating her food.
My parents had been patiently watching me the entire time, but when I began to pound the table, my dad spoke up and asked me a question that cut to the chase.
“Jason, why are you so worked up that Sienna isn’t eating?”
At the moment, it seemed like a ridiculous question. He had been a parent of young children, so he knew how important it was to ensure that they were healthy and thriving. I responded immediately with a lie about how concerned I was for Sienna’s well-being.
“I want the best for her,” I said. “It’s my job to teach her how to take care of herself in order to be healthy.”
My dad just stared at me. Sienna must have inherited that trick from him.
After a few seconds of silence, the truth finally made its way from my heart to my mouth: “I’m worked up because I’m afraid. I’m afraid she won’t be healthy. I’m afraid she’ll develop bad habits. I’m just afraid.”
Love doesn’t pound its fist on the table to coerce a small child. Only fear does that. And love and fear can’t live in the same house. There are just too many irreconcilable differences. As the apostle John says, “Perfect love drives out fear.”
When we give in to fear, we convince ourselves that we can’t be content until other people live up to our desires. As one writer observes, “When you cling, what you offer the other is not love but a chain by which both you and your beloved are bound. Love can only exist in freedom.”
My dad’s simple question brought into the open that my fears for my daughter were robbing me of the capacity to simply love her in the moment. By resting my own happiness on whether she made the choices I wanted her to make, I found myself clinging. Instead of offering Sienna my unconditional love, I offered her a chain. And it did her no good. It didn’t do me much good either.
The opposite of love isn’t hate—it’s fear. Our fears have a corrosive effect on our capacity to truly love others.
I wish I could say that my foolishness with Sienna was the first and last time I’ve let fear guide me in my relationships with my loved ones. But the truth is that, out of a fear of failure, I’ve used people around me in my own pursuit of success. For years, I was afraid that my wife would find out I’m a sham, so I kept her at a safe distance and refused to let her get too close. And I’ve been afraid again and again in so many different ways.
Let’s face it—fear is exhausting. But we don’t have to live that way, because love drives out fear.
Loving Who They Are
Nothing is more Christ-like in our world more than loving others for who they are, not just loving who we want them to be.
Isn’t that the plot of the gospel? God’s relentless love toward us is demonstrated by his sacrifice while we were still an absolute mess. The apostle Paul says that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners.” He freely gave His love for us even though we wanted nothing to do with Him. There were no conditions to His love, no fine print. And even if there were never any change in our lives, not even an ounce of acknowledgment of his love, he would still love us the same way.
We need to ask ourselves a difficult question: Can we, will we walk the same path as Jesus and love the people around us while they are still sinners? If we’re serious about following Jesus by loving others, it means loving the people around us for who they are today, not just loving who we want them to become someday. It may mean letting go of our dreams and desires for them so that we can experience the wonder of who they are right now.
I know that allowing someone you love to walk away in freedom is a painful proposition—especially when “freedom” means they may walk down a destructive path. We may see our loved ones go down the dark road of addiction, compulsion and self-destruction. We may see their lives implode before our very eyes. When that happens, our hearts are filled with grief and pain because we know the hope and life that could be theirs if they would just wake up, turn around and accept the love of God.
I understand how difficult this can be. I’ve had far too many people who are close to me walk through complicated, painful relationships. It’s tough to stand by and watch. But the alternative—demanding that people change—is an even more miserable way to live.
We want to experience peace in our relationships, the kind of peace that leads to our enjoyment of those we love. We can experience that kind of peace, but only by offering freedom.
Here’s what I suggest for relationships where you’ve been making demands and producing only frustration: Entrust those people to God. You’re not abandoning them by doing this. You’re just giving up responsibility for change in their lives.
Pray a prayer like this: “God, I trust you with [name here]. They are yours to change, and they are mine to love. Amen.”
Pray that a thousand times a day if you have to.
Pastor Peter Scazzero says, “The critical issue on the journey with God is not ‘Am I happy?’ but ‘Am I free? Am I growing in the freedom God gave me?”
When it comes to the people you love, are you free?
Have your desires become demands, leading you toward growing resentment and anger because those around you won’t live up to your demands?
Are there people you need to love enough to let go?
If you will release them from your expectations of who they should be, you may win them back in a brand-new way, experiencing them for who they really are. As a result, you will discover the peace that can come only in a relationship built on freedom.
This article was adapted from an excerpt of Jason Mitchell’s book, No Easy Jesus. Used with permission.
is a teaching pastor at Lives Changed by Christ Church, where he has served since 2002. He holds a master's degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. He lives outside Philadelphia with his wife, Jenny, and their two children, Sienna and Silas.