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The best lesson I ever learned about God’s grace came as an eight year-old at the piano with my dad.
Undoubtedly, there is extraordinary significance in God’s decision to portray himself to us so often as a father. For one, we know that suspended within God’s character is an incomprehensible tension between his justice and mercy—his righteousness and grace. And perhaps it’s in the imaging gift of fatherhood that we see these tensions demonstrated (and demanded) most clearly of all.
When I was six years old, my older brother and sister began taking piano lessons. I would travel with them to each one, watching mesmerized as I sat cross-legged on the floor, waiting for the seemingly unreachable age of eight to begin my own. And when I finally did, I was thrilled.
Beginning in those early days, I found in my time at the piano a reprieve of freedom, an untangling of thoughts, and an outlet for divine-imaging creativity that I still treasure today. I would rush through apellos in impatience, flourish through allegros in joy, pound staccatos in frustration, dramatize the ritardandos in performance, and smooth over legatos in peace. My fingers danced along the keys in waltzes and foxtrots, taps and ballets—and my heart followed their lead.
Of course, for this gift, I have largely my parents to thank—not only for funding my lessons, but for establishing and enforcing expectations of daily practice so that I could continue learning, and ideally, enjoy playing even more. Also to my parents’ credit, these expectations were clear, consistent, and not particularly demanding: I was to practice thirty minutes a day.
And yet, at the peril of my preference for unbridled autonomy, I gradually began to view that expectation as more of a rigid requirement than a developmentary discipline. My rightful gratitude increasingly turned to unmerited resentment, and what was once a joy to anticipate became a burden to dread.
As irrationally dramatic as it now seems (quite evident in hindsight, of course), at the time, I felt enslaved to an uncompromising standard that, in all my striving, left me frustrated, exhausted, and increasingly discouraged. Those bitter waters continued piling up behind a weakening dam in the Marah of my eight year-old heart—before breaking quite distinctly one Thursday afternoon.
As the thirty minutes on the kitchen timer wound down more and more slowly, my anger welled up more and more quickly, finally overflowing in tears streaming down my face. So there I sat, my hands pounding out Mozart’s Allegro in D while my pounding heart choked out the vocal accompaniment of a sob. And as my mom undoubtedly massaged her temples in rivaling despair, suddenly, a terror-inducing sound ran out through this cacophony of noise: the turning of a door knob and the screech of a kitchen door. Dad was home.
Like the snapping of a yoke or the tearing of a curtain, everything changed.Kaitlin Miller
Many, many things could have happened in that moment. My dad, returning from an exhaustingly tense day of work only to enter the chaos of emotional turmoil at home, could have thrown down his white coat, stormed into the piano room, and told me to get it together. He could have raised his voice in stern rebuke of my ingratitude for the lessons that his highly pressured day had worked to afford. He could have disciplined my tantrum with the hard hand of raising my requirements for practice even higher. And I honestly don’t know what would have happened if he had.
Maybe everyone would have been roused up to avalanche in soon-to-be regretted words of anger. Maybe we all just would have lost it all together. Or maybe I would have begged my parents to let me quit piano for good, forfeiting an art I still treasure so dearly today.
But my dad didn’t do any of those things. Instead, after a quick assessment of the miserable situation, without a single word, he came and sat down beside me on the bench. Loosening his tie, he reached up on top of the piano, sorted through the disheveled books, spread a new piece of sheet music in front of me, and gently asked a single question: “Will you play this one for me?”
Right then, like the snapping of a yoke or the tearing of a curtain, everything changed. What I felt in that moment was an unexpected flood of compassion, of kindness, and of mercy.
And so, blinking through enough tears to bring the notes back into focus, I began to play again. But this time, I played not as a striving to meet ever-looming standards for approval or to fulfill an impossibly cruel requirement, but because my dad, who loved me, wanted to hear me play.
My heightened sobs descended from wails to sniffs, and the dance reversed, my fingers now following the lead of my heart. Slowing from angrily banging out steps to gently crafting melodies, I began retracing familiar paths of a song I had forgotten I even loved. And as it drew to a close, my dad reached up, found another piece and asked that one question once again: “Now will you play this one for me?”
And so I played—resentment softening to gratitude, obligation returning to joy—as my dad sat beside me listening to song after song, until I was shocked to hear the ring of the kitchen timer I had long since forgotten. Those thirty minutes which once crawled on so painfully slowly had this time, somehow, flown by. And when I finished the last song, my dad reached up, closed the lid to the piano and said, with sincerity I never questioned, “Thank you for playing for me.” For the first time in months, I didn’t want to stop.
My dad came alongside me, shifting my motivation and focus from merely completing a task for approval to delighting my father who already loved me more than I could ever imagine.Kaitlin Miller
I didn’t know it at the time, but on that Thursday afternoon, I had reached the tipping point of exhaustion that comes from striving to uphold commands (even good commands set forth with sound reason in mind and the best intentions at heart) for the sole aim of fulfilling a requirement to earn approval. And so I began harboring the ugly suspicion that these rules were unnecessarily restrictive and callously harsh. But my dad’s steady, tender-hearted reaction to my frustration that day reflected the beautiful tension of our heavenly Father, who is always full of grace and always full of truth (John 1:14).
A. W. Tozer confirmed this in reminding us that “we should banish from our minds forever the common but erroneous notion that justice and judgment characterize the God of Israel, while mercy and grace belong to the Lord of the Church…whether in the Garden of Eden or in the Garden of Gethsemane, God is merciful as well as just.”
My standard for piano playing was not compromised. The thirty minutes of practice still had to be met. But I was not left alone to uphold this command out of sheer self-will. My dad came alongside me, shifting my motivation and focus from merely completing a task for approval to delighting my father who already loved me more than I could ever imagine. And in the process, my bitter, resentful heart was transformed, enabled to play with joy once again.
In the same way, when the aim of our obedience to the Lord shifts from burdensome compliance to hopeful trust in a loving Heavenly Father who gives good commands and delights to watch his children fulfill them, we are “released from the Law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6).
And as we serve in that new way with that Spirit-softened heart, we come to see that his commands were not given to enslave us to a life of legalistically striving for his love, acceptance, and salvation. In fact, he assures us that we are saved not by upholding those commands, but by his grace alone, so that we can rightly boast in nothing and no one apart from him (Ephesians 2:9, 1 Corinthians 1:31).
Yet he also assures us that his commands are not burdensome. Rather, they were designed and ordained to bring the joy and peace that well up to eternal life (John 12:50), and to keep them is the very love of God (1 John 5:3).
We can run in the power of his love towards trusting obedience in the return of our love back to him, fueled by the good pleasure of our Father who delights in us, or we can hopelessly labor to earn his love in an ever-upward striving that leads to the ever-downward spiral of resentment and defeat.
But even when we choose that hard and heavy yoke we were never made to bear, falling to our knees in refusal to submit to the light and easy yoke of Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30), right there in the middle of our exhaustion and tears, we may just feel him quietly come alongside us, place the next set of notes in front of us, and gently ask us one simple question: “Now will you play this one for me?”