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Parenting challenges that reveal God's heart (Part 1): Sibling rivalry

When eager new parents welcome their first child into the world outside the womb, they gaze upon that wrinkled, pinkish blue, wailing baby and are convinced they have never seen anything more beautiful. So much love floods their hearts that they know immediately that they would give up anything they have for that precious child. First time parents may even wonder how they could possibly love future children as much as they love that first child, but as each new child is added to their family, the love in their hearts does not diminish or divide. Instead, it grows and multiplies.

Parenting challenges like sibling rivalry can point us to God
Parenting challenges like sibling rivalry can point us to God
Molly Thompson Photography, Oklahoma

As children grow older, they often begin vying for first position in their parents' hearts. While parents may show their love differently to each child, the magnitude of their love for one is not greater than their love for another. Some parents may acknowledge in their minds, however, while not uttering the thought audibly, that they may like one child more than another on any given day simply because one child is behaving while the other is making life difficult, but the love never changes.

Sibling rivalry is fueled by the desire to feel most important, so while one child may want desperately to hear that he or she is loved more, the answer, “We love you both (or all) equally” is rarely acceptable to the child. This child will often then test the parents' love by disobeying and behaving in terribly vexing ways. Both the sibling rivalry itself and the experience of being tested provide parents windows through which God may be seen more clearly. Part 1 of this series will discuss sibling rivalry, while part 2 will examine the experience of being tested.

Throughout history God has revealed Himself to man as holy Father, and His desire is that all people become His children through the atoning work of Christ on the cross (1 Timothy 2: 4-6). The willful, sinful acts of all mankind (Romans 3:10) separated each and every person from the most holy God who cannot by definition coexist with sin. Yet, because of God's great love for the people He created in His own image, He made a way for all mankind to be cleansed, so they may enter in a relationship with Him as His children forever (1 Peter 3:18). As God’s children, Christ followers become spiritual brothers and sisters. Yet, as sojourners through a fallen world, Christians are tempted to succumb to sibling rivalry. Even Jesus’ closest disciples who walked with Him and talked with Him face-to-face through His years of earthly ministry squabbled over who was greater.

24 And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. 25 And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ 26 But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. 27 For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22: 24-27)

Jesus spent his entire ministry modeling a life of humble service, yet these followers who, more than anyone, should have known better were still vying for favored status.

Jesus understands the frustration parents feel when their children squabble over who is better. As parents sacrifice careers, hobbies, dreams, financial resources, time, energy, heart and emotion into serving the needs of their children, they hope their children will at least learn from their example by serving one another instead of arguing and competing. Yet, too often these same exasperated parents who faithfully serve their children are breaking the heart of God themselves through their own sibling rivalry which occurs as they play the destructive comparison game. (Reference "How the Hidden Dangers of Comparisons are Killing Us...(and our Daughters): The Measuring Stick Principle" for insightful truths about making comparisons.)

Modern American society encourages a ceaseless striving for more to the extent that many are questioning or seeking to test the cliché, "Money can't buy happiness". All across the Raleigh-Durham area, affluent residents are building large, grandiose houses and buying expensive cars to make themselves look better than their neighbors. As one of the most educated regions in America, Raleigh provides an atmosphere where education and work too easily become intoxicating drink, and having more titles and degrees than the next person is the illusive high that never lasts.

With the Raleigh area also having one of the highest ratios of youth per capita in America, competition in the area of parenting is fierce. Moms compete over everything from the number of months they nursed their babies to the number of organic, made-from-scratch items included in their family meals. Many parents go to great effort and expense to make sure their children are reading by age three and excelling in school so they can feel "better than" and proudly affix "My child is an honor roll student at...." bumper stickers on their luxury cars. The ever increasing competitive nature of society has families trading peaceful, family bonding moments at home for overloaded schedules packed with numerous extracurricular activities and demanding honors academic coursework. Soon, the bumper stickers are replaced with "Harvard Mom" decals, but the children are gone and their parents hardly know them.

Whatever the venue for comparison, vying to be the best at anything for the purpose of exalting self is meaningless. (Reference the book of Ecclesiastes.) There will always be someone who is better than or worse than in each area giving way to either arrogance or discouragement. The comparison game overlooks the fact that each composite person is unique and infinitely valuable without any measuring sticks. While genuine achievements do build confidence, the comparisons should be made against oneself as new skills are gained and refined, not used to exalt oneself over another. Neither accomplishments nor acquisitions measure a person's value or worth. Everything that the world purports as being valuable is considered loss anyway compared to the infinite value of knowing Christ. (Philippians 3: 4-11) Just as petty sibling rivalries can break a parent's heart, ceaseless competitive striving rooted in selfish pride deeply saddens Father God who created mankind for so much more.

Greatness in this life is not achieved by exalting self but rather by exalting the only One who is completely worthy to be called great (Psalm 113:3-5). God created mankind for His glory, and He desires a personal relationship with each of His children. The desire to pursue excellence comes from God and was intended for the purpose of pursuing God and His glory. This desire was never meant to become a tool for selfish ambition.

3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)

Each person's value is defined by the ultimate price Christ paid to purchase his or her pardon. The greatest fulfillment and sense of self-worth in life are realized in relationship with God with each family member using his or her own unique set of gifts, talents, knowledge, and experience to serve the body of Christ as a whole with Christ as the head. The sum is greater than the parts (1 Corinthians 12). Serving one another in love strengthens the family of God and exalts Christ while providing the greatest sense of satisfaction, purpose, and fulfillment in life. (Romans 12:1-2)

"Christian hands never clasp
and He doesn’t give gifts for gain
because a gift can never stop being a gift—
a gift is always meant to be given…." One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp

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