s people have grown weary of my telling (and look, I’ve got pictures too!), a friend and her infant grandchild recently visited with me for a few months. Their last week here was a particularly trying time for the baby. Already teething, she was probably also picking up on the difference in atmosphere as her grandmother packed, planned, and experienced all the emotional duress you’d expect of someone preparing to drive 1,500 miles in a new-to-her car. With an infant. Over mountain passes. In the winter. Christmas week.
Whatever the factors, this particular night the baby was obviously stressed and fighting sleep. Fussy after supper, she was put to bed with the usually calming nighttime rituals: diaper change and cuddling, arm around the stuffed lamb that played a bedtime prayer, blanket, bottle. And it did the trick. Briefly. Moments later, she was up and wailing.
We went through the happy baby checklist: She was dry. She was warm. She had water. She was loved. There was no reason for hysterics! Back in the living room, while listening for the cries to subside, we chatted about how quickly a child can become spoiled, about how they must gradually learn about sharing and to be content with what they have. About how we see all around us the results of children getting everything they want immediately—young adults who now can’t cope with even momentary delays of gratification, who dwell in drama, etc. We were old and very wise.
This went on for a painfully long time. Painful, because although I accept that children may sometimes need to cry, it breaks my heart to listen. And painful because I was the doting person who had been doing all the spoiling. And painful, in retrospect, because we were so wrong. When, in desperation, my friend finally offered her granddaughter a bottle of cereal-fortified formula, the puffy-eyed little crying machine immediately settled down contentedly, drank her fill, and drifted off into peaceful slumber. We stared at each other in dismay: she hadn’t been pitching a willful little fit after all; she had just been hungry, and expressing it in the only language she knew. Though we thought we’d been listening, we had not truly understood.
How easy to do that. Think of the times you’ve been guilty of hearing someone’s cry but misinterpreting its meaning! The woman who storms into your office demanding attention and threatening what she’ll do if you don’t comply. It’s easy to interpret her behavior as impatience and selfishness. But the truth may be that life has taught her this response by sad and painful experience. Perhaps she’s emerging from a reality where she was neglected, where no one addressed her needs, and she learned that no one else will stand up for her. Or the neo-Goth kid with the purple hair and black eye makeup whose posture screams “I don’t care” precisely because he so desperately does. Or the adult whose days are rigidly proscribed not by a love of order but by a fear of failure. Or the struggling sinner who fails repeatedly but loves the Lord and counts on Him to keep growing her up in Him.
I am all those people at one moment or another. Aren’t you? How wonderful that our God sees past the posturing, the pretense, the selfish bravado, and hears our wounded cries for what they are: the language sin has taught us, the only one we know. What a wonder that He understands that language and is daily teaching us to recognize it in the hearts of others.
Valerie N. Phillips is the associate director of the women’s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she has ministered to collegiate women for 28 years.