My mother spent much of my third grade year in the hospital. She suffered from terrible headaches that often sent her to bed. There were no MRI’s in 1963, and there were few treatments for what we now call migraines. A brain tumor was suspected as she went from hospital to hospital.
I spent those weeks sitting in white-walled waiting rooms, with the bitter smell of antiseptic, fearing my mom would die. At eight, it seemed like a reasonable fear.
What was not reasonable was the fear that struck once she was released. I would find any reason to avoid being away from Mom. Every morning a new malady appeared: my head hurt, I was sick to my stomach, the teacher didn’t like me, or the kids were mean to me. Each excuse had the same motive: I wanted to stay home to make sure my mother wouldn’t disappear again.
Reassurance didn’t work, nor did stern conversations, pleading or promising a treat if I’d just get dressed and go to school. When those efforts failed, the school psychologist became my new “friend” and Mom and I began a series of conversations and testing.
I recall it clearly: a very nice older man who seemed interested in me and what I thought and how I felt. Very pleasant. And eventually, either his conversations with us did help or I outgrew it, although I’m not sure which. But life returned to normal.
Thirty-seven years later, while sorting through Mom’s paperwork after her death, I found the report prepared by that school psychologist.
“Debbie has a tendency toward willfulness.”
It was not a compliment. It was not in the plus column.
And while it was true, it was never over the top, overt, throw a tantrum till I get my way willfulness. My folks were a couple of smart cookies who would never stand for that behavior. It was subtle. Skillful. Understated.
The report went on to suggest, “When fearful, Debbie may try to control the situation, which must not be allowed. As her parents, you must assert your authority.”
This weekend I heard a gifted teacher at church speak about willfulness. “When obedience to God’s Word occurs it’s always an act of our will. A choice. Willful obedience.”
Hearing those words reminded me of the assessment of my character by that nice man in 1963. Is it possible I can use my powers for good, not for evil?
“For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose,” (Phil. 2:13) NIV.
Willful obedience. Willful mercy. Willful love, grace, forgiveness. An act of my choice, fueled not by fear, but by my loving Abba father, who desires to see me act in order to fulfill His good purpose, and who delights over me when I do. It’s the redemption of something the enemy once twisted to torment me, and Jesus has reclaimed it. I can see it now. The eight-year old me, who refuted authority, trying to run the table, is grown up.
Most days, at least.
Holidays bring family gatherings and occasionally, old hurts, fears, and resentments come along for the ride. The baggage of our past has the ability to turn even the most mature adult into a willful eight-year old.
This season can be different, by a simple act of our will, drawing on God’s strength, not our own. Choose peace. Refuse to pick up the offense. Willful grace, willful patience. Radical, willful obedience to love. This is my personal prayer, to fulfill His purpose and celebrate the birth of the One who makes it all possible.
Yup, using my powers for good!