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Lead On Softly

by Tim O'Hearn

And he said, Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee. And he said unto him, My lord knoweth that the children are tender, and the flocks and herds with young are with me: and if men should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die. Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant: and I will lead on softly, according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children be able to endure, until I come unto my lord unto Seir. (Gen 33:12-14)

Jacob had just traveled about four hundred miles on foot. He had met his estranged brother, who had once wanted to kill him. Now his brother, Esau, wanted to rush him another hundred or so miles to Esau’s home (some say so he could kill Jacob when he was tired and out of the public view). Instead Jacob, now known as Israel, chose to beg that he follow slowly. (In fact he did not even follow Esau at all.) In the excuse he gave, it appears Israel understood something that many of us have a problem learning.

Ever since Dr. Benjamin Spock published his famous book, and maybe even before, parents have been concerned about the development of their children. New parents buy books explaining what to expect in the baby’s first year, second year, etc. (By the time the child reaches the teen years, when the parents really need a manual they usually have given up on self-help books.) Many a parent agonizes because the book says a child should be turning over, walking, talking, or cutting teeth by a specific month and their child is a week late, according to the book. They gleam with pride when a child takes its first steps a few days before the book says it should. First-time parents can be very impatient about their child’s development. Sometimes people in the church are like those parents. Sometimes we are worse.

Many people in the church don’t even look at the book. They expect a newborn child to act like an adult. A person who has had a drug problem is baptized. Some in the congregation expect them to give up the drugs immediately. A person who has barely learned about Jesus is expected to know a long catalogue of obscure sins, and avoid them like the plague. One who has “sworn like a sailor” is expected to clean up his language overnight, with never a slip up. Jacob admonishes us to “lead on softly” and as “the children are able to endure.” Children in life, and in the spirit, are not able to endure what an adult can. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” (1 Pet 2:2) It is important that we let a babe in Christ grow, rather than expecting them to be full grown.

Imagine a parent forcing solid food down a newborn’s throat. The danger is that the child will die, if not from the abuse then from malnutrition. A court in the abuse trial is not likely to accept the excuse that the parent thought a newborn could eat steak and potatoes. In the same way, can we expect God to excuse us if we kill a newborn Christian with unreasonable demands? It took us years to learn the books of the Bible. How can we expect a person who barely knows what a Bible is to know how to find any verse at a moment’s notice? Why should a new Christian know how to sing all the old standard hymns? And those aren’t even things vital to their salvation. If we discourage them in such minor things, and they fall away thereby, can we expect God to hold us blameless?

On the other hand, we should also expect people to grow at a reasonable rate. “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.” (Heb 5:12) While he was fleeing, Jacob did not ask Esau to pursue him slowly because he was too young to run. Jacob understood proper development. That is something that is hard to master. In dealing with children in Christ it is something, though, that we need to learn like Jacob did.