Apply Your Heart to Instruction

They were normal days in my homeschool world. An elementary student, I sat on the couch or at the table with my math book. I had mastered laziness. My first strategy was always to daydream. Then, after some prodding, I’d bellyache, maybe sob if needed. Phrases like “I need help” or “I can’t figure it out” were close friends.

Generally, the end result was that my mother would “help” me in an effort to dutifully get through the necessary material before the day ended. From my perspective, the strategy worked pretty well because Mom would have to work through enough examples that most of the math problems would be done before I really had to do much. Frequent was the day my poor mother had seen enough. “THIS IS NOT THAT DIFFICULT!” she emphasized as she dropped the pencil onto the book. “If you would only APPLY yourself!” Words like “diligence,” “try,” “effort,” “buckle down,” and “stick-to-itiveness” usually fell somewhere in the subsequent motivational barrage. Sometimes that would be followed with pacing back and forth in front of me and my siblings as she would run her fingers through her hair and say “Sometimes I wonder if it’s really any use…sometimes I wonder if my children will amount to anything AT ALL…sometimes I wonder if I’m a complete FAILURE!”

Now, I knew she wasn’t a total failure. After all, she was pretty good at those math problems, and I needed her to simmer down so she could finish helping me. I had daydreaming to get back to, forts to build, basketball to play at the hoop tacked to the side of the barn, and preparations for my Little League game that night. Such was my laziness, hard-heartedness, dishonor, and immaturity – all in the face of my parents’ outpouring of love for me.

Needless to say, disciplinary efforts were repeatedly employed.

I have vivid memories of the evening after one particularly bad day. My father set a picture of Stonewall Jackson in front of us and deliberately wrote the word “Duty” on the blackboard he had made for our education. A biographical motivational lecture followed. Nothing much changed.

Though the exhortations bore no short-term fruit, they continued. For that, I am very grateful. They were patterned after Proverbs like: “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge” (Proverbs 22:17), and “Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge” (Proverbs 23:12). Solomon must have reflected on his own growing up experience as he addressed his son. He knew that boys, in particular, need to be reminded repeatedly to try, to exert effort, and to apply themselves to wisdom. The whole drumbeat of Proverbs calls for youth to seek wisdom, which is a pretty good indication that Solomon recognized these truths would not sink in quickly for his son.

The good news for me is that my parents kept pointing me to Jesus. We saw him on every page of the Bible morning and evening in the promise and fulfillment of the Scriptures. They taught us about sin, righteousness, and judgment; seeking salvation by morality was not a particular temptation. And they kept exhorting us to apply ourselves – however futile the effort was in my case. Over time, physical and psychological maturity came. Most importantly, the sanctifying work of the Spirit took hold of my heart, and the Spirit brought renewal in my freshman year of high school. My pastors contributed enormously to this growth. My high school job and finally college classes taken in my high school years more fully awakened my awareness that I really would need to be diligent, buckle down, and apply myself to a whole lot of life disciplines. It was all a work of grace. The cumulative weight of the Proverbs-like pep-talks of prior years started to actually come crashing into my existence. I knew that the only way forward was to apply myself. It’s not just me; many other men have a similar story.

Dr. Heidi Halvorson, in a January, 2011 article in Psychology Today, postulates that too many bright young girls have been fed a steady diet of praise leading them to believe that they are innately smart. This occurs largely due to comparison because boys are slower to develop. She writes: “Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., ‘If you would just pay attention you could learn this,’ ‘If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.’).” She discusses the effect of this treatment as children mature, writing “The net result [over time]: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t ‘good’ and ‘smart’, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.”

Because boys are more likely to be athletically competitive, they also tend to get more positive encouragement to strive for their own personal best. For instance, what boy growing up in Indiana could forget Coach Norman Dale’s pregame address to his Hickory players in the movie Hoosiers : “There’s a tradition in tournament play to not talk about the next step until you’ve climbed the one in front of you. I’m sure going to the state finals is beyond your wildest dreams, so let’s just keep it right there. Forget about the crowds, the size of the school, their fancy uniforms, and remember what got you here. Focus on the fundamentals that we’ve gone over time and time again. And most important, don’t get caught up thinking about winning or losing this game. If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners!” To their benefit, most boys have heard some variation of that speech more than a few times in their own athletic careers.

If we do tend to praise daughters by comparison, we should take to heart the Lords wisdom when he says: “But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12). The Lord will call every person to give account for the investment of talents entrusted to him or her, however great or small. So let’s call them to strive for greater faithfulness in “playing to their potential” to the glory of God alone.

For all those parents weary of motivating young sons and daughters who just don’t seem to “get it,” keep at it. Your unheeded words are being stored away. My father didn’t always need to say much. “Duty,” in his blackboard script, is forever inscribed in my mind. My mother is a public speaker. She earned her Ph.D. in communication after we were all gone from home. Yet, some of her least polished speeches like “if you would only APPLY yourself” have probably proven to be the most fruitful. So, keep the motivational speeches coming, keep them positive, and keep believing that they will bear fruit.

Almost three decades later, some things haven’t changed for me. I still need to be pointed to Jesus every day. I still struggle with laziness and need to remind myself every day to apply my heart to instruction and my ear to understanding. To that end, by God’s grace, the motivational orations of yesteryear still ring in my ears.