If you stop by my house at any given time, you might find my three year old in timeout. He’s there at least once a day. It’s the only place where he can have his little universe interrupted, calm down and realize he is not in charge.

Timeout is a strategic tool to change behavior and stop a bad cycle of the me-me-me-crazies. Just a few moments along the wall or in his room with his thoughts, and my son can usually figure out he would rather be calm and be with the rest of the family than prioritize his tantrum.

But like all effective discipline, it has an expiration. Often only a couple of minutes. After the separation works its magic, we restore him into the family with hugs and acceptance. Within seconds, we’ve usually forgotten about the whole thing.

[Click for photo credit]
[Click for photo credit]
It’s a pretty good system, and it works because timeout has three characteristics and boundaries:

1. My son doesn’t put himself in timeout. We offer the choice, to comply with what we ask or sit in timeout, and his behavior makes the selection.

2. Timeout starts and ends quickly. We don’t keep him in there for hours. The goal of the separation is restoration, not continued separation. But we have attitude and behavior requirements for participation in our family activities. When he can match those, timeout is over.

3. Restoration happens. He returns to participation in the family when he can be “fun” for the rest of the family to be around. When he chooses that attitude, we welcome him back.

Choice, separation, restoration. It’s simple enough, right? But when we mess up with God, we like to complicate it, don’t we? Many of us create our own religious disciplinary system to show God we adequately loathe our transgressions. Sadly, it’s the opposite of a healthy separation.

Maybe you recognize this self-punishment pattern:

1. I make a bad choice and put myself in timeout. I stop talking to God because I assume he’s mad at me so I don’t know how he feels or what sort of discipline he wants to administer. Instead, I’m left alone in the quiet, with my disappointment and shame, preparing a new variation of the Prodigal Returns speech. Depending on the offense, I might take myself out of a leadership role or a place of influence. Maybe I do a form of penance like reading a certain amount of Scripture or talking down to myself for a while.

2. I stay in timeout. Instead of remembering the boundaries and requirements for relationship that God outlined, my assumption he is mad keeps me cut off. I don’t want to hear that disappointment in God’s voice so I stay gone, hidden, locked up in condemnation. I forget that Jesus’ violent death was all God’s final judgment on sin, and his anger no longer applies to me. While I may have to suffer natural consequences from my behavior, separation from God is never the intent. And yet…

3. The separation in my timeout never leads to restoration. Or at least not as quickly as God wants. I go back into earner mode, trying to gain with my work the connection with God that already belongs to me. The whole time I’m missing the point.

This is the message of Christianity: God loved you so much, he hated the separation and disconnection from you. He knew you deserved punishment but his son agreed to take it instead, also out of love, so you could all be united.

Your separation is never meant to be permanent. God will always enforce the boundaries of behavior and our attitudes toward him and others, but separation will never be his choice. It will be ours, and he will always do whatever he can to bring us back.

God knows a secret most of us don’t: you can’t shame someone into restoration. It makes sense when you think about it. You can’t cut someone out using shame and expect to regain connection and relationship with them. Yet we do it all the time.

But God knows only mercy and compassion, in their many forms (which are sometimes a brief timeout for three year olds), are effective for restoration.

No one has ever effectively shamed someone into relationship with them, and God is not about to start. Shame blocks intimacy; they are mutually exclusive.

God isn’t insecure. He’s not on a power trip. Jesus came to abolish shame, to put it to death forever. He has no need to prove he’s right. God wants you back, wants to hurry up and get to the good part, the reconnection.

So what are you waiting for? Take yourself out of timeout. Accept forgiveness and love – stop trying to earn it. It’s already yours anyway.

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