Parenthood: The Lab of Gospel Growth
The gospel changes everything. Everything. And our relationships help us understand how.
In addition to marriage, parenthood has been God's sharpest scalpel for the necessary surgery on my heart. The gospel provides the framework for how I need to parent my children. And parenthood is the laboratory that deepens my understanding of the gospel.
"You are more evil than you could possibly imagine."
I often tell dating or engaged couples I'm counseling that I never really knew that I was selfish until I got married. And I never really knew the depths of my selfishness until I had children. The early stages of marriage began to slowly create new awareness in me: "Uh, this is not so much about just me anymore." Then with the arrival of children and their absolute disregard for my needs or my time, I was shocked to realize just how much it was truly not about me. The depth of my selfishness, desire for comfort, and concern about others' approval has been unearthed as a result of my journey into fatherhood. Periodically I have moments of devastation when I'm confronted with the evil roots in my heart as they are exposed in my failures as a parent.
I will never forget the potty-training process with my first son. Although he caught on fairly quickly, he had a habit of willful resistance that often resulted in physical pain for him. While I had my moments of empathy as he writhed in the pain of constipation, my frustration grew as I expected him to see that he was the cause of his own pain. Our battle finally culminated one afternoon in the second floor bathroom of my in-laws' house. My son was sitting on the toilet in obvious pain, clinging to the resistance and fear that prevented him from seeing that he had the power to change his circumstances. I was perched on the edge of the bathtub directly across from him, shelling out advice/coaching/admonitions, when he finally had enough. He leaned forward, looked directly into my eyes, and let out a yell of desperation and frustration that truly came from the depths of his being. I, being the mature one, responded in like manner, with a similar sound of exasperation. Time froze for a moment as we sat stupefied by what we had just witnessed from the other. It was almost as though we were both asking the question, "Did you really just do that?"
Then, as if a wave of grace washed over us, not of our own doing, we both began to cry. I moved from my perch to sitting on the floor, he climbed off the toilet, reached for me, and crawled onto my lap. We held each other and sat weeping on the bathroom floor. Looking back on this low moment in my parenting journey, I was overcome by my selfishness, lack of patience, and desire for control. After seeing the ravages of my heart exposed in such a raw manner, particularly to someone for whom I would give my life, I wondered in that moment if I could ever recover. And yet I now recall that day as one of the most intimate experiences with my son. We both reached the end of ourselves, we both responded by laying bare the true nature of our hearts, and we both embraced each other in a strength that only the gospel of grace could have given.
God has taken this unsettling realization that it's not about me and transformed its sting into a soothing comfort. Though you might be initially disconcerted, you'll eventually realize by the grace of God that this most freeing truth brings the greatest relief.
"You are more loved than you ever dared to hope."
In a recent conversation with a young man who struggles with worry about God's view of him, he expressed a pervasive fear that he is not in a right relationship with God and therefore feels compelled to constantly confess. He said that he has to frequently "check in" with God to make sure that they are on good terms. Listening to him describe his exhausting dilemma, I wondered how God must experience this man's anxiety and doubt of his identity in Christ. I thought about my own feelings if my children related to me in the same way. How would I react if my child constantly came to me asking if we were okay, doubting my unconditional love for him and questioning the stability of his identity as my son? I would be devastated and deeply saddened if I thought my son was never able to truly rest in my love and his place in our family.
Discipline has resulted in some of my most meaningful moments as a parent. While discipline is painful both for myself and for my children, I have to remember why I do it. My love for them compels me to address struggles that I see in their hearts and behavior. And at some point, I would hope that my boys realize that discipline actually confirms their identity as my children. While behavior from other children may concern me, I am not invested in them. They are not mine. However, my actions of affection as well as admonishment communicate an identity to my children. Even in times of tension or disconnect in our relationship, my children know I love them and know that they are mine. Their identity and their place in our family is secure; it isn't threatened by their behavior or the relative closeness or distance we may experience from day to day.
These experiences in parenting have educated me in the depth and beauty of the gospel. Reaching the end of myself, confronted with my sin and brokenness and yet resting in the love and identity I have in Christ, parenting teaches me the love of Christ . . . if only I will listen.