Parenting: More Than Just Safety and Sanity
I LOVE being a mom. I really enjoy my kids. But, my kids make mistakes. LOTS of them. In fact, my day often consists of addressing three different children’s varied mistakes, prioritizing first the most dangerous and life-threatening ones (anything to do with electrical sockets, vehicles, and sharp objects go on this list) followed at a close second by the ones that may cause me to go insane (loud, repetitive noises and big messes go here). Sometimes, parenting can become a game-show where you simply try to keep adrenaline junkies and klutzes from killing themselves. But, parenting is so much more than helping our kids arrive at adulthood with all their body parts and your sanity intact. The parent/child relationship has been given to us as a means for God to communicate His love for us. As parents, we ought to imitate the relationship of God with His children as we share in relationships with our children
What does it mean to be a parent?
In order to answer this question, we first have to look at how God interacts with His children. God created people, not as works of art to be watched, but as offspring with which to be in relationship. In order to allow these creations to have a relationship with Him, He had to reveal Himself to them. John 1 tells us that through His Word and through the incarnation of His Son, He let us know Him and made Himself available to us: “No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.” In a similar way, parents point their children to God through telling them of His goodness and humbly seeking to imitate God.
As parents, we are to be revealers in two forms: first, by imitating God in our behavior toward our children and thereby revealing something of his character, and second, by allowing ourselves to be revealed in all our own strengths and weaknesses to show how one ought to relate to that same God.
We are to take our children by the hand and allow ourselves to be known by them, partially so that our children can understand what it means to be in relationship, and partially to expand our capacity for relationship with God. But, ultimately, the point is not simply to be understood by our children because we are so complex and interesting. Rather, since we are children of God, being continually made in His image, we are able to reveal who God is through revealing who we are to them.
We say things like, “Because we love you, you can know God loves you.” Our lives communicate, “Because we want to listen to you, you can know God wants to listen to you. Because we require you to obey, you can know that God requires you to obey. Because we show you grace, you can know that God has shown us grace, and we have learned to show grace from Him.” Sometimes we fail and lose our patience or say a mean word, and that is not like God. In those moments, we still reveal God when we explicitly point out that we have failed them but God never will; God never becomes impatient with us.
We reveal who God is through example, but we do not expect example alone to be sufficient communication. God didn’t. God sent His Son and His Holy Word to speak to us (Rom. 10:17). We have the privilege and responsibility to lead our little ones by the hand, all the while pointing things out as we pass and connecting those things to their Creator (Deut. 11:19).
What does it mean to be a child?
If it is a parent’s job to be available and approachable, and to reveal God to her children, then it necessarily follows that to be a child is to listen, learn, and trust. Children ought to respect and obey their parents. However, an essential aspect of the nature of a child is his or her childishness. This means they are needy, incompetent, ignorant, and immature–and that is the way they were designed to be! It’s worth considering that throughout the Gospels, Jesus uses children as a metaphor for believers, and that the apostle John uses this as a mode of address through 1 John. We’re told that we are to come to Christ “like children” (Mt. 18:3). This tells us that God not only expects, but asks that we act in accordance with our own neediness, incompetence, ignorance, and immaturity by entrusting ourselves to Him the way a child entrusts himself to his mother or father.
To be a child is to learn to submit. Christians are called to submit to God’s lordship of our life. As children learn to submit to their parents, they also learn how to submit to God (Col. 3:20; Eph. 6:1). When I ask my children to obey me, I try to always point out that it is ultimately not me who they are learning to obey, but God who has given me the position as their mother. I tell them that when they grow up, I won’t be around to help them know what God wants them to do, but they will still have to obey and search the Scripture for themselves to learn what God would have them do.
The worst thing you can do as a parent is violate and abuse that trust. When we set ourselves up as demigods or impress upon our children that we are the primary ones they obey as opposed to God, we fail to reveal God to them and set ourselves in a place in their hearts that only God should inhabit.
Christian parents ought to be ruled by grace. This does not mean permitting disobedience or enabling a child’s sinful tendencies, but it does mean having realistic expectations of your child and demonstrating careful watchfulness and tender encouragement as they learn to obey. Our children are learning everything. As we teach them about the world and allow them to build a relationship with us, we can be intentional to reveal God and give them the gospel every day of their lives. This rich, warm, gospel-saturated relationship is God’s primary tool by which He blessedly brings more people to Himself.
So, then, human parenthood should be a mirror image of the way God parents his own children. Sanctification is God’s means of spiritual parenting for us—aiding us by the Holy Spirit to grow into spiritual adulthood. Think of the great love and patience God has demonstrated for us in our pigheadedness. As we raise our children, we are to be patient, like God. This patience teaches us and shows us the incredible grace God has shown us in giving us salvation and sending the Holy Spirit to patiently lead us through sanctification. In light of this example, we seek to guide our own children, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, into mature adulthood. And in both processes – parenting and sanctification – the young one is expected to be needy and expected to actively participate!
If my children refuse to acknowledge their childishness and attempt to move out on their own, that would be an absolute disaster. In the same way, if we fail to acknowledge our childishness in our faith, then we will inevitably take on spiritual responsibilities for which we are not prepared, harm ourselves with our enormous expectations, and possibly even make shipwreck of our faith. My hope is that through the act of being a parent I learn more about my Father and my position as His child.