When our older daughter was an infant, someone said to Jeff and me, “I don’t know if you’ve experienced this yet, but as a parent there are so many choices to make and you don’t always know if you’re making the right one.” Two and a half years in, I have probably prayed more for wisdom in these last two weeks than I have my whole life. I have never felt like I didn’t know what I was doing on a daily basis like I do now and with this new awareness of my own need, I have come to cherish the Scriptures more for the way it informs our parenting and gives us a firm place to stand.
These days, one way I am seeing Scripture shape our parenting and bring clarity is in dealing with sin — both my own and my children’s. A friend recently observed that on Facebook, she often sees posts by friends complaining about their kids and that it seemed like the same friends often felt guilty, posting about how they were bad moms. Guilt-ridden confessions were then usually followed up with reassuring comments from friends. I am thankful for more seasoned moms who can tell me what I don’t need to feel guilty for — like when I needed to supplement with formula, or needing to nap or sleep in, or not being able to constantly present educationally stimulating material to my toddler and infant. And in the same way, I’m thankful for godly moms who can let me know what kind of behavior is normal for toddlers and I don’t need to worry about. But what about the so-called mommy guilt that comes from things that I do that are actually not okay, but wrong? Like losing my temper or being impatient? And what about the kind of behavior in my child that comes not because of childishness, but from a heart of rebellion and selfishness? In other words, how do I approach and deal with our sin? It’s not enough here to just hear “it’s normal.” It is comforting in a way to know that others struggle with the same thing that I and my children do but that doesn’t justify the way we sin against God and each other in our actions.
The biblical understanding of the process of sanctification and how God works in the hearts and lives of believers to make us more Christlike has been shedding light for me in terms of how I think about sin in the context of parenting. One illustration that has really helped me is from Doug Wilson’s series on parenting. In it, he says:
“Godly parenting is a function of becoming more like Jesus in the presence of little ones who are also in the process of becoming more like Jesus…It’s like a school of sanctification with the parents being in the upper grades and the kids being in the lower grades…Where the kids are, the parents once were. And where the parents are now, the children will be.” (Why Children Matter #4)
Here are some ways that understanding that my children and I are in the “school of sanctification” together as we walk through life is changing and challenging the way I think about their, and my, sin:
1. Not “you”, but “we”
When I was taking a counseling course with Ed Welch, he often said that you make progress and breakthrough with a counselee when you learn to say “we” and not “you.” He referred to finding the “normal in the abnormal” because in counseling, there will be issues that at first seem uncommon until we see that at the heart of the struggles are things that we all deal with. I am learning to say “we” when I see sin in my daughter’s life. Yes, I may not throw temper tantrums in the same way that a toddler does, but in my heart, do I ever complain? Or fuss? Am I ever impatient and demanding? Am I selfish? And am I doing these things at the very same time I am trying to correct my daughter?
I was reminded of this in seeing a friend after instructing her child saying “yes, I know it’s hard. We all want to be selfish and keep everything for ourselves.” It is a humbling place to be in, and I am finding that the very behaviors and attitudes I correct in my daughter, often show up in me at the same time. When I keep in mind my own process of being sanctified– that I have been there and in many ways am still dealing with the same flesh that my daughter does, I am able to sympathize with her weakness. It doesn’t mean that I excuse it, but in remembering that sanctification is not easy, my tone and prayers will change. I of all people ought to understand that it is hard to deny myself, to submit to doing what is right, and that obedience does not come naturally and easily.
2. Not discouragement, but joy
After a particularly hard day last week and much frustration (on my part) I started to feel really down. I was starting to see how dealing with sin in my own life and in my little girl’s heart is tiring and can be really discouraging. Then, it hit me: this is what parenting is about. I don’t have to be discouraged that discipline is involved and needed in our lives because parenting is all about being sanctified and bringing up my children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). If I see each revelation of sin as an opportunity to be brought up into maturity in the Lord, I can rejoice at the end of the day that I am doing what I am called to do as a mom and that God is continuing to do his work in me.
3. Not perfection but progress
Similarly, the fact that there are battles with sin does not have to lead me to anger or despair when I think about the fact that as Christians, we understand that sanctification will occur throughout our lifetimes until we see Jesus face to face. Though we are declared righteous before God and he no longer holds our guilt against us when we are in Christ, in this life, we will fall and sin and struggle with our flesh. Or as Luther said, we are simul justus et peccator— at the same time righteous and sinners. If I expect there to come a time when my children and I no longer need correction or discipline in this life, then at best I’ll be constantly discouraged when I see our sin and at worst, I’ll be constantly angry or given over to despair.
Instead of looking at whether or not we are still sinning, understanding that we are in the “school of sanctification” means that we can look together for signs of progress, not perfection. I can rejoice that my daughter isn’t struggling with the same things that she did a few weeks ago and thank God for his grace in her sanctification. Rachel Jankovic writes about this in Loving the Little Years,
“If you have been faithfully disciplining your children, I guarantee you that there are many, many problems that they no longer struggle with…Oftentimes we don’t even notice that they aren’t doing it, because something else has replaced it. Try to notice these little mile markers on the path of sanctification. If the sins have changed, it can be a sign of growth. It is not as though our children are going to emerge from heir current problems into perfect holiness only if we give them enough swats. They are going to emerge from one set of problems into the next, and that is good. that is the way of the Christian walk. (21-22)
In my own life, I can thank God that he has freed me from the hold of certain sins that I never thought I could be free of years ago. And in our family, we can rejoice together that although we continue to wrestle with sin in our lives, they are not the same ones that we did in the past. God has brought us this far along and we can be encouraged to see evidences of his grace. I love how Paul says to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:15 that he is to immerse himself in obedience to the things commanded so that all can see his progress. We can look for the same.
4. Not mommy, but Jesus
It hit me sometime during my first year or so of parenting that the hardest fact for me to accept is that my sin most deeply affects those I love and want least to hurt. It scared and deeply saddened me to think about and see the way that my sin could do damage to my family. But in that moment, I was reminded that the most important thing that my daughter (now daughters) could learn from me is the gospel. They need to see and know the gospel through my life. They need to see it when we correct them and teach them, as Jeff says, the “language of repentance” by helping them say sorry to us and turn to Jesus in prayer after we discipline them for disobedience. They need to see it in my admission of sin to them when I lose my patience. (This is so hard for me!) And they need to see that where there is sin, grace abounds so much more in Christ.
This is the lifeline that I am clinging onto and trust that I will be coming back to again and again in the next 20+ years: As much as I love them and by God’s grace will give my life to serving and loving my children, I am not the hero, Jesus is. Jesus died for their sins and mine. Jesus rose again and broke the power of sin over their lives and mine. And in faith, we trust we will one day stand before him, washed clean by his blood, presented blameless before him with great joy. (Jude 1:24)
Pray for us
I struggled in thinking about whether or not to write this post because the lessons are so fresh and I am so new at the whole parenting thing. In the end, I decided to share it because it is wisdom that I didn’t come up with but learned from others and am being blessed by. I am still working all this out in real life and it is hard. With the arrival of our second daughter has come more diapers, tiredness, joy, laughs, and repentance (on my part) as I see more and more of my sin and need for grace. God is gracious and I am thankful to be reminded through my children that he is still working on me. Prayers would be much appreciated (and needed) for our family as we go through school together!