As a new parent, I remember hearing someone say that our greatest comfort is that the two things we tend to worry about most– our children’s physical wellbeing and the spiritual state of their souls are not, ultimately, under our control. After having visited the ER with our first daughter for stitches, finding a baby at the top of the stairs with an open gate multiple times, an “I did not see that one coming” accident last week, and many more close calls, I have been experiencing how true that first bit is. It’s good to know that God is ultimately in control of the health and safety of my children when I start seeing how, try as I might, there are a thousand potentially harmful situations out there that I haven’t taken into account. (Seriously, after becoming parents, Jeff and I often comment how it is a miracle that any of us have lived to adulthood!) I desire my children to be healthy and safe, and though I may have deep fears about disease, sickness, and accidents, knowing that I don’t control it but God does has brought some measure of peace to my otherwise worry-wired heart.
But Jeff and my greatest desire for our children is not that they would be healthy and live long lives, which is why we may be tempted to worry about that second part– the spiritual state of their souls. Our greatest desire and prayer for our girls is that they would love God and love people. We want them to know God personally, to trust him with their whole hearts, to taste the sweetness of being in relationship with him, and to count everything else as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. We want them to be driven by one passion– his glory– and to commit their lives, with joy, to live, and even be willing to suffer and die for the cause of the gospel. And we want more than anything for this to come out of a heart that is made new by God. This isn’t about being good church going kids, moral people, or having “prayed the prayer” at one point in their lives. We pray that God would work and that we would see fruit of obedience out of love for God stemming from new, Holy Spirit wrought hearts. Hearts that are awakened by the Holy Spirit to put faith in the saving work of Christ and do and desire things that dead hearts never could. We want them to know his love and have their lives marked by a deep experiential knowledge of grace. Our commitment to the gospel and personal experience of it in life is that it is the good news that God isn’t in the business of making bad or good people better, but dead people alive, and we pray and plead with God that he would bring this about in our children even now.
In recent years as I have come to love this gospel more deeply, I have been made undone over and over again with gratitude for God’s sovereign choice to make me, once dead, alive. I know, not just because of teachings about Biblical interpretation or theology, but in the depths of my being that had not God opened my eyes to see and value him, I would not, and am left with trembling awe at the thought. The sovereign will of God in initiating and bringing about salvation has been a source of great gratitude, joy, and humility in my life, but in recent years as a parent, somehow it shifted into a subtle source of fear, not verbalized even in my mind, but still there. The question lurking there and that if thought about enough would bring tears: What if God doesn’t choose to save my children? And so, the knowledge of sovereign grace that has brought me joyful gratitude considering my own life has started to wear away and burden me as a mom. That is, it did until a few weeks ago, when I was brought low in my own eyes that God’s mercy may be lifted up.
It has been a consistent set of those “fail” weeks, that are not just a general “I’m a bad mom” feeling, but ones where I know what I’m doing wrong, how I’m being unkind, and still have not changed. It’s been a stripping-away week of pride in my abilities to parent and I am, by the grace of God, being brought to the end of myself again and again. With clarity I saw a few weeks ago that I was doing so many of the things I never wanted to as a mom. I was, and still am more than I ought, comparing, speaking out of irritation, overly concerned about the opinions of others (too strict? not strict enough?), being inconsistent, and other things that, if left unchanged, would mean that our family would be on the road to being one full of fear, bitterness, ungratefulness, and hurt. It was in the midst of feeling the weight of my failure and as I thought about the hearts of my girls, anxious and unable to sleep, that the thought came clearly to me: Do I want my girls to be at the mercy of my parenting, or at the mercy of God? That was the turning point for me from anxious grief to joyful trust and rest (and with that, thankfully, sleep).
This was the question that cast a light on my prideful fear and offered me a chance to step into grateful, humble trust. Do I want my girls to be at the mercy of my parenting, or at the mercy of God? In other words: Do I want their futures– and namely the state of their hearts, whether or not they love Jesus, and where they will be for eternity– to be at the mercy of my ability to be the right kind of godly mom? Me, inconsistent at best, and love them as I may, still selfish and still foolish at times? Or do I want them to be at the mercy of God who is abounding in love and mercy, unchanging, able, and willing?
Up until feeling the increasing weight of my own failure to know and do what is right as a mom, I was unconsciously saying I’d rather have the first be the case. This showed in my fear of God’s sovereign choice and of our complete need for him to do the heart change, granting us faith to make us alive in him (aka “monergism”). I’d rather be told and taught what to do and pray, or at least how to have the right heart, attitude, and guiding principles, and then be able to say that through those means, I’ll know my girls will love God and live for him. It’s subtle because I would never have said that through having right rules or teaching, I could change their hearts. But still, underneath it all, there was a fundamental trust in the choices I’d make as a parent– my own strictness or non-strictness, in how much I discipline or give grace, in how consistent or how flexible I am, and in my own ability to love God. With trust in self high, my heart says “What?? I could do everything right and my kids still could reject God and be messed up? How scary and unfair.” And though I’d never say that out loud, it shows in my fear that a sovereign, powerful God could “undo” or work against all that I do right and well. His election and grace and mercy in it are begrudgingly assented to, but not rejoiced in.
But with a realistic taste of my own self as a mom, sinner, and imperfect and unable to produce the type of family that I desire– with a picture painted of what my family would really look like were it all up to me– God’s sovereign mercy and grace brings about a completely different reaction. It’s “What?? I can do everything wrong and my kids still have a chance of loving God?? THANK GOD THERE IS HOPE!” Like the parable of the workers, I begin to see myself as one of those who have worked much less in the day but still have been paid more than I deserve, and I walk away in awe of mercy given at the free will of the owner of the field.
It’s not that I think I can do whatever and it doesn’t matter what I do as a mom because, hey, God is in control! I, as a mom and as a person will answer to God one day for everything I do and say. I want to do what’s right by him. I also don’t want my children to have baggage to carry, (too many) issues to work through because of me, or to have a twisted view of who God is because of my inaccurate portrayal of him in their lives. Those things go without saying. But I have seen God work in the family I was raised in to bring about gospel reconciliation and change– he still is doing that now. And one of the greatest witnesses to me and others through our family has been not what was done right by us, but how God is still making us new and how there is hope in the gospel to heal. Through that, one of my core values and hopes in life is that in the same way my family now, with my own children, would be a picture of gospel grace. Not just that we would be known as people who are gracious or that we would experience grace through one another, but that people looking at us would see that indeed that God is a gracious God to have had mercy on ones such as us. To know that he had mercy on us, the worst of sinners, so that “Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:16 ESV) And so, I am needing to repent of the ways I have been standing on my own merit, trusting our own family’s standards or hoping in parenting methods and advice, instead of falling on the mercy of our exceedingly merciful, compassionate, gracious, and sovereign God.
Reading through the Bible about families used to scare me. All these godly people having evil children, especially seen starkly in the lines of the kings. And yet, maybe that’s because I was thinking of myself as on the wrong side? Elisabeth Elliot quotes Thomas Fullerin in her book, Gateway To Joy:
Lord, I find the genealogy of my Savior strangely checkered with four remarkable changes in four immediate generations. (1) Reheboam begat Abijah; that is, a bad father begat a bad son. (2) Abijah begat Asa; that is, a bad father begat a good son. (3) Asa begat Jehosaphat; that is, a good father a good son. (4) Jehoshaphat begat Joram; that is, a good father a bad son. I see, Lord, from hence that my father’s piety cannot be entailed; that is bad news for me. But I see also that actual impiety is not always hereditary; that is good news for my son.
Good news for my children indeed.
So we still plead–for new hearts, for mercy, but not in fear but in faith with gratitude. We put kindling around them– teaching, loving, disciplining, instructing, repenting– and we pray, pray, pray for the Holy Spirit to send fire. If you would, pray for our kids that they would love and know him and be given new hearts to trust him? Praise God for his sovereign grace. There is hope for them and hope for me.