One of the more difficult parts of the holidays to navigate is the expectation to make happy memories and for things to be cheery. It doesn’t really make sense that a date on the calendar or a few weeks declared the “holiday season” would magically make things wonderfully happy, but for whatever reason we expect or hope for it which deepens the disappointment when things are not merry and bright— when instead of peace, there is strife in our family and hurting relationships. When there are unfulfilled secret hopes in our hearts or we are in the midst of grieving loss. When we’re burnt out from serving and maybe just tired from normal life and don’t feel particularly Christmas-y.
Personally, this year has been one with great joys and deep sorrows, and in light of this I am meditating on two prayers we can pray this Christmas as we face things we struggle to reconcile with the joyful celebration of Christ’s birth:
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The coming months are ones of transitions for our family as we step into unknowns on two major fronts. The first one involves changes regarding church and with that, Jeff’s ministry responsibilities. The other is our entering into the world of foster care where we are, God-willing, set to finish the licensing process within a few weeks. Anyone following my blog can see that I write about anxiety a lot, so unsurprisingly, “transition” in my life reads: stomach knots, an incessantly mind-reel of worst-case scenarios, and varied refrains of “what are we doing?” (in a panicky tone). But, as God often does in his unmistakable kind and gentle way, he is speaking words of life afresh to my fearful heart.
Last week, I read a post by blogger Tim Challies on journaling with suggestions from John Flavel. The third and last instruction was not to diminish past difficulties compared to new ones:
Whatever is beside us always appears most significant to us. Just as the land seems to shrink as the sailor sails away from it, so those troubling situations can seem to grow smaller as time increases the distance between them and us. By reading the accounts of God’s mercies you will remember that in the past you have faced dangers just as great and fears just as terrifying. For this reason make sure you do not only record the facts, but also your emotional and spiritual experience of them. Write them as if you will need to cling to them in the future.
With that in the back of my mind, somehow sophomore year of college came up as I remembered how for almost two semesters I struggled with despair and probably depression. It surprised me that I could’ve forgotten about those times, or at least that they’d be so far from my mind that it felt like I’d forgotten. I had forgotten what it was like to not be able to imagine things being different. Not wanting to live and having a hard time finding motivation to get up. To live with self-loathing and a constant voice of accusation in my mind, to feel that sin had the final word in my life and longing so much to be freed from my wretchedness, but not understanding what hope-filled sanctification and living out the gospel could look like. And I had forgotten the way that God miraculously pulled me out of that place of darkness. Later, as I reflected in my new moleskine journal (purchased after reading the aforementioned blogpost!), those memories, along with other accounts in my life of God’s power, salvation, and redemption, renewed my heart of trust in God for the times ahead.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were rebuked over and over again for their lack of remembrance. Their lack of faith in God in trial was a reflection of the state of their forgetful souls. They forgot the deliverance of God from Egypt and so lamented that God wanted to starve them in the desert, pining for their former lives as slaves. They panicked and created a god of their own to worship when Moses was taking too long to come down Mt. Sinai. They refused to enter into the land of promise because of the bad report of 10 men. The incredulity of the Israelites is almost unbelievable because this wasn’t just about a random person telling them where to go or what to worship. They had seen with their own eyes God’s deliverance, tasted the salt in the air as they walked through a sea that parted for their feet alone and swallowed up their pursuers. They had carried the gold their former masters gave to them as Pharoah finally had them leave after the last of ten mighty acts of God. They had known the works of God, his salvation– and still they did not trust him.
Properly speaking, the Israelites didn’t really forget, did they? They must have had the memory of the experiences, just somehow it didn’t connect to what they believed and thought about God as they faced their more current, pressing situations. Unbelief took root to twist their interpretation of their past, reflecting hearts that didn’t respond to the knowledge of God’s works with an accurate, rightfully earned trust in his character.
And I am seeing once again that I am prone to do the same. I forget that the dangers I faced in the past were just as great, fears just as terrifying as those that I am encountering at present. I forget all that God has shown me about himself in those times and how that remembrance is what I need to strengthen my trust as I face the future.
So, I recall and recount. How God has delivered me from the emptiness that I often felt as a high-schooler. How he brought me through the subsequent times of doubt and questioning. He heard my cries for deliverance from sins I thought were unconquerable and has set me free from the constant cloud of condemnation I used to live out of. He has healed my heart from lies about myself I’d believed for years and carried me through heartbreak over relationships and ministry. He was with me when I was stuck in a shady casino hotel in Las Vegas after missing a connecting flight to LA– a timid new graduate going to join a ministry in a city where I barely knew anyone. He was with me on the gut-wrenching flight and transition back home after the two years I’d grown to love the people I served deeply.
I think about how the years since then have flown by, packed with decisions that carried no risk-free guarantee, but full of blessings immeasurable both seen and unseen. Two daughters and motherhood have brought more things to be fearful about, but breakthroughs in perspectives of and trust in God. Being newly initiated into ministry in the local church, we have already seen God growing us in hope through times of deep discouragement, molding us through the daily grind of learning to pour out our lives on behalf of others because Christ did the same for us. I have seen him redeem places of shame and guilt in my life by taking those experiences and making them the ones that I can most use to minister to others. And I have rejoiced at truth breaking through to others coming out of the same places I had been in, in awe of how he delights to take and use us not just in spite of but because of our brokenness.
What’s most important about these memories are not that I am promised quick deliverance in the future because of them. No, infinitely more precious than that type of guarantee is what I have come to know of my Savior experientially, how I’ve had glimpses and moments of faith becoming sight. I have seen his salvation, experienced the power at work in me that raised Christ from the dead. I have seen his faithfulness to me to carry me through trial and shape my character in ways that I would never be shaped had I gotten exactly what I wanted when I wanted it. I think about how I’m not who I used to be and how if you told me what it would feel like now, living unto God imperfectly but by grace and with joy, living free from the things that bound my heart, living increasingly out of love and not duty or guilt, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it. And, still, there is more of Christ to know, more of his deliverance to come. These remembrances remind me that he is indeed kind, powerful, good, and worth my life. They take away some of the power of fear of the future over me and even– how is this even possible?– stir in me a new joy, an anticipation of what he will do around, through, and in us as we step into the unknown.
Yes, the very definition of faith is that it does not and can’t see everything, at least not right now. But ours is not a faith ungrounded. On the contrary, it is my unbelief and fearful dread that I ought to question more skeptically in light of all that I have come to see and know of God, not taking my own word of doubt as authoritative. The cross has shown me the greatness of his mercy. The empty grave has proven his power over death and sin. And if I incline my heart to, I can recount the ways I have experienced this love and power in countless ways through the years. It was never, and isn’t now, blind faith that God asks for from his people, from me. Rather it is trust in One who I’ve proven, as we sang on our wedding day, over and over. Oh for grace to remember and trust him more!
Note: As I’ve been thinking through these things, I’ve also been reading Ed Welch’s “Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest.” On a Chapter called “The Manna Principle”, he writes about this idea of trust and remembrance, and much of my thoughts as I’ve written may have what he’s written mixed in there, without me knowing exactly where my thoughts were “original” or from the book. So, I want to give credit where it may be due. And also note that I’ve been helped by the book in how it is getting to some of the root of my anxiety and defanging it.
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.
A week ago, our family went to visit our alma mater with the girls. It was good to see our friends the Colvins & Wens, catch up and see how God is leading them in their lives. Jeff flew a kite on campus with our daughter, and it was crazy thinking that not too long ago, we were among the stressed out students walking by us, thinking about upcoming final papers and exams on the last week of classes.
It’s May, which means that many students are transitioning out of their campus ministries to go back home or to a new city for work. Jeff told me the other day about being in college and having a college graduate visit. He told them that his life just consisted of going to work, coming home, and playing video games. His point in painting this bleak post-college life was to tell them to make the best of what they had now in college because they’ll never get it again. Unfortunately, when I was a student, I heard people say things like that too. I am convinced though that this is not how God desires us to live our lives or “encourage” our college-aged brothers and sisters!
I understand that the post-graduation transition looks different for each person depending on the experience they had in college/ campus ministry and the places they are moving back to. At our church and the church Jeff interned at during seminary, many students commute to school or live nearby. These students are involved in the same churches they will be in after they graduate and the transition is more seamless (though starting to 9-5 job is a not a small change for them either). But for those who studied away from home, like us, or really experienced God at school learning to love, follow, and serve him first in the context of a campus ministry, I have noticed that the transition is often more complicated. I have seen some of my friends really take off spiritually and grow much more after college, and I have seen many others who have struggled.
Having been a college student myself away from home, staffed with a campus ministry, and talked with friends through their post-graduation experiences, I want to offer a few words of encouragement for those stepping into the post-college world in the upcoming months.
1. Prepare yourself to find a good local church, settle in, serve, and give your heart there.
This is the one thing that I have found makes the biggest difference between my friends who have graduated and thrived and who have really struggled with their faith after school. It’s not that the friends who found good churches were more spiritually mature or serious about their faith, but that the Christian life is impossible to live out alone.
While there are extreme cases where Christians may have to go through a time of isolation from other believers (being in an unreached people group, being jailed for the faith, etc.) and God is able to preserve them even in those circumstances, Scripture gives us stern admonitions to not neglect meeting with other believers because we cannot make it apart from them (Heb. 10:24-25). This isn’t because going to church proves our faith, but because we were never meant to make it on our own. Some college graduates mistakenly believe that their faith was never real and their spirituality was only an act of conforming to those around them. They think this because after they graduated, they stopped pursuing God. While there is something to be said about our faith being tested and God humbling us from our prideful view of our own spirituality, I think more often than not, it’s because these Christians believe that having true faith would have meant they would be able to continue to walk with God without being settled into a solid church. In reality, Scripture says that we cannot live the Christian life apart from the local church and the means of grace God has given us through the church. (I’ve written about some of that here for those interested: When You Don’t Feel Like Getting Up For Church)
I encourage all who are moving on from campus life to start looking for a church that is gospel-centered and is solidly committed to preaching the Scriptures, loving God and loving people. Learn a bit about what to look for in a church if you’re not going back to your home church and start praying about it even now. (You can start here: 9 marks of a healthy church). I know it’s easy to get discouraged when looking for a new church, and without people around you it gets easier and easier not to go, so I encourage you to even try to get connected with other Christians you know that are already in your new city before you go. You can also look up churches online for example at the Gospel Coalition Church Directory or Redeemer City-To-City churches.
2. Don’t try to replicate your college experience, but find out what it means to follow and serve God in your new stage of life.
College is a unique time and college ministry is a unique place. Life is different because as a college student, the amount of time you have, your responsibilities, and circumstances will never be replicated again. That’s one of the reason why in many ways, college is a special time many begin to experience God in fellowship with other Christians, serving him by making choices about what they spend their time doing, and sharing their faith with the students they have constant interaction with in the dorms, classrooms, and dining halls.
Life after college is different. There isn’t anything inherent better or worse about it, it’s just different. The responsibilities, opportunities, and day-to-day life routines will change– and that is a good thing because it is a God thing. God is the one who controls your circumstances, and you need to trust that there is no better place to grow to love him and love people than the one he has sovereignly placed you in. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to seek to change your circumstances (like if you’re in an unhealthy church, or in extreme cases like an abusive relationship, etc.), but that there is no “ideal” life season, job, or situation you need in order to love God, love people, and grow mature in. It will be really hard for you if you think that the only way to keep loving and serving God is by doing what you did when you were in college. Why? Because you won’t be in college anymore. So, as I did when I became a new mom and moved into a new stage of life and as I am still doing now, I encourage those transitioning to pray and ask God what it means to serve and love him now. The heart of what you learned and practiced in college will remain the same– treasuring his word, growing to know him more, loving people around you– but the way it looks will be (and should be) different.
I have found that many who think that serving God at work will look the same as what they did in college end up either feeling guilty about not being able to do the same things and/or not knowing what it means to do their God-given work in a Biblical sense. Some even give up, discouraged, and “settle”. I believe that many Christians struggle because they don’t know how to make sense of the mundane work that makes up most of their days. One recommendation I have is to read up on some resources about God and work that I’ve referenced before on this blog. (There are some at the end of this old post that can get you started: Why Does My Work Matter?)
3. Humbly bring back what you learned from college to the new (or old) churches you’re going back to.
I am so thankful for the work that college ministries do on campus. I was heavily involved in my campus ministry when I was in college and worked at one post-graduation. But I think that one thing that many college students aren’t prepared for is life in their local churches after they have had a really great time of growing and learning in the context of their campuses. This sometimes leads to major discouragement, discontent, frustration, and disillusionment.
This is where finding a good, solid church is so important because it will help you to see what it means to live out the Christian life in a fuller scope than just the college years. I also think that recognizing that serving and loving God will look different for different people in different seasons of life will help many to adjust to going back to churches or entering churches that aren’t filled with college students. At the same time, I believe that those who have experienced God in deeper and new ways at school can still bring back what they learned to the churches at home (or their new churches). This doesn’t mean necessarily starting or leading the same type of ministry that you saw in college, but seeking to see what the vision of the local church and the leaders are, coming on board with that, prayerfully considering and asking the church leaders how you can serve, and using all that you have learned in order to build up the local body of Christ. It is okay to recognize the unique experience you had or even see some of the things that may be lacking or needed in the local church. But rather than using your college experience as a measure to judge other places, see the experiences and lessons you have learned as entrusted to you by God. When you see them as a gift to be stewarded, you can humbly pray for opportunities to serve and use your gifts or perspective in support of your church’s vision, and in time they can be used and leveraged for the sake of the church and for the glory of God.
4. Direct thanks to God for your time in college rather than getting lost in nostalgia.
There isn’t anything wrong with missing friends or fellowship (or free time!) But nostalgia in and of itself often leads to a discontent that ultimately indicates a heart that says “God, you have placed me in a worse place than before. What you have given me now is not best.” In college, I loved taking long walks on our beautiful campus, sometimes hours at a time, praying, thinking, journaling. I remember such sweet moments of communion with the Lord as I prayed to him, sang to him, and reflected on all the things I was learning. Now, with two young girls at home, I can’t just take spontaneous breaks like that anymore. I can be tempted choose to react to these memories with a sense of loss (“Oh, I’ll never get that again. Those were the good old days.”), or dismiss them as not “real life.” But I don’t think either of these reactions is what pleasing to God.
Remembrance is one of the themes of the Bible, particularly remembrance of what God has done. But this remembrance isn’t empty nostalgia, longing for the good old days. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Rather, the remembrance we are called to is one that reflects on the way God has delivered and God has helped us already in a way that strengthens our faith in his promises for the future. This is seen most importantly in our remembrance of the work of Christ on the cross, and in smaller ways, in the specific works of God through our lives. In 1 Samuel 7:2, after God delivered the Israelites from battle, Samuel set up a stone, named it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help,” in order to remember that “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” For me, instead of being sucked into longing for my college days, going to Cornell is sweet when this type of remembrance is in view. I remember who I was before college, how God worked powerfully in me at that time, and I give praise to him. I get to remember places I prayed, what I prayed there, and how he has answered since then. I am reminded of how far he’s brought me since graduation and how he is so good and so faithful to me.
I encourage upcoming college graduates who have experienced God deeply and loved their time at their campus fellowships to rather than look at what a campus ministry was able to do or at the “college life” with longing, to look to and give thanks to God who was the one who worked in your heart during the time there and through the people you knew there.
5.Resist cynicism. Trust him with your regrets, recognizing and clinging to the grace of God.
While there are some people who can’t stop longing for their college days, I know some who can’t look back without being dismissive of their college selves, campus ministry experiences, and anything college-related. I understand. It took a while before I could look back at my freshman self, full of zeal and immaturity, without cringing and just shaking my head. And then, there’s the mistakes I made, sins I committed, and people that I hurt that I feel regret for still, even after 10 years.
Sometimes, I see cynicism form because stepping into the “real world” from the “college bubble” was tough on the faith of some and they stumbled and fell. Sometimes it’s because people had rough experiences in their campus ministries and only after stepping out did they see how it impacted their view of God and the church negatively. I see some who question their faith, God, and Christianity and begin to question of whether or not what they had in college was “real” or even whether it was their “real self.”
There’s much I can say here and each person’s struggle is unique, so just briefly, I want to encourage you to look at the signs of grace in your life and consider that God knew completely what was in your heart and what was going on around you, and see how he was working in you despite yourself and despite imperfect Christians around you. As you go look back at your younger, less mature, more naiive, less sanctified self (which was really you at the time, just all those things–less mature, more naiive, less sanctified), don’t rest your gaze there. Let the grace of God bring you to a place of deeper gratitude, worship, humility, and grace. Gratitude for his blood that covers your sin and his patient perseverance with you in spite of yourself, worship for his immeasurable love and mercy with which he loves you now even though in a few years by the grace of God you will more mature and Christlike than today, and humility and grace towards others who are more immature and young in the faith than you. When you do this, you can be honest– both about the ways you fell and failed and about the ways he truly did work in and even through you by his grace and to his glory.
6.If you don’t end up struggling, praise God! And pray for your friends who are having a hard time.
Some of you already have a strong local church to go home to and a healthy understanding of work, God, church, and life. Praise God for this! I just encourage you to remember and be kind towards your friends who have a harder time transitioning. Instead of saying (or thinking) “what’s wrong with you?” I encourage you to consider that while you are strong, you have a unique opportunity to strengthen the weak. Pray for your friends, particularly those who became Christians in college, to find and settle in good churches. Listen to and lift up those who are struggling, and thank him for his grace toward you in your transition.
7. Lastly, consider the faithfulness of your God and look to the future with joyful hope!
I have always resisted a doomsday portrayal of college graduation. Why? Because it makes it seem like God is the God of the college campus and not of the rest of life! Or that his grace and the gospel which began a good work in you is insufficient to carry you through to the end (as opposed to Phil 1:6.) This is simply not true. In the same way that many of us may not have sought God as we entered into college, but he worked in us miraculously to bring us to himself and into a community of people who love him, it is not our faithfulness to him that will sustain us through the years, but his love and faithfulness to us in Christ.
Your life will change in the coming year, but look to him who has not, does not, and will never change. His grace and the knowledge of his mercy has not been exhausted in your 4 (or 3 or 5) years in college. He saved us so that in the ages to come, he may show to us the immeasurable riches of his grace! (Eph. 2:4-7) That does not end after graduation! He has worked in your life up until now, and he is able to keep you from falling– from the day you walk in cap and gown until the day of his coming. Be encouraged, looking to him who alone does not change, who has been with you up to now and will continue to carry you through to the end.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25 ESV)
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!