"I'm a failure, as a parent When I hear about all the dumb things parents do to their kids, I think of myself and say, 'GUILTY!' I feel so bad to think I have messed up my children's lives. I don't know how I can ever correct all the mistakes I've made."—a discouraged parent It might sound as if those words were spoken by a parent who grew up in an abusive home. Perhaps someone who was converted later in life, someone who had little relational or spiritual training. I'd like to say that this person had no role models and few opportunities to learn how to be a good parent. What more could you expect from a person like that?
That's what I'd like to tell you. But those words are from the journal of someone who should know better. She has had good role models. She has had many opportunities to learn. In fact, some people mistakenly think she is a wonderful parent. But I know better. Those words are a paraphrase from my own diary.
One of the great disappointments of my life is that I am not the wonderful, consistent, wise parent I would like to be. The day I wrote those words in my journal, I felt overwhelmed by the deep, painful reality of my inadequacies, my selfishness and my weaknesses as a mother.
It was a day when I wondered whether God had made a mistake when he gave me children. And I know other parents who have felt the same way.
In fact, considering the high risk of failure, it is a legitimate question to ask, "Why in the world does the Creator God allow helpless babies to grow up in families?" There is a divine absurdity in the idea that a sinful man and woman be given responsibility for the spiritual, social, intellectual and emotional training of a child. Add into the picture a second or third child, and the potential for sin is multiplied.
True, the helpless baby needs physical care. But animals care for their young without the risk of damaging them by their own moral sinfulness. Perhaps, after all, there would be a better way to raise children than in families. Might there be an environment where a child could mature to adulthood without being impacted by the selfishness and pride of their parents and siblings?
Perhaps there could be another way. But evidence is that our Creator decided that the value of family relationships was worth the risk of failure. In fact, families are not a mistake at all, but a planned part of creation. When the first man, Adam, lived in the garden, he was surrounded by all kinds of animals and plants. He even had a perfect relationship with God, untainted by sin. But God looked at his life and said, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen 2:18). Adam needed relationship with other human beings. He needed a wife. So God made a woman and brought her to Adam—and thus the first family unit was formed.
From that union came hundreds and hundreds of families which eventually made up the nation of Israel. The Old Testament tells the history of God's people by describing them in their family units. Almost every book of the Old Testament mentions families. In the New Testament, the significance of families is reinforced when the Lord declares that those of us who are believers are all in one family (Eph 3:15; Heb 2:11).
We can assume, therefore, that families were not an afterthought, invented because God couldn't think of anything else to do with babies and children. No, God placed children in families because families are good places to be. God intends for families to be places where children will be safe from physical danger, and also safe to experiment with life as they find out who they are and what adulthood looks like. Families, furthermore, have a spiritual dimension which goes far beyond the feeding of babies and the raising of children.
The family unit is, first of all, a metaphor of life's greatest spiritual reality: God Is. God exists. God is the great "I Am." His existence is the basis for all other existence. And his existence is described as a Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In other words, God exists in relationship with himself. And part of who he is is best described using the family terms father and son. Scripture persistently describes God in family terminology. God is called mother: "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you" (Isa 66:13). God's children are not only called sons, but also daughters: "Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!" (Zeph 3:14). Jesus called those who believe in him his brothers and sisters (Mk 3:35).
Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, Brother, Sister. All these words describe the God who is, and his relationship to his people. So when you and I struggle to know who we are as mothers and fathers, as sons and daughters, as brothers and sisters, we are also struggling to know more about what God is like. As a human father learns how to love his children, he is also learning how God loves him. And as a mother learns to give grace and forgiveness to her children, she also grows in her appreciation of the grace and forgiveness of God.
No, families are not an afterthought. They are an illustration of the God who has always existed, first in relationship with himself and then in relationship with his people. But families are more than a metaphor. They are also a gift. "God sets the lonely in families" (Ps 68:6). "Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children, a reward from him" (Ps 127:3). Families are God's gift to us, not merely to meet our needs for companionship but also to provide an environment for spiritual growth. I like the American Standard Version of Judges 6:34 (margin): the Spirit of the Lord "clothed" himself in Gideon. I believe that the Spirit of the Lord is, likewise, "clothing" himself in me, in Bob, in Elisa and in Dorie. We learn from the Spirit in each of us. We are loved by the Spirit in each of us. We are growing closer to God, through his Spirit, within the context of our family relationships.
One of the first Bible passages we studied as a family was Deuteronomy 6:5-7: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." For several weeks we had a little picture on our bulletin board of stick figures sitting and walking, lying down and getting up, talking about God's love.
It is one of our jobs as parents to "impress" our children with God's Word. It is also one of our jobs to pray for our children. Job got up early in the morning to offer sacrifices for each of his children. "Perhaps," he thought, "my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts" (Job 1:5). So part of the gift God gives to children by placing them in families is the instruction and prayers of their parents.
Children are also very much a part of the spiritual growth process of their parents. In the early years of our family, I struggled to learn to be a mother. My patience frequently ran out before noon. But my anger seemed to flow out of endless reserves. Fatigue was a familiar enemy. I often thought of the punishment God declared to Eve for her sin in the garden: "With pain you will give birth to children" (Gen 3:16). The physical pain of labor and delivery was only a hint of the stress I would feel as I sought to continue the birth process in my children's emotional, social, and intellectual development And I knew that my pain was indeed associated with that original "curse." Just as Adam and Eve's original sin was to live life their way instead of God's way, I knew that my own pain was often the result of my own willfulness and self-centeredness.
But I also had a sense that this pain was good for me. Dorie, our firstborn, entered the world as a curious, eager little person who wanted to be involved in all aspects of life—my life. As Dorie and I got to know each other, I found that my love for independence, my craving for time alone, and my desire for order and predictability were in conflict with her needs, first just to be with me, and later, to question, talk about and evaluate all aspects of our life together. As much as I struggled with the frustration of growth (hers and mine), I soon realized that mothering Dorie was making me a better person. Her needs and demands were, in fact, sanctifying me. I found out that I could live life less independently and more generously, and that I could learn to be loving and flexible, even when that meant that my life could not be so orderly and predictable. These were things God wanted me to be learning.
I found comfort in the words Paul wrote to Timothy: "Women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety" (1 Tim 2:15). This confusing verse has been subject to much theological debate, but one interpretation intrigues me. Perhaps, someone said to me, one assumption of that verse is that children have a way of pushing us to places that seem beyond our ability. Our children's needs often motivate us to overcome our bent to sin. Even sinful attitudes such as selfishness and pride can be overcome in unexpected ways by the demands of our children. God uses a variety of ways to bring sanctification into every life. Most mothers and fathers can attest to the fact that we have our children to thank for some of the victory over sin and other rough edges in our lives.
Families, then, are a wonderful idea. They illustrate the nature of God. They are God's gift to us. They are part of the process of our own spiritual growth, our own sanctification. At a time in history when the family is being severely threatened by new sociological norms, we need to remember its importance.
In her commencement address at Wellesley College in 1990, Barbara Bush, wife of the president of the United States, said, "At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent. Our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House but on what happens inside your house." This echoes what Scripture has been saying for centuries. Our obedience to God begins at home.
This book is an attempt to help us, as parents, be obedient to God the Father. The questions at the end of each chapter are intended to help you focus more clearly on your strengths and weaknesses in fulfilling your parenting responsibilities. We are not looking for fill-in-the-blank, right and wrong answers. As you think through your answers to each question, perhaps you will come to understand yourself better.
Self-awareness is often the first step to an awareness of God at work in our lives. As you discuss your answers with your spouse (or a close friend), you may begin to see a kaleidoscope of experiences and impressions which help make you who you are. And, if you choose to answer the questions for group discussion, you may learn new ideas from other parents and enhance your ability to parent your own children.
1. Write down five adjectives that come to mind when you think of the words mother and father.
Which of these adjectives accurately describe you? Which accurately describe God? What is your personal source for the negative ones? For the positive ones?
If your children are old enough, ask them to tell you five words which describe you. How do their lists compare with your lists?
2. List ten advantages you and your children have by being in your family.
3. In what ways do you experience "family relationships" with other believers (Heb 2:11)? What aspects of "family" do you wish you experienced more with other Christians?
Are there any parts of your experience in the Christian community which remind you of unhealthy family relationships?
4. Identify three major stress points for you as a parent. How might God use those stresses to help you grow spiritually or emotionally?
5. In Numbers 2:2, God, through Moses and Aaron, instructed the Israelites to gather around the Tent of Meeting in families, each one under "his standard with the banners of his family." If you were to make a banner depicting your own family, what symbols would be on it? (Some families have enjoyed actually making these banners out of paper or felt and then hanging them in a special place in the home.)
1. No family is perfect, but think of several families you know whose relationships seem to reflect, at least in some ways, the relationship God has with us. What are some of the qualities of these families? What are the fathers like? What are the mothers like? How do the children respond to their parents? What makes these families unique?
2. How has being a parent helped you to grow spiritually?
What is one of your main areas of growth right now that your children are influencing?
3. Describe your own father and mother. How did growing up in your family of origin help or hinder your view of God as a father and as a mother?
4. In 1 Chronicles 23, David gathered together the Israelites and gave them family "assignments" related to service in the temple of God. Can you identify an "assignment" God has given your family?
What gifts do you offer your friends, your church or your community? If you find it difficult to define your "assignment," ask someone who knows you well to answer this question for you.