As an imperfect parent, I struggle frequently with my own limits and inability to manage my frustration. My wife shares this experience at times, so I know it isn't just me. I'm puzzled by the seemingly incongruous pairing of intense love for my children and equally intense aggravation and anger that rises up in me at some of their actions. Yet I love them dearly, and I believe I would give my life for them. So I have to ask myself: Is there any evidence of that in my daily life?
I suppose my exasperation is proof of the age-old adage that those we love the most can irritate us more severely than anyone else! But I believe there is more to this mystery; another layer or two that I need to understand if I am ever to attain a greater level of maturity in my role as a dad, even a man.
What fascinates me, as I examine my own tendencies and behavior in parenting, is how readily I assign responsibility for a situation's negative outcome to my child. They are immature and certainly still in the early stages of growth. They spend their days in an almost constant state of experimentation, though not cognizant of it, and their laboratory is not limited to physical surroundings. It's the swirling, tumultuous cauldron of exposure to truths for the very first time, and their self-control is in its infancy. In spite of this awareness of their developing abilities, I find my response to some of their explorations to be completely unreasonable, measuring their performance against an almost adult standard. It's almost like expecting someone to master flying an aircraft after playing a flight simulator video game--crazy!
Before I continue, let me make clear my beliefs about childhood responsibility. As part of their progression toward eventual adulthood, within the context of relationship with the Lord Jesus, children must be given increasing amounts of freedom and accountability for their choices. This is the only effective method by which all of us truly learn about God's creation, the power our actions release, and how to function healthily in a society. The Holy Spirit begins to reveal to each of us our role and identity through this process. And He has called parents to a great honor: to be the human leaders for our children, serving much like the prophets and judges in Israel--as conduits of His word and life into their hearts. (Deut. 11:19; Ps. 34) I find this exceptionally mysterious, even troubling at times, and always breathtaking--to have such a role while still pursuing maturity myself regarding the glory of God! It truly awes me. Yet He has done it, and I rely on His wisdom being shown perfect.
The abject inadequacy of any of us to perfectly fulfill this calling as parents in our human strength is undeniable. Some seem to simply turn away from this extreme responsibility in a sort of "post-childbirth buyer's remorse." The truth of this can be gleaned, I believe, from the plentiful evidence of damaged human beings in American society alone, throughout all age and social categories. Many who have observed this phenomenon have attached causal significance to parenting, but rather than examining the evidence from a worldview which considers the whole of life and its miraculous nature, they settle for symptomatic explanations like fatherlessness, abuse, neglect, etc. While serious issues, I contend these merely nick the granite of the damaged life. It may be true that a reason my car is not functioning well is a poorly running engine, but that diagnosis will never lead me to the full solution I desire--a reliable, enjoyable, whole vehicle. Expecting a tune-up to just take care of everything or blaming the manufacturer and giving up is foolish and lazy. I must have all the problems with the vehicle assessed and repaired and address my own contributions via misuse or poor maintenance.
In the same way, we parents must ignore the selfish voice from our flesh that demotes our children to burdens and accept the weight of our privileged role. Even this seemingly invisible decision imputes truth to our children and shapes them to take responsibility for their choices.
To discover a thorough and useful understanding of parenting then, it seems some of us need to alter our tactic. It's time to look not necessarily deeper, but differently. And, if dissecting my child's behavior produces only a partial answer, the logical successive step is to also consider my own actions, and more productively, my heart.
In the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of No Greater Joy, in a parenting article entitled "Cheerful, Authoritative, Consistent," often controversial author Michael Pearl writes: "A leader has lost control when he must resort to intimidation to command respect, and then the respect is based on fear and hate--not what we want to see in our children." I may not like the truth, but that doesn't make it untrue, even if I choose to live as if it is. In my heart, I recognize the irrefutability that every action and response I take as a dad trains my children to follow one direction or another. The above-mentioned egocentric intimidation scalds the love and faith of a child's heart. (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21) I would add to Pearl's statement that, not only can I breed fear and, eventually, hate with intimidating parenting, but I also demonstrate a belief that godly leadership is correctly established in this manner, and children can carry that poisonous belief into their future relationships.
As I said in the beginning of this article, I am stunned and perplexed at how the overwhelming love I feel for my children can coexist with the accumulated frustration I unleash upon them at times with my words and how I deliver them. More and more, I discover this to be common among parents. I pray for God's grace every day to heal any wounds I have caused in my children, overcome this weakness in me, and grant that same grace to others.
Every human being in creation, including every parent, is targeted by Satan for corruption via the world. But that's no justification--the reality of our need for grace doesn't negate the reality of the mordant destruction taking place in children's lives and the process that brings it about. And having received grace does not remove God's calling on our days; in truth, the Scripture pretty clearly conveys we as believers carry a more consequential role than before we knew Christ. (Mk. 9:42; Js. 3:1) Yet, upon encountering a tough battle, some still choose not to fight for the blood of their blood.
A deafening example of this can be witnessed in what I call "gang seduction." Does anyone truly believe that a child would choose a gang leader as "parent" over a loving, authoritative parent who demonstrates godliness? Not even perfectly, but genuinely? Some may point out cases of parents who claim to have lived just in this manner only to have their child's life derail at some point "without cause" resulting in them joining a gang. I contend this is fallacy and deception which avoids asking the pivotal question: "Why was my child searching?" Now, I can't imagine the agony of witnessing my own child descending into such a devastating life with an alternate family with alternate parent figures, the pillars of character which had begun to form torn down and replaced by poor substitutes, cracks painted over. It's one of the worst nightmares any parent can imagine, and I am certainly not condemning the parents of these kids. But these losses are happening every day, everywhere, just one example of evil virally stripping out the heart of human society. It is a battlefield, and we as parents are the first defenders of the target: Our children's lives. If the price of losing this fight is so high, we'd better understand why kids make such a deadly choice.
The leader of a gang provides a substitute parent--a cracked, corrupt, abusive reflection of God's parent design. So why is that attractive, even preferred by some kids? I suspect we're afraid of the answer. Numerous commentaries which decry the conclusion I am approaching, instead portraying some parents as good, shocked bystanders to what "happened to" their kids, powerless to fight it. But I'm also aware of the sinful nature's ability to persuade us to protect our pride from the shame of our own failings, even to the point of denying responsibility for decisions which risk our children's welfare.
Is it not true that each of us, in our heart of hearts, that intimate place few ever touch, know full well where we have failed, where we have chosen the easier path, the panicky path, the faithless path? It's not fulfilling, but it is very much a relief, to blame anyone or anything else; to get out from under the scathing spotlight of truth. These relationships like gang leader-to-member can be viewed as a parallel to Satan's pallid version of God's love; easier and adrenaline-laced to be sure, but toxic and seemingly inexorable to a child not yet equipped for these battles, who believes there is nowhere else to go since their original defenders, those whom God honored and assigned to serve as the best parents (cheerful, authoritative, consistent), abdicated the role, whether incrementally or catastrophically, by ignorance or retreat.
I am convicted by these realizations. And they lead me back to considering how well the vision residing in my heart of the father I want to be aligns with how I actually treat my kids. Not only "Am I pleasing God?", but also "Am I being Christ to my children?"
While I know without doubt I am forgiven by God and lean more heavily on His grace every day, the poor parenting choices I've made still happened and still affected my children. If I pretend otherwise, I not only have stepped back on the road to more pain but have also begun to place my faith back in the flesh, refusing wisdom's offer.
God calls us to repent of our foolishness and turn to Him for more mercy, grace and wisdom. The Holy Spirit reveals our sin through myriad ways, but it is an opportunity, not a reprimand! Our response to Him makes the future different from the past. For unbelievers, refusing to acknowledge the truth prevents forgiveness and rescue to eternal life; for believers, it delays restoration, healing and clarity. For our children, the consequences of either can be disastrous.
The only real solution is move close to the Father, resisting the temptation to forget what we know and allow ourselves to drift into the world, foolishly choosing to deal with fearsome trouble on our own. We must not allow our frailty and insecurity to hamstring us into impotent parenting--after all, our lives aren't the only ones at stake, and we will have to answer for our choices to the Lord of Hosts. (Romans 14:12) Letting more time slip away will at best result in greater suffering and dejection than we can imagine; at worst it may cost our children their lives.
Imagine yourself on a coarse battlefield. You are a warrior and a sentinel, and weaker little ones bearing your image cower at your back. Vicious, merciless, gloating, driven attackers approach your front and flank, their eyes focused hungrily beyond you on their prey. The sky is hard and grey as iron, and lightning sears the air, drifting with the caustic odor of anguish. But above you, confidently and powerfully gazing into your eyes is the King, and He calls you to stand. He holds out His great hand to yours, offering not avoidance of the battle but decisive victory in time. Will you refuse, instead opting to fight on your own, with your own weapons? If you fall, there may be no one else to stop the onslaught, no one to fight for them at this crucial time. Many others have already fallen, their feeble defenses crushed, their children torn from their arms. Out of His own love for them (Mt. 18:14), the King will certainly send other warriors to their aid, but God only knows where that path will lead, and you are here now, in this moment. He is offering you His assurance of victory. You will most certainly be injured, perhaps deeply, and you'll likely contend with the enemy for many years. There will be times they seem unstoppable to your eyes, a greater-numbered, terrifying force of fear, relentless and determined to consume the defenseless ones at your back. But He has charged you and placed you here. How long will you fight? Is there any moment, any word, any threat, any claim of the enemy's that will cause you to quit? Will you turn and say to those who entrust you with their hope, I'm sorry, I just can't fight anymore? Or will you fight and fight and fight with the armor and weapons of God to defend them, even until your earthly life is the cost? Is there any earthly treasure you will not risk losing? Is there any discomfort, any suffering that is not worth their hearts?
My God and Father stopped at nothing to rescue me from the dragon and his dogs that sank their claws into my soul, and the fight was not quick nor without cost to Him. In fact, He gave Himself to suffer alongside me. He allowed Himself to be viciously mutilated and mocked, humiliated, and finally murdered out of love for my heart. For me. Now He calls me to turn my eyes to the hearts of my children and be prepared to do the same if He ordains it. And as I write this, I am painfully aware of the shortcomings of my flesh and of my intellect. I have no knowledge of what is to come, no certainty I am up to the task. I only know that I long to become like Christ: The warrior who will never quit, never step aside to protect my own flesh, never relinquish their hearts to the malicious armies surrounding us, but fight to defend them until this body hasn't one breath left in it, and leave anything beyond that to my Father. And by His grace, I will stand.
Copyright (c) 2010 Jeffrey R. Snell
Scripture References Taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION
Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.