Pursuing Faithful Parenting…with Zero Guarantees

Like most parents, I very much hope to see all of my kids in Heaven, all of us living together in perfect harmony with Christ throughout eternity. I’m willing to tolerate a lot in the meantime, but it really would be nice to know – right now – that “the fix is in” and they will all receive life everlasting. And I’m completely sympathetic with other Christian parents who are prone to wonder “How can it be Heaven without one (or more) of my children?”

This past Friday, my wife contributed an article to this blog in which she tried to put words to what we both see as the overwhelming flood of undeserved grace that God has unleashed in our lives, particularly as she now sees it reflected back to her every single day from an 11×14 family photo hanging in our living room. (If you want to read that article, you can find it here.) Of course I am horribly biased, but I honestly think she did a really good job of sketching out how abundantly merciful God has been to both of us and to all of our children. Amen to that thought, and all glory to God.

Still, it seems to me that many (perhaps most) family photos can reveal to others how we might wish our families to be…as opposed, perhaps, to how they really function, day after day, at the level of the heart. I know I can certainly see some unwanted disparities between our own framed image, forever frozen in time, and the lived-out reality.

And I know for a fact that our family is not alone in experiencing this phenomena.

More often than not, it really breaks my heart to see the “image-versus-reality” scenario playing itself out in the lives of others. For instance, I have had occasion to visit several friends in their homes (or newly-leased apartments) as they sift through the ashes of their former lives, shipwrecked either by the end of their marriage, the estrangement of a family member or perhaps some other “domestic altercation.” Invariably, my eye is drawn to the framed images hanging on the walls, propped up on tables or staring back at me from within a curio cabinet. Many times, these images tell a story of “what used to be,” back in the days when everyone was still willing (or able) to occupy the same frame.

I’m really not trying to be gloomy, just realistic. The American family is under siege as never before, with all kinds of new and exciting avenues opening up for those of us who would rather not deal with each other anymore. Truly, as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11) and yet there are still times when, as a frustrated father, I can be heard giving vent to my deeply-held conviction that Facebook and cell phone text messaging are “twin tools of Satan” in the lives of American teens. I will typically calm down after a short time, remembering that as a teenager I used to regularly sneak out of the house and head down to the local record shop or video game arcade. So while the mechanisms of staying alienated from each other may have changed, surely the heart issues are identical.

In this season of life, the ongoing battle for my own heart shows itself most clearly, consistently and immediately within the realm of parenting. Despite all of my good and perfect plans for their lives, all of my kids have had the audacity to demonstrate (in one form or another, most of them very mild) that they are individuals, with ideas of their own as to what their lives should look like – though certainly sometimes to their own detriment. What has become painfully clear to me is that I had foolishly assumed that once I gave my life to Christ all of my problems would take care of themselves, especially in the area of parenting. Surely once I assented to and implemented the concept of biblical parenting, my kids would escape the many mistakes I made. Perhaps I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of passages such as John 16:33 and Mark 8:34-38?

As always, it helps to gain some perspective from others more experienced than ourselves, and I think this is particularly true as we seek to raise kids who love the Lord.

This month, Christianity Today published an excellent article entitled The Myth of the Perfect Parent by Leslie Leyland Fields. If you are a parent but have not already read this article in its entirety, I’d like to strongly urge you to do so. A few excerpts (added emphasis mine):

We must assume, then, that there is serious error in our beliefs about parenting. We have made far too much of ourselves and far too little of God, reflecting our sinful bent to see ourselves as more essential and in control than we actually are. It’s also our heritage as good Americans, psychologist Harriet Lerner observed in her 1998 book, The Mother Dance: We believe that we can fix every problem, that we are masters over our fate. The root of much of our pain in parenting, she writes, is “the belief that we should have control over our children when it is hard enough to have control over ourselves.”

Toward the end of her article, Fields shows how, even though he may not have had any biological children (Scripture is silent on this point), the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel nevertheless provides a model for us in his “parenting” of the nation of Israel:

This was Ezekiel’s responsibility: to speak and embody God’s words before the people in such a way that they might know who he was, a righteous prophet of God, and that they might know who God was. Ezekiel wanted more than this, of course. He desperately wanted to turn the people back to the living God and prevent the impending and appalling judgment and death. The record does not tell us if anyone repented as a result of his words, but Ezekiel was never accountable for the repentance of others. He was accountable only for his steadfast obedience.

In a related article (Parents and Prodigals) at the Christianity Today Web site, first published in 1978, Virginia Stem Owens vividly affirms the truth that kids raised in the most Christ-exalting of households sometimes fall away, greatly strengthening the argument that faithful obedience on the part of the parents does not guarantee what we might call “successful parenting” in this life (added emphasis mine):

And failure is inevitable. Despite the manuals, the self-help guides, the democratizing or tyrannizing of the family, despite even our most sincere efforts at searching the Scriptures and the mind of God in prayer, we fail. Every day, children from Christian families with the best sort of spiritual and moral instruction and example run away from home, become alcoholics, get or are gotten pregnant, become addicted to drugs, wreck cars, cheat in school, break windows, commit suicide. Like cancer, it strikes indiscriminately. Being a Christian offers no immunity from family tragedy.

It is not simple cause and effect that is at work here nor only a sociological pathology. Although our society creates a climate for domestic disaster, we all know of instances where the most creditable parents inexplicably turn out deplorable children.

Originally published in the June 23, 1978 issue of Christianity Today.

In our own lives as Christians, it seems that many of us make the mistake of misunderstanding our God-given responsibility in the lives of our spouse and/or children for God-given control over those souls. I’ve read the Bible in its entirety only a couple of times, but it seems to me that we will labor in vain to find passages where God gives us sovereign control over the heart of anyone else. Instead, it is becoming clear to me that God gives us clear instruction to draw near to Him (James 4:7-10) and to make faithful decisions in our relationships. He calls us to be responsible in how we parent and the decisions we make, but we are not ultimately responsible for the results.

Living from one day to the next, I can find it very easy to get discouraged by a lack of full reconciliation in this life, but that makes it all the more powerful (I think) to trust Him to reconcile all things to Himself (Colossians 1:15-23) and to remember that the images we hang on our walls do not reflect the work of our hands, nor the reality of the life, the true life, that is yet to come (Revelation 21). Thankfully, building that final kingdom was, is and always will be the work of God (Hebrews 11:10).

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