This article appeared at Servants of Grace on April 16, 2017.
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.
This is not one of those posts where a mom looks back to her early days of motherhood and wishes she’d known then what she knows now about potty-training or education choices or organic clothing. Although I totally wish we’d moved to the country sooner than we did. Nor is it a post where guarantees are made that the right parenting philosophy will result in model children. Nor will you find convincing anecdotes or moving illustrations that highlight the virtues of well-brought up offspring (especially mine).
It’s not a post that encourages parents to rightly prioritize more biblical and godly goals over temporal or worldly worries about raising smart kids, popular kids, talented kids, athletic kids, successful kids, etc. Although that is a sure and necessary exhortation in a comparison-prone world of social media and marketing gimmicks that play on parents’ fears and guilt, that’s not what’s going on here.
This post is intended to consider whether maybe—just maybe—the goal in parenting is only partly about how the kids turn out, and perhaps a lot about what happens to my soul during and by the end of the journey.
Is it about the sanctification process that drives me to my knees? Is it about learning how to pry my fingers off my children and letting a sovereign God do what He will? Is it about being given the eyes to see the ugly, ugly truth that the vision for our family that I have nursed, protected, primped and gazed at with adoration is in reality a wicked and vile attempt to supplant trust in God with my better idea—an idol—and that God will not allow competition? Is it about forcing me to acknowledge that in the end all we can do is obey in our parenting, that He determines how influential we will be? Is it about realizing that this road that we have been on for 27 years is only partly about influencing how our children will turn out and more about us learning that He is trustworthy to determine their outcome, and no matter what it is, it is perfect and just and good and holy because that is who He is?
My husband and I are soon-to-be empty nesters. Yes, I know that just because the kids have reached various stages of moving out or moving on (well, one is out and married, one is in college, one will leave this fall, and one will live at home while taking courses and plotting her next steps) doesn’t mean we’ve stopped being parents, but it does mean the dynamics have changed. In fact, the real dynamics started changing long before the kids were old enough to drive away on their own. It’s been changing in the schedules that have been all over the map as they’ve tried to juggle classes, homework, jobs, sports and other commitments, and maintain a modicum of spiritual activity. First we noticed hints that they are not merely extensions of us, but that their preferences in styles, fashions, pursuits, means of relaxation, communication habits are unique to them.
In short time, we were surrounded on all sides by their choices in friends, decisions in problem-solving, miscalculations in handling life’s pressures, impulsivity instead of deliberation in planning, lack of frugality. They drive with the radio playing too loudly, spend too much on signature coffee drinks, swing wildly on a pendulum in their moods, strike disastrous balances in friendships, don’t listen to advice, and persist in self-denial. They’re good at not letting us see the fear in their eyes. And every once in a while we detect the glimmer of comprehension as they grasp onto the lesson God is teaching them. Here or there habits change as they submit their desires to the Lord. Voices modulate out of the melodramatic range as they consider others more highly themselves, and thinking through a plan seems more advantageous than the wastefulness that often accompanies spontaneity or impetuosity. More and more frequently, the peace of Jesus settles over them. They belong to Him, not to me.
Sure we will always be Mom and Dad, but even now we are not the same Mom and Dad we used to be. We can’t be. They are certainly not babies anymore, and in truth, they’re not really kids anymore. The oldest has several years of adulting under her belt, and now the youngest alternates between faking it and pulling it off with sass and style. They make more decisions on their own every new day. And because that also means more potential mistakes, it’s an easy slide for me back into Mom-of-yesteryear who just tonight said to the 17-year old going off to a babysitting job, “Remember it’s a school night, so don’t let the kids stay up too late.” I should have been more guarded. “Mom, I know. She texted me the instructions. I know what I’m doing.”
She does, and if she makes a mistake, God’s got it. Not me. Hello, here’s one of those times when it’s less about parenting them and more about sanctifying me. They make the mistakes. Sometimes really big ones. I trust God. They face the temptations. Sometimes really scary ones. I trust God. They experience the deep hurts that have them question God’s motives. I trust God.
“I remember when we were on that kick about how if we just followed all the rules exactly the way God lays it out in the Scriptures,” my husband said to me just this afternoon, “then it would guarantee model children. Nothing could go wrong. And clearly if others’ children ended up in trouble, it was the parents who failed to adhere to the manual.” He looked at me, “I didn’t take into account how utterly inadequate I am and how much my own sinfulness would derail that.”
It doesn’t matter how many conversations we have. It doesn’t matter how many years we’ve spent in church and at family Bible camps and around the dinner table with God’s word open in front of each of us. What’s happening is not what we expected and—horrors of all horrors—it’s not reflective of what’s happening in any of our friends’ homes. The Christmas photos that cover the fridge show families where the kids are serving as interns in Washington, starting ministries or kickstarting creative projects. I haven’t gotten Christmas cards out in years. Somehow we have failed—as if we could have ever done otherwise, and it’s too late to implement corrective parenting, if we could even figure out what we’ve done wrong.
But God’s got this. He has to. Because there’s no way I ever have or ever can. All I have left to do is pray. and trust. and wait.
We don’t ever stop praying for and aching over our children in their mistakes and consequences. But we grow wiser in realizing that we have never been in charge, that at our best we have been obedient and at our worst we have been manipulative and trivialized God’s sovereignty, but never in charge. As wisdom matures us, our prayers and cries change. Where we used to petition the Lord to protect them from their mistakes, or to cause them to seek our advice, or to take away this affliction they bear or the temptations that surround them, we now pray for Him to give us more faith to rely on Him, more contentment in His perfect ways and His absolute holiness and righteousness, more patience in His timing, more care in preparing our words so that they point to His sovereignty and control, more genuine love for these children—whom we now hold lightly in an open hand.