It was eleven o'clock on a Sunday night, and I was pulling out of the grocery store parking lot exhausted and overwhelmed. After we had put our four children to bed, later than we had planned, Luella discovered that we had nothing in the house to pack for lunches the next day. With an attitude that couldn't be described as joy, I got in the car and did the late-night food run. As I waited for the light to change so I could leave the parking lot and drive home, it all hit me. It seemed like I had been given an impossible job to do; I had been chosen to be the dad of four children.
It is humbling and a bit embarrassing to admit, but I sat in my car and dreamed of what it would be like to be single. No, I didn't want to actually leave Luella and my children, but parenting seemed overwhelming at that point. I felt like I had nothing left to face the next day of a thousand sibling battles, a thousand authority encounters, a thousand reminders, a thousand warnings, a thousand corrections, a thousand discipline moments, a thousand explanations, a thousand times of talking about the presence and grace of Jesus, a thousand times of helping the children to look in the mirror of God's Word and see themselves with accuracy, a thousands “please forgive me's,” and a thousand “I love you's.” It seemed impossible to be faithful to the task and have the time and energy to anything else.
Now, I'm about to write something here that may seem counter-intuitive and quasi-irrational, but here it is: That moment in the car was not dark and horrible. No, it was a precious moment of faithful grace. Rather than my burden growing heavier that evening, my burden lifted. Do I mean that suddenly parenting got simpler and easier? By no means! But something fundamental changed that evening for which I am eternally grateful.
There are two things I learned that evening that changed the experience of parenting for me.
1. I faced the fact that I had no ability whatsoever to change my children.
In ways that I had been completely unaware of, I had loaded the burden of change unto my shoulders. I had fallen into believing that by the force of my logic, the threat of my discipline, the look on my face, or the tone of my voice, that I could change the hearts of my children, and in changing their hearts, change their behavior. Daily I would get up in the morning and try to be the self-appointed messiah of my children. And the more I tried to do what I have no power to do, the more it angered and disappointed me, and frustrated and discouraged them. It was a big mess. I was a pastor, yet I failed to see that in my parenting I denied the very gospel that I tried to faithfully preach Sunday after Sunday. In my home, as I tried to produce change and growth in my children, I acted as if there were no plan of redemption, no Jesus the Christ, no cross of sacrifice, no empty tomb, no living and active Holy Spirit. That evening God opened my eyes to the fact that I was asking the law to do what only grace could accomplish, and that would never work.
I began to understand that if all my children needed was a set of rules and a parent to function as a judge, jury, and jailer, Jesus would have never needed to come. It hit me that the fundamental changes that needed to take place at the deepest level of thought and desire in my children, leading to lasting changes in their behavior, would only ever happen by means of the powerful, forgiving, and transforming grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. I began to realize that as a parent I had not been called to be the producer of change, but to be a willing tool in the powerful hands of a God who alone has the power and willingness to undo us and rebuild us again. But there was a second thing I got that evening.
2. I faced the fact that in order to be a tool of grace, I desperately needed grace myself.
In a moment of confessing and forsaking my delusions of autonomy and self-sufficiency, I faced my weakness of character, wisdom, and strength. I admitted to God and myself that I didn't have inside of me what it takes to do the task I was called on to do. I did not have the endless patience, faithful perseverance, constant love, and ever-ready grace that were needed to be the instrument in the lives of my children that God had appointed me to be. And in that admission, I realized that I was much more like my children than unlike them. Like them, I am naturally independent and self-sufficent. Like them, I don't always love authority and esteem wisdom. Like them, I often want to write my own rules and pursue my own plan. Like them, I want life to be predictable, comfortable, and easy. Like them, I would again and again make life all about me.
It hit me that If I were ever to be the tool of transforming grace in the lives of my children, I needed to be daily rescued, not from them, but from me! That's why Jesus came, so that I would have every resource that I need to be what he has chosen me to be and do what he has called me to do. In his life, death, and resurrection I had already been given all that I needed to be his tool of rescuing, forgiving, and transforming grace.
That night I began to find joy in the impossibility of it all. The task is way bigger than our ability us as parents, but we are not our children's messiah, and we are not left to the resources of our own character, wisdom, and strength. Our children have a Messiah. He is with them and working in and through us. The wise heavenly Father is working on everybody in the scene, and he will not call us or them to a task without enabling us to do it.