Parenting is Hard. God’s grace is Good.

Susan and I have three kids who are in university, high school and elementary school respectively. Our dinner table convos are diverse to say the least. There aren’t too many crossovers between life in an elementary school playground, a high school hallway and a university campus, but there is one thing that is conspicuously common to all three:

The quest for identity.

Good grades, physical appearance, sense of style, athleticism, musicianship, artistic interests, extracurricular accomplishments, material possessions, popularity, social media notoriety, dateability, cultural savvy … there is an endless list of things masquerading as fantastic sources of identity and validation for our kids.

A sense of identity, broadly speaking, is composed of our a sense of worth, core beliefs and a knowledge of self. As adults, many of us have come to discover (painfully) that no amount of money, power, position, toys or sex will ever be enough because none of those things were ever what we were actually after. The sense of identity those things seemed to promise – that’s what we were really after.

Everyone wants their kids to be healthy, develop solid relationships, get a good education and a fulfilling career. Everyone generally agrees that the aim of our parenting is to prepare our children to leave home with the life skills to lead productive, generous, love-your-neighbour-type lives. The things is, we all have drawers with various been-there-done-that T-shirts, and we’ve discovered in adulthood that you can check a lot of “success” boxes and and still be haunted by a nagging sense of emptiness in our self worth and identity.

Actor Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” 

That’s very Ecclesiastes 1 and 2-esque.

The search for identity, and the anxiety and depression that is often a byproduct of this terrible search, is not easily solved by the next big thing. As Carrey so eloquently and provocatively stated, there’s nothing more terrifying than obtaining the very thing we thought would fulfill us – only to discover that it can’t.

So while we battle our demons as they insist on rearing their ugly heads, causing us to grapple with the numerous opportunities life presents for us to have an identity crisis, we are simultaneously raising children facing their own versions of the same struggle.

Parenting is hard. Thankfully, God’s grace is good.

A good place for us to orient ourselves as we aim to raise our children to live from a grounded sense of their identity – is the beginning.

And by beginning, I mean the literal beginning. Consider how a Christian framework of origins shapes our understanding of where we locate identity…

If humanity crawled out of primordial soup, then our origins were low. If  humanity was created from intention by a purposeful and loving God, then our origins were high. If we started out low and were not created but evolving, then our identity wasn’t purposefully created either – we must create it ourselves by evolving. However, if we were purposefully created, then our identity and worth were also purposefully created. The Christian worldview is that our children started out very high, but are fallen, and their identity is not something they need to create – but recover and rest in.

There are three bedrock truths about what it is to be human and the location of our identity that come to us in the first few pages of the bible. We learn that (1) we were created to know ourselves in relation to knowing God, (2) we were to live from a profound sense of worth as children of God and (3) from this secure sense of intrinsic identity, we were commissioned to go out and enjoy the world, using our God given gifts to cultivate civilization to the glory of God. [a]

We then learn that the original sin of our first parents in the garden stuck a stick in the spokes of human identity, impacting the rest of us who would follow. Original sin is the “sin under all sin”, which is the rejection of God in favour of being our own god. [b]  

Rejecting God as the divine source for our sense of worth has enslaved us with a natural disposition to looks to things smaller than God to give us our a sense of worth.

To know ourselves as children of God is to have our sense of identity recovered and received. To reject God is to reject the source of our identity and thus our sense of identity is something we tirelessly try to discover through what we achieve.

God’s grace is displayed right in the midst of this original sin. As Genesis unfolds, you do not find God withdrawing Himself from humanity, instead He moves toward humanity, promising to rescue and restore humanity. [3] By incarnating Himself in Christ, God made it possible for us to be reunited to Him and in doing so, have our core sense of identity relocated in Him. This is the gift of God’s grace, for all who trust in Christ.

If, as parents we aim to raise our children with a strong sense of who they are, then we must continually lead them in reflecting on Whose they are.

The meta-arc of the entire bible reveals God’s goal in the gospel: to rescue His restless children and give them rest. [4]  He continually did this by reorienting His children’s wayward worship – not because He is needy and therefore demands it, but because we are needy and we were created for it.

Therefore as recipients of grace who have had a reorientation of what we worship, our parenting is gospel-driven: we aim to lovingly guide our children in what they give their lives to in worship – because they do worship. 

The exodus out of a life of restless slavery and entering into a place of restful freedom is another massive Biblical theme, spanning both Testaments. A young person searching for identity is, at the core, a restless heart on an exodus, seeking rest. Everyone is born into identity exile, everyone is looking for welcome and homecoming.

Years ago, Vogue Magazine interviewed Madonna. She spoke candidly about her unrest and how it drove her commitment to artistic reinvention. As I read this I nodded my head in agreement, relating in a very personal way to her very transparent narrative …

“My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being, but then I feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.” [5]

I think we can all identify with this struggle. As I stated earlier, not only do we have to navigate this struggle, we have the responsibility of simultaneously discipling our children to that they can navigate their versions of this same struggle. This is not something we can do by rolling our sleeves up and attempt to do in our own strength and wisdom. Thankfully, God gives us His strength and His wisdom.

The Word of God and the Spirit of God have always worked in tandem to accomplish both rescue and renewal.

Perhaps you are reading this and while you agree that God’s Word is a faithful guide for you and your children in theory, you feel hesitant and are unsure about how to put that into practice because you had the misfortune of being raised in migraine-inducing legalism as it related to spiritual disciplines like prayer and scripture reading in your home.

Perhaps when you hear the words, “God’s Word is a faithful guide for your children” your mind rockets into a montage of Christ-less, grace-less church services or guilt-ridden family devotions, and against a frustrating backdrop wrought with anxiety, you  vowed not to perpetuate legalism in your home with your children.

Many who have had such an experience have yanked the wheel on spiritual disciplines to avert the ditch of legalism, only to inadvertently head toward the other ditch – which is lawlessness.

Legalism operates on the belief that God will accept us on the basis of our spiritual disciplines. That idea that is devoid of God’s grace. Lawlessness operates on the belief that we have no need of spiritual disciplines. That idea that entirely bypasses the very means God gave to nourish us with His grace.

The irony of both of these deeply flawed approaches to God’s Word, is that while they appear to be polar opposites, they end up landing at the same graceless destination. 

For example, a legalistic approach to Sunday worship will communicate to a child that church is where we go to earn, keep or prove ourselves worthy of God’s grace. A lawless indifference to Sunday worship will communicate to a child that God is so unimportant, they have no real need for His grace. Both lead to the logical conclusion that the good news isn’t really that good.

Neither legalism nor lawlessness presents Sunday worship to a child for what it actually is: a gathering of those saved by the grace of God, enjoying rest in the goodness of God, and being renewed in their hearts and minds to live to the glory of God.

Both legalistic and lawless views of worship are severely skewed by the idea that worship is something we do for God. This one dimensional idea entirely misses the dynamic truth about worship, which is that through it God does something in us – for us.

The universe was not spun into motion by a needy deity, suffering from a cosmic-sized identity crisis. The One holding the world together with a word of His power doesn’t need anything from you – it’s you He loves, it’s you He wants.

To borrow from Dr. James K.A Smith,

“Worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.” [6]

Legalism and lawlessness also poison the perspective on training our children in our homes. Prayer and scripture reading are gifts that have been given to deepen our children’s understanding of their identity. Through these gifts, the Spirit of God does renovating, reforming work, empowering our children to relate to the uncertainty of their lives with humility and confidence, from the conviction that their lives are in the hands of God, precisely because they’re His.


“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


Prayer, scripture reading and gospel conversations in our homes are not route, religious exercises, like learning how to “collect wood to build the ship”.  These spiritual disciplines are given to invite our children to “long for the immensity of the sea”. That is, through prayer, scripture reading and conversations around the gospel, our children learn to wonder at the immensity of God. They will marvel that by receiving His grace they have been given the right to be called children of God. They will grow to desire the guidance of the Word of God. 

As Westerns, we tend to think of discipleship as an intellectual information transfer, so we often have a very narrow, formulaic picture of what “family devotions” should look like. In the Eastern view of discipleship, which is the context the Scriptures come to us, discipleship was not limited to reading and memorization, though it included those things. Discipleship also looked like bringing teachings to bear on situations as you walked through life together, like we see throughout the life of Jesus in the gospels.  I’m not downplaying discipleship around the family dinner table, I’m simply saying discipleship is not confined to the dinner table. In our home, the discipleship we have with our youngest, who is in elementary school, differs from that of our child in high school and that of our adult child headed into their 3rd year of university. Many of the best moments in discipling our kids were unplanned, flowing out of conversations about the happenings of the day, situations in our lives or events out in the world.

We want our children to find great freedom in knowing that while the world is uncertain, their identity is not uncertain. We want them to know that while the world is at unrest, they can enjoy rest. We want them to face adversity with peace and confidence – even through their tears – knowing that their lives are in God’s hands.

Our kids social groups, schools and places of employment may all change. Their physical appearances, their physical health or their mental health may change. The economy and the political and sociological landscapes they grow up with may all change. Yet they can relate to all this knowing who they are as children of God – and that will not change. God’s promise to be present with them in this paradoxical thing we call “life” will not change. Therein is the security of identity.

There are times when I look in the mirror and swallow hard because parenting is hard and my inadequacy is glaring back at me through the glass.

Good news, parents: God’s grace is perfect in our weakness.

God ability to draw our children to Himself is greater than our parental failings. We must turn to Him and trust Him. We do well to consider His radical, otherworldly patience, mercy and grace toward us! We must lean into God’s grace and trust in the guidance of His word. Oh, and there’s one other thing worth remembering that will always inspire our confidence:

Our kids are His kids.

So we pray for them without ceasing and live in humble reliance on God before our kids. If you’ve been a parent for longer than five minutes, you know that no parent can say, “I got this!” We all parent on our knees, thanking God He has this.

May God give us grace as we continually point our kids to Him. May the perfect work of God’s grace do what the deeply flawed work of our parenting cannot do – draw our kids into the rest of an identity that is secure in Him, that they may enjoy God and glorify Him forever.

Press on,

Paul


*** I highly recommend The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness and You are what you Love, – while neither book is specifically about parenting,  both have been extremely formative and helpful to me in how I think about identity, spiritual formation and parenting.

[1] Genesis 1-2
[2] Genesis 3 – In the Hebrew language, the temptation in Genesis 3 is כֵּֽאלֹהִ֔ים וִהְיִיתֶם֙ which does not simply mean “eat this and be like God”, as in sharing His qualities, it means “be god” as in, not needing Him whatsoever.
[3] Genesis 3:15
[4] Hebrews 4
[5] Interview with Madonna cited in “The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness
[6] You are what you Love, James K.A Smith

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