Good News for a Weary Parent

I’m reading a book by Paul Tripp, called Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family, in preparation for a seminar my wife and I are teaching at the JEMS Mt Hermon Family Camp coming up next week. Reading books on parenting, especially books by people of such wisdom and experience as Paul Tripp or Elyse Fitzpatrick, often tend to produce guilt and discouragement in me, as I see how far my parenting is from the grace-saturated and Gospel-driven parenting that is described. Therefore when these writers (whom I look up to so much) honestly admit their parenting failures, God stirs some hope in me–that He can redeem and bring good out of my own failures as a parent too.

One section of Tripp’s book is especially convicting (or maybe I should put it this way: many sections are quite convicting, but I’m only going to write about this one!), in which he is expounding the principle that as parents we “have no power whatsoever to change [our] child.” He writes:

“God has given you authority for the work of change, but has not granted you the power to make that change happen. But we buy into the delusion of thinking again and again that that power is ours. We think that if we speak just a little bit louder, or stand a little bit closer, or make the threat a little bit scarier, or the punishment a little more severe, then our children will change.” [pg. 61]

Instead of using tactics of fear or reward or shame to try to produce change in our children, “Parenting is about your humble faithfulness in being willing to participate in God’s work of change for the sake of your children.” This is hardest for me in the parenting of my adopted daughter with special needs. My hopes that her capacity for reason and communication and self-care would increase through my parenting have gradually been drying up over the course of the almost five years that she has been in our family. Thus my patience is being replaced by cynicism, my kindness by harsh words, and my gentle shepherding by power and control. I have admitted many times in desperate prayer that I cannot bring change in my daughter, and yet I keep going back to these same old strategies to try to prove that I am actually capable of producing change.

Merely admitting my inability to elicit change in the heart of my daughter is not good news. But what IS good news is that God can bring change. He may not bring the kind of change I am longing for, and He may bring it on a different timetable than what I would prefer, but He can indeed bring change–that is within His ability. Therefore as Tripp sums it up:

“Good parenting lives at the intersection of a humble admission of personal powerlessness and a confident rest in the power and grace of God… God is with you. He wants what is best for you and your children, and no one but he has the power to produce it. He has not placed the burden of change on your shoulders because he would not require you to do what you cannot do. God has simply called you as a parent to be a humble and faithful tool of change in the lives of your children. And for that there is moment by moment by moment grace.” [pg. 70]

 

A Prayer in the Valley of Shadow

In The Silver Chair (one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia), the great lion Aslan gives Jill some signs by which she and Eustace are to find the lost prince. But then Aslan warns her, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly; I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.”

We also speak of “mountaintop experiences” in which God’s voice seems so clear and our perspective is sharpened. Prayer on the mountaintop feels easy because God feels so close. But we don’t live on the mountaintop.

We live in the valley, where the air is “thick,” where our senses are dulled by the noise and our sight is dimmed by the shadows. We live in the “valley of the shadow of death,” as the psalmist put it, and prayer in the valley doesn’t feel so easy or exciting.

My favorite collection of prayers is a little volume of Puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. The first prayer (from which the volume gets its title) is a prayer out of the depths of the valley, but in this case, the valley–because of its darkness–becomes a place of clear vision if one looks up to see the brightness of God’s stars above. Whatever valley you may find yourself in, may this prayer lift your eyes to the One who is far above you holding all things together, and yet is even now with you in the valley.

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty
thy glory in my valley.

A Puritanical Notion

How do you view the call to holiness in the Christian life? If you, like me, have grown up in a so-called Christian setting, you might have gathered that the Christian life is about learning to do a bunch of things that you really don’t want to do, and letting go of all the things you would prefer to do. Or if you’re not a Christian, perhaps you’re wondering why you would ever want to go to heaven, if heaven consists mainly of an unending monotone chanting of “Holy, holy, holy!”

We tend to think of holiness in the same way we might think of a kale salad–with a bit of a sigh and a resigned sense of responsibility, because after all, it would be much better for us than that bag of chips or slice of chocolate cake. (If you love kale salad, I apologize for using it in such a derogatory manner here!) So if we’re “being good” we’ll skip the junk food and eat the kale salad, even though we’d rather have the cake.

If that’s how we tend to view holiness, then when we read of someone who says: “Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. [It] is of a sweet, pleasant, charming, lovely, amiable, delightful, serene, calm and still nature,” we might roll our eyes and wonder where they got such a crazy notion. But that is in fact what Jonathan Edwards wrote about holiness.

In the same note, Edwards admitted the reality that is often still the case for us as well: “We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing…” In other words: like kale salad. So how could Edwards move from a childhood notion of holiness as morose or unpleasant, and come to see it instead as sweet and lovely and serene?

From what I’m learning about Jonathan Edwards, he viewed holiness as only a divine attribute, and therefore impossible for us as humans to attain. Therefore the only way for Christians to grow in holiness is for us to participate in the holiness of God. But that is in fact what we do! In regeneration, we are united to Christ, and in that union, as I Peter 1:4 says, Jesus “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” Christ is holy, and because we are united to Him, we partake in His holiness. And that holiness is not sour, but sweet; not morose, but delightful.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis wryly comments on how the satanic powers have successfully hijacked the word “puritanical” to bend it to their own deceptive schemes. Though it technically means “that which is characteristic of Puritans,” it has come to be synonymous with “strait-laced, stuffy, prudish, prim.” But that is not at all what characterized the Puritans, and certainly not the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, as is clear from his depiction of holiness as “sweet and ravishingly lovely.”

May God open the eyes of our hearts to see the beauty of holiness, that we would not merely resign ourselves to it as an unpleasant but necessary thing, but long for it and strive after it (Hebrews 12:14) as a sweet fruit of our union with Christ.

Watch Out!!

If your 2-year-old daughter was unknowingly walking toward danger, you would use the strongest words and tone necessary to get her to stop; in fact, you wouldn’t hesitate to physically restrain her and pull her away from the danger, if needed. Likewise if your friend or parent started experiencing symptoms of a stroke, you would not be apologetic in demanding that they immediately go to the hospital.

If that is how we automatically respond when a loved one is in danger, why do we recoil when a pastor, or a friend, warns us of the very real danger of hell? If a loved one’s soul is in danger of being in torment forever apart from the mercy of God, why do we squirm and fidget and feel like we’re being tremendously unloving to say such a thing to them?

One possible reason is that we have relegated hell (along with God’s wrath against sin) to the category of “archaic” or “puritanical,” and therefore consider anyone who still believes in such a ludicrous notion to be rather backward or small-minded. Unfortunately, though, hell doesn’t just disappear when people stop believing in it.

Another reason might be that any discussion of hell elicits images of street-corner preachers shouting hellfire and brimstone condemnations. Perhaps even Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, comes to mind–and we’re not sure if that’s an accurate portrayal of the loving God we think we know.

Or maybe we’ve simply bought in to the relativistic worldview of the culture around us, that proudly proclaims each individual’s right to decide their own beliefs and determine their own destiny. And therefore for anyone to claim that they know something absolutely smacks of arrogance and presumption.

The more that I read of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons and writing (and I’ve probably read over 700 pages in the past few weeks!), the more impressed I am at the depth of his pastoral heart. And the more convicted I am of how small and self-serving my own love for others usually is. Edwards speaks of hell often, and solemnly warns his listeners and readers to consider the condition of their soul and turn to God so that they might be saved from the wrath that they are most certainly headed toward. He warns those who think they are saved, spelling out in great detail the ways to distinguish true assurance of salvation from self-deception or emotionalism. And he does all of this without apology or hesitation–simply because he loves his people.

So friend, take heed! Where does your soul stand before God? Hell is real–the mercy of God through Jesus is your only hope, so cry out to Him and put your trust in Him while you still have opportunity. Do not delay! And Christian, on what are you basing your confidence? Is there evidence of your union with Christ, in an increasing awareness of your sin and a growing dependence on God’s mercy to put that sin to death? Don’t presume that you are entitled to salvation, and don’t treat it flippantly (like, “Of course, I’m saved!”), but “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5).

Don’t Act like an Animal

I just completed Day 2 of an 11-day intensive course at Talbot on the spirituality of Jonathan Edwards, and my mind is spinning. It is wonderful to be taught by a scholar who has made the study of Edwards his life’s work and joy (Dr. Kyle Strobel), but at the same time it is quite overwhelming because the level of his thinking and understanding is so far beyond my own.

One of Edwards’ sermons that we are reading for the course is titled The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth. Though this sermon was delivered in 1739, the content of it is immensely applicable and practical to us today. Here are a few quotes that I found especially insightful and challenging.

Edwards main point is: “Every Christian should make a business of endeavoring to grow in knowledge in divinity.” He describes divinity as “all that we need know…concerning God and Jesus Christ, concerning our duty to God, and our happiness in God.” As a pastor myself, I appreciate Edwards complaint that this business “is commonly thought to be [the] work [of ministers]…and most seem to think that it may be left to them, as what belongeth not to others.” But along with the author of Hebrews, Edwards laments: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” (Heb 5:12) Every Christian needs to make growth in knowledge of God a primary business, in order to grow toward maturity in Christ.

One of Edwards’ arguments is that one of the capacities that distinguish people from animals is our faculty of understanding and reason. “Therefore it must be a great part of man’s principal business, to improve his understanding by acquiring knowledge.” And not just any knowledge, but primarily “divine knowledge… God gave man the faculty of understanding, chiefly, that he might understand divine things.”

It follows, then, “that the knowledge of [these divine things] will richly pay for all the pains and labor of an earnest seeking of it. If there were a great treasure of gold and pearls hid in the earth but should accidentally be found, and should be opened among us with such circumstances that all might have as much as they could gather of it; would not every one think it worth his while to make a business of gathering it while it should last? But that treasure of divine knowledge, which is contained in the Scriptures, and is provided for everyone to gather to himself as much of it as he can, is a far more rich treasure than any one of gold and pearls. How busy are all sorts of men, all over the world, in getting riches? But this knowledge is a far better kind of riches, than that after which they so diligently and laboriously pursue.”

So don’t act like a brute beast and make it your chief ambition to pursue the things that will not last, but exercise that uniquely human capacity for increasing in the knowledge of God. “If God hath made it the business of some to be teachers, it will follow, that he hath made it the business of others to be learners… God hath never made it the duty of some to take pains to teach those who are not obliged to take pains to learn. He hath not commanded ministers to spend themselves, in order to impart knowledge to those who are not obliged to apply themselves to receive it.” Amen to that!! “The name by which Christians are commonly called in the New Testament is disciples, the signification of which word is scholars or learners. All Christians are put into the school of Christ, where their business is to learn, or receive knowledge from Christ, their common master and teacher, and from those…appointed by him to instruct in his name.”

The Cost of Retreat

Retreats are costly. Not always financially–I’m finishing up a personal retreat at The Oaks Conference Center and they have a Shepherd’s Rest cabin that is free for pastors and missionaries–but retreats are costly in other ways. By definition retreats require setting aside a large chunk of time, and that is a huge cost. Retreats usually imply going away from your usual setting of family or work or friends, which also involves a significant cost.

But retreats are not just costly for the person retreating. There is also a cost paid by those who grant the space for a retreat. I know that firsthand–allowing my wife to get away for a day or a couple nights means that a lot more responsibility is on me to cover for the things she would normally do in our home and family. And when I am away, as I have been the past couple nights, I know it adds extra work and burden on my wife. Our kids also bear some of that cost, as they have extra chores added to their plates when one of us is on retreat. Realizing how costly it is for those who love me makes me value the time away even more, and pushes me to be very intentional in how I utilize such a gracious and costly gift.

Retreats are costly. But not retreating carries an even greater cost. Endlessly plugging away at life and work without pulling aside to refocus and be refreshed in Christ leads only to burnout. Refusing to ask a spouse or friend to cover for you, or refusing to release a spouse or friend to go, may save some of that cost up front but, like an unpaid credit card, accrues a much greater cost later on.

So I’m tremendously grateful for my wife and children, who have absorbed the cost of allowing me space to retreat, not just this time, but regularly! And I’m grateful to God for the refreshment and renewed focus that He brings through a retreat like this. Retreats are costly, but they are definitely worth the cost.

Crunch Time

It’s crunch time, and I’m feeling the stress of it. Multiple papers for my classes at Talbot have been due in the past week. My final exam is tomorrow and I haven’t started studying for it yet. There are several big events happening in my pastoral ministry, which I am responsible to oversee. Even a couple of new responsibilities that I had no way of anticipating are converging on these same couple weeks. Despite my best efforts to plan ahead and avoid a crunch like this, here it is. Maybe you can relate?

So a couple verses of Psalm 22 resonated deeply with me as I read it today. In verse 11, the lament and plea of David is this:

Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.

David’s troubles were far greater than my own, but I can certainly relate to the cry of his soul that God would come close. Help is far away. Trouble is near at hand. “So God, don’t also be far from me!”

He repeats a similar plea in verse 19:

But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!

In place of the despairing groan of “there is none to help,” here David pleads with faith and hope. God alone is his help, therefore he is not left to flounder on his own. “So God, come quickly and be the help I need!”

David’s song ends with a note of hopeful praise: what will be “told of the Lord to the coming generation” is that “God has done it!” (vs. 30-31) When trouble is near and other help is far (or nonexistent), God is our “very present Help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Come quickly to our aid, God, in whatever crunch time we are facing!