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]



Driveway Discipleship

Years ago, when I served in a college campus ministry, some of my most fruitful interactions with students occurred in the most unlikely places: walking to the parking lot,  hanging out at the pool tables, “studying” in the favorite lounge area, or sitting in my car in the driveway after giving someone a ride home. It is a little humbling to realize that all the hours I poured into studying and preparing messages to teach to the group had perhaps less long-term impact than those little unplanned conversations with individuals that “just happened” throughout each day.

Mark 3:14 reveals something of Jesus’ disciple-making strategy. It tells us that Jesus’ purpose in selecting His disciples was “that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” We tend to emphasize the sending out to preach and completely miss the fact that what came before being sent was simply being “with him.” It was during the long dusty walks between destinations and in the boat rides across the stormy Sea of Galilee that Jesus’ school of discipleship took place.

Robert Coleman puts it this way: “Having called his men, Jesus made a practice of being with them. This was the essence of his training program–just letting his disciples follow him… Knowledge was gained by association before it was understood by explanation.” Thus we have verses like Luke 9:18 “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him.” That doesn’t sound very “alone” to me! But it was precisely because Jesus gave these men access to His private prayer times that eventually they asked Him “Teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).

And it is precisely this principle of discipleship through association that makes parenting so powerful. Whether we intend to or not, we as parents are constantly teaching our children, for better or for worse, simply because they are with us and are observing our reaction to stress, our attitudes toward people, our devotion to God, our struggles with sin. And though we are called to intentionally instruct our children in the ways of God, we also do much informal teaching around the dinner table, on the car ride to church, in the grocery store, and snuggled up on the couch before bed. So we would do well to be mindful of all that we are modeling and teaching our children in those unplanned moments of driveway discipleship.

No Formulas in Parenting

Love + discipline + Godly instruction = good kids. Is that your expectation in parenting? I think it tends to be mine–not explicitly, but functionally.

According to Julie Lowe of CCEF (Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation), this formula is a “faulty, unbiblical approach” to parenting because “children do not come to us as blank slates, but with their own personalities, strengths, weakness, desires, and temptations towards particular sin.” Therefore, though we as parents certainly have a huge role in shaping and shepherding the hearts of our children, we do not ultimately control the outcome.

This has been a challenge for my wife and I especially in attempting to parent our adopted daughter with Down Syndrome. I don’t know how many times I’ve said with great exasperation to my friends: “We’re trying everything, but nothing is working! Nothing seems to be changing in her.” In other words, I’m doing the love plus discipline plus instruction, but I’m not getting a “good kid” as the result. The formula isn’t working.

The two things Julie suggests in place of this formulaic approach are: 1) “Evaluate your motivation,” and 2) “Remind yourself of what God calls you to as a parent—no more, no less.” I was greatly convicted and challenged in thinking about what motivates my parenting of my special daughter. And I was greatly comforted in being reminded of what God calls me to, and what is His part alone. Julie says: “Though God expects you to parent with consistent love and wisdom, he does not hold you responsible for results that are driven by the child’s sin or rebellion.” Or, in our case, God does not hold us responsible for results that are driven by what was cemented in our child through her formative years in an orphanage. It is not up to us to undo all that has been formed in her through her history. It is up to us to love her, model Christ to her, and respond with wisdom and grace to her struggles.

[You can read Julie’s blog post on the CCEF website.]

Battle the Real Enemy

I recently read a little book called After They Are Yours: The Grace and Grit of Adoption. Though the circumstances of the author’s adoption are very different from my own (local instead of international, baby instead of older child, fetal health issues instead of long-term special needs), I can certainly relate to the story of his struggles in parenting his adopted child.

One section totally grabbed my attention because it spoke to much of what we are currently wrestling with in our parenting of Anah. This is what the author, Brian Borgman, says:

“In fact, adoption is war, but adoptive parents must remember that, despite how it sometimes feels, this war is never with the child. Adoption is a war “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Satan opposes our mission, parents. He would much rather have children live in abusive and negligent homes or in orphanages–anonymous, unwanted, and largely ignored. And the last thing the Enemy wants to risk is to have children raised in the love and light of Christ’s gospel.

“All parenting is spiritual warfare. In fact, the whole Christian life is spiritual warfare. But some children come from dark places, and parenting them means that you will fight a particular battle for their hearts and minds. So take up the whole armor of God and remember that the victory is His. This kind of “remembering” is what I call a biblically wise gospel orientation–that is, a mindset informed by the whole counsel of God and focused on the gospel. You need to keep this perspective if you have any hope of parenting an adopted child well–and the only way to keep this perspective is to wage war.

“Let yourself get entangled in whatever real or perceived misery you might experience because you adopted, and you can lose perspective. There is much at stake here. Self-pity and resentment toward your child for your present challenges will turn you inward–the quickest way to lose ground in your battle.

“You need God’s wisdom if you are going to maintain the proper perspective. A biblically wise gospel orientation keeps you looking past self-pity, personal insults, and inconvenience, and helps you maintain a warfare mentality. It drives you to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (Ephesians 6:10). Such dependence on God’s strength and appropriation of God’s provision also helps you to guard your own heart.” [page 54-55, emphasis added]

Lately, every day feels like a battle with our adopted daughter. But in the midst of the difficulty of parenting her, we have to remember who the real enemy is. Our daughter may be obstinate in her sinful rebellion, but she is not the enemy we do battle with. The stress and exhaustion of parenting tempts us to accuse or resent one another as parents, but my spouse is not the enemy I do battle with. Systems of healthcare and government and education promise help but rarely provide it without a fight, but human systems are not the enemy we do battle with.

The real enemy we must battle in this journey of parenting an adopted child is Satan, the enemy of our souls. Joshua Mack, in his blog posts titled “Adoption Is War,” reminds us to put on the whole armor of God, especially the helmet of salvation:

“God has provided something stunning in salvation. And so what Satan wants to do is to make that salvation seem small. This is reality. You have been saved from the penalty of sin. You are being saved from the power of sin. One day you will be saved from the presence of sin. And what Satan is constantly trying to do is to twist that reality and to deceive you into thinking that you are actually fighting a losing battle so that you give up.”

Our battle is real, but we must not give up the fight–we need to remind ourselves continually of how great a salvation we have received in Christ. And we must not make someone we love into the enemy we’re battling, but instead make sure we’re battling the real enemy.