Introduction: Parenting Doesn't Have to Be This Hard

The Beginning:  From Worry and Guilt to Freedom

I am going to bed happy tonight. We’ve just had a family meeting on our bed—all five boys and our daughter sprawled, folded, draped limb to limb across the bedspread. We talked about our upcoming plans to travel for the year, about schoolwork, about the church service the day before. Naphtali, our oldest, will be off to college soon. The boys were cooperative, listening and contributing to the conversation. Our eldest son was showing increasing maturity. The two sons in the middle were getting along better than usual. Abraham and Micah were still the darlings of the family. I managed to ignore the turf war Isaac and Abraham were having at the foot of the bed. We ended with reading a few verses from Acts and with my husband, Duncan, praying the day to a close. Everyone trotted off to bed cheerfully. I want cameras rolling, recording these moments against all my self-accusations and guilt. I want evidence proving what great parents we were. I feel affirmed, ready to broadcast my love for my children to the world, ready to write a book on how to parent well.

But if I am honest, I can’t end here. I have to tell of other moments, like the morning this book began. Everyone was squabbling and ignoring my instructions. In the rush to get all six kids out the door to school, anger and morning sloth collided: accusations, eruptions, tempests filled the air. These were the themes of the week—and of my life at that point.

When everyone was safely away in their own calmer environments, I went for a walk in a dense spruce forest near our home. Failure weighed heavy on my shoulders—again. I had sent everyone off that morning, not with loving words of affirmation, but with words of anger, impatience, and sarcasm. My mind raced through the maze of questions I knew by heart: Why wasn’t I a more joyful and loving mother? Why were my children so lacking? Why did I always feel like a failure? And how could I pray honestly when God doesn’t even know what it’s like to be a parent? I knew the rational answers to some of these questions. Raising six children—a daughter and five sons—was my life’s work, and yet it was work that often pushed me beyond my own limits. I could rattle off the challenges in a single breath: I live in a harsh climate (Kodiak, Alaska) with five boys indoors much of the time through long, dark winters. My boys are not bookish, placid, or reserved. My husband travels often, so I am holding down the fort more than either of us ever wanted. And though we had planned for a family of four children, in my forties two more came—surprise children who enriched and complicated already overwhelmed schedules and lives. Yet for all this, I knew my life circumstances were in some ways ideal. My husband and I are still married after more than thirty years. Duncan and I desire to please God with our lives. We are healthy. We love our schools, our church, our community. So why, after twenty years of parenting, was raising our children still so challenging?

How Could God Know?

I was not alone in asking these questions. Perhaps these family scenarios sound similar to yours:
  • Your precious three-year-old wakes up one day and decides he wants to run his own life. He doesn’t need you. The two of you, who once shared one body, are now wholly separate.
  • You’re a homeschooling mother. You’ve given your life completely to your children, stepping away from responsibilities at church and work so you can fully serve your family. You wonder if you will have any other ministry again. Where is the personal fulfillment you expected from this work?
  • You’re a single parent, trying to support your two children. You have to put your younger child in day care. This was never part of your parenting plan. You ask yourself, How can I raise my kids to be godly adults when I’m absent so much?
  • Your teenage son will barely speak to you. He is angry and distant. You struggle to love him—you hardly even like him right now. But admitting these feelings brings guilt. You thought you would always feel a deep love for him, as you did when he was an infant. What happened?
  • You have a special-needs child who requires constant care. You love her, but this is not what you signed up for. You feel as though you’ve given up the life you and your wife desired. Resentment seeps in, then guilt.
  • You’re parenting the best that you know how, guided by bestselling Christian books, but your children are not responding. Why aren’t they happy and content? What are you doing wrong? Why can’t you create the peaceful Christian home so many promise?
If you believe the parental angst and fatigue you feel is yours alone, consider this: In a survey conducted by Focus on the Family, the most frequent comment from mothers was that they felt like failures.1 Author Julie Ann Barnhill writes of leading a parenting group and being so struck by the levels of guilt and insecurity that she asked if there was anything the parents didn’t feel guilty about. Total silence ensued.

Yet in many parenting groups, especially in church settings, parents are reluctant to speak the truth about their feelings and experiences. In a culture that increasingly devalues children, Christians fight to preserve biblical values of devotion to God and family. We who have unerring truth to guide us surely cannot feel overwhelmed. If our children are gifts from God, then how can we resent their takeover of our lives? If we can do all things through Christ, then nothing is too much for us to handle. How can we doubt? How can we question what everyone tells us is the greatest calling of our lives?

Ironically, pretending that parenting is easy diminishes the value of family. As truth seekers and truth speakers, we need to be honest about the cost of parenting. None of us—no matter the depth of our faith, the extent of our research, or the number of nieces and nephews we have—truly knew all that would be required of us when our first child came through our doors. No words, in fact, could ever ready a man and woman for the lifelong work of parenting. Yet not many of us have examined our own parenting assumptions and expectations, holding them up to the unsparing light of the Scriptures. In the absence of biblical truth, we quietly absorb the “truths” our culture offers us: Children are here for our happiness. We’re born with a natural instinct to love sacrificially. And if we simply devote ourselves to our parenting, our children will turn out as we want.

These were some of the silent voices I wrestled with that day in the spruce forest. But then came an answer to my emotional challenge to God, How do you know what it’s like to be a parent? It came as knowledge I had long possessed but never stepped into, like a pair of boots sitting by the door. I realized that God did indeed know how it felt to be a parent. I mean, “know” not because of his omniscience, but know, as in lived, experienced, felt. Know from the inside out. God knows how I feel as a parent because he himself is a parent. He is my own heavenly Father, of course—and I a daughter who sometimes disappoints him. This alone should be enough to tutor me in God’s own disappointments in parenthood. But there is far more. Fully three-fourths of the Bible tells the story of God’s fathering of the people of Israel, whom he tenderly called “my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). In the book of Malachi, God rebukes his unruly children saying, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me?” (Malachi 1:6).

God identified himself as a mother as well, assuring his people, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). In Proverbs, Wisdom (as a personification of God’s wisdom) is feminine. And in the New Testament, Jesus compared his emotions to those of a mother (see Matthew 23:37). So throughout the Bible, God identifies himself as our heavenly parent, filling the roles of both mother and father.

That day in the forest, I remembered how the Old Testament records God’s parental relationship as one of great desire, incomprehensible love, unending compassion—yet Israel’s response to this perfect parental love was disobedience. One particular verse leaped out at me: “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people” (Isaiah 65:2). In these words I found an astonishing reversal that quelled my tears and continues to bring amazement, comfort, and freedom. In this verse, and throughout the Scriptures, we seldom see God as a happy, blithe parent. We see instead God hungering for more. God, whose every purpose stands, who “is not served by human hands” (Acts 17:25). The Almighty God, ruler of the universe, who holds kings’ hearts in his hands. This same God reveals himself to us as a hurting and tender Father who longs for a deeper relationship with his children. We see God, the All Sovereign, choosing to make himself vulnerable to the whims and sins of his fallen children. We see God allowing his heart to be broken again and again by our failures. What kind of God is this? Not a God lessened in omnipotence. Not a God who has failed as a parent, though our twentieth-century criteria might suggest otherwise. This is a God who understands all of my longings, frustrations, anger, and hurt for my children—and yours as well. God himself has been there.

We Are Imperfect but We Are Not Failures

When we turn our eyes away from our culture to the reality of God’s own parenthood, and to the biblical narratives of other mothers and fathers, we find truths about parenting that challenge our contemporary preoccupations. When we look beyond the few select verses we often focus on, we see that parenting is more than five easy steps or three prayer-filled strategies. We realize that loss and heartache go along with laughter and joy, even with the easiest child, and that though we are imperfect, we are not failures. Scripture exposes our simplistic notions of love and suggests that some of our goals for a Christian home may be based on history and tradition, or even our own convenience, rather than on God’s truth. Above all, Scripture returns us to our highest calling: to love the Lord our God first, before all others.

These recognitions brought me immense hope—and a hunger to discover more. As I searched God’s Word in more depth and breadth, and as I listened more closely to myself and to other parents, I began to find words for the silent assumptions I had long held close but had never expressed. I had assumed that unconditional love was a single, unwavering emotion. I had assumed, like many in our culture, that my husband and I were the makers and shapers of our children—that if we did our part right and performed well as parents, we would be rewarded with happy, godly children. I believed that fulfillment and joy would characterize all parenting and that if we hit a few problems along our parenting path, we would always find solutions. After all, doesn’t God’s Word promise all of this? I have discovered that God’s Word promises something far different—far greater—than my feeble assumptions. God’s truths about parenting are as glorious and freeing as God himself while our own half-truths are as human and limited as we are—and they hoist a crushing weight upon our backs.

The freedom God offers us is not like the world’s freedom, which often means escaping from family responsibilities. Instead, God’s truths calls us back to our families with renewed commitment, love, and hope—hope that blooms from a whole pattern of thought, word, and action revealed throughout the Scriptures. This book is not a manual to change your child: it is a deep gaze into the parenting heart of God our Father. As I wrote it over the past three years, my parenting challenges have increased, not diminished. My children—at present three teenagers, a junior higher, a first grader, and a preschooler—are each wholly themselves, each with normal struggles that challenge me daily. Yet I have emerged from this writing process with a clearer and deeper faith in God’s purposes for me and my children—and for the first time in twenty years of parenting, with more hope and joy than guilt. My life as a parent is forever changed. May yours be as well.

For Reflection and Discussion

Read Exodus 4:22 and Isaiah 66:13.
  1. Do you think of yourself as God’s child? Why or why not?
  2. What words or images come to mind when you consider God as a parent?
  3. What do you feel most thankful for as a parent today?
  4. What do you feel most guilty about as a parent today?
  5. How might your parenting experience change if you believed that God has experienced some of the same parenting hopes, frustrations, and joys as you have?