“How should we love our children, Jennifer?”
They expected me to tell them. That was the topic of the talk, after all—the one they’d wrangled back-arching children into carseats to come hear. I’m not sure what they were expecting, this audience full of young mamas of itty bitty babies and toddlers, precious women just starting out. Maybe they anticipated a list of do’s and don’t’s? Perhaps a fool-proof plan? Ideas for scripture-based crafts? (*Pardon me as I pause to un-stick the word “crafts” from my throat. Crafts are of the underworld. We have a mutual hate-hate relationship.)
I smoothed out my notes. I took a deep breath.
“When it comes to loving your children, ladies, you have blown it.”
And the crowd goes wiiiiiiiillllllld!!!! Or looks on in silent horror.
Before you start to feel all self-righteous, I also need to tell you something, dear reader: You have blown it, too. (*Pauses while the speaking invitations pour in.)
“Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
We love this passage, don’t we? It’s a beautiful definition of what love is and is not. It’s read at countless weddings as bride and groom stare lovingly into each others’ eyes and promise, “I will always love you this way, Pumpkin Muffin.” But what if you read this passage as a litmus test for your parenting—a checklist that you score your parenting performance against? Do you still feel warm and fuzzy? Or do you instead feel like a failure? Do you feel panicked, even condemned when you think about how you fall incredibly short of the standard set before you?
This passage presents us with the impossible challenge of expressing Christ-like love perfectly. And here’s the bad thing: your greatest fear about parenting will come true: You will fail your children. You will not love your kids perfectly, 100% of the time. Not even 40% of the time. They will not leave your home unscathed by your sin and inadequacies. What are you going to do with this reality?
You have three choices:
1) Try harder. “Not me! I’m going to do this parenting thing right. Just watch me. My kids are still young enough to not remember me getting frustrated or disciplining in anger or not spending time with God or being glued to my phone. But from now on—just you wait and see. There’s still time.”
2) Land in despair. “If I’m going to mess up anyway, if I blow it every single day, why should I even try? Just give me my bed, some chocolate, and This Is Us because I give up.”
3) Run to Jesus.
As parents, you and I have a unique opportunity to be more dependent on Jesus than we could have ever imagined, more deeply connected to Him, because we know that our need for Him is so great. We see that list in 1 Corinthians 13 and we see how we actually interact with our children and we are desperate for Him to change us. We are desperate for Him to enable us to love our children the way He wants us to love them. We have the privilege of experiencing His grace again and again as He rescues us from ourselves and draws us to repentance.
When we run to Jesus, we’re reminded that we are not ultimately responsible for how our kids turn out; He is. The greatest challenge in loving our kids well is fighting to believe that it’s not all up to us. But when we embrace the truth that Christ holds all the resources, that He’s the changer of hearts, what we can actually experience as we read 1 Corinthians 13 is relief. Gratitude. “Thank you, Jesus, that You love perfectly. Thank You that, even though I’ll never love perfectly, You’re changing me little by little to love like You. Thank You that You fill in the gaps and You have the power to do in my children what I cannot do.”
When we run to Jesus and are completely dependent upon Him, we’re freed up to love. We’re free to love our children for who God made them to be, with all of their challenges, not just for who we want them to be. We’re free to love them when their sin is exposed, because we’re thankful that God is giving us a window into their inner life and is offering us an opportunity to speak the gospel to their wandering hearts. We’re free to love them as we wait for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction and change, knowing that we don’t have to try to manipulate and coerce a false repentance that would never stick anyway. We’re free to love with grateful, hopeful hearts because we really believe that “He who began a good work in (them) will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).
You and I, we have blown it. Chances are, we will continue to blow it in all kinds of ways. But Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind. Jesus always protects, always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres. Jesus never fails. And He’s forever working, working, working to mold our hearts to be more like His.
The standard is impossible. That’s why He came. Now go love your children imperfectly and draw their eyes to the One whose perfect love will not let them—or you—go.