Failure and Grace in the Story of God
In a very real sense, parenting is one long process of revealing who you are. And usually that is not pretty.
Perhaps it’s a one-year-old who won’t sleep. Or maybe it’s a pre-teen who talks back constantly, a five-year-old who is still wetting the bed, a third-grader who just doesn’t listen, or a toddler who has constant tantrums. Whatever it is, usually, there is a fundamental reason it drives us insane as parents — we cannot control it. We like being in control, and now we’re not. And the seething anger or crippling self-pity we’ve spent our lives hiding begins to be exposed.
This is important because what is being exposed is not your bad reaction to the situation — what is being exposed is you. The difficulty of parenting has torn us open, and we don’t really like the heart we see inside ourselves.
There is an important theological truth here. Parenting shows us that we, like our children, are people whose greatest need is to be saved from ourselves.1 Just like our children, our greatest danger is to be left to our own devices.
The Bible is remarkably blunt about how broken we are. Most of the patriarchs of the Bible were pretty rotten fathers. Other than Jesus, all of the biblical characters we meet are generally like us: people who botch most everything. None of them are particularly good, and when we idolize them, we do a disservice to one of the great themes of the Bible — that
we are all failed sinners in desperate need of grace.
But this is only half of the main theme, and the second half is better. The good news is that Jesus loves us in the midst of our failures and is making broken people like us new again.
The tension between our failure and God’s grace is foundational to the Bible, so it needs to be foundational to our parenting. First, on our failure. Given who we know we are, it’s silly to imagine that once we have kids, we’ll get mature and stop being so sinful. Parenting, by itself, doesn’t make us less selfish. On the contrary, the first thing it does is show us how selfish we really are. And yet, in our failures, grace abounds! This is another way of saying that right at the moment we’d like to condemn ourselves, Jesus is doing the exact opposite — He is looking on us in gracious compassion and calling us to grow. This is grace in action, and it will never stop being counterintuitive to us. Grace means that our failures don’t have to set us back, they can call us forward. Grace means our mistakes aren’t nearly so much opportunities to see how bad we are, but opportunities to see how good God is.
Grace means that even though parenting by itself doesn’t make us less selfish, parenting in the hands of God does — it sanctifies us.
This story of failure and grace in the Scriptures is so helpful to parenting. It means that every opportunity to parent through frustration and failure is not so much about what you’re doing to your child as it is first about what God is doing in you.
Every opportunity to parent is an opportunity to be parented by Jesus.
Grace means that heart and soul, we can actually rest. The world is not on our shoulders (though parenting makes it feel like it always is) because Jesus on the cross bore the weight of the world for us.
That night, because of Jesus’ grace, I got back up and went in and tried again. I held Shep like my heavenly Father holds me, and in a matter of minutes, he was back at rest. That’s what a good parent can do: settle the soul — and that’s exactly what our heavenly Father can do for us. Send us to bed with a settled soul.
I find that I need this reminder the most at the end of the day, when all of us are exhausted and running on reserves. This is when I need gospel liturgies to guide me into rest, body and soul.
But just like all these habits of the household, bedtime liturgies aren’t solutions to make bedtime easy or prevent us from being bad parents, they are rhythms that remind us we can rest in God’s goodness anyway. And we need those. Because otherwise we get stuck in our anger, our self-loathing, and our failures. That’s why I try to repeat this statement as often as possible:
Our habits won’t change God’s love for us, but God’s love for us can and should change our habits.
If God’s grace is really that good, it’s worth building some habits at the end of the day to help us rest in that.
Bedtime Liturgies That Help Us Rest in the Work of Jesus
On a normal night, I still go to the Bedtime Blessing of Gospel Love I shared on page 6 to help us remind each other of God’s grace in the evening. But many evenings are not nearly so serious, and ever since I began the habit of a blessing at bedtime, the list started to grow.
Some are ones for normal nights. Some are serious ones I use in special moments. Many are get-out-of-jail-free cards I use when things are getting crazy. But all of them guide us into some moment, however brief, of acknowledging God’s love for us and inviting Him to form our lives in that love and grace.
First of all, far from being sanctimonious, these are usually fun. Nearly half the time when things go wrong or get silly, I simply revert to the tickle blessing. It has the advantage of getting them to the point of breathless laughter so you can get a sentence in.
A Tickle Blessing
Suddenly, and with lots of squirming:
Parent: Dear Lord, may this child find much joy and laughter, all of his/her days.
Child: Uncontrollable laughter, until they can barely breathe
The tickle blessing is also useful for when you’re in a serious mood, and they keep ruining it. For example, once in a while I’ll say a prayer for them, and they keep interrupting, or deliberately saying words wrong, or throwing things at their brother.
In those cases, the tickle blessing becomes a way to pivot — but without getting mad — and say, “Okay, two can play at this game.” Then they get tickled until they can’t take it.
Short Blessings Involving the Body
Similarly, when I think they just need a quick hug or a playful laugh, I’ll squeeze them or bounce them. It works as a way to gain control of the situation and often turns misbehavior into laughter, which is better than discipline on most nights.
A Bouncy Blessing
While bouncing the bed around the child, and trying to get as much giggling and flopping as possible:
Parent: Dear Lord, may this child bounce from blessing to blessing, all of his/her days.
Child: Bouncing and laughing
In general, these blessings remind me that the more physical you get, the more little kids can hang with you. Think of the way you can capture a one-year-old’s attention by asking them where their nose is. Life is physical, and kids get that. I find the best way to greet my nieces is with a tight hug and a smile, and the best way to greet my nephews is with a laugh and a shove. In general there is something about the physical that pulls our minds in.
Consequently, I started a blessing that tracks their body. I like this one because while they get engaged with the body aspect of it, this has a more serious mood and often it leads to them asking questions about something I said.
It usually goes something like this:
A Blessing for the Body of a Child While Lying in Bed
As prayer progresses, move hands to touch each part of the body:
Jesus, bless their feet, may they bring good news.
Bless their legs, may they carry on in times of suffering.
Bless their backs, may they be strong enough to bear the burdens of others.
Bless their arms to hold the lonely, and their hands to do good work.
Bless their necks, may they turn their heads toward the poor.
Bless their ears to discern truth, their eyes to see beauty, and their mouths to speak encouragement.
Bless their minds, may they grow wise.
And finally, bless their hearts, may they grow to love you — and all that you have made — in the right order.
1. I am indebted to Paul David Tripp’s excellent book Parenting: Fourteen Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016) for this key idea.
Excerpted with permission from Habits of the Household by Justin Whitmel Earley, copyright Avodah, LLC.
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Parenting requires grace – lots and lots of grace. Thankfully, that’s exactly what Jesus offers us! Building in habits won’t change God’s love for us, but God’s love for us can and should change our habits. Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily