It was 11:00pm on a Sunday night and I was pulling out of the grocery store parking lot, exhausted and overwhelmed.
After we put our four children to bed much later than we wanted to, my wife Luella discovered that we didn't have anything in the house to pack for the kids' lunches the next day. So, with an attitude that couldn't be described as joyful, I got in the car and did a late night food run.
As I waited for the light to change, it hit me. It seemed as if my mission was impossible: I was called to be the father of four children.
It’s humbling and a bit embarrassing to admit this to you, but I sat in my car and dreamed of what it would be like to be single. No, I didn't actually want to leave Luella and our children, but parenting seemed overwhelming at that point.
I felt like a car running on fumes. I didn't have any patience left to face the next day of a thousand sibling battles, a thousand authority encounters, a thousand reminders, a thousand warnings, a thousand corrections, a thousand discipline moments, a thousand explanations, a thousand times of talking about the presence and grace of Jesus, a thousand times of helping one of the children to look in the mirror of God's Word and see themselves with accuracy, a thousand "please forgive me's" and a thousand " I love you's."
It seemed impossible to be obedient and faithful to the task and have the time and energy to do anything else.
A Moment of Grace
Now this will sound counter-intuitive and quasi-irrational to some of you, but I think it's essential to understand as a parent: that moment in the car that Sunday evening wasn't a dark, horrible moment; it was a precious moment of faithful grace. Rather than my burden getting heavier that evening, my burden lifted in a way that was personally significant and life shaping.
Do I mean that suddenly parenting got simpler and easier? By no means! But there were two things I realized that evening that changed the experience of parenting for me.
It was plain and simple: I faced the fact that I had no ability whatsoever to change my children.
In ways that I had been completely unaware of, I had loaded the burden of change onto my shoulders. I fell into believing that by the force of my logic, the threat of my discipline, the look on my face or the tone of my voice, that I could change the hearts of my children, and in changing their hearts, change their behavior.
Daily I would get up in the morning and try to be the self-appointed messiah of my children. And the more I tried to do what I had no power to do, the more it angered and disappointed me and frustrated and discouraged them. It was a big mess.
I was a pastor, yet I failed to see that in my parenting, I was denying the very Gospel that I tried to faithfully preach Sunday after Sunday. In my home, as I tried to produce change and growth in my children, I acted as if there were no plan of redemption, no Jesus the Christ, no cross of sacrifice, no empty tomb, and no living and active Holy Spirit.
That evening, God opened my eyes to the fact that I was asking the law to do what only grace could accomplish, and that would never work. I began to understand that if all my children needed were a set of rules and a parent to function as a judge, jury and jailer, Jesus would have never have had to come!
It hit me that the fundamental changes that needed to take place in the hearts of my children, at the deepest level of thought and desire, which would then lead to lasting change in their behavior, would only ever happen by means of the powerful, forgiving and transforming grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. I began to realize that as a parent, I wasn't called to be the producer of change, but only a willing tool in the powerful hands of a God who alone has the power and willingness to undo us and rebuild us again.
There was a second thing I got that evening: I faced the fact that in order to be a tool of grace, I desperately needed grace myself.
In a moment of confession, I faced my weakness of character, wisdom and strength. I admitted to God, and to myself, that I didn't have inside of me what it took to do the task that I was called to do.
I didn't have the endless patience, the faithful perseverance, the constant love and the ever-ready grace that were needed to be the instrument in the lives of my children that God had appointed me to be. And with that admission, I realized that I was much more like my children than unlike them.
Like my kids, I naturally believe the lies that I'm independent and self-sufficient. Like my kids, I don't always love authority and esteem wisdom. Like my kids, I often want to write my own rules and pursue my own plan. Like my kids, I want life to be predictable, comfortable and easy. Like my kids, I would again and again insert myself in the center of my world and make life all about me.
It hit me that, if I were ever to be the tool of transforming grace in the lives of my children, I needed to be rescued daily, not from them, but from me! That's why Jesus came, so that I would have every resource that I need to be what he’s chosen me to be and do what he’s called me to do. In his life, death and resurrection I was given all that I needed to be his tool of rescuing, forgiving and transforming grace.
As odd as it sounds, I began to find rest in the impossibility of my mission as a father that night.
The task was way bigger than my ability to parent, and the task will always be way bigger than your ability to parent. But we're not our children's messiah, and we're not left to the resources of our own character, wisdom and strength.
Our children have a Messiah. He's with them and working in and through us. Our wise Heavenly Father is working on everybody in the scene, and he won't call us or them to a task without enabling us to do it.
Now that's reason to get up in the morning with excitment and go to bed at night with peace.