The role of father is arguably the most difficult vocation I’ve ever had. I believe the main reason for this isn’t actually the daily sacrifice that I must commit to for my kids’ faith and well-being. My greater struggles as a father aren’t about the changed diapers, the missed sleep, the cleaning up of toys, dishes and spills, or refereeing disagreements and tantrums.
Instead, the hardest part of being a Father is witnessing my own sin and failures reflected in my children’s youthful innocence. The tension between the need to be graceful with them as our heavenly Father has been gracious to me while also making sure they follow rules and receive punishments for rebellion is powerful and crushing.
How can I - a sinner who is in a daily war between my old fallen man and the new man God has created in me - how do I dare bring the law to bear on these little people nearest to me who trust me to provide everything and be the unchanging, unassailable and faithful rock in their lives without feeling like a huge hypocrite? That law I bring so that their natural rebellion might be curbed screams its condemnation at me even as it leaves my lips and hands.
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24
God has brought me from a place of rebellion with the church to one of exhaustion, taming my passions in large part through the regular and constant reminders of my sin and failure. I reflect on the kind of father I want to be by remembering how my father always was with me—generous and kind, endlessly forgiving and graceful, supportive and loving. Even the smallest disappointment that I caused in him was a crushing blow to me. That is true to this day.
And I think, “How did he do it? How was he able to be so graceful when the temptations of the law are so powerful?” It’s one thing to read books and receive advice and support which help you to be a good parent. But the daily reality is so difficult. I am tempted to be lawful, resentful, and force things into neat little boxes so that I might feel a sense of peace. Make sure those rooms are picked up and laundry in its proper place! Clean up those dishes and put them in the dishwasher! When I call you, respond! Do as I say! Every minute of every day! Constantly, without fail!
Yet the entire time in my head I hear, “How well have you yourself done those things this week, champ? You’re a real paragon of virtue! If the kids only knew what a hypocrite you were they’d never listen to you again.” And in my exhaustion from the week, and increasing guilt and shame over my own failures, my temper rises and I redouble my efforts to make sure the kids are ‘falling in line’ with the basic things that are expected of them. Then my internal voice says, “You are demanding the same things of the kids that you yourself REFUSE to do when God tells you to. You are every bit the rebellious child of God that they are with you. Hypocrite!”
The Tension between Law and Gospel
I know my first calling is to reflect God’s grace to my children as He has given it to me, that they might believe in His only begotten Son and have eternal life. Yet I also know that we live in this kingdom for a short time and that all things are lawful – rules are there for a reason and must be obeyed so that we don’t train wreck our lives and can be there for our neighbors to strengthen their faith. The law is necessary and sometimes punishments will be doled out in this kingdom. Scripture is clear on these things.
One of the gifts I receive through this struggle, however, is that God continues to make me conscious of so much of my sin probably more so through my kids than anything or anyone else. In turn, I understand more than ever how much I need His forgiveness. We parents have a very tough job—we need forgiveness in a huge way. I need to be forgiven for my short temper, my lack of forgiveness, my passion for using the law to demand something approximating perfection, and even just for many of the words that leave my mouth.
God knows our need. He knows how it is to raise unruly children. He is very experienced in dealing with rebellion.
But the good news is that God knows our need. He knows how it is to raise unruly children. He is very experienced in dealing with rebellion. And the thing He does that is so unbelievable and inconceivable to me as a sinful father is forgive perfectly. My cup runneth over! Mercy and ever loving kindness are unique traits to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. There are no other gods like Him.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 2:4-7
He reveals through His Son just how far He is willing to go to rescue us. When my sinful treatment of my children would otherwise (justly!) cast me into the depths of hell for all eternity, God sends His only begotten Son to die for me, a sinful father, that I might live with Him eternally as His beloved child. I do not deserve it in any way, but while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8)!
It is for freedom that Christ died to set us free (Gal 5:1). Christ has taken our sinful and failed efforts as parents onto Himself. In the faith He has gifted to us, we are guaranteed eternal life. In the forgiveness that we receive weekly from our faithful pastors, He renews us in this life, reminding us of the sins He has taken from us onto Himself on the cross—even from the last week! It is in His peace and forgiveness that we rest. You are forgiven! You are now free to imperfectly enjoy your children for all the years that you’re blessed to be with them.
If you watch carefully, you will also see Christ’s love reflected back at you from the kids. Undeserved love, poured out with a liberal wrist, is given to each of us even as we fail. Truly, God’s gifts are greater than we can imagine.