I’ve been spinning my wheels for a couple of months now. A year ago, I would have told you that I was pretty good at parenting, that while far from perfect, I had good theology and good practice and that, given our current path, I was likely to be successful.
Today I will tell you that on most days my impatience, anger, discontent, irritation, and laziness eclipse any notions of success and self-confidence. I’m left, at the end of the day, after a bedtime routine has gone south, after the kids are—two hours later—all finally asleep, I’m left exhausted, frustrated, and entirely without motivation to continue the Sisyphean task of raising my children.
I am trying so hard, I think to myself. I see myself pushing and pulling, orchestrating our home in such a way that they are moving towards love of God and love of neighbor, working so hard that God must respond, must work in my children’s hearts, must fulfill the covenant promise of their baptism.
Yet—I’m slowly beginning to see—this view of myself and my home does not have our Triune God as its god.
How often do I imagine our God to be like Baal, so that I become like the priests whom Elijah challenged, beating their breasts and wailing and even cutting themselves in order to move our God to act? To wake up, as Elijah taunted. But we do not serve a sleeping, distracted God. Our God is the one who sustains all things, whose presence in the world is not a passive being there, but an active movement. “Keep in step with the Spirit,” Paul exhorts us in Galatians 5:25. Does this not presume that the Spirit is moving, going somewhere, doing something? God is working. God is active. We do not have to rouse him or catch his attention in order to get him to act in our lives, or the lives of our children.
One of my guides during the past few years has been Eugene Peterson. He has a phrase, a theme in his writing, of “getting in on what God is doing.” He takes the reality of God’s presence and his Trinitarian work in the world, and challenges us to move out of the way in the story: “The more we get involved in what God is doing, the less we find ourselves running things; the more we participate in God’s work as revealed in Jesus, the more is done to us and the more is done through us” (from Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places)
What is God doing in my children’s hearts? I am not, as I often imagine, the primary actor upon their hearts. What would it look like to instead see our home for what it really is: not a self-contained, independent system that I’m trying to get moving towards God, but a place where God is present and active? As a place sustained, each moment, by his grace? To see my children as people in whose lives God is already present and active?
At this point, I should insert cute, heart-melting stories about the things my kids have said and done in the past week that prove that God is working, that sin and its selfish tentacles are not completely wrapped around their hearts. I’m sorry, I just don’t have them.
Instead, I’ll have to tell you about Jesus.
In Jesus Christ, God has revealed himself to be God with us. In him, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). In him, we can find rest from the burden of parenting, because we know that we are not the first to cut through the dense undergrowth of our children’s hearts. His Spirit goes before us and behind us, making our efforts fruitful and not futile.
Jesus is not the god of our productivity-adoring and results-driven culture. Jesus is not waiting for us to put the right practices, the right devotional, the right disciplinary methods in place before he will agree to come in and finish up the work, signing off on our job well done. Jesus is waiting, yes—waiting for us to get out of the way of insisting that we control our children’s hearts, that we are the ones planning their spiritual growth. He’s waiting for us to realize that he is already doing something, and to wake up to the fact that the best thing to do is to put down our own agendas, and get in on what he’s doing.
So instead of trying to move our obstinate groups of little people towards him, we instead ought to ask, “Lord, what are you doing today in my children’s hearts? How are you working? How are you calling them?” and then, “How can I join you?”
Friend, look around you. Each person that you see, each tree and flower and shrub that rises out of the ground, the very air that you breathe in right now, witnesses to God’s sustaining presence. We are not priests of Baal, and our God is not asleep. Let’s give up whatever we are clinging to in order to coerce God’s blessing on our families. Let’s give up the pretension that we are responsible for causing God to move in the hearts of our children.
Let’s look to the one who is Immanuel, whose Spirit first hovered over the empty waters of the deep, and even now moves like the wind through our hearts and homes.