The Paradox – and the Calling – of Christian Parenting

This morning was one of those parenting mornings.

If you’re a parent, you know what I mean.

Britney Lyn Hamm Parenting
This was taken a couple months ago, but it’s an accurate reflection of my toddler’s morning.

The kind that makes you want to put a pillow over your head and pretend morning never happened.

The kind that leaves you hustling hurriedly out of playgroup early because you’re horrified at your child(ren)’s behavior and they’re out of second (or seventeenth) chances.

The kind that makes you question if you’re doing anything right, because the little people don’t seem to be practicing anything that you’ve taught them.

The kind that leaves your already-throbbing head hurting worse, the tension between your shoulders tightening by the second.

The kind that makes you remember you are absolutely powerless to control your children’s hearts and actions.

 

The Paradox of Parenting

Mornings like this make me honestly re-evaluate my role as a parent (and no, I don’t mean jumping on a plane headed for Jamaica under a new ID, although I’m not denying that passing thought may have occurred once or twice). Because there are two paradoxical realities at play here:

  • My children have their own free will.
  • It’s my job to lovingly guide and shape their hearts.

The delicate reality hanging in the balance between those two paradoxes is this: I’m powerless to control my children, but I’m not powerless to shape them. In fact, it’s my job as a parent to shape my children to be functional individuals who can rightly live within the context of society.

 

The Calling on Christian Parents

As a Christian parent, that job extends further to a calling placed on my life by God – the calling to “train up a child in the way he/she should go” (Proverbs 22:6).

Now, I know this verse gets a bad rap because of the ways it is misused to support abusive or authoritarian parenting measures. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, shall we?

Over the years I’ve discipled several students who were violin majors at a local university. They’ve described the two violin professors they can choose to study under (let’s call them Professor J and Professor B). Both are highly respected professors who are known for turning out quality violinists well-prepared for master’s programs or Violin DuBoix morguefile.comprofessional careers. But their approaches could not be more different.

Professor J is known to be a caring professor who challenges his students to meet their potential and work hard with an undergirding foundation of support and encouragement. The students love him, and they flourish under his instruction, not just musically but as individuals.

Professor B is known to be a cold professor who demands them to be perfect by belittling them, condescending them, embarrassing them, and being downright mean to them.  The students improve under his instruction, but often at the expense of their mental and emotional health.

I’m afraid when we hear the phrase “train up a child in the way he/she should go” we automatically picture Professor B style parenting. Hard line. Critical. Cold. Harsh. Belittling. May produce “results”, but at the expense of the overall well-being of the child.

I think there’s another way, and I know this because Scripture is clear: God is love. God IS love. God, the one who calls us to diligently train up our children, is a God who abundantly loves His children. Part of how His love is manifest toward us is through His patient, diligent “training” of our hearts and minds toward what is best for us.

Anything worth doing in life requires training. Why should we expect parenting to be any different? Yet I admit, all too often, I expect parenting to be a walk in the park with minimal interruption to my day. Hah!

 

Training Up a Child – The Right Way

As Godly parents, I think the calling to “train up our children in the way they should go” means three things (someone older and wiser, please tell me if I’ve got it all wrong!):

  1. Train up a child in the knowledge of the Lord

    God’s ultimate desire for our children is that they know Him. That they know His word, because that’s His story and His love letter to us. That they know His heart – how He loves them and went to great lengths to redeem them. That they know His character – that He is trustworthy and good and dependable. We are shaping them to have a clear understanding of who He is and what He’s done for them. What they choose to do with that knowledge is up to them.

  2. Train up a child in the ways of the Lord

    God created humans to function in
    a certain way, in terms of how we relate to Him, to each other, to the world around us, to authority. That’s what His rules are all about – His loving expression of how He created us to thrive in human society. As we give our children clear rules and expectations, we’re teaching them how to rightly relate to God, to others, to the world around us, and to the authorities over us. We are shaping them to be functional, contributing members of the Body of Christ and of society. How they choose to live as adults is up to them.

  3. Train up a child in the love of the Lord

    God Himself is love, and His greatest commandment is to love Him with all our hearts and love others selflessly. As I teach them, I can model and demonstrate His love, His mercy, His grace, and His kindness to them so that, like the students of Professor J, they flourish in who He created them to be. I can shape them to treat others with kindness and respect. If they choose to love God is up to them.

Crown of thorns Bible MOrguefile.com

Notice I didn’t say “train up a child to be saved.” That part is beyond our control – I cannot make my children believe anything. I cannot force them to repent of their sin. I cannot flip a magic switch to surrender their hearts to His loving lordship of their lives. In that sense, I am powerless.

But I can shape them toward a right understanding of God and themselves. I can shape them to live in the way He intends for us to live, because that is what’s best for them and the world around them. And I can shape them to feel loved and extend love to others.

 

Parenting is Not for the Faint of Heart

Hamm kids on a walk
For the record, these three little people are pretty awesome.

On a day like today, I am reminded that this job is not for the faint of heart. I want to go to playgroup and sit back and talk with my friends about what God is doing in our lives while the children play peacefully nearby. I want to eat my lunch uninterrupted. I want them to play together without arguing.

But that’s not my job. Each of their squabbles is an opportunity to shape them toward loving others. Each of their meltdowns is an opportunity to shape them to feel loved. Each of their acts of disobedience is an opportunity to shape them toward obedience. Each of their expressions of hurt feelings and frustration is an opportunity to shape them toward knowledge of the God who heals, who restores, who loves.

Peaceful parenting isn’t the goal. Productive parenting is.

So though I felt fried by 9 a.m., though I didn’t sit for more than 2 minutes at a time during playgroup, though we had to leave early, it’s not all for naught. The bumps are the path toward growth. The friction is the heat of transformation. The tears are the drops of restoration.

It’s for something much greater, much more significant. It’s for shaping the little people God has entrusted to me so that, prayerfully, they know Him, they walk in His ways, and they live in love of God and others. It’s doing my part to shape the dough and trusting Him with the exact outcome.

It’s training time. Who’s with me?

 

Violin photo by Duboix at Morguefile.com

Bible photo by jclk8888 at Morguefile.com

Clinging to Jesus in the Labor of Life

(If you don’t like birth stories, you can skip down to the heading below)

March 19, 2011:

Britney Lyn Hamm New Mom5:15am: I wake up in pain, breath-stopping pain. This isn’t like all the trial runs. This is the real deal.

9:00am: We check into the triage room at the hospital. “Five centimeters,” they say. “FIVE?” I ask. “Only FIVE?” It hurts this bad and we’re only halfway there? 

For the next several hours, I labor. The back pain is mind boggling. “I can’t do this,” I say to my husband with each contraction. “I need something to help it,” I say, desperately resigned. I’m only at a 6…only a 7…only an 8. “Just get through this contraction,” he says each time. I get through that contraction. Then another, then another.

1:45pm: Transition hits. If I thought I was in pain before, I had it all wrong. Now it’s too late for the epidural, even if I wanted it.

2:15pm: Time to push. They aren’t kidding when they say “ring of fire.”

3:03pm: A.N. Hamm is born, and all the pain slips away. “You did it, Babe!” he says, excitement bright in his eyes. Yes, Love, we did it.

 

April 24, 2013 – Due Date

Britney Lyn Hamm new baby 28:00am: I think I might be pregnant forever.

12:00pm: I meet with a college girl for discipleship. Contractions begin. She’s none the wiser.

1:00pm: She leaves. I tell my husband this is it, but to carry on his meeting in the living room while I labor in the bedroom. I’ll let him know when I need him.

1:45pm: Just kidding. Meeting over. The episode of Psych is not an adequate distraction. I can’t do this alone anymore.

2:30pm: We check into triage. “Six,” they proclaim. “SIX?” I return. “I’m only a SIX?” This labor is moving fast, they assure me. The intensity matches the speed.

Yet again, I say to my husband, “I can’t do this; I want something for the pain,” each time a contraction peaks. “No, you don’t,” he assures. “Just get through this contraction.” And then another, and another.

The room is a flurry with activity, much different than the quiet hours of labor in the room before our firstborn’s birth. This baby is coming like a train.

5:05pm: E.J. Hamm is born, and all the pain slips away. “You did it, Babe!” he says, excitement bright in his eyes. Yes, Love, we did it.

 

April 27, 2016

11:45pm: A contraction hits. I shouldn’t be scared, but I am. I know that this will hurt. That ring of fire ain’t no joke, and I know that now.

April 28, 2016

Britney Lyn Hamm new baby 32:30am: We head for the hospital. It’s a busy night. We’re waiting in triage for a room, but this baby is coming fast. And if I thought the previous two were intense, I hadn’t seen intense yet.

“I can’t do it!” I say, “The pain is too much!” “Just get through this one,” he keeps saying. I lock my eyes on the deep blue of his where I find nothing but a love as intense as the pain coursing through my body, and I get through it.

4:30am: We get settled in a room – and not a moment too soon!

4:45am: With one swift push, A.G. Hamm is born, and all the pain slips away. “The baby’s out?” I exclaim in surprise. “You did it, Babe!” he says, excitement bright in his eyes. Yes, Love, we did it.

 

The Labor of Life

All three of our kids just had birthdays in the last six weeks, plus I’ve been hooked on Call the Midwife, so the labor of childbirth is present on my mind.

Today, as I washed dishes after returning from the library with my eldest daughter, I reflected on the day. And it struck me that parenting – really, all of life – is a lot like labor.

Today was an incredibly hard day, involving a sick toddler who spent most of the day (and last night) screaming.  Like the contractions of labor, I thought each time she let out another blood-curdling scream, I can’t make it through this. I could not see an end in sight to the screaming and the sleeplessness and the feeling of total helplessness.

Before dinner, as I bounced the finally calmish toddler on my hip, I kissed her and said, “We made it.” As I washed dishes two hours later with a finally quiet house, I breathed a sigh of relief. We made it. The pain of the day slipped away with my precious ones on their way to dreamy land, and I felt one more little brick of character and faith had been laid in my heart.

How much of life is like that? How often do we look at the clock and think, “How will I make it to 5 o’clock? To next month? To next year?” Whether it’s the unrelenting demands of a boss at work, the insurmountable pain of a lonely marriage, the sheer exhaustion of caring for and raising children, the repeated disappointment of a negative pregnancy test, the overwhelming flood of grief over a lost loved one, or something else, life is full of contractions. Ripples of pain and suffering we aren’t sure we’ll get through, big or little.

You know what’s amazing, though? We get through it. We survive. We come out on the other side, and by God’s grace, sometimes we even come out stronger.

With childbirth, we get through it because we don’t have a choice. Our bodies WILL birth that baby. There’s no stopping it. The only choice we have is how we endure it, not if we endure it. But even that is not the measure of strength. Some people think I’m extra strong because I birthed three children naturally, with no pain relief (on purpose). I don’t think that’s strength – I think it’s madness. I think any woman can do that, because a century ago we didn’t have a choice.

Life is a lot like that, too. Sometimes we get through it- whatever it is for you – because we have to – there’s no other way but forward. Sometimes we get through it because we’re pursuing a higher goal or aim that makes the pain and struggle worth it in the end. Sometimes we get through it because of convictions we can’t compromise.

The Source of True Strength

Let me be honest, here – my husband is the real rock star of our labors. I genuinely believe that without his gentle but firm reassurance, I would have gotten an epidural all three times. That’s not to say that would have been weakness, because it’s not – it’s simply not what I wanted. He brought out of me what I couldn’t bring out of myself. With each contraction, with each lock of his eyes on mine, he reminded me of where true strength lies: not in overcoming it all in one fell swoop, but in persevering and sustaining through one contraction at a time.

Faith is a lot like that, too. The good news is that we don’t have to get through it alone. God does not remove the pain in one fell swoop, at least not usually. We have to get through it one way or another. But He’s there with us, with mercies anew every moment. He grips our hand and lets us squeeze the heck out of it. He locks our eyes on His, where we see nothing but a love so intense it endured the greatest pain for our sake, and He says, “Just get through this moment.”

God doesn’t promise us enough strength for the next day, or even the next minute. He promises us enough strength for right now. As we get through each moment, holding His hand, watching His eyes, listening to His words of reassurance, we find that we get through it, and some prize awaits us on the other side. Maybe it’s not a precious new life ushered into the world. Maybe it’s just one building block in our faith as we see one more tick on the wall as evidence of His faithfulness. Maybe it’s just one building block of character in our hearts as He weeds out something that needn’t be there to replace it with a deeper faith in Him. Maybe it’s just knowing that this time we were a little bit calmer and quieter than before because we trusted more deeply that He would carry us through.

I didn’t get through today gracefully. I didn’t get through it with utter calm. I didn’t get through it with perfect faith. But perhaps strength isn’t found in what we endure, or how much we endure, or how quietly we endure it, but in how tightly we cling, moment by moment, to the One who holds our hand. And let me tell you, today I clung.