We know life in Christ is hard and hard is normal. Jesus’ Upper Room discourse should leave us without doubt, as should Paul’s metaphor of life as a battle (1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7), the author of Hebrews depicting life as a distance race in which we can expect to endure hostility (12:1-3), and Peter describing it as a prolonged testing in a period of exile and alienation (1 Pet 1&2). Remarkably, it’s into this life that we invite our children.
If we are honest, we know our performance in battle is uneven. Beyond mere weariness, sometimes our hearts are not in the fight, at other times we simply don’t do as we ought. Thankfully, all our ups and downs, weaknesses and failings, play out against the backdrop of Christ having already been victorious. We rest not in our performance, but in the fact “it is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” and consequently there is nothing, and no one, who can “separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom 8). We long to be good and do right, but ultimately, due to the unevenness of our performance, there is no peace for us there. Our peace is in a warrior king who is good, and is right. He robes us, weary soldiers, in his own mantle and says, “not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27).
We come to our children, then, as fellow-feeble warriors. We do not come to them as victorious in ourselves, standing on the high ground, but as the recipients of a gift. Our mission is to convey to them—in all things, not merely our words—this odd arrangement of fighting, and in some seasons feeling as though we are losing, a battle in which victory is already settled in Christ who loved us and gave himself for us. We are training them in a life of fixing their eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith. All hope and strength are there in Christ. No parenting system replaces this. This is a living relationship, not a system or technique.
You can see what this does. It puts us in much more of a peer relationship with our kids in which we show them, and seek to unite them to, Christ in his grace, love, and glory. At an early age, maybe between 5 and 8, we can begin to speak to our kids as co-laborers in the Gospel (1 Cor 3:9), inviting them into our own inner world of fighting the good fight, with all its unevenness and failings. This means honesty, humility, openness. (Read Prov. 7, with all this would imply about the father’s honesty, and you’ll have an excellent example of this.) I wish, now, that I had said much more often to my kids, “there is something here I want you to do, but frankly daddy is horrible at it. Let’s pray to Jesus for his help.” Children are incredibly forgiving and understanding in such moments.
The grace of God removes from us that mistake of high-handed, authoritarian parenting in which we demand a certain level of performance from our kids, plagued by the anxiety that we might be failing with them (often an ego-based fear). It moves us toward a Road to Emmaus model in which we walk alongside them, explaining how things really are, as Jesus did with those two confused disciples in Luke 24. In this model we still have a right authority, as Jesus certainly did, but rather than being directed by fear of failure, which makes us brittle, we invite them to join us in seeking Christ and his narrow path.