We talked for a long time that night, this growing-up child and me. It had been a hard day: tears, a temper, frustrations, poor choices, consequences. We rested on a twin bed together, equally exhausted by the struggles of the day.

I’m not above an occasional “because I said so!” at times but I need my children to know why I said so, too.  I don’t simply want unthinking acquiescence to my expectations: I want each child to understood goodness and shalom and abundant life. I want for them to want wholeness and goodness and peace and love, not because their mother said so but because they have tasted and seen and know the difference.

I want to lead them to the “why” behind the expectations and the standards. I want them to understand who they are in Christ, I want them to know that I know who they are at the core: beloved. I want them to live out of what God has already placed inside of them.

So in these moments of what some might call “discipline”, this is tender holy ground, formation for their souls and their character, and it should be above all an experience of being loved. I believe in boundaries, in good manners, in righteousness, in high standards. I believe discipline is evidence of our love, I do. I believe I’m stewarding my child through life, I’m giving them a gift. I love them enough to tell them no, to coach them, to equip them, to call them to a higher standard.

So we curled on the bed together and I told this small person trying to figure out how to be human about my love and about God’s love, about how we live within this love in these moments of challenge. We made plans for better choices in the future. We figured out what tools needed to be in the toolbox for handling future similar scenarios. We practiced. We coached. We figured out consequences.

And we prayed together. One of the great privileges of parenthood is walking with our children in prayer, I think, because we give them their first language for how they speak with God. God is already speaking to them, I believe that with all of my heart: most of my job in teaching them to pray is showing them how to listen to God’s heart for them and for the world.

I know there are so many ways to describe one’s role as a parent – different seasons for different roles for different children. But most days, at heart I see myself as shepherd, as caretaker, as fortunate steward of these small people, these images of God. Handle with care.

I held that child until they fell asleep, safe in my arms.

***

 

I came across a sermon about parenting from a famous preacher. In this sermon, he said, “You are God to your children until they know better” and “Be the kind of fathers whom your children delight to fear.” The sermon itself is filled with exhortations to “discipline” your children – and he makes it clear that this is obviously spanking or some form of corporal punishment. He makes clear that discipline is the work of a father even saying that children come to know heaven and hell and Christ through their father alone. He makes it clear that God is most clearly understood as a father who is equal parts wrath and compassion. He says “babies have fat bottoms”… I assume so that we will feel better about spanking…babies?

So that is a lot of wrong for just seven minutes of preaching, I know.

***

I felt such deep sorrow when I read these widely-shared words. Oh, I felt angry too, angry for every little child who has a dad with authority and control issues being given a free pass for corporal punishment. There are a lot of folks who tell a story of being beaten or abused to the cadence of bible verses just like those deployed by preachers who don’t consider consequences of theology. I’m always frustrated by the conflation of “spanking” with the idea of discipline as if there is no other way to parent a child than hitting them. I’m angry at the patriarchal worldly attitude that centres fathers, forgetting that male and female are made in the image of God. I’m recoiling from the idea of being anyone’s God – that’s idolatry. I could shriek with disbelieving anger over anyone even mentioning spanking a baby.

But really when I finished reading that sermon, my overwhelming emotion was sorrow. I was heartsick.

What a horrible way to talk about God.

What a horrible way to parent.

What a horrible way to experience God.

What a lie from the pit of hell.

What a twisting of the gift of shepherding a child.

What a clever cloaking of fear-based control in sacred language.

What a misuse of what discipline within parenting could be.

What a misrepresentation of God’s heart towards us.

What an Orwellian treatment of language to try to make fear sound holy.

What a tragedy.

Even now, even after Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, even now: we are missing God.

***

Our parenting – like most of our lives – tracks its way back to what we truly believe about the nature and the character of God.

Our lives tell the truth of what we believe about God.

And so if we believe that God is filled with wrath, judgment, disappointment, anger, then of course that comes out in our lives. Maybe especially in our parenting – a crucible for most of us to deal with our selfishness, our pride, our pet sins, our bad habits, our carefully hidden real selves.

And by contrast if we know that God is filled with love and patience, kindness and gentleness, joy and peace, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control then that changes us and it changes how we move through our lives. We often parent our children the way that we believe God parents us: how do you believe God is parenting you?

If we truly understood God as love, we wouldn’t be able to stomach such a misrepresentation. The story of the universe tells of a love so encompassing, so pure, so whole, so full, so creative that it brings forth life and choice and possibility, a life more abundant of sunrises and first laughs and covenants and glaciers and clasped hands and pine trees and sacrifice and resurrection and tongues of fire and bread and wine.

God has never been one to woo and romance through fear. This isn’t Gospel.

The Gospel tells us that even when we are unfaithful, God remains faithful. God is love: the very breath of the universe is patient and kind, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, always protects, always trusts, always hopes.

We live in Love because we were made through Love and by Love and for Love. God is endlessly surprising us, always up to something, always arms spread wide.

***

I do have one expression that can probably best be described as my “Mum Look.” My children know that when I tip my face towards them with my eyebrows arranged just so that Mum Means Business And She Means It Right Now. Or perhaps there is the dangerous phrase archly spoken – “Excuse me?” accompanying my Mum Look. By which, my children likely know that I mean “you might want to rethink that thing you just said/did because this is not my first rodeo, child, and you know better than this so here is your chance to get it together.”

But their quick obedience to that look isn’t because they are worried about a frightful spanking or punishment when they get home away from witnesses.

Their quick obedience is because we have laid a lot of track to get to that moment, a track of simple age-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate expectations, a track of lavish love and joy and laughter, a track of conversations and coaching and practicing, a track of grilled cheese and kept promises, of chapter books aloud and Saturday chores, of hymns and new songs, of scripture and sunsets, a track of belonging. They know the road they walk with us: it’s a road of love, compassion, consistency.

Every day, we lay the track for their lives to run upon and they thrive there, we all know it.

***

Once my mum remarked  to me that those early years, the ones with babies and toddlers, were absolutely physically exhausting but it was the later years – the big kid years, the teen years, the young adult years – that were the most spiritually and emotionally exhausting to her memory.

As my four children have grown and matured, I’ve found that to be the case. I spend a lot of my time mothering these getting-taller souls through their conflicts and growing pains, their opportunities and challenges, their questions and hopes. I almost miss the physical days – I knew what I was doing then. The problems were more easily fixed. The answers were more quickly available. Now…now is when I am becoming more dependent on the Holy Spirit – I need all the help I can get for this work. It is so beautiful and meaningful to shepherd small souls well, to love them into who they were meant to be all along.

***

Parenting is an altar where I encounter God. I know not every one experiences parenting this way and I don’t have an answer for why this is true for me but my love for my children has given me the most beautiful glimpse of God’s love for us all. If this love I have for my children is even a peek into God’s heart for us, then God’s love renews and redeems and restores everything. Of course, of course, of course, I see it just a bit more clearly now. I shouldn’t have been so surprised to recognize God when I gloated over sleeping children or nursed through cluster feeds or washed soiled sheets in the middle of the night or clapped until my fingers tingled over Christmas carols in school gyms or read aloud childish stories printed on construction paper or welcomed friends for sleepovers.

Delight, delight, delight: do you believe God delights in you?

Every time Jesus uses the word “Abba” to describe God-the-Father, I exhale.

***

 

You know that I’m the mother of four children – four very typical children who are not saints, let me assure you. Discipline is absolutely part of parenthood around here anyway.

And yet….discipline is always an act of love.

Our children obey us out of love, not fear.

Our children obey us because they trust us and our heart for them.

Our children respond to our discipline because we have captured their hearts.

I obey God because I love God, not because I fear God.

I welcome the discipline of God because I trust God and God’s heart for me.

God has captured my heart, the refining fire can feel like an embrace.

Lord, you know all things: you know I love you.

If my child ever looked at me with fear in their eyes, I would be devastated.

***

I’m not God to my children – what a terrible idea. I’m their mother, not their God.

And yet I think I know what was meant by that phrase: often God wears the face of our father or our mother first. For some of us, this means that we see God as love. For others of us, we need to tear our parents’ face from the face of God before we can even begin to see God is love. It’s a metaphor – for some of us, it works and for others it’s a stretch.

I’ve often said that my parents gave me the great gift of a clear path towards understanding God’s unconditional love towards us. I am a grown woman with a family of my own and yet I am still thriving because of the security and rest, strength and safety of my parents’ love towards me. I hope I can give that same gift to my own children. I hope that when someone sings that song “You’re a good, good Father” (or perhaps “You’re a good, good Mother”) in church that the metaphor makes beautiful sense.

***

I often talk with our children about how we are all learning to follow Jesus – even their old mum. Even their dad. Even their pastors. Even their teachers. That’s what we are doing here, we are following Jesus together. We’re all in need of grace, all in need of Jesus.

I need them to know I’m human, that I make mistakes. I need them to know that I’m not God because otherwise when I fail them – and I’m not so ridiculous as to think that I won’t fail them spectacularly at some point – they will not only have their hearts broken but their faith shattered.

I need them to see me truthfully: I’m their parent, not their God. I regularly ask their forgiveness for my own missteps, model for them what it means to own up to our responsibilities and take ownership. They are quick to forgive and even to pray for me. I am showing them a way to God by walking that way with them. Discipline is reorientation to love and shalom and wholeness for all of us. I’m showing them to rest in God’s love because I am resting in that love. I’m polishing the glass, hoping we all see a little more clearly because of each other.

***

 

Jesus often showed us all of the ways that we have misunderstood, mischaracterized, misrepresented God.

So according to Jesus, what sort of a father is God?

He’s the father who freely gives his son his inheritance even though it was unmerited and undeserved and unwarranted.

The father who set his son free for the wasteful life the child wanted to live and then bankrolled it, too.

And he’s the father who watches the road for that ungrateful and rebellious child long past hope.

The father who sees him – filthy, broken, disgraced – when he is still a long ways off.

The father who picks up the edge of his robe and flings open the door and runs – runs! – down the lane because dignity be damned when my boy has finally come home to me.

The father who throws his arms around that filthy, broken, disgraced, rebellious child and weeps with joy.

The father who kisses his son’s face free of the shame that still lingers.

The father who shushes every attempt at apology with glad rejoicing at his child’s mere presence.

The father who throws an expensive party for the son who humiliated him and broke his heart.

The father who turns to the resentful older brother with welcome and blessing and invitation.

***

I remember breaking my parents’ hearts a time or two. And I remember how good it felt to come home, how it felt to be loved and welcomed, how it felt to finally rest, how I relaxed into the rhythms of home again.

 

***

What sort of parent is God?

Cast away the old visions of bearded Zeus, of paternalistic punishers, of bible verses as weapons, of faraway fear coming home to roost, of switches and beatings described as love. Such things aren’t love. As the beloved disciple wrote, Perfect love casts out fear: there is no fear in love. In fact, fear has to do with punishment.

And the one who fears clearly doesn’t know our God.

You were loved first.

The Holy Spirit is laying track in your life, straight to the empty tomb of the crucified Lamb of God.

Renew your mind and your heart: God drew near while we were still far away.

We love because God first loved us. God reset the broken everything of this world and heals and makes all things new. God is rescuing. God is healing. God is eating with sinners and despised ones, God is liberating captives, God is beauty for ashes and joy for mourning, God is streams in the desert, God is manna from heaven, God is born of a teenager in a town no one revered, God is being whipped, God is being crucified, God is dying, God is buried, God is alive, alive, alive, resolutely frustratingly miraculously alive because everything is being restored and redeemed and resurrected and renewed. God’s thumb is wiping away your tears. We don’t fear home: home is where we belong and God is your home.

God is running down the path, undignified, throwing arms around you because you’re home, you’re home, you’re finally home where you belong.

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  • His Girl Amber

    Ah, Sarah. I’ve been teaching parenting classes for a few years now- both for traditional parents and fosters, in the public sector and for Christians. THIS is the message I wish I could get across– to undo what we learned about ‘Biblical Parenting’ and care for our children with the love and compassion given to us whilst we are still ‘figuring out how to be humans’ too.

  • M.

    And again, I cannot finish your writing without tears in my eyes.
    Thank you so much for the encouragement and love.

    Love from the Netherlands,

    M.

  • Addie Talley

    “I remember breaking my parents’ hearts a time or two. And I remember how good it felt to come home, how it felt to be loved and welcomed, how it felt to finally rest, how I relaxed into the rhythms of home again.”

    I think this statement tells more of you… it tells of the good childhood you had – and also how your parents where God to you as you were growing up… not that they were a “god” – I don’t think that’s what the pastor meant… but rather as a child you can only relate to God as His child (because you haven’t had the experience of being a parent and having a child of your own yet or a lover so you don’t know those experiences of God just yet)… how you view your own parents is inevitably how you will view God, at least in some parts

    So you see God as this loving parent because you had loving parents…. who don’t seem like they spanked you, so you don’t see God as spanking anyone…
    not all of us had this experience (not that my parents were abusive but we weren’t best friends either)…. not that you are wrong, or that my experience is wrong – its not right, its not wrong necessarily, but it is mine… and it did involve spanking – and yes, to be honest, my husband and I spank our children…. but not out of hate or abuse or anything like that, but out of love…. and honestly, rarely do we have to spank them at all because they know that we love them so they know that they can trust us with what we say and what we ask of them (even if they don’t always get it in the moment, which they are always free to question us about the how and why of things)

    I do love your heart and writing but it gets in dangerous territory when you start assuming that your God experience is always the right one for everyone (no, I don’t agree with the sermon or having unbridled discipline with your child, but I do want that blind devotion from my children too – so when they start running in the parking lot, I can say “stop” and they automatically stop just because I said it)….

    Your experience with God the Father is definitely not the same as mine… do I see Him as loving? absolutely…. but I also see Him as very chastising at times (maybe you don’t need as much disciplining as some of us hard-headed ones do) – sometimes he actually does have to spank me – before I get the message and stop going my own way – do I love him any less for it? nope, not a bit… do I necessarily like it in the moment? nope, not a bit…. but even when He is disciplining me, I know that He loves me…. He also has a great sense of humor and loves to play around as well – all different sides of the same God

    maybe Im off base here… like I said, I love your writing and your heart, but for some reason, this post just rubbed me the wrong way…. but it doesn’t mean that I wont keep reading…. and hopefully this comment wont rub you too much in the wrong way either…. 🙂

  • CM

    I struggle so much with the idea of God is a loving parent, mother or father. My mother hated me, shamed me, beat me, humiliated me, and then disowned me before she died when I was 15. My dad sexually abused me all throughout my childhood and then abandoned me at 15 after my mother died. I desperately want to believe that God loves me, but I cannot reconcile the idea of God as a loving father watching as all those things happen throughout my childhood and not doing something. If your children are being horribly abused and mistreated, raped, abandoned and you saw it all happening and you could do something, wouldn’t you? And, if after all of that that your child came to you and said I want to follow you I want to know what it’s like to be loved by you would you lead them into another situation where the abuse would happen all over again? If there’s a tenor of anger in this question, it’s not intended. I just genuinely want to understand, and I don’t.

    • julie

      You sound exactly like my sister!!! Are you my sister? Carolynn???

    • Val Ely

      CM, I cannot begin to express my heartfelt sympathy for your childhood experiences. And you raise expected questions regarding our Heavenly Father and the problem of evil in this world. It’s such a difficult but very common problem that we all have to grapple with at some point or even at multiple points in our lives. I experienced some similar abuses in my childhood but not all the same, as well as other hardships and exceedingly unfair, evil circumstances in my lifetime. It’s very easy for us to put the blame or responsibility of preventing it on God and to feel doubt, frustrations, anger, uncertainty or even rage toward Him when we feel that He could’ve stopped it and just somehow ignored us or wasn’t compelled with enough love for us to stop it. However, I have come to the knowledge and understanding that nothing could be further from the truth about who He is and how much He truly loves us. God created us with free will because He loves us; to do so without free will would be no different than if we were created as robots. Because He wanted us to be free to love Him or not love Him (which would be more meaningful? Of course free will to love) He had to create us all with the ability to choose. And it’s because He knew Adam and Eve would disobey, choosing to doubt Him instead of Trust in Him, that He made a way. He knew that through Mary’s trust instead of doubt, that she would say yes to a virginal, pure birth of our Savior Jesus. In essence, reversing the disobedience of our first parents and cooperating with the plan of salvation through Christ’s atonement for us on the cross. Had it not been for Him, we would have no hope of life free of sin, free of evil, free of fear of what someone else is able to do to us. We cannot be assured of a life without pain here on earth, the Bible explains this but we can be assured of Jesus’s sacrifice for us, and of our helper and advocate, the Holy Spirit, who guides us and reveals Truth to us, and assures us that Jesus will never leave us. His word has so many promises for us that give us strength, hope and joy to rise above our abuse and our pain and to experience all that God has designed for us to know and to participate in through Him. In that way, we are able to join with His other children and experience support, empathy, encouragement and healing. It’s all part of the plan of salvation that gets us through this life and into the next. Eternity with God is worth more than anything we can come to know or experience here on earth. Most of the world’s evils and injustices can’t be explained in a way that will ever make it seem ok that they happened or that innocent people have to experience it. But know that God’s heart was not turned outward and away from you in your pain and suffering, He hurt and He felt anguish and empathy for your pain while you felt it. He longs to comfort you and to help you be transformed into a new creation that is healthy, happy and secure in who you’ve been designed to become. He will never leave you. And I can guarantee that He will show you just how meaningful and how adored and loved you are to Him if you will ask Him to give you Faith, to give you Hope, to instill trust within you of Him, and to heal your pain from your past. He’s real. He’s more patient than we can imagine. He will wait for you to come to know Him and trust Him. It’s all He wants from us, is a chance. The Bible says that the enemy of our soul sneaks around like a lion prowling to destroy us, it also says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against powers of darkness. The only way for us to truly be safe is to believe that Christ sacrifice and resurrection are for us, to believe and be baptized, turn away from sin, and to run to the arms of our gracious and loving Father. He’s a good shepherd who shepherds His flock and only He can offer us an eternity free of torment and suffering. Please, give Him a chance. Your soul is worth so much more than anything you will find offered here on earth.

      Blessings–Val

      If you ever want to talk, you can find me on Facebook as Val Ely or IG valelystagram 🙂

  • Kate Moala

    Thank you I loved this!!! A great post about showing Jesus to our kids through our parenting!! Lots to think about this morning!!

  • Tiffany Norris

    Out of all your wonderful work, I love your parenting posts the most (and that’s saying a lot)! I’ve never met you, but you have mentored me in mothering over the last five years as I’ve struggled mightily to bring up my own little ones–just trying to do a bit better every day and so often feeling as if I’m failing. Thank you for writing and giving me the encouragement to keep going, keep doing better, and keep looking to God for my example!

  • Yes, yes, yes. Thank you Sarah.

  • Alex

    Like some other posters here, I also struggle with viewing God as a “loving Father” because my earthly father raised me the way that preacher described in the sermon mentioned early in this article. I even remember my dad boasting to a congregant (he was a preacher) that he made his kids fear him so they would never do wrong! And it was not the godly respectful fear he was talking about either. My mother has always been the epitome of God’s grace and I do thank God for her daily. She was the main factor that kept me from going off the deep end, and still pursuing a relationship with God even today. Even despite my growing up visions of a white-bearded Zeus waiting to strike me as soon as I put a toe out of line. (Good description by the way.) I have tried to change my perspective of God and truly try to see His love and grace… and know that I have experienced it as well. Thank you for this article. I so wish there was more of this correct thinking when I was growing up!

  • Addie Talley

    did my comment get deleted?

  • Tricia Wilson

    Thank you Sarah for your thoughtful and inspiring words. Our world needs more of this.

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