Regrets. As a mom of three and grandmother of six, I know all about regrets. Just this week I missed one of my granddaughter’s birthdays, thinking it was a day later than it was. That’s not unusual for me either—even though I have taken to writing down everyone’s birthdays in my phone—I never seem to be able to remember everything when I’m supposed to remember it.
Yes, there’s a place in my heart where I’m tempted to be filled with regret for things forgotten, regret for missing an opportunity to speak truth, or for speaking it in an unkind way. I’ve talked with enough parents to know that I’m not alone in this, either. In some ways it seems like regret is badge of honor for parents: you know you’re really serious about your parenting if you feel really terrible about how you’re doing… or how you did if your kids are grown.
Give Them Grace
Recently, my daughter Jessica and I wrote a book about parenting entitled,Give them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus (Crossway). I’ll be honest with you here. I love this book. I love the way that the Lord worked in our hearts as we sought to take the truths of the gospel and apply them to parenting in a consistent and profound way. I love watching Jessica and her friends learn how to speak grace to their children and to side with their kids instead of against them in their struggle for faith and obedience.
But I have to admit something else: This book could easily add another layer to the regret I feel as a parent. Give them grace? Hardly!
Our Parental Story
Let me explain what I mean. When Phil and I were raising our children, sure, we told them the gospel but only until they assured us that they believed it and then we piled on the law. Then the focus changed from Jesus and the gospel to their behavior and the rules.
Mixed into all this was my own idolatrous desire to be a successful parent and have successful, obedient children. In addition, we had absolutely no clue how the gospel intersected with daily life. To us the gospel was the door into Christianity and then Christianity was almost exclusively about obeying, getting on down the road of sanctification. I cringe now when I think of how I used our faith to demand obedience and punish them when they didn’t comply. Regrets? Yes, boatloads of them… if I let myself go there.
In light of what I’ve learned, how should I respond to my kids now? I’m convinced that I spent the majority of my time as a parent getting it wrong and I’m sure there are other parents who feel the same way I do. Assuming that your experience is anything like mine, let me share with you what the Lord is teaching us, in the hope that it will comfort you.
First of all, perhaps you could have a heart-to-heart with you children and confess the ways you failed as a parent. This might include a discussion of the ways you’ve grown in understanding the “good” news and how you missed it when you were raising them. You could also confess any ways in which their outward compliance meant more to you than it should have. Asking them for forgiveness and then being willing to wait for them to forgive you, even if it takes some time, is one way for you to demonstrate the gospel to them. You can be open about your failures because you’ve been given grace to know you no longer need to depend on yourself for righteousness.
You might also seek to change the way you relate to them now that they are adults. This would mean that you would look for opportunities to give them grace: highlighting the work of the Spirit in their lives (becoming a “Grace Detective”), sharing the truths that you’re learning about what it means to be completely loved while being completely known, asking the Lord to help you relax and enjoy them as children created in the image of God.
Regret will cause you to respond to your children in skewed ways. It might make you too willing to give in and support an ungodly lifestyle, confirming them in a life of irresponsibility. On the other hand, it might make you angry and unwilling to keep trying to maintain a relationship. In any case, regret is toxic to the relationship and it has to go. But how?
The only remedy for regret is to understand who you are and who God is. You are a sinner. That’s not really news, is it? There has only been one good parent in the history of the world and it isn’t you… or me, for that matter. We feel immense regret because we expected too much of ourselves. Although we never would have said so, we expected that we could be great parents—faithful, wise, diligent, loving—and we thought that by our efforts we could produce great kids. But realizing that you’ve failed at parenting is only a remedy for regret when you realize that you’ve been completely forgiven and stand perfectly righteous before your Father despite your failure.
Jesus loves all His children perfectly and that perfection is yours today if you believe. You’ve got nothing left to prove, everything has already been said about your skills as a parent on Calvary. You can relax and silence the incessant voice of the inner slave driver: of course you were a lousy parent—there is only one Savior, only one Good Father.
You also need to remember that no matter how you succeeded or failed as a parent, “salvation is of the Lord” (Psalm 3:8). The Lord is the only One who holds the hearts of your children in His hand. He’s the only one who can turn them toward Himself and even though we had an obligation to faithfully raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, their salvation was never in our hands. Salvation is always ultimately up to Him.
The wonderful news is that He can take even your failures and use them to teach your children about grace… just like He’s done with Jessica and me. We don’t need to be filled with regret because we know that God is sovereign and although He isn’t responsible for our failures, He remains sovereign over them and will use them for His purposes.
I hope that I don’t forget my granddaughter’s birthday again, but this won’t make me a perfect parent. I still fail so terribly. I have only one standing place: I have the righteousness of Jesus Christ and my children’s salvation or success doesn’t depend in any way on my getting my gospel act together. Giving grace to your children starts with giving grace to yourself. You are loved and welcomed, in your sin, in your failure. Rejoice.