Watching the atrocious manners of my children at dinner prompted me to make a mental list of all the things I thought I ought to teach them in the next twelve years. But that list became so lengthy that I gave it up to ask myself what was the most important thing. What, above all else, did I wish to teach them?
The answer had nothing to do with refraining from potty-talk at the dinner table, though I do hope that on their first dates they don’t lean across the table and say, “Did you smell my farty?” and giggle uncontrollably.
No. The most important thing isn’t table manners or responsibly handling money or even having healthy relationships with the opposite sex. The most important thing must be grace. Naturally. But to teach them this, I must model it. And I’m not so sure I know what that looks like.
I know what grace isn’t.
Grace isn’t letting my children off the hook for being disrespectful or destructive. After all, God didn’t let us off the hook for our sins. Someone had to pay for those. Neither is grace rubbing my children’s faces in their own mistakes. “Oh, you’re going to talk disrespectfully to me, are you. I’ll teach you a thing or two . . . “
Grace also isn’t believing the best about my children. I’ll become a Petunia Dursley in no time if I think my son merely had a case of sunstroke when he lied in order to one-up his sister. Neither is grace repeatedly keeping my mouth shut when my kids drive me bonkers. That will just eventually lead me to an outburst. “You have no idea how good I’ve made life for you! You don’t appreciate me!”
Rather, I think grace is wishing my children the best regardless of their imperfections.
Wishing the best for them doesn’t mean wishing them my best or my idea of their best. It means wishing them God’s best. And because I’m not omniscient, I don’t know what that will look like. I know that God wishes for them to find their identities in him, but I don’t know if or how that will happen.
Somedays I think I do. Somedays I think I know how everyone ought to find their identities in Christ. But when I do this, I'm like the older son saying to his prodigal brother, “I know what you should do. You shouldn’t run away from father at all but stay here and do what I do.”
Sure, if the prodigal hadn’t run away, he wouldn’t have squandered his father’s money and lived wildly and possibly contracted an STD or fathered a son or given himself some brain damage with drugs. But then he also wouldn’t have come to his senses and returned to his father with all his heart.
Some must come to Jesus by coming to the end of their own goodness. Others seek Jesus by coming to the end of their own badness. The result is the same: grace abounds there. God welcomes those on death row and God welcomes those who’ve just gone through the motions for years.
I can pass on that grace to my children by allowing them the freedom to choose what they want without fearing my wrath. I want them to know that I’ll treat them with respect and love regardless of what they do, that I will not spite them for their mistakes or require them to jump through hoops in order to get back into my good graces. I won’t keep track of how many times I’ve forgiven them or try to get them to understand how badly they’ve wronged me.
But that’s awfully hard to do because their behavior is sometimes shocking. When they’re angry they’ve thrown a pomegranate across the kitchen or screamed in order to wake up the baby. It’s hard because when I ask them to set the table for the meal I'm making, they claim that I’m treating them like a servant. They complain about not being able to do anything fun as I meal plan or separate their laundry or plan our next vacation. Can they not see that I’m serving them hand and foot? I certainly I don’t do these sort of things. And certainly no one has to make such allowances for me.
Too frequently this is my method for deciding if someone is worthy of my grace. If I don’t throw fruit when I'm angry, then I think it's fair to expect the same from others. But while I may be right about my assessment of our different weaknesses, I am missing one big thing. There is one person who I have inconvenienced terribly. One person who has made one huge allowance for me.
It’s easy to believe that others are constantly tripping over their need to be loved, appreciated, known, respected, significant, and taken care of. But it’s rather hard for me to remember that I too am constantly tripping over my need to be loved, appreciated, known, respected, significant, and taken care of. Daily. Hourly.
Just because I don’t throw pomegranates when I'm angry doesn't mean that I’m handling my anger by relying on Christ's justice. Both the violent and the simmering acts of anger are in rebellion against God, and both acts God forgives.
I am just as in need of God's pardon as my children. It is what I must remember in order to have real grace—not fake grace, which measures and compares and credits. No. The only way to stop feeling like others owe me for the allowances I give them, is by giving away someone else’s allowance. God’s. Only when I’m filled up on him can I pass on what he’s given to me. Only when I say, “I’ve got nothing. Your turn,” can the grace flow freely to my children.
That is my prayer for me and for you.