I picked her up roughly and carried her into the bathroom.
“You know how to pee-pee like a big girl.” I said. “You know this. You need to stop pee-peeing on yourself because this is just not working anymore.” My angry lecture went on throughout the process of stripping, setting on the potty, and re-dressing her. She bent her head and quietly accepted the harsh, condemning speech.
She is two.
“I love my children so much I would die for them.”
I’ve heard and read this statement, in various forms, from dozens of parents through the years. Parents struggle to express it strongly enough. From the moment their child slid from the womb, parents say, they were filled with an overwhelming need to protect them, to care for them, and to do anything to help them succeed.
But one of the things that have become clear to me through the years, watching these same parents and being one myself, is that there’s a disconnect between what we say we’re willing to do for our children and what we’re actually willing to do for our children. There’s a breakdown in our hearts between our intentions of love and care and the sin that belies that love.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to stop losing my temper.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to stop drowning my stress in drink or food.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to stop watching porn.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to discipline them.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to get off Facebook.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to invest in my husband.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to be faithful to my wife.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to control my spending.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to exercise so I’ll live to see them graduate from high school.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to get up in time for church.
- I love my children enough to die for them… but not enough to stop doing what I want to do or start doing what I need to do.
The bottom line, the one that eventually hits you in the head like a 2×4, is that you do love you children, but you love yourself more.
It’s shocking. It’s disappointing. It’s tragic. But it’s true.
And when you look at the mistakes made by other parents, even the kinds of mistakes you’ve criticized or been floored by, eventually the same bottom line becomes clear. They’re doing the best they can, under these circumstances: we are all sinners and we love ourselves best.
The Great Love to make all others
You’ve heard that when you’re in an airplane and something goes wrong, a strong person is supposed to put on his own oxygen mask before helping the weak person next to them. This counter-intuitive logic makes sense—the two of you will only be as strong as the strongest of the two of you. If the strong person gets disabled, that’s two disabled people and no one will be able to help anybody.
In the same way, a parent who intends to love their child well cannot do so unless they are drawing first on the only life-giving love there is. We parents, I firmly believe, are only as good as our own personal holiness. And that personal holiness is only as good as our deep and growing affection for Christ.
We could sit down with a list of sins like the one I have bullet-pointed above and resolve to ourselves, “Okay. I won’t do any of these things. No porn, no temper, no overeating, church every Sunday…” and this could be done, theoretically. But we’d have done nothing to address our disordered affections. We’d always find a way to love ourselves best.
There is only one love that can lift a heart outside of this cycle of hatred masquerading as love.
The beautiful thing about the the love of Christ is that it’s especially designed for the weak and not for the strong. He has a blessing for the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3). He has a promise for the bruised reed and the faintly burning wick (Is. 42:3). Ours is a Father who loves, in fact, as powerfully as we intended to love our own children. He was the only one who could truly say, “I love my children enough to die for them.” He is the only one who can put a fountain of love in our hearts that flows right through “no temper, no porn, no overeating” territory and on into “joy, peace, patience, kindness” territory.
Let us put the oxygen mask over our own faces, by “gazing upon the beauty of the Lord” and “inquiring in his temple.” Let the cry of our hearts be that of the Psalmist:
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
For to you do I cry all the day.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
For to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
Abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.
We may fantasize, like teenagers, about saving the life of the people we love in a single act of heroism. We may prepare ourselves for a thousand dangers that threaten our children—sickness, abduction, or accident. But for all the shadowy sinners we seek to protect our children from, the sinner most likely to affect them most deeply… is us.
At some point, we will have to face the fact that our behavior as people (our integrity, self-discipline, and other relationships) will affect our children as much as our behavior towards them (physical and verbal affection, instruction, etc). The whole person matters. But before we start up a new “Whole Person To-do List,” we need to ask ourselves the central question. Leave “What is my behavior like?” and even “Who am I?” for another day. Ask this first: “Who do I love?”
Which love am I chewing on, feeding on, returning to, speaking of, singing of, writing about, and talking about around the dinner table?
I may love my children enough that I could die for them. But do I love them enough to love Christ, who already did?