Parenting on Fumes — and Grace
Parenting young kids means running regularly on emotional fumes. My wife and I had our fourth in April. We haven’t yet found that elusive “new normal” that feels sufficiently manageable, and I’m beginning to suspect we won’t for some time. But it seems this is right where God wants us: desperate, exhausted, dependent.
God does not call me as a daddy to have enough strength now for next year, next month, next week, or even tomorrow. Just for today. Be faithful today. Don’t check out today. Ask God to provide the energy needed to finish this day well as the head of this home. Sufficient for each day is trouble of its own (Matthew 6:34). His mercies will be new tomorrow (Lamentations 3:22–23).
God gave dads broad shoulders, not just physically, but emotionally — and for a reason. He meant for us to carry a lot, and he meant for us to regularly come to the end of ourselves, so that we would lean consciously on him by faith.
Specifically, I’ve been drawing fresh energy and fatherly vision from an unexpected passage in the Old Testament: Exodus 33–34. Not long after God delivered his people from Egypt with his great display of power over Pharaoh, we find Moses realizing how dreadful it would be if God were simply a disciplinarian. His people clearly did not deserve his favor. Even more, they deserved his punishment after making a golden calf to worship in his place.
Before Moses could lead such a stiff-necked people up from Sinai to the Promised Land, he needed to know what kind of God he was dealing with. Would the holiness of this God soon consume such a wicked and rebellious people, or was there more to his glory than mere justice and the raw display of power? Was it only a matter of time before his righteous wrath would fall on his disobedient children?
In one of the most important passages in all the Bible, Moses asks God, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). God answers,
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:19)
When asked to demonstrate his glory, God puts on display his goodness in grace and mercy, and his utter freedom in showing grace and mercy to whomever he so chooses. Israel may not be all that more righteous than Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but God’s mercy on his people is not founded on their efforts and earning. Rather, God, as God, is utterly free to extend his mercy to whom he will — and he has chosen to be merciful to Israel.
Just a few verses later, God passes by Moses and proclaims,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7)
Make no mistake, this God is uncompromisingly just; by no means will he clear the guilty. He does not sweep sin under the rug. But his leading revelation is his mercy and grace. The first attributes he ties to his very name are “merciful and gracious,” which shine as the apex of his glory.
He is “slow to anger” — which concedes that he does indeed get angry, and justly so. It would be unloving to his own children if he did not get angry when they were threatened and assaulted. And yet even in such justice, God is slow to anger. Wrath is his righteous response to evil, but it is not his heart. Justice is the stem; mercy is the flower.
Our kids also need to know that their dad isn’t just an administer of justice — that he’s more than merely a disciplinarian. They long to regularly hear and see the revelation that they have a father gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. They may not articulate Moses’s specific request, but every day their young hearts ask, “Daddy, please show me your glory.”
What our kids need to see of our glory as fathers, as we put our goodness on display for them, is not only our unwillingness to compromise justice, but even more, our willingness to make personal sacrifices to show them mercy and grace.
This is not a call for dads to anything less than justice and discipline, but to more. It’s not a call to fatherly laxity. Don’t confuse laxity with grace, in theology or in parenting. Real grace is not lax, but costly. Genuinely costly. It cost the Son of God his earthly life, and it costs dads significant time and energy just when we feel like we have no more to give. Real grace doesn’t sweep sin under the rug, but takes sin with utter seriousness, and makes personal sacrifices to address it head-on, and at times even bear its consequences on our children’s behalf. Grace doesn’t concede, “Okay, you don’t have to clean your room.” Grace sacrifices its own time and energy, and gets down on all fours to clean the room and train the child.
God is indeed a God of discipline, but what does he want to be known for? Would he have us to remember him mainly as a disciplinarian? He disciplines us, no doubt. “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6). And when he does, he does so as an act of love. “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7). But what his children know him for is not his severity, but the goodness of his mercy and grace.
We fathers have a special role to play in cutting a path for our children to God as their Father, gracious and merciful. We have the great honor of being the first to show our children what our heavenly Father is like. We have the unspeakable privilege, and weighty responsibility, in showing them the goodness of God himself as we show them our goodness in laughing together and playing together, in singing together and praying together.
Perhaps you feel the gravity of this with me. Dads, this is beyond us. Imaging our Father in our fathering is more than we can live up to. But it’s not more than we should aspire to. And only by God’s own mercy toward us will we increasingly be this to our children. Fatherhood is one way, among many, that God keeps bringing us back to our knees to ask for his mercy.
These days, my wife and I are realizing that finding our “new normal” doesn’t mean getting back to a place where we can parent in our own strength, but learning in the ups and downs, with abundant energy and without, to lean on our Father’s grace and mercy, as we seek to show our kids the glory of his goodness in ours toward them.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.