When Emily asked me if I would share my testimony I wondered, “Which one?” I’ve got the foundational one (which I presumed she was asking for,) the one about falling into alcoholism in college, running away from God, and then finding sobriety, a wife, and a new calling to be a pastor. That’s definitely a big one for me, but I’m pretty bored with it. Can I say that? It’s not that I’m not grateful. God saved me there and I would have drowned alone in my own sin and disease without him stepping in. But God was active in my life before that happened. And he’s been active in my life since. In fact, that’s always what I find if I care to open my eyes at all. He’s challenging and changing me because my old sinful self needs challenging and changing.
So, I’m going to share about fatherhood instead.
I’m a bit of an odd duck in my birth family. I’m more conservative than they are; and I trust our culture less, especially the way it has been changing in the past few generations. So, for example, I used to be a high school teacher, but my wife, Faith, and I homeschool. We try to avoid processed foods as much as possible and buy our meat from local people. We don’t watch TV (aside from some Netflix and This Old House) and, speaking for myself at least, it has more to do with avoiding the commercials that try to shape our kids rather than the programs themselves. What I’m saying is that we both had some strong ideas about avoiding some cultural pitfalls in our parenting. Back in the days before fatherhood I remember seeing parents in public places and I just cringed. They talked to their children like the kids were the boss; they gave in to tantrums; they talked about “timeouts.” Ugh. “We’re not going to be like that,” I said to my wife. Or maybe she said it to me. Either way, we were in agreement on the matter. We were going to be consistent; we were going to do the hard work when they were little to insist on first-time obedience. We were going swat and spank, not to punish, but to correct. We were going to be awesome parents and our kids would be shining examples of how smart we were. I’ve intentionally put this in language that tips my hand. You know what’s coming.
God is active in our lives. He did not delay. His goal is to grow us up into the fullness of Christ, so he sent us our son Benjamin. We thought we were going to mold him. Instead, God was going to use him (and reinforcements) to mold us.
Benjamin was a pretty straightforward kid from the start. He liked to be in charge. My job, as I perceived it, was to correct him so that he would learn what was right. This correction took the forms of flicks when he was a toddler (whenever he was touching something he wasn’t supposed to) and spankings later on. The idea was to have the rules and to be consistent in following them. This negative feedback would naturally lead him to obedience and good behavior. Woo-hoo! I would do the hard work at the start, because I loved him, and we would all reap the benefits later on.
Fast-forward a couple of years. Benjamin was exerting his will constantly. Following our theory of parenting, I was spanking him multiple times a day. And he had become defiant about it. Without realizing it, our relationship was mostly about that dynamic of fault-finding and correction. Did I love him? Absolutely! And I thought I was showing it. But I was spending an awful lot of time spanking him, sometimes several times in a row because he wouldn’t knuckle under and change like he was supposed to. And I was getting frustrated. If I was acting in good faith and trying to be a godly parent, and if what I was doing was the godly thing to do, then the problem was clearly Benjamin. (I don’t know that I ever put it that straightforwardly, but I think I began to feel that.)
Fast-forward a bit more. As we had more kids, we began to understand that our theory wasn’t working very well for them either. And so we mostly moved away from spanking. But our third child John began struggling with weird outbursts and physical tics and we, eventually, came up with a plan to try to meet his needs. We spent way more cuddle time with him. When he had melt-downs I would remove him from the situation so that he could get some one-on-one time. These things seemed to help some. But parenting was still more than we can handle. Our original theory didn’t work, but everything else we tried was disappointing as well. It was just hard all the time.
Several more years pass and, though we had made some progress, life was still really hard and Benjamin was still getting under my skin. So many of the things he did are things that drive me up the wall. He was bossy to his siblings. He did stuff without asking. He never seemed sorry about anything he did wrong. I was critical of him all the time. One day I noticed this, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it.
And now we’ve arrived to the recent past. Benjamin is grouchy about stuff. He seems like what I imagine a teenager to be, surly with a bad attitude for every occasion. He’s critical of his siblings and often yells at them instead of encouraging them. It begins to sink in, “This isn’t his fault.”
One of the things I know from systems theory in psychology is that we can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves. But for some reason that understanding had trouble sinking in when it related to the kids, especially Benjamin. It’s not that we didn’t think of it sometimes, but it never became the real framework for how I could relate better to the kids.
Another thing that I should note. It’s not that God was absent from all of our efforts. I was praying for the kids. We were trusting that even though we were struggling, that they were his kids and that somehow, someway he would shepherd them through okay, in spite of us if necessary.
Here is the insight that finally came arrived. I began to think of this as more of a 12-Step problem. The first step in Alcoholics Anonymous is, “Admitted that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” What if I’m the problem? And what if I can’t fix myself? The next two steps are these: 2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
And now to take a big step back. This testimony is almost entirely about failure. And it hardly points to God. There is no victory, no change that I can point to and say, “The problem is taken care of.” I suppose my testimony is this: I am incapable of engineering things so that they’re awesome. I struggle mightily. My very best intentions seem to make things worse. I think you could say that I have a Romans 7 testimony.
“So I find it be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin… Wretched man that I am.
This has been so much of my life as a father. I’ve been so full of good intentions and I have worked myself to weariness in trying to do right. And evil has been at hand. Thank God that Paul continues,
“Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul is teaching in Romans about a complete change in paradigm from one that focuses on the right that we must do and on the wrong we must avoid (a paradigm of good intentions that relies on myself), to a complete trust that God is accomplishing that which he desires in us and that he will not be thwarted (a paradigm of desperate faith that knows that only God can accomplish what is needful.) Looking forward, in my relationship to Benjamin especially, I cling to Romans chapter 8.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”
“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.”
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
In so many ways I am a failure as a father. I am a Romans 7 father. But I trust a Romans 8 God. And I trust that he will change me. I trust that he will change Benjamin. I trust that he will not be stopped, but will be at work in us producing good things for his glory. And I give thanks that I haven’t messed it all up beyond repair.