A beloved grandma I know stepped in to adopt and care for her grandchildren when her child could no longer be a healthy parent. It is a treasure that she has invested so deeply, yet also a painful reminder that this is not how things should be. In an ideal world, parents would always be mentally healthy, capable of caring for themselves and their children; they would make choices that prioritize their families. Parents ought to act in the best interests of their children and treat them with compassion, but this is a broken world. Human beings are infinitely fallible. Bad choices, mental illness, and addiction can cause ripples of dysfunction into our homes, shattering the most stable of families and causing untold pain. Parents can fail to be the person that God called them to be.
We all make mistakes, and parents are no exception. In this world fractured by sin and filled with temptations, missteps are inevitable. All parents have flaws. Yet, parents have a calling from God to love and care for their children. Scripture tells parents not to exasperate their children (Ephesians 6:4), but parents don’t always get things right. Sometimes, the errors are small and easily forgiven, but sometimes parents have chronic dysfunctions that ripple down through generations. Parents who struggle often had poor models themselves, spreading the damage across generations. When parents fail to demonstrate love and care for their children, it can undermine a child’s emotional footing and impair their ability function in healthy ways. The consequences of poor choices can fracture families by passing along their dysfunction, but this is not as it should be. It is not the desire God has for us.
When our parents love us in compassionate and sacrificial ways, they point us to Jesus. We long for the unconditional love of a parent; it is how God has wired us. We know we fail, and yearn to feel loved anyway. Even a caring rebuke shows investment of a parent in a child. We look and long for it, but we don’t always get the desires of our heart on this side of heaven. God allows human beings the ability to make choices, and sometimes that means making terrible decisions. Distractions, disregard, neglect, delusions, addictions, manipulation, and abuse damage parents and children alike. When parents make self-destructive choices, too often children experience the collateral consequences. It can seem brutally unfair experiencing the pain of the poor choices made by others.
A dear friend lamented how often his dad repeatedly chose alcohol over their family. There was resentment over the neglect their family had experienced as well layers of shame and embarrassment. The money spent on one rehab facility after another felt like a waste when each time the lure of old destructive habits resumed again. This father indeed loved his family, but he repeatedly fell back into addiction. Addiction had become a deeply entrenched destructive force in his life. It was not that their family wasn’t worth staying sober for; they deserved better. But like a terminal disease, the addiction had it's own power. As scripture says, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).
We do not follow a distant God removed from our suffering. Our God is our Immanuel--our God with us. Jesus left the joys of heaven to enter into our pain and bring us healing. God is not oblivious to our pain. God walks with us through all the dark valleys of our life (Psalm 23). God cares about each tear that falls and promises that one day he will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4). Jesus himself wept in his earthly life and he suffered the pain of parental abandonment crying out from the cross.
Jesus' death had the redemptive purpose of bringing us forgiveness and restoring our relationship with God. Even in our pain, God is working out redemptive purposes. God’s economy wastes nothing, and all of our pain can be redeemed for God’s glory. The scars of our life can equip us with the empathy to step in and care for others. As we share our testimony of how God has walked with us through heartache, we help others find Jesus and rediscover hope for better days ahead.
We can catch glimpses of God’s sacrificial love breaking through the pain and bringing healing to our world. Even when a parent has failed, God’s unfailing love was always present and nothing in all creation will ever separate us from his love (Romans 8:38-39).
Our pain and struggles can be miserable, but they don’t get to define us. We can’t choose our circumstances, but we are in charge of how we respond to life’s pain. We can choose to parent with grace and care for our hearts, bodies, and minds in a way your own parent may not be capable of doing. Our hope and identity rests not in our family, what they say about us, or how they treat us. Jesus Christ loves us with an everlasting love and walks with us through every struggle. Our hope is not an in an earthly parent, but in our Heavenly Father who still controls the universe.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra