In Defense of the Mess: Mothering in Christ
I can’t recall now what I thought motherhood would be like, but Anne Lamott’s description of her own expectations has always resonated and made me laugh: “I really had no idea what I was getting into. To tell you the truth, I thought it would be more like getting a cat.” The babies would be cute and cuddly, and there would be lots of crafts and throwing flower petals in the air. We would sing songs, and I’d have more than enough energy to play all day. Of course I would want to play with my kids, and of course I would never yell. What kind of woman yells at her precious little toddlers? I would surely be a wonderful mother.
If you are anything like me, however, things have gone a smidge differently than anticipated. You’ve come face to face with the constraints of your own sin, quirks, immaturity and inexperience, and this formidable role has caught you off guard, demanding more of you than you ever thought you could give. It has been painful and it has been sweet; it has been meaningful and tediously dull. You’ve behaved in ways that make you ashamed, and you’ve held and rocked your babies when they were sad, sick, and scared. You have been so annoyed at all the questions and interruptions, but you’ve also adored seeing the world through their insatiable eyes. Even though you love your kids with everything you’ve got, there are days you’re not sure you or they are actually going to make it to bedtime.
Perhaps you are like me. I came to faith in my late twenties and was an infant in Christ myself when I had the first of our three children. I’ve only been a mother for going on eight years and followed Jesus for eleven. While I grew up with a loving, patient, and present mother, she did not become a Christian until her fifties, and so—like many women—I have not had a Christian model of motherhood to emulate. Perhaps your mother claimed to be a Christian but did not live out her faith. Or maybe you had a terrible, abusive or negligent mother who, in effect, taught you what not to do as a parent.
Whatever the reason, with no image, memory, or ingrained example of Christian motherhood to draw upon, we can be susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped, like we are reinventing the wheel (and the wagon and the road!) and do not measure up to the task at hand—as though we are missing important guideposts and guardrails that other women seem to have. And this is partly true. As women without early discipleship, as daughters who did not watch our mothers’ follow Christ as they raised us or benefit from their godly wisdom and prayers, we know less of what surrendered, Christ-dependent motherhood looks like—the phrases, daily routines, and attitudes that best capture Jesus’ love for our children.
It does not help that there is strangely little in the Bible on exactly how we are to raise our children up in the Lord—what that means in the day-to-day nitty-gritty—just that we are to do it. There are a few explicit verses on discipline and teaching our children about God’s ways, recalling to them how He has worked in our own lives and in the lives of believers throughout history. We read that children are a blessing, that we should not provoke them to anger, and that they are supposed to honor and obey us. We see examples of good parents and bad parents—good parents who end up with bad kids and bad parents who end up with good kids. But the most powerful example of godly parenthood we see illustrated in Scripture is that of the first person of the Trinity, the Father Himself. The Bible in its entirety reveals the Good Father’s heart and actions towards His children, how He shepherds those He holds dear—His longsuffering, his hesed (loyal love), his tough love, his discipline, his grace, his forgiveness, his endless patience, his welcome arms, his gentleness.
It follows that whether we are women who are the first in our families to mother with Christ’s love or the fifth generation in a legacy of faith—the best thing that we can do for our children and ourselves as parents is to cultivate an intimate relationship with this Good Father—to commit our time, our best, our hearts, our prayers to loving Jesus well and doing what he says, to getting to know the One who bought back our souls. The stripped-back and simple reality is that to become godly mothers, we must seek after Christ—not a feeling of success as a parent, not children who do and speak as we want (though that would be nice!)—but Jesus Himself. There is no other route we can take, no shortcut. He provides us with all that we need for godliness and therefore all that we need to become godly mothers (2 Peter 1:3). Our Heavenly Father has given us His Holy Spirit to apply His wisdom, truth and healing to all the nooks and crannies of our messy lives and souls. John told the early church in his first epistle that “the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him” (1 John 2:27). If we are in Christ, then we have a supernatural teacher living inside of us—the Holy Spirit Himself. If we abide in Him, He will teach us. And because His Holy Spirit who lives inside of us is a person, He responds to situations as they arise, offering the wisdom, guidance, and patience we need in each moment to love our children well. Jesus is the only one who can execute that beautiful balance of grace and discipline we are striving for.
Learned dependence on the God of the universe does not happen overnight, and both the desire to do this motherhood thing right and all of the failures we experience along the way makes the allure of a formula or a checklist nearly irresistible. Rather than accepting the uncomfortableness of trusting Christ and the slow process of growing in grace and knowledge, we often seek actionable steps and neat equations to help us feel more in control and capable than we are: thirty-minute devotions plus proper discipline equals children who will obey and love the Lord. Ten minutes of prayer plus twenty minutes of reading the Bible equals a mother who never loses her temper. We only need five seconds as parents to learn such equations have no credence. But if we are honest, when things aren’t going well and sometimes even when they are, we look too often to parenting books and podcasts and friends than to our Savior, to our existing relationship with the Son that is meant to sustain and guide us moment by moment. Such resources can certainly be useful and inspiring, and much wisdom can be gleaned and applied, but they are no substitute for the power of the Holy Spirit and should be supplementary to our own primary, rich relationship with our God. We are like terminally ill patients standing before our cure, burying our noses in a book on encouraging new research rather than submitting to the life-giving treatment at our fingertips.
Even if we are not relying on specific teachers or formulas, we may still find ourselves unwittingly (or deliberately) mimicking other women—copying the tactics that seem to work so seamlessly with their own children. We bypass Jesus and utilize those time-outs and consequences and Christian terms we hear echoed around us in hopes that there will be some sort of reprieve from all the chaos and struggle. There is a notable difference between seeking the wisdom and counsel of older women who love Jesus and have walked this bumpy path before us (which is biblical and God-honoring, see Titus 2:4-5) and performing a sort of motherhood show—Christian motherhood as we imagine it should look. The former involves the proper function of the church—the body of believers encouraging, exhorting, counseling—with the end result of God’s power working in our lives. The latter is nothing but a sad cardboard cutout of a Christian household that impresses only from a distance. The fact of the matter is that we are not these other women we so admire and sometimes long to be. And that’s actually ok. Jesus isn’t confused or disappointed. He wants us to actually become His mature disciples, not pretend to be mature disciples when we are not. We do not have these other women’s personalities, backgrounds, gifts, flaws, or their sin. We have our own. Our children are not their children; they are ours. And God did not make them the parents of our children. He made us their parents (heaven help them). We and our children live and breathe; we are changing, and we are unique. Our sin is universal, our temptations common to man, but our personalities are distinct. We press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus in order to lay hold of that for which He laid hold of us, and we follow Him along our own path (Philippians 3:12,14).
I would wager to say that we have all, at one time or another, slipped into and been too satisfied with this replica of godly motherhood. But if we sit only at the feet of others who themselves are sitting at the feet of Christ, if we are copying others as they follow Jesus and not investing in our own relationship with Him, then we are not allowing His life to change ours and the way we parent. Without the course correction the Holy Spirit provides, we drift naturally into a current of rule-keeping and performance. We miss much of the freedom we have in Jesus as mothers and risk the blessing of motherhood becoming a legalistic burden.
In the midst of Target tantrums, cluster-feeding three-month-olds, and administering consequences for bad behavior, we may ask ourselves what exactly are we trying to accomplish as we raise our children? What is our responsibility and what is God’s alone? What does authentic motherhood in Christ look like? We are not trying to make our children love Jesus. We can’t do that. Only God’s Spirit can. We are not trying to save our children. Again, that’s God’s purview. We are not obsessed with their perfect obedience, because that does not stem from love or grace. We are showing them Jesus as clearly as we can through our own relationship with Him and looking for those teachable moments, trials, seasons, celebrations, tears and giggles that put Him on display. We are providing evidence that what God says in His word is true. It is our responsibility to show our kids what it looks like to live by faith with a citizenship in heaven and to allow Jesus to show Himself real and beautiful in our lives. We teach them God’s Word, because it is bread and life to us, because it shapes and comforts and inspires us. We try, as mothers, to show them the full character, the full picture of our God. We do this through our own imperfect but passionate relationship with Christ. If we do not know or truly love Jesus, how can we hope to impart that He is worthy and beautiful?
We show our children worship and adoration; we show them submission to our Lord and sacrificial love inside and outside the walls of our home. We show them dependence and prayer, confession and repentance. We trust God to teach us how to apply His word to our children’s specific personalities. And hopefully, we show them the authentic, incorruptible joy that belongs only to children of the Most High. We pray with them because to do otherwise would be impossible. We teach them the spiritual disciplines as we ask God to not allow these disciplines to become rote, powerless practices but rather pathways to encountering the lover of their souls. We may struggle with anger, selfishness and self-pity, but we know that our God is with us, and we trust His Spirit to do the Father’s will in our lives and the lives of our children.
Jesus exhorts us to return to our first love, to cultivate that love, to draw near to Him so that He will draw near to us (Revelation 2:4, James 4:8). He sees and understands the suffocating panic we sometimes experience as we are shoved off the thrones of our own lives and learn to truly follow Him as our Lord and greatest Love. For all mothers and especially for those who came to faith later in life, God is growing us up in our faith as He reaches out to our children. In Him is freedom and open pastures and plentiful provision, and in Him is our unique, authentic expression of motherhood. He is there to help us treat our children as Jesus would and become more like Jesus in the process. Little by little, as we stumble often and learn slowly, we become the mothers we truly are in Christ.
We first-generation Christian mothers have one strong advantage in the fight against the legalism that plagues all our hearts. We have encountered God’s saving grace starkly independent of our efforts or environments. Of course, all salvation is by grace through faith, but we have experienced how a woman who has never even read the Bible can suddenly repent of her sin and turn to Christ and come to adore His Word. He may have utterly and dramatically transformed our lives in marked and tangible ways—or perhaps it has been a slower unveiling of who we now are as new creations—so that we know with eyes that have seen and hands that have touched that salvation is from God alone through Christ alone. There is no other explanation. And we take comfort in this, because when we are tempted to believe that our children’s redemption is dependent upon our performance as mothers, we can look back at our own lives and be reminded that we were not raised by parents who honored God, we were not brought up in the ways of the Lord, and yet Jesus made a way and brought us to Him. There is always the vivid before and after that highlights and reminds us of God’s power and our helplessness. This does not abdicate us of our responsibility as parents towards our own children, but it does help us to remember who is really in control.
So, to the mother trying so desperately to parent well and do everything that is required to raise godly children and driving herself and her family crazy in the process, put down the parenting book (spoiler alert: it’s not going to make or break you as a mother). Instead, take a walk and talk to your God. Ask Him for wisdom to be the Christ-honoring mother He intends you to be to your children. Ask Him to give you insight into what your little ones need, what approaches work best for them, how they best respond to the gospel. Relax. Go play with your children and laugh. Love them. Pray for them and for yourself. Read the Bible and do what it says to the best of your ability, knowing that your efforts will fall short, but that nothing is too hard for God. Cry to Him. Allow His Spirit to apply scripture to your heart. Praise Him for it. Seek Him there on those thin and crinkly pages, letting His words shape you, the way you think and love. In short, develop an intimate relationship with Jesus. *Note—this will take a lifetime, not an evening!
He loves us and he loves our kids. He does the growing and the saving. We are not as powerful as we imagine, but He is much more so. He is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). We do not need to look and act like other Christian women or dole out discipline just like a popular book may teach. We do not need to do motherhood according to anyone other than Jesus. Let’s listen to His voice and follow Him.