Parenting Means Wrestling Demons

I nudged the door open with my shoulder, hands holding carryout (again). I made my way through the dark living room and set dinner on the table. I could hear the kids playing in the basement as I peeked into the bedroom to find my wife lying there, doubled over with nausea. She felt too sick to think about eating, not to mention preparing food for the rest of us, and so for the fourth time in as many nights, dad was dishing dinner for the fam.

This is how it goes in wartime, and for a few months now at our house, we’ve been in the battle zone. My wife is pregnant with our fifth child.

As many mothers could attest, sometimes it’s not so much morning-sickness as just plain sickness. She hasn’t felt well since the newest member of our family came into existence at the end of last year. But it’s okay — we get it. It comes with the territory. Nausea, in fact, is just one piece of the larger struggle. We’ve learned by now that wrestling demons isn’t supposed to be easy.

Satan Hates the Little Children of the World

In his book Adopted for Life, Russell Moore says that Satan hates children and always has. History would say the same. In Scripture alone, we see the slaughter of the infants in Pharaoh’s Egypt and Herod’s Bethlehem. Every time the demonic powers forcefully oppose Jesus, “babies are caught in the crossfire.” Moore explains,

Whether through political machinations such as those of Pharaoh and Herod, through military conquests in which bloodthirsty armies rip babies from pregnant mothers’ wombs (Amos 1:13), or through the more “routine” seeming family disintegration and family chaos, children are always hurt. Human history is riddled with their corpses. (63)

Whether we look back over the pages of world history, or just around us today, the point bears true. Children are so often caught in the crossfire, so often hurt, so often the victims of a larger conflict in which they have no say, no influence, no responsibility. It happened back when primitive peoples thought slaying their children would appease the gods, and when war meant burning homes and sacking villages. And it happens still today when deranged citizens carry guns into elementary schools, and when abortion clinics welcome terrified teenagers with open arms, or when Boko Haram pillages another Nigerian village, or a young couple decides Down syndrome will disrupt their life plans. Moore writes,

The demonic powers hate babies because they hate Jesus. When they destroy “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45), the most vulnerable among us, they’re destroying a picture of Jesus himself. . . . (63–64)

There is a war on children, and we are all, in one way or another, playing some role in it. Every time we move forward as faithful parents (or care for kids in any capacity, including advocating for the voiceless not yet born, and volunteering for nursery duty on Sundays), we are wrestling demons — because there is little the demons hate more than little children.

The Shift in Perspective

This calls for a shift in our perspective as parents. If we go into the work of parenting with a Precious Moments romanticism, it won’t be long before despair sets in. It’s just too hard if we think it’s going to be easy. It’s essential to know, especially when the going gets tough, that we are fighting hell.

It’s essential to know, especially when the going gets tough, that we are fighting hell.

When we begin to see our parenting through the lens of spiritual warfare, it reconfigures our work in at least five important ways.

1. We are more surprised when things go well than when they go badly.

You thought parenting would be easier than it is. Yes, you did. So much of this has to do with how the role of children has changed in our society. In past generations, children were mainly born into three contexts: 1) economic necessity (more hands on the farm!), 2) moral obligation (Christian influence), and 3) customary structure (part of the American Dream) (Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting).

Today, however, child labor is taboo, the church’s voice has waned, and the American Dream has increasingly become the celebratation of the self-made successes of unconventional entrepreneurs. The “necessity” for children is not as intense as it once was — though children are obviously still being born. The question then becomes why. Into what context and mindset are American children being born in the twenty-first century?

Jennifer Senior says that today, rather than understood as necessary, children are more often viewed as a high-valued commodity. She explains,

[Parents] approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other ambitious life project. . . . Because so many of us are now avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts, we have heightened expectations of what children will do for us, regarding them as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives. (emphasis added)

In other words, as a commodity, the majority of society says that children exist to make us happy, to boost our egos, to procure pats on the back by the watching world. We have children because we think children will make our lives better.

But if we push our strollers with these ideals in tote, we’re not quite sure what to do when things go sideways — like when our kids pee on the floor while we’re grocery shopping, or refuse to stay in their beds at night, or spray air freshener in their eyes after they broke into the bathroom cabinet, or when, in a much more serious event, the ultrasound discloses an abnormality.

None of these things are “fulfilling.”

Actually, these things are hard — they make our heads ache, and our hearts. And so we get angry about the circumstances, and we huff and puff that our children don’t obey everything we say — all because we had the mixed up expectation that they would.

But if we understand that spiritual warfare is taking place, we may not run as quickly from their rudeness, or at least not in the same way. Having expected it, we may enter into it with correction and kindness. We may not be annoyed that she took a swing at her sister; rather we may be shocked that she shared her Skittles. When we know we’re wrestling demons, disobedience doesn’t surprise so much as obedience does.

2. We appreciate nuance in parenting strategies.

The spiritual warfare at work in parenting means that this is complicated work — much more complicated than the blanket approach of so many parenting models. There are so many moving parts in every family context, not to mention the differences in children. It is silly that we’d think there is a one-size-fits-all approach for how the details should go every time. Parenting models that suggest otherwise are full of reductionisms and overreactions, whether that means always letting the baby cry it out or always having them in the bed with mom and dad. When we seize onto one model over another, we are adopting its pros and its cons (which every system has) — and worse, we are often sucked into a tribal mentality that vilifies parents who do it differently than us.

Parenting is hard enough. We are wrestling demons. Rather than be a mindless evangelist for a certain model, offer help and your experience when you’re asked, and consider backing off when you’re not.

3. We understand the danger of the other extreme.

The knee-jerk response to the demonic message that children are worthless is to mistake children as everything. This response swings so far in the opposite direction of misopedia (the hatred of children) that we actually begin to worship children. This is when children become almost more than human, even angelic. Rather than see them as an interruption to our plans, or as an inconvenience to our priorities, we fall off the other side and make them the center of our worlds. This is part of a societal shift that started in the late twentieth century. Jennifer Senior comments, “Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”

When we see parenting in the context of spiritual warfare, we understand that the enemy has more than one way to wreak havoc. As hard as it may be to swallow, we learn that demons also take pleasure in those homes that are run by children, especially children whose hearts are so shriveled by selfishness and pandering that they lack any category of seeing themselves as sinners in need of a Savior.

4. We see children as gifts from God, not mistakes or idols.

Children are a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3, 5). The implications of this truth are gloriously vast, including, first, that children are never mistakes, and secondly, that they’re never the object of our worship.

Banish from your vocabulary the talk of junior being a “mistake.” He’s not. He can’t be. He’s no more a mistake than a college degree, a promotion at work, or your spouse saying “I do.” These are blessings. Blessings, not mistakes — and therefore, let’s call them that. Blessings, after all, are not so cookie-cutter. We understand that sometimes in God’s economy, blessings are not served on a silver platter. They are good — wonderfully good — but it’s not a microwavable good. It’s more like the long, tireless trek up a mountain, the kind that makes you stop and question whether you’ll actually make it, but when you do, fills you with a deep contentment only possible at the altitude in which you stand.

Banish from your vocabulary the talk of your children being a “mistake.” They’re not. They can’t be.

That kind of blessing is not a mistake, but neither is it an idol. If we put our children on the throne of our hearts, the clock is ticking before everything blows up. That is because idols are always a cover-up for self-worship. When children become our idols, it means they become the means to our meaning. The sad thing about the dad who won’t get off his son’s back at football practice is that the dad’s significance is so bound up in the success of his son that he can’t imagine failure. Under the guise of loving his son, he actually creates unbearable pressure and is using his son for his own advantage. Everyone loses.

Neither mistakes nor idols, our children are gifts — blessings for which to be thankful, and of which we are called to be stewards.

5. We know that God is in the fight on our side.

Once a crowd of people came to Jesus with their children. They had hoped that, upon seeing them, Jesus would lay his hands on the children and pray. The associates of Jesus, however, rebuked the people. The Master doesn’t have time for kids. They’re too beneath him. Get them out of here.

It’s not as harsh as it sounds. We might even have done the same.

But Jesus speaks the corrective word: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). And then, as Matthew tells us, “he laid his hands on them” (Matthew 19:15).

When Jesus did this, both for his day and for our own, he marked himself as an advocate for children. Let the little children come to me. This means, in a beautiful way we can’t quite fathom, that Jesus loves your children more than you do.

It means, as God has told us in his word, that he is for the youngest and frailest among us. It means that he is in this fight on our side, and has been fighting for years.

It means that when the nausea sets in, or when we’re wrestling the worst of demons, though it’s not easy, we are going to win this battle.

In a beautiful way we can’t quite fathom, Jesus loves our children more than we do.