Whether we’re making meals, changing diapers, or shuttling kids to baseball practice, parents are doers. Always in protective mode, we apply sunscreen and Band-Aids as needed, and when we hit a wall with a need we can’t meet ourselves, we consult with the experts.
Long before parents could ransack Google or WebMD for medical advice, the distraught dad of Mark 9 wore his son’s need day and night — until the day he carried it in hope to Jesus. With disappointment written plainly on his face, he stepped out of the crowd and met Jesus’s level gaze. One arm protectively encircled his son’s shoulders, but any family resemblance was obscured by the son’s disfiguring burn scars, patchy hair, and missing eyebrows. Love and anguish constricted the man’s voice as he explained his dilemma to Jesus.
I went to your disciples, but they couldn’t help. A demon has stolen my son’s voice, and he throws the boy to the ground, into the water and into the fire. Please. If you can help us. . . . (see Mark 9:17–18, 22)
Before he could finish the story and fully convey his frustration and need, his boy hit the ground right there before Jesus’s compassionate eyes.
“Parenting has continually exposed my need for stronger faith.”
Mark alone of the four Gospel writers records the father’s anxious response to Jesus’s certainty that “all things are possible” (Mark 9:23): “I believe,” he says. “Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). With an eye to portraying Christ’s humanity and emotional responses, Mark departed from his usual spare, just-the-facts-ma’am narrative style to document a father’s expression of faith diluted by doubt but emboldened by desperation. In his outburst, we hear the lingering horror of near drownings, the blurted exhaustion of continual vigilance.
What Jesus Can Do
Parenting does that. Like nothing else in my following life, mothering has taken me to the edge of what I know for sure about God and how to follow him well. Parenting has continually exposed my need for stronger faith. Even in the comparatively tame experience of raising four healthy sons, plagued only by passing afflictions and the odd eternal flu season, I have found myself pushed to the chasm between belief and unbelief on a fairly regular basis. Do I believe Jesus can rescue my children? Do I trust him to work redemptively in their hearts?
I want to.
Like this New Testament dad, I have made the mistake of taking my children for healing and help to places where the offers sounded good, but the outcome was disappointing. I have listened to the parenting experts, read the books, crowdsourced with my mum friends, and talked long into the night with my husband about the needs of our kids. With Jesus fully present in every room, I have sought him out as a last resort — or failed to bring him into the problem at all.
With parental desperation on full display, the Mark 9 dad’s slippage toward despair was halted by the discovery that Jesus could do for his son what no one else could do. We follow his lead when we do what is ours to do while also making room in our parenting practices for Jesus to put on display his power and his love for our children. What does that look like in practice?
1. Emphasize relationship over rules.
Since “the springs of life” flow from the heart, internal motivation for obedience is key (Proverbs 4:23). We begin the process by taking our parenting emphasis off behavior and focusing instead on relationship. Certainly, we want our children to get along with others, obey house rules, and be kind to their siblings, but unless their good behavior flows from a desire to please God and to live in right relationship with him, we’re just producing a generation of rule-followers.
This mindset requires a marathon mentality, for we’re not simply in the business of extinguishing annoying or inconvenient behaviors. Instead, the goal is to model a strong foundation of spiritual disciplines (prayer, Scripture reading, service, giving, worship) that our children embrace as part of a growing relationship with God. The sooner we can duck out of the position as middleman in our children’s spiritual growth, the better.
2. Do the ambassadorial work.
The parenting journey is a mission with the goal of connecting our children with Jesus. Paul Tripp refers to parenting as “ambassadorial work from beginning to end. . . . [P]arenting is not first about what we want for our children or from our children, but about what God in grace has planned to do through us in our children” (Parenting, 14). And so, we do our best work when we intentionally seize every opportunity to turn their thoughts (and our own) toward him.
“The parenting journey is a mission with the goal of connecting our children with Jesus.”
Kristen Welch, founder of Mercy House Global, has resisted a parenting narrative with the goal of “happy children,” instead inspiring her family toward compassionate concern for others. In Raising World Changers in a Changing World, she reminds parents, “We were created to be satisfied by God, not this world, so all our searching for happiness will only lead us to unhappiness” (127). As we seize the opportunities to reinforce this truth, opportunities that inevitably come along with life’s disappointments, we strengthen our children’s connection to Jesus as Provider, Guide, and Source of contentment.
God desires our children’s spiritual growth even more than we do. He is committed to the ongoing work of salvation and sanctification, for “he who began a good work in you [and your children!] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Oswald Chambers warns believers about becoming an “amateur providence” for others, swooping in as if we can do the work of God in their lives. This is a real and present temptation for loving parents, but when we rush in to meet every need and solve every problem, we may be short-circuiting the work God wants to do and getting in the Spirit’s way.
3. View discipleship as a daily habit.
Jesus becomes central to even the most mundane aspects of life when parents cultivate a Deuteronomy 6 family culture. Shelly Wildman, author of First Ask Why, believes fiercely that “parents are and should be the primary influence in the lives of their children” (21). Like the Wildman family, we also have a family history of devotions and Bible stories at mealtime. Shared traditions and memories are sturdy knots to strengthen family ties and to reinforce a sense of belonging.
However, discipleship that sticks around the dining room table and never finds its way out into the great wide world of practical application is not in keeping with the principles of Deuteronomy 6:4–9, which describe an all-day-long discipleship — a sitting, walking, rising, and lying-down learning that takes unique forms in every family.
If our goal is to develop a resilient faith, everything we do must point our children toward a meaningful and lively relationship with Christ. In doing so, we help them to fulfill their ultimate purpose: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. We communicate this in the way we get out of bed in the morning, the way we sit in traffic, and even in the way we disagree with one another.
Bringing our children to Jesus includes offering our living and breathing selves as a “holy and acceptable” offering to God (Romans 12:1). Tish Harrison Warren calls this a Liturgy of the Ordinary, for although the way we “spend our days looks very similar to our unbelieving neighbors” (29), with peanut butter sandwiches constructed at kitchen counters and piano practice after dinner, the massive difference is a mindset in which believers live with “eyes open to God’s presence in this ordinary day” (36). We treat our bodies with respect because they are a gift from God. We make our bed, eat leftovers, and hunt for our lost keys in hope because we believe God is present in all our routines and run-of-the-mill moments.
Pray Your Way Through Parenting
When the crowd in Mark 9 had dispersed and Jesus had a private moment with his disciples, they eagerly quizzed him about their failed attempt at exorcism. After all, they had been commissioned and given authority over “unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7), and three of them were fresh off the heady experience of having witnessed Jesus’s transfiguration.
“God desires our children’s spiritual growth even more than we do.”
Jesus’s response takes the focus off the disciples and their own personal power: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29). Is it possible their failure was linked to the misconception that they could have made a difference on their own? In this aha moment, the disciples must have realized with awe that they could have brought the desperate father and his son directly to Jesus themselves through the power source of prayer. In the same vein, whether I’m on my last nerve with an argumentative teen or awake on my pillow with worries about an adult child’s job prospects, my right response as a parent is to hand my child over to Jesus — not as a last resort, but as a daily discipline, a well-beaten path.
In the wake of my own faithless failures, it is both redemptive and humbling to hear Jesus say, “There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen” (Mark 9:23 MSG). When we as fathers and mothers bring our children to Jesus, we acknowledge his role in the growing and the learning and the letting go of the parenting journey. He alone can deliver us from our feeble and failed efforts, and he is the power source who enables us to make our parenting vision a reality.