The Christian life can become a lifeless life if we only see it as an exercise in sin management
“None of you kids arrived with a manual, you know!”
So said my father, frequently, but especially if we appeared to be second-guessing his judgments in how we were being raised. All of my friends who have children have used that phrase or something similar. It seems to me that parenting requires a constant juggling of considerations and concerns.
So, it doesn’t surprise me when parents struggle to do the right thing; likewise it doesn’t surprise me that parents often struggle to know what the right thing to do is. Often a load of common sense and some deep wisdom are required—and an abiding commitment to notice and intervene. Diligent parents never have a day off from parenting—the care and worry don’t stop. Nonetheless, after 20+ years of university teaching, it boggles me when I see exceptionally fine young adults whose parents seem to have little or no idea of how very fine their maturing children are. I’ve met students over the years who are honorable, virtuous, talented, wise beyond their years, with a deep goodness—yet their parents seem blind to the praiseworthiness of their grown children. Sometimes I’ve seen that blindness myself; more often I hear about it from the students themselves.
I mentioned this to a very dear friend and neighbor. (I see him and his wife as quite effective parents.) “How could that happen?” I asked him. “How could these parents overlook or be indifferent to the goodness of their young adult children?” He smiled (I trust not indulgently) at my question and replied: “I can understand that. It’s really quite easy to explain.” An illuminating conversation ensued.
My friend said that as parents, there is a constant concern to correct, to repeat lessons, to improve, to manage, and to control. Of course, those efforts are needed. But being so diligent entails a risk—seeing your child as a problem to be solved, a condition to be managed, or as some kind of accident-waiting-to-happen. That narrowness of focus can be dangerous. It runs the risk of the child (young or adult) perceiving himself as being a constant disappointment to his parents, and it runs the risk of parents failing to look for the good news within their own kids. I believe that all these difficulties have spiritual roots.
So many folks I know see their Christian life primarily as an exercise in sin management. Sin is not to be trivialized of course, but if discipleship is only about ascertaining one’s own compliance in anticipation of the final examination (that is, divine judgment), then the Christian life can become a lifeless life. God is seen as an auditor and not a Father, our discipleship is rooted in anxiety and shame rather than adoption. Living that way, of course, is as fruitless as it is exhausting.
My fear is that sometimes we take our stunted view of a loveless God and imitate that in some degree as we raise our children. God appears always angry to us—we appear always angry to our children. God appears to find constant fault and disappointment with us—we appear to find constant fault and disappointment with our children. God appears never pleased or satisfied with us—we appear never pleased or satisfied with our children. And just as we find it oppressive to live under God’s seemingly constant scowl, so do our children find it oppressive to live under ours.
For the love of God and for the love of the children (young or old) placed in our care, we must strive to have our distorted, soul-crushing view of God corrected and healed. I can recommend two good books to help facilitate that process. Fathered by God and The Furious Longing of God are good places to start.
If we can see that we not only have to answer to God but that we are called by Him, by name, into His kingdom and into His heart, then we will be less likely to stagger under the burden of believing that God looks at us with a critic’s eye and not a Father’s eye. If we can come to know that our Heavenly Father enjoys loving us, we may begin to communicate to our children, young and old, that we enjoy loving them. Meanwhile, I continue to pray that the parents of some amazing university students will be dazzled and delighted by the good young adults their children have become.
When I write next, I will speak of the power of memories—for good and for ill. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J.is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.