By Nancy Guthrie via The Gospel Coalition
Only two people had the potential to be perfect parents. Created in God’s image, they were given the grand assignment to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and govern it.” They were to raise children who bore this same image, living in glad obedience to God. As their family grew, so would the boundaries of Eden. The whole earth would become a garden filled with offspring reflecting divine glory.
But Adam and Eve failed to be what they were made to be. Their disobedience ushered in the reality of pain in childbearing—the pain of sinners giving birth to sinners.
Adam and Eve weren’t only the first human parents; they were the first to experience children raised in the same home turning out differently. They were the first to wrangle with sibling rivalry. They were the first to experience bereavement. Surely they were the first to wonder what they could have done differently so that things wouldn’t have turned out so terribly wrong.
But certainly they weren’t the last.
Countless Imperfect Parents
As people multiplied, wickedness multiplied. So God started over with Noah and his sons. Noah and his wife home-schooled their boys in the safety of the ark; and when they emerged, there was no culture left to lead them astray. But the evil in their own hearts led them astray. Ham became the father of the Canaanites, while Shem’s descendants included Abraham.
As we trace the story from Abraham, who fathered Ishmael and Isaac, and through Isaac who fathered Esau and Jacob, and then through Jacob, who had 12 sons (some of whom did despicable, we-wish-it-weren’t-in-the-Bible stuff), we see kids raised in the same home make different choices and follow different paths. By the time we come to the end of Old Testament, we’ve read about the parental failures of Aaron the high priest, Samuel the great judge, and David the anointed king. We wonder, Can this really be the family God plans to use to bless every family on earth (Gen. 12:3)?
One Perfect Parent
While the Old Testament tells of many imperfect parents, it also recounts the story of one perfect Parent—a perfect Parent who has rebellious children. Adam and Eve believed the serpent’s lie that God was withholding something good from them. They rebelled and were forced to leave the loving home he had prepared for them in Eden.
Then God had another son, the nation of Israel. He brought them out of slavery and gave them his loving law so they could live as his treasured possession in the home he provided for them in Canaan. But they too refused to obey. Like a father longingly reminiscing about what could have been, we hear the Lord speak of his love for his child through the prophet, Hosea:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and I called my son out of Egypt.
But the more I called to him,
the farther he moved from me,
offering sacrifices to the images of Baal
and burning incense to idols.
I myself taught Israel how to walk,
leading him along by the hand.
But he doesn’t know or even care
that it was I who took care of him. (Hosea 11:1–3)
As a broken-hearted father, the Lord speaks through his prophet: “The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me . . . My people don’t recognize my care for them . . . They are evil people, corrupt children who have rejected the LORD” (Isa. 1:2–4).
Adam and Eve inhabited a perfect environment. Even the most ideal home doesn’t insulate children from attraction to evil.
Adam and Eve knew what would happen if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Hearing God’s warning doesn’t ensure children will heed it.
Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed in front of each other and God. Healthy, intimate relationships don’t guarantee children won’t turn away from parental love.
Israel’s Father gave them his good law. Having God’s law communicated clearly doesn’t give a child the power to obey it.
Israel’s Father gave them a home in a land of abundance and safety. Generous provision doesn’t always inspire grateful devotion.
Adam and Eve failed to obey God’s word spoken to them. Israel failed to obey God’s word written for her. Each squandered blessing and opportunity. Each took grace for granted.
And sometimes so do our kids. The responsibility for failing to heed what was said, given, and promised belonged to Adam and Eve and to Israel, not to the One who spoke and gave and promised.
Mom and Dad, don’t assume your child’s failure to take hold of what’s been held out to him or her in Christ is a failure on your part.
One Perfect Child
By the end of the Old Testament, it’s obvious another Son was needed—a Son who would display his Father’s likeness and achieve his Father’s purpose. Finally, the day came when an angel told Mary she was going to have a child who would be “holy, and he will be called the Son of God.”
From his earliest days, Jesus understood his unique purpose and status as God’s Son. When his parents found him in the synagogue at age 12, he said, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49).
Jesus embodied everything Israel was meant to be. He was everything God wanted in a Son. In his perfect obedience, he did what Adam failed to do, and what Israel could never do.
Imperfect Parent’s Refuge
What does this mean for parents like us? It means we find companionship with our Father in heaven. He knows the great joy of having a child who is everything he always wanted—one who obeys perfectly, loves sacrificially, and reflects him gloriously.
But God also knows the great sorrow of having children who refuse to obey, fail to love, and fall short of his glory. He doesn’t point fingers at parents or kids who struggle. He draws near. He is a safe refuge when parenting becomes and remains difficult. He understands.
As parents, we find hope in the Son, believing his perfect record will cover all our imperfections. In him we experience an abundance of grace that overflows to our kids. As we abide in him, we are increasingly changed into his likeness so that we can shepherd our children as he shepherds us. And because we know all the judgment we deserve was exhausted on him, we can be honest about our failings as parents, confident that there’s no condemnation for those hidden in Christ.
As parents, we don’t have the power to create spiritual life in our kids. But the Spirit does.
Often we don’t have the will or the words to pray for our children. But the Spirit does. He prays for us and them with groanings too deep for words.
The parenting journey that lasts a lifetime is not about doing everything right. Instead, it’s about radical reliance on the grace of the only One who’s ever parented perfectly.