I used to be a fantastic parent…before I had kids. I was the parent who frowned disapprovingly while your child had a tantrum in the grocery aisles. I’m guilty of thinking, “If I had that child for a week, he wouldn’t act like that!” In God’s infinite sense of humor (or to humble the proud -- sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference), I now have two sons.
Now I’m the parent whose child crawls under the pews in church and rips pages out of the hymnals. I’ve learned that I have a lot to learn. A vast publishing industry eagerly wants to help me: A search for books on parenting yielded over 117,000 titles on amazon.com. Most of these books approach parenting from a pragmatic perspective: Have a problem getting Baby to sleep? Have a problem getting Junior to eat vegetables? Have a problem with discipline? Here’s a method to implement. Parenting is presented as one vast problem-solving enterprise, as if children are raw data waiting to be put in line by the correct formula.
It only makes matters worse that much of the advice is contradictory. “Super Nanny” Jo Frost disagrees with Dr. Sears, who disagrees with “Babywise,” who conflicts with Harvey Karp. If parents in your church or community are desperate for a helpful perspective on parenting, where can they turn?
I recently encountered one of the most encouraging passages on parenting in a most unlikely place: the book of Numbers. In Numbers 14, the Israelites are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. They have digested the report from the spies, the news about milk and honey -- and walled cities. They decide that this Promised Land doesn’t sound so great after all. They want new leaders, and they declare that they want to return to slavery in Egypt.
God does not take this news happily. God does not use a quiet, reasoning voice or calmly ask the Israelites to use their nice words while they talk out their feelings. God is angry and fed up. Some people are disturbed by depictions of God’s anger in Scripture. I find them quite reassuring. I can relate to this God -- I would be really, really mad in this situation, too.
God chooses to use parenting language to describe himself to us through names like God the Father. God uses parenting analogies to describe his relationship with the people (Matthew 7:9-11). If we are ultimately to pattern our own parenting on the perfect Heavenly Father, then it’s helpful to see how God interacts with his children. Despite the masculine language of the ancient text, this speaks to me as a contemporary mother.
In this instance, God demonstrates being angry and not sinning (Ephesians 4:26). My children -- and yours, too, I suspect -- are going to be willful and disobedient and prideful and foolish and it’s OK to feel frustration and even anger in those situations.
In the face of God’s anger, Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites. He makes two arguments: God’s reputation is at stake and God’s character is loving and forgiving. As followers of God, these two arguments should temper our own tendency to react in our justified anger. God’s reputation is at stake in our actions. And our character should be like God’s -- loving and forgiving.
God responds to the pleas of Moses and forgives the Israelites. This does not, however, exempt the Israelites from consequences. They have defied the instruction of the almighty God and they have denied the character of the all-faithful God. They are spared from destruction, but they are prevented from entering the Promised Land.
When my own children respond with total disregard for “the way they should go” (Proverbs 22:6), I find some comfort in God’s response to the people. Appropriate consequences are connected with love and forgiveness. Instead of attending to modern parenting wars with the accompanying guilt about being either too strict or too lenient, I can exercise forgiveness with my children, give them consequences for what they’ve done and temper both my anger and their penalty with love.
This is not formulaic parenting. It’s not pragmatic parenting. It’s not even results-oriented parenting. The people are grieved over the consequences for their defiance, but the rest of the story of the Old Testament records that they don’t have a great track record of obedience. God continues to act in accord with God’s character, showing mercy and yet exacting consequences. The very existence of this pattern demonstrates God’s love -- for if he didn’t love these people, he never would have persisted in relationship with them.
Like the Israelites, our children are not a problem to solve. They are people to love, people with whom we are in relationship. They will mess up and frustrate us, and we may be called to extend forgiveness again and again and again. Yet we have the example of God the Father, and we can parent in love flowing from our identity as Christians, representing God’s reputation and embodying God’s character.