the unmerciful mother

I didn’t know I had an anger problem until I had kids. It’s not that I never got angry, in fact I’m certain this issue reared its ugly head at many points throughout my life, leaving many scars in its wake. But I’ve become increasingly aware of the monster living within me through this season of pregnancy and small children at home. My fuse is inexcusably short and my responses harsh.

And while we’re confessing, I think I should be up front and admit that I have not built a good habit of confessing my sin to my children. There was a time when gospel-infused language took charge of my parenting. It was sweet – to get on Hadley’s level, to confess that I am not much different than her – to pray together for the grace that we both so desperately need that is only found in Jesus. But lately excuses have found their way more readily into my heart than requests for forgiveness. I am certain my standards are reasonable – that she knows better – and I can’t figure out why she keeps doing the same wrong things.

Ugh. God have mercy on me, a sinner! This is the prayer my heart cried one desperate morning. My mind went to the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). In it, a man is forgiven a great debt, and then turns around and is unable to forgive someone who owes him far less. What an unmerciful mother I am! I spend the morning celebrating the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then as soon as I hear little feet tumbling down the stairs, I turn and snap about dirty laundry or loud voices, unwilling to shower them with the same grace that has been showered upon me.

In his book, Gospel in Life, Tim Keller writes:

“Why do we lie, or fail to love, or break our promises, or live selfishly? Of course, the general answer is ‘Because we are weak and sinful,’ but the specific answer is that there is something besides Jesus Christ that we feel we must have to be happy, something that is more important to our heart than God, something that is enslaving our heart through inordinate desires. The key to change (and even to self-understanding) is therefore to identify the idols of the heart.” (40)

I have erected many idols in this messy heart. Control, independence, quiet, order, comfort, happiness, even being a good wife and mom – the list could go on and on. Maybe they’re not all terrible things in and of themselves, but when I desire them more than I desire Jesus, I become enslaved to them. But Paul tells us, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Keller goes onto say, “You will only be ‘under grace’ and free from the controlling effects of idols to the degree that you have both (1) repented of your idols and (2) rested and rejoiced in the saving work and love of Christ instead.” He then provides a framework for walking through this:

“To replace idols, you must learn to rejoice in the particular thing Jesus provides that replaces that particular idol of your heart. Whenever you see your heart in the grip of some kind of disobedience or misery, some temptation, anxiety, anger, etc., always ask, (1) How are these effects being caused by an inordinate hope for someone or something to give me what only Jesus can really give me? and (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Next rejoice and consider what he has done and what he has given you.”

He offers some sample prayers to help you walk through this process. To be honest, I started this book about three years ago and only got about two or three chapters in. (You know it’s one you should pick up and finish when it still comes to mind three years later!) But after reading this section back then, I adapted one of his prayers to revisit and wrote it on a notecard, which of course ended up buried under a pile of papers somewhere never to see the light of day. As the Lord has brought renewed conviction, this prayer has been one I must continually return to, and one I hope can be an encouragement to any other unmerciful mothers out there:

Lord, when I forget the gospel I become impatient toward others, especially my children. I want to hold them to a standard that I know I cannot attain myself. I forget that you have been infinitely patient over the years. You are ‘slow to anger and rich in love’ (Ps. 145:8). When I am anything other than tenderhearted and compassionate to people around me, I am like the unmerciful servant, who, having been forgiven an infinite debt, is hard toward his fellow debtor (Matt. 18:21-35). Please remove my idol of power and control – the need to get my own way – which is making me so hard toward my family and others. Allow me to ever remember the rescuing grace you’ve extended to me, that I may be quick to extend it to my own children.
(Adapted from Tim Keller’s Gospel in Life, p. 49) 

Praise God that even with conviction of sin comes the promise that in Christ there is no condemnation for me (Romans 8:1). But that doesn’t mean I ought to continue in sin (Romans 6:1-2). It’s time to have that conversation with Hadley – to confess that I’ve been an unmerciful mother, to ask for her forgiveness, to come before the cross together, humbly seeing that we are both sinners with a great debt, standing before a gracious Father who is ready and willing to extend mercy. It’s time to do serious battle with this angry monster – to tear down the idols that hold me captive – to stop letting sin reign in this mortal body (Romans 6:12). It’s time to just obey. But it is not enough resolve or a good plan that will make any of this happen. It is the daily rhythm of repentance and faith, as I fix my eyes on Christ and run with perseverance the race that is set before me (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Oh how I need more grace.

And he gives it (James 4:6).