I grew up in the paradox of an abusive Christian home. It’s a surprise, then, that my siblings and I each clung to Jesus in our own ways. We were desperate for stability and truth.
When I became a mother, I reinvented the parenting wheel. I prayed for inspiration, for wisdom, for the ability to nurture, and then I prayed for God to fill in the gaps. Many times I asked, “What would a good mother do?” And I did it, as best I could.
My husband and I raised our little boys, praying for them every day, reading Bible stories, proclaiming blessings over them every night. We told them that Jesus loves, loves, loves them and that He is full of mercy and grace.
As adults, two of them have turned away from Jesus—a full half of my children. There is no anger or rebellion. They are kind and gentle to me, but they have lost interest in the faith of their youth.
They are good family men, even more kind and more mature than many Christian men I have known. I am not deluded into thinking that attending church transforms people. My boys met plenty of hypocrites at church and plenty of strange, broken, offensive people.
When my sons were small, I spent time with other mothers of my generation who were especially invested in their children’s lives. As children, we had been set loose in a seemingly safer world and parented from a distance. Every generation thinks they can do a better job than their parents did. More than once I heard my friends—good, loving parents—declare their determination to “raise a godly generation,” something our world so badly needed. I sat on the fringe of this battle, reluctant to be so confident in my power. But it sure sounded good.
My sons watched as I named and fought the demons of my youth, as I confronted the abuse I had endured. Profoundly affected by recovery culture, I was convinced that if I did not “pass it back,” I would be fated to “pass it along.” I had to confront my abuse and my abusers to avoid the inevitability of inflicting my unprocessed pain on my children. I was brave. The love and nurture I imperfectly provided my children came from the hand of God Himself.
They also watched as I endured PTSD triggers, sometimes so crippling that I stayed in my bedroom, unable to function. I wish I had been stronger.
Now they are adults and have made their own choices, at least for now. I am surprised to find myself not grieved by the ones who have chosen to abandon faith. The very last thing I want is for my sons to accept a faith that makes no sense to them just because it makes sense to me.
Here’s the curious thing about me: I’m not broken-hearted about their choices. I don’t (anymore) dissect my mothering and blame myself for their decisions to turn away from the God I cling to. I did, at first. Now I pray for them to know the grace and kindness of God. My own faith has grown enough to understand that the heart of God is much bigger than my own.
They will never know, can never fathom, how much I love them. My love is nothing, though, just a drop, compared to the affection God has for them.
When Eugene Peterson died, his son exposed what he called his father’s “secret.” He said this, “…you steal into my room at night and whisper softly to my sleeping head. It’s the same message over and over, ‘God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming for you. He’s relentless.’”
A parent’s job, I think, is to love, discipline, and instruct a child, not to form him. Not to make him into one’s image.
It’s a relief to take the burden of my children’s beliefs and choices off myself and give them to the One who knows their hearts and loves them much more than I do.
One thing I know: God is good, and His timing is perfect.
I prayed that my sons would not endure the deep trauma I endured as a child. Yet, I’ve realized that this very trauma is what drove my siblings and me to chase after God. We were desperate to touch the hem of His garment and be healed.
Life is hard, and pain is universal. All my prayers will not protect my sons from meeting the suffering this world distributes. This pain will crack their hearts and leave enough space for the love of God to seep through. I don’t know how they will respond.
I used to know the hearts of my children better than anyone on earth. Now I don’t. But this story is not about me, my failings, my successes, my desires. It is about the heart of God.
I don’t know if my sons will learn to love the God who loves them. But this I know: He is good, His timing is perfect, and He is relentless.
Marcia Thomas lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband of 38 years. She has raised four handsome, self-actualizing sons. She has found healing in exploring her story in the presence of others and treasures the opportunities she has to be that presence for others. She is surprised and pleased to find that the glad work of healing does not have a retirement age.