Guilty Parents PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ben Merkle   
Saturday, 10 July 2010 14:17

Guilt is a cancer. King David describes the oppressive burden of the guilt of his transgressions in Ps. 32. It is a palpable weight, which he can feel in his bones. It is a parching drought, sucking his strength. All he can do is groan. Sin brings about guilt and guilt cripples sinners. Oftentimes, fathers and mothers can feel this crippling effect of guilt, but don’t accurately name it for what it is. Then, because they fail to identify it, they fail to combat it effectively.

Consider this fairly common dilemma. Your kids are acting up and, as usual, they are acting up at exactly the time and in exactly the place that is most inconvenient for you. You were in thick traffic and needed to have your attention on the road at just the moment that the squabble began in the back seat. Or maybe they were rough-housing and broke something special to you. Or they just embarrassed you in front of the pastor with some nasty behavior. Something of that sort. They were misbehaving in a way that was seriously provoking to you and so you turned on them. And you, instead of handling it with a perfect mix of mercy and truth, landed on them like the 82nd Airborne, with flamethrowers and fixed bayonets. Then, half way into your assault, you get a wave of guilt. You know you lost it. You caught a glimpse of your reflection in a mirror and your lips were curled and your eyes were flashing. You were out of line and now you feel bad about it.

There you are – guilty kids and guilty parent.

For the guilty parent, the temptation is to try to let the two sins cancel each other out. You drop whatever it was that the kids did that got you ticked, and you try to move forward with a feebly restored fellowship. You make a joke or offer the kids ice cream. And then you move on as if nothing happened. But the kids did not get disciplined and you might not have even apologized for your own outbreak. And why did you not discipline the kids? Because you felt guilty.

Guilt debilitates us from being able to address sin elsewhere. It does so even when our guilt is unrelated to the sin that we are supposed to be addressing. If a father has a secret porn addiction and is heavy under the burden of the guilt of that sin, and his son is brought into him by his wife for failing to clean his room, is that man really in a position where he can effectively discipline his son? He won’t do it. He will cut his son at least as much slack as he has cut himself. His guilt has robbed him of the ability to discipline.

I suspect that this sort of guilt bartering is the primary reason that so many heterosexuals are ardent supporters of gay rights. There is a sort subconscious reasoning that says – if homosexuality is excusable then how much more excusable is my heterosexual sin?

This guilt can be quite subtle and yet still be incredibly powerful in its ability to warp us as parents. For instance, in any family with more than one child, parents will inevitably find themselves with their own personal favoritisms or repulsions amongst their kids. It might be minor and temporary. Or it can be significant and long lasting. But in the luck of the draw some of the kids will be genetically put together in such a way that their quirks and oddities blend nicely with the preferences of the parents. And some of them will grate. When this happens, it will be easy to be affectionate with some of the kids and harder to be affectionate with others. But when parents can sense this favoritism in themselves, even if it is a very subliminal sort of realization that this is the case, the sensation that they are not as easily affectionate with one kid as with another will inevitably produce a sensation of guilt.

They will feel bad about their parenting since they feel like they don’t “love” one of their kids as much as the others. Then this guilt will cripple them from being able to effectively discipline that child. Since they know that they aren’t as naturally affectionate towards one kid, they will compensate by taking it easy on that kid when discipline is needed. The result here is disastrous. A child, who was already suffering from some quirks that made him or her less easy to love, is now robbed of the kind of loving discipline that would have helped to fix many of these quirks. That child gets the double curse of feeling neglected by the parents in the realm of affection and spoiled at the same time in the realm of discipline. The other kids also see this and feel the inequality. But because they don’t have the same guilt that the parents had, all they see is one kid who is both more ornery than the rest, and inexplicably never disciplined. The end product is a family where everyone is bitter at everyone else and no one knows why.

In each of these situations, guilt is the culprit that has crippled the parents. And so guilt is the thing that needs to be addressed. The good news is that guilt is easy to deal with. In Ps. 32, after David sat under the weight of his guilt, he turned to God and confessed his sin. “I acknowledge my sin to you,” he prays to God. And once the confession is made and the sin is turned from, the guilt can be gone. In an instant David turns from groaning under the weight of his sin, to charging his readers – “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous: And shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” A moment before his heart was heavy with guilt and now his heart is upright with joy. What a change confession of sin can make.

And that is the cure to all of the situations described above. Guilt can’t be traded away or cancelled out by someone else’s sin. If you lost it at your kids, you can’t cover up your sin by giving your kids a free pass. You can't atone for it. You can only be forgiven for it. So just confess it. And then continue on with disciplining them. You are only disqualified as a parent if you refuse to confess you sin. Once you have dealt with your own anger or frustration, then you are entirely forgiven for your sin and it is time to take care of the kids’ sin. If you have a secret sin that is debilitating you as a parent, you have to turn from that sin, find real forgiveness, and then get back in the saddle – being the mother or father that God has commanded you to be. And if you feel a favoritism or a repulsion concerning one of your kids, asking God to forgive you is the only effective way forward. Then you must treat that son or daughter just like all the others. Proverbs 13:24 says, “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.” The failure to discipline is the real failure to love, not the initial sensation of repulsion.

All of this is just to remind us that the cross is central to all of life. Without the grace that God has given us in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, we are lost. Good parents are forgiven parents.

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