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I Failed as a Parent—Now What?

When a person says that they failed as a parent, they are sharing the concern of every parent. Though parental failure can differ significantly, none of us do it ideally, which is why you want to think about your limitations and imperfections, as well as what God might be doing in your life and family.

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Good parents care for their children. Many believers will overcare for them, which is typical, especially for Christian parents who want to see their children walk in the faith. Sadly, for these parents, coming alongside children can become an idol.

There is probably not a day that goes by where I don’t think about my parenting, our children, the temptations to false worship, and God’s role in our family. I cherish my children dearly and would love nothing more than to see them walking in faith (3 John 4).

A Sober Self-Assessment Is Good

When a parent talks about their failures, they are doing so because they know that their child has made objectively wrong choices. And, of course, the parent’s primary concern is typically the outcome of the child’s future while not adequately addressing how they are fixating on parenting failure.

And while I applaud their sober, self-assessment, I am also compelled to adjust the Christian parent’s thinking because they have taken the problem too far. Anytime there are relational issues between two people, the first place to begin assessing the situation is with the plank in your eye (Matthew 7:3-5). If you don’t start there, you will more than likely come to a wrong conclusion.

But some parents begin and stay with the plank in their eyes, as they fixate on their mistakes. That type of attitude is not good. They never move past their failure as a parent. While I applaud the humility for taking their soul to task through a sober self-assessment, they have not wholly brought this matter to the cross.

It is a good thing to assess any known sin that you may have committed and bring it to Jesus (1 John 1:9). And it is an instructive thing when you cannot leave your sin with Jesus, but continue to bring up what He has eternally forgiven.

This posture perpetuates fear, even after God has released the parent through the power of the finished work of His Son. When our Lord said on the cross that He had finished His work, we should let His words rule our hearts (John 19:30; Romans 1:16).

The Center of Idolatry

The main problem here is the nature of the parent’s complaint. Read the title to this article again. Do you see anything wrong with it? The parent has set herself up as the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney, and the judge of these matters.

  • Plaintiff – She brings the complaint.
  • Prosecuting Attorney – She brings a reason for conviction.
  • Judge – She listens to the argument, agrees with it and condemns herself.

This worldview is a godless, hermetically sealed, closed system that does not account for God in any way. She is not allowing the Lord to be part of her situation. I run into this regularly with counselors that I train. They will occasionally say something like, “That was an awful counseling session.”

Like my parent friend, I applaud the humility, as shown by a willingness to humbly self-assess the counselor’s role in the session. And perhaps the counselor could have done some things better. No doubt every parent should do some things better, too.

We all fail in certain ways. I told my children when they were younger that if they wanted to know what God was like, all they had to do was observe my behavior. Then I paused for a few seconds to let the weight of my words fill the room and find clarity in their minds. I then followed up with this statement:

There is one huge difference: I sin often, and the Lord never sins. Apart from my sin, I should give you a reasonable picture of what God the Father is like in your lives. (Cf. Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:9)

It is “the sin part” of our lives where we cloud the picture of what God is like, and most parents are well aware of their problem with emulating God imperfectly. But personal failure does not thwart the power or purposes of God.

  • How can I stop God from accomplishing whatever He wants to achieve in a counselee of mine?
  • How can I stop God from accomplishing whatever He wants to achieve in my children?

While there may have been some things the counselor should have done differently, how in the world can the counselor know what the Spirit of God did in the person’s heart? There have been many times where I thought my counseling was inadequate and it probably was, but I would later hear how God did an excellent job in the person’s life.

And, I have also thought many times the counseling was proper and spot on, but the counselee never changed. Who can know the mind of God? How can anyone discern the mysteries of the Lord’s work in any of our lives (Deuteronomy 29:29)?

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? – Romans 11:33-34

When You Can’t Move past Go

When you’re stuck in regret, you need to re-index your heart back to the gospel because the gospel does many things. Here are a few of those things that are pertinent to this case study about parental failure.

  • The gospel is more significant than all your sin.
  • The gospel can forgive you for any of your sins.
  • Your effort does not help the gospel.
  • Your failure does not hinder the gospel.
  • The gospel does not need you to be a success.
  • The gospel allows you to cooperate with God.
  • The gospel says you are not the Messiah.
  • The gospel releases you from fear of failure.
  • The gospel is a reminder to rest.

You must do more than understand these gospel truths. Most people can say “yes and amen” to these things, but you must live in the goodness and freedom of them. The purpose of the gospel is to set you free. If you are not free, you need more than knowledge about “gospel facts.” You need to apply the gospel in real and practical ways to your life.

The “failed parent” is living under the Old Testament laws, where they had to scrutinize everything and make a sacrifice to be sure God’s pleasure would rain down on them. Jesus was the once-for-all sacrifice who releases the fearful parent from such bondage.

Hidden Anger toward God

There is more than likely something else happening that you want to bring to the light. The parent’s child made some awful mistakes and she, rightfully, has to answer for the errors—there has to be a reason for what happened, which is why she is “prosecuting” herself.

There is one answer she has not come to terms with yet: God allowed her child’s mistakes to happen. God was “in the errors” of her child. Omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient God could not be otherwise.

This theological worldview can create a problem for the Christian. I remember seeing a movie where a sibling could not keep his brother from dying. The point of the film was powerful. The sibling happened to be there when someone killed his brother. Within seconds of his brother’s death, he yelled to the heavens, “I hate you, God.” It was a bold statement that revealed his heart. While I don’t agree with his attitude about God, I do understand how he arrived at them.

  • He believed God could control the events in his brother’s life.
  • He watched his brother die.
  • He blamed God.

His theology was weak. Many Christian parents have an inadequate theology, too. They know there is someone to blame and they know how they cannot blame God. Therefore, they blame themselves.

A Christian parent won’t be free from this poor thinking until she can acknowledge God’s role in her child’s life and fully rest in God’s sovereignty. While she is not to blame God, she must fully trust Him. This type of “self-prosecuting parent” is somewhere between blaming God and not trusting Him, which is why she blames herself.

She takes her anger out on herself, which is her atonement for the mistakes. (Blaming is a form of anger.) She won’t extricate herself from blame because the thing she wants to happen is not happening. If it does not come to pass, which it has not, someone has to be at fault—according to her faulty theology.

She wants to resolve her child’s failures according to her expectations. As long as she holds on to that “all about her worldview,” she will always have to lay blame on someone, even if it is herself.

The raw truth is that she is angry at God because she is not getting what she wants. She will need to let go of her dream—a child made in her image—and trust God. When she does this, the subtle (passive) anger toward God will go away, and the blame (anger) she heaps on herself will also disappear.

As long as she refuses to let go of her dreams and desires for her child, she will always be in bondage to the child’s failure. This bondage will turn on her in forms of anger, e.g., blame, criticalness, despair, depression, bitterness, hopelessness, frustration, confusion.

Digging Deeper

The real question we have to arrive at is what is going on in her heart? What is it that keeps a slimy grip on the idol that is in her heart? The obvious answer is unbelief—she is not trusting God, as I have outlined.

But attached to the unbelief in God is something else. Typically, it is the fear of what other people think about the child’s failure and her being the mom. This perspective is a big deal for parents and maybe even more so with mothers.

Mothers can be child-centered. Even those who don’t admit it are probably more child-centered than they think, especially if they are Christians, because of their strong desires for their children to live for God. Fear of man (Proverbs 29:25) is a universal sin that we all struggle with to varying degrees.

One of the snares where the fear of others will trap a person is in their parenting—we want others to perceive us as good parents. If we’re not careful, it will be less about parenting our children for the glory of God and more about the “glory of our reputation.”

Haven’t you done this? Haven’t you feared to some degree how your son or daughter didn’t measure up to another child or family that you respected? When the awards were passed out, weren’t you thinking about how great it would be if your child won?

Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. – 2 Corinthians 10:12

There is nothing left to do here but fall to your knees and beg for God’s forgiveness for caring more about people’s opinion than His. There is only one opinion that matters, and it’s not yours or mine.

Call to Action

  1. She will need to work through her high view of herself. She cannot be the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney, and judge of her situation. It is arrogance to put yourself in such a position. She’s not that great, righteous, or sufficient for such matters. God must be “allowed” to be part of her dilemma.
  2. She must fix her insufficient understanding and application of the gospel as it pertains to this situation.
  3. She must wrestle through the anger she has, especially the hidden disappointment that comes through her accusation: my child made mistakes, and I’m to blame. Others could perceive this self-deprecation as humility, but God is sovereign. The real unspoken truth here is God allowed this. So to say, “I’m to blame” is a subtle accusation against the sovereignty of God.
  4. She will need help to overcome the fear of man, which will be an ongoing mortification issue that will not go away with a prayer. God will forgive her if she asks, but the false worship of the heart will need more effort to rid herself of it thoroughly.
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