Let's Stick With Our Own Guilt
Guilt is a funny thing. It can be a useful tool in our lives, but sometimes it's destructive. It's good for us to feel that prick of conscience when we gossip or lie or lust or cheat. A dilemma we can face, however, is that as our hearts become softer, as we work to steer our minds and actions toward righteousness, the accuser of our souls often swoops in to take advantage and lure us into taking responsibility where we shouldn't.
Parenting is one of those tricky areas. We want to do good by our kids. We desire to help them grow up to make healthy and wise choices. We work to instill in them a love for God, a love for themselves, for their family and for those around them. We encourage them to work hard in school, to notice those less fortunate, to be kind and not bully people who are different. It's all part of being the good parent.
When we are engaged with our children, working to mold their young minds and hearts, God is pleased with our efforts. Many of us have memorized Deuteronomy 6:6-8 and made it part of the fabric of our family.
"These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."
Are we perfect? I don't know about you, but I can't say Tom and I were always as consistent as we "should" have been. We had seasons of regular family devotionals, consistent Bible reading, consistent prayer time, consistent training, consistent fun family times. Then life would happen, we would get off track and struggle to pull ourselves back to center.
I wish we could all focus on the victories that we scored during each season. Mistakes and down times seem to pull at our memories so often. And if at some point our kids don't embrace the good teaching we tried to instill, we can be drawn even more toward the trap of guilt.
But if we are teaching our children as we go and they do something that falls outside our teaching, why do we emotionally jump to the conclusion that we did something wrong? That's the comment that started this series: "I am a supposed to be a good mom. What did I do wrong? How could this happen?"
What if you did most things right?
What if this thought is true?
The actions of your child are not necessarily a reflection of you.
That can be hard to grasp.
Yet Scripture tells us that
"Even a child is known by his actions..." (Proverbs 20:11)
I can't remember how many times I've heard parents comment how quickly the character of their child starts to make itself known. I've said it myself. Even as infants we start to see inklings of what might lie ahead of us. Both my children exhibited their sweet, strong wills early on. The age-old question of nature or nurture is too complicated to explore in this post, but I think it's safe to say that while parents can work hard to encourage, train, and discipline our characters, each person has to ultimately decide the course their life will take.
God's pleading with the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30:15, 19 gives me comfort.
"See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction...Now choose life."
I see evidence here that we have to make a decision to choose God's plan for our lives.
And then there is this powerful teaching in Ezekiel...
"The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father,
nor will the father share the guilt of the son
. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him." (Ezekiel 18:20, emphasis added.)
I might suffer the consequences of my parents' sin, but I'm not guilty. If I'm not guilty, there is no reason for me to feel judgment or shame. I remember the first time I read this scripture. It was crystal clear. It made total sense. I embraced it with no trouble. Of course, back then my only perspective was that of the child. It never occurred to me to assume responsibility for my parent's sin.
Now I'm the parent, and my perspective isn't as crystal clear as it once was. I was given two children to raise. They are my responsibility. I was in charge of their upbringing. I was given a mission to teach and train them. Surely I have a share in it when they mess up?!
But there is the other half of the verse...
"...nor will the father share the guilt of the son."
Have you ever heard the saying "the buck stops here"? The one in charge is the one holding the responsibility. Taking responsibility and not hedging or making excuses has always been a sign of real leadership and humility in my mind. When it comes to our faith, however, I have to embrace God's perspective. The buck stops with each one of us when it comes to our relationship with God.
I would say the scripture is pretty clear. It teaches that each of us is solely responsible for ourselves. Again, that means if I am not guilty, there is no reason to feel shame or judgment.
So I have to decide what to believe.
Will I let my emotions take charge and walk a path of guilt when my children act in ways that are not congruent with truths I taught them? Or will I release the control I held as they were growing up? Will I allow them the freedom to walk their own path?
I think this concept resonates with us intellectually, but sometimes our emotions take over, and we can spiral into deep, dark places God never intended us to go. I get it. I've struggled with so many thoughts over the years.
Thoughts like, "how could I have missed that? I never saw X in his character. How could I have been so blind? Now he's struggling, and I didn't equip him to handle it."
Or "I shouldn't have been so hard on them. Rules are good, but where was the grace they needed to learn?"
Or, "I should have listened to the advice I got and disciplined her for that."
You may think something similar, or something entirely different, but our struggle is real, and often painful.
I don't always win the emotional battle, but when those thoughts pop into my head, I try hard to remind myself of this. First, I love my kids deeply, and God promises love covers over a multitude of sins. Second, if they didn't struggle with X, they would struggle with Y! We all have things that are difficult in our lives, which brings me back to not accepting unwarranted guilt.
As our children grow up, it is unhealthy to take responsibility for all their struggles. When our kids recognize that they have trouble with anger or have an issue with lying or confess they have been secretly looking at pornography - AMEN! That is the beginning of a path toward understanding that they can't do life well without God!
Our responsibility is to help them learn, give them tools to help them grow, sometimes discipline them if that's what is needed.
Their struggles don't flow out of "our problem."
We can't forget that it is up to each individual soul to decide if they want to live their way or God's.
Throughout the scriptures I see God coaxing us, wooing us toward him with unmeasured kindness. I hope to imitate that with my children. To offer them a picture of God through my love for them that gives acceptance, grace, and mercy. Truthful always, but kind and gentle. Life will beat us up whether we choose to follow God or not. I want to create a haven where my children always feel safe and cherished.
I think guilt messes up that desire, though. When I am operating under the influence of guilt, I find myself continually working to fix things and make it "right." When I think I made mistakes as my kids were growing up and let guilt overtake me, I can become consumed with re-living those areas, continually making up for my "mistakes." Does that make sense? I can become preachy and self-righteous, driving them away rather than pulling them close like I want to.
Please, let's help each other and let's stop taking on guilt that doesn't belong to us. Let's imitate our merciful Father in heaven. He sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. He loves us all. He tells us what we need to do to have a "right" relationship with him. But that is between him and us. And between him and our children. Each of us is separate, and each of us must learn to stand in this life on our own.
Remember this scripture?
"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:34)
In the same vein, do not worry about your child's life, for your child will worry about their own life.
Each life has enough trouble of its own.
Love your children. Teach them. But don't take on guilt that doesn't belong to you. That won't help you or your children on this journey.
This was the third in a five-part series about rethinking what it means to be a good parent. You can read the first two parts at
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