Parenting for Recovering Pharisees

Cooking dinner, I hear the sounds of angry hearts bubbling over into stinging words. It gets louder, and soon someone is crying. Two boys come out into the great-room, red-faced, fists clenched, and both yelling at once. After multiple attempts, I finally gather that one had frustrated the other, who responded by kicking his brother.

I begin by saying, “Remember how Jesus said we were to treat one another?”

“I’m not Jesus!” my oldest responds immediately, his face scrunched up as his feet stomp the tile floor. He runs off to his room.

Sometimes, my children speak words that the Spirit has been trying to pierce into my heart for a while.

The pasta is boiling over. The water makes sizzling sounds as it hits the red glass cook top. I stare at it, knowing I need to leave the kitchen and talk through the conflict with them. I think of how quickly anger can overflow the heart, spattering burning hot drops of pain on anyone nearby.

Turning down the heat on the pot, I walk into the boy’s room, hoping to do the same with their anger. I find them both calm and playing with Legos. I get down on the floor, look my oldest in the eyes, and say, “I know you’re not Jesus.”

Deep into the Past

How often does a parent’s response to her child’s behavior imply that we expect perfection? The pharisaical heart has roots that dig deep into the past–back into childhood. A child can learn quickly the ways of self-righteousness. When they have behaved, they hear, “You’re such a good boy.” Over the years, they can grow to believe that the good they do comes from their own ability. When those beliefs take root, they can struggle with seeing their own sin. And perhaps even struggle with seeing their need for a Savior.

“Jesus called us to live as he lived. But he knows we can’t be perfect as he is perfect,” I tell my son. “That’s why he died for us, because we can’t do what’s right. Through faith in him, he gives us the Holy Spirit. We have his power living within us. That’s the only way we can ever obey. We need to pray and ask for his help.”

He nods his head, listening.

“When you don’t obey, remember that Jesus died for that disobedience. He loves you that much. When you feel the anger rising within you, pray and tell God you are angry. Ask him to help you to obey him.”

As a recovering Pharisee, I struggle with living as though I can earn grace. I know how the self-righteous heart can look down on those who don’t follow the rules. I don’t want my children to grow up with the heart of a Pharisee.

I do want them to know the holiness of God. I want them to know all that he expects, what he commands, and what glorifies him. I also want them to realize that they can’t perfectly obey him, and they need a Savior. I want their hearts to be grieved and humbled by their sin. I want them to run to the cross when they sin and remember his grace and mercy.

God’s grace covers even my parenting blunders. How grateful I am that his grace is greater than all my sin! I rest in his promise that he is at work in my children’s hearts despite my failed efforts. I trust in the story of redemption he is writing in their lives. And I look forward to that day when we will finally be like Jesus.

  • Tim Chan

    Thanks for sharing this Christina. I’m a new father and have often thought about how I and others in my life are starting to praise my baby for being “good” when she sleeps and eats well, and for being “naughty” when she cries or doesn’t sleep. Yet something doesn’t feel quite right about labelling a child as good or bad because of their actions.

    • Laura

      Tim, my daughter cried for the first four months of her life. My husband and I thought we would lose our minds. At first my mother said I was paying for my raising, but later she said, “I take that back. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

      I think this period is when we learn to love our children more than life itself. If we didn’t, they wouldn’t survive it.

      At the same time, I think it’s really important to keep at the front of our minds how a child’s immaturity limits her ability take care of herself. I would never suggest that even a small child can’t sin – I know they can. At the same time, a baby cries because she needs something and she can’t take care of herself. She’s doing the only thing she can do, appealing to somebody to feed her or hold her or change her or whatever it is – she herself doesn’t even know. It’s not sinful and it’s not naughty. Same with a two-year-old meltdown. A child that young has big emotions and they run away with her. She does not have the brain maturity to control herself. Very different from that child stomping her foot and yelling “no” when you tell her to do something, although that too is a part of the maturing process. She’s beginning to understand that she is a separate person from you. (I’ve seen toddlerhood described as the first adolescence, and that’s very apt because the same process of trying to separate from the parents drives both stages.) You have to make it clear that she must do as you say, but you can still understand her need for independence – if she didn’t have it, there would be something wrong with her.

      I think the ticket is to try to enter into what your child is experiencing so that you can discern sinful behavior and not mistake normal immaturity and personality quirks as sin. Going back to my daughter – I realized when she was about four years old that she is very much an introvert. Her dad and I both have to have our space, and she got a double dose. When I realized that, it shed light on the fact that when she was an infant and NOTHING I DID WOULD STOP THE CRYING, so that in desperation I would put her in her crib and walk away, she would stop after a couple of minutes. She didn’t want me to comfort her – she wanted me to get out of her face. It’s a wonder any of us survive, really. I reckon we all have to have mercy on each other.

      • Tim Chan

        Great thoughts Laura – especially in having wisdom to differentiate between what is “sinful” behaviour in a child, and what is just a child trying to communicate his/her needs.

      • Keren

        A helpful article, and very insightful advice, Laura. I recently read the book “Quiet,” and it was helpful shedding light on how introversion and extroversion can be fleshed out in the smallest of people. :)

        (And to add to what she said, Tim, sometimes people see infant “neediness” as “bad,” and “easy babies” as “good.” As parents, though, we can’t view neediness and dependency as wrong, but one of many ways we will love (and serve) our children throughout their lives.)

  • Eileen

    “God’s grace covers even my parenting blunders.” Amen to that!

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  • Shelly Miller

    Love the term recovering Pharisee. And I often need the reminder as I parent, as I live my life in the every day, that there is nothing I can do, that they can do to earn grace. Thanks for this reminder Christina, it is timely for me.

  • Nancy Franson

    “God’s grace covers even my parenting blunders.” Counting on this.

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  • Desiré

    I too am a recovering Pharisee. Thank you for this practical peek into a parenting moment and the encouragement that God’s grace covers our parenting blunders!

  • Lisa Tarplee

    I love this peek into how to bring the Gospel to our everyday life. Sometime’s it seems easier to live just trying to get them to walk like Jesus and “be a good boy.” How awesome to show them the freedom of grace in Christ, that we cannot be Jesus and that we are accepted and loved in our imperfection. Then we and our children can truly walk in fellowship with him by grace.

    Great post!

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  • kelli

    This is fabulous. Love your self-disclosure, your ordinary-day-story, and especially the humility displayed in this piece.
    Truly a blessing to read and consider in my own parenting journey.

  • Misha

    I run into these scenarios daily with my boys. Sometimes it is difficult to know what to say or how to handle the situation. We can offer the hope of the Gospel to our children when they are struggling with anger, etc. What a great reminder to focus not on our own effort and obedience but on Jesus and His finished work on the cross!

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  • Kathy

    I always tell my 4 year old he’s a good boy, but sometime does bad things (I don’t think he’s ready for a Calvinistic theology of total depravity). AND I always make sure to say that EVERYBODY does bad things sometimes, including Mommy and Daddy. When my husband or I snap at him or lose patience or whatever, we make sure to ask forgiveness of him as well. So he can see that we are all fallen creatures needing forgiveness from each other as well as God.

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  • Joe Pote

    I love how you handled the situation with your son, Christina!

    As parents, it is so easy to get so focused on teaching our children obedience and respect that we forget to teach them dependence on God’s grace.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • jason

      This very true!!

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  • Tina R. Cruz

    Thank you for sharing this wisdom. This specific example a help to many who often need to see how to apply grace, love and truth in the moment of relationship and parenting. As a mother of 6 grown children, a mental health counselor and one who has walked through many religious paths I can only say thank you.
    Continue to share.

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  • James Stewart

    Really? One brother kicks the other in anger and then when confronted about it by a parent screams in a tantrum and runs off to his room? Then all he gets from his mom is “When you’re angry pray about it.” I’m not sure dealing with a pharisaical heart is the major issue here. Sounds like some children need some good old fashioned discipline.

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