Let’s start with one gut-wrenching truth: no matter how hard you try, how many books you read, or how much self-flagellation you do, you will NOT be perfect this side of heaven.
Perfection is bondage and comes from a place of grinding self-effort reinforced by a doubling down of willful determination—unto an end inevitably named “failure.”
Let me be clear: the perfection I am talking about comes from the Latin “perfectum” meaning “undefiled,” “unsullied,” and “irreproachable.” Using that definition, most will agree that we will fail to meet a standard of perfection in this life. Christ did not exhort us to take up our crosses daily UNTIL we achieved perfection; there’s no shelf life on the sin nature. We’ll be dying to self until we’ve “shuffled off this mortal coil.” Most people will nod their heads at the assertion that we are imperfect, fallen creatures, which suggests we will fall short of the ideal of some all-important roles we endeavor to fulfill, including parenting and teaching. We know we are in process. We know we are ever-learning. We know that there are some aspects of these roles that don’t come easily and that, frankly, we don’t enjoy enough to work hard at mastering. I made peace with myself a long time ago—I can’t decorate cakes, do hair, or play dolls. And that’s just a few of the minor-league skills at which I’m no good. There are other important parenting skills with which I struggled mightily as well. Perhaps you’ve reached your own conclusions about your human limitations. Yet, though we’ve reconciled with the truth that we can’t be great at everything, still, somewhere in the depths of our psyche lingers the notion that perfection is attainable. How do I know this? Because of the collective sense of shame and guilt I observe (and sometimes feel) when we do or say something that falls short of our pedestaled standard of perfect parenthood, or teacher-hood, or spouse-hood, or humanhood. These aren’t the failures that matter most to kids. They want a cake. If it doesn’t look like Cinderella, well, you tried. No, these are not the failures with which to be concerned.
Parents, you WILL fail your children. Teachers, you WILL fail your students. And here is another irrevocable truth—they can survive your failures, and so can you. Part of the survival for both child and adult comes first from the adult’s recognizing that failure falls into categories and must be treated as such. What does that mean? Not all failure is created equal. I can plan an amazing picnic that gets rained out. I can run to the store for ice cream and find out the store is out of someone’s favorite flavor. When failure comes from some combination of unseen circumstances, or external pressures, or something else, we can’t attribute that failure to moral agency. Life just happens. Feeling shame or guilt over stuff we can’t control is emotionally harmful, intellectually dishonest, and poor modeling. Let it go—disappointment experienced in the normal course of life contains its own valuable set of lessons.
Similarly, failure to attain superhero status as teachers or parents or spouses or humans isn’t failure that should produce guilt or shame. As mentioned, most of us have come to accept that perfection is unattainable, so we need, as much for our children as ourselves, to live comfortably in that truth, increasingly content with giving our best efforts at any given time, at peace with second place, or third, or fifty-ninth. The alternative–a lifelong quest for cape-flying levels of perfection, adherence to a standard that demands too much attention and devotion and sacrifice (which is often so rooted in egoism and self-centeredness) –may require repentance, but not because we’ve failed our children. We’ve failed ourselves. But that’s another blog.
The failure I mean to address here are the failures where we’ve committed sins of omission or commission which involved our conscious behavior and in which we can acknowledge that we are responsible for “missing the mark.” In these moments, grievous to our spirits, where relational shalom is shattered to varying degrees, where union and communion are disrupted by our words and deeds, we have sinned, and that sinning calls for sincere repentance—but I will repeat loudly and clearly—our children will survive our failures, and so will we.
The degree to which they survive will be impacted by your ability to learn from your mistakes, to repent from your sinful carnality, and to vulnerably parent or teach recognizing every day and in every moment that His (God’s) power is made perfect in your weakness, but that he who knows what is right to do and doesn’t do it, for him it is sin (James 4:17). So, we hold in tension these realities: we will sin, and it is inevitable; but we have no license to sin and are, therefore, responsible for our failures when they occur.
So, we soldier on with our feet of clay, broken and bloodied from parenting and teaching, where the modus operandi of our prepubescent constituents is death by a thousand cuts. But what joy and freedom there is in recognizing that this battle is not our own, that our enemy is not the child, and that our mistakes, yes, even our sins, do NOT disqualify us from service but develop scars that remind us of lessons learned and frailty and our constant dependence on the Spirit’s leading and anointing to do this thing called nurturing and loving and guiding and parenting and teaching and shaping of the next generation.
We will fail them. And oh, how we will repent and grieve and relive the abject poverty of love and wisdom displayed in those moments. Then we will turn, if our hearts will be responsive to the gentle kneading hands of Father God, and in our turning we will offer up our deepest regrets and apologies and requests for forgiveness, and we will forge with those we serve a bond of shared humanity and frailty and lostness and brokenness and hope and grace and shared dependence on our God.
We will fail them. And in our failures we will model the pathway back to wholeness and calling and restoration. We will demonstrate accepted grace and mercy and the gleeful joyous wonder of His limitless mercy and kindness. And in our failures, which we will loudly reject as unacceptable, we will present to these—our wide-eyed charges—a glimpse of lives lived in utter dependence on the daily infilling of His love and grace and truth.
We will fail them—in so many ways. In word and deed, in hasty speech and thoughtless act. We will fail them in promises unkept, and hopes deferred, and punishments unmerited or disproportionate to wrongs; we will fail them when we look to them to fill our cup and give us worth and make us whole; we will fail them a thousand times and in a thousand ways. And they will fail us.
Precisely due to this, our father God will let us see the darkest and the best of who we are. In the failing and repenting and the changing and the growing in relationships with these young ones, we will become the very models they aspire and hope to be; God’s Kingdom will be served if they succeed, because in our failing we will have shown what it is to be in covenant with Him. In failing forward, we demonstrate redemption in its glory, and so give glory to the Maker of us all.
In our failing let’s commit to full transparency through the process of repentance and restoration, that Christ’s sacrifice and love and fierce salvation should indelibly leave its impression on these precious ones under our care. Fail well, and in so doing, lead well, for in our weakness, He is strong. Soli Deo Gloria.