When Impossible Standards Meet Amazing Grace

During these “Pandemic Days,” our family has enjoyed some down time in the evenings playing board games and watching old TV shows. One of our favorite board games is called Code Names. If you haven’t played it, the Caston Crew highly recommends it.

One of the TV shows we have enjoyed together is The Donna Reed Show. Set in the early 1960s, Donna plays Mrs. Donna Stone, a homemaker who is married to a handsome, well-groomed pediatrician whose physician’s office is connected to their middle-America, suburban home. With well coiffed sixties hair, Donna greets the family each morning with a hot breakfast, serving them scrambled eggs, hotcakes, and sausage, dressed in a calf length skirt, a well-pressed, fitted blouse, and wearing heels. Whether serving breakfast, keeping house, parenting the children, or welcoming guests, she is the epitome of the perfect mother.

While each episode does reveal some degree of family tension, sometimes depicting Donna’s not-so-perfect side, by the end of the show, the conflict is cleverly resolved with everyone happily reconciled, glad to have learned a lesson or two. Just like in real life, right?

Shows like this have to be taken for what they are. Clean humor mixed with family hijinks that leaves you with a smile as the upbeat credit score begins to play at the end of the program. We take these shows for what they are because we know that real life family problems do not have a snappy soundtrack cued up at the twenty-three minute mark.

I wonder how watching The Donna Reed Show made mothers feel when episodes originally aired.

Maybe Donna’s happy life with hubby and two attractive, personable, and well-adjusted children was inspiring. Or maybe it was depressing. I wonder if viewing a model of mothering perfection week after week caused other mothers to feel insecure, inadequate, or like failures.

In doing research for this message, I came across a statement that I think helps us understand how not-so-perfect mothers today might feel when met with similar, perpetual glimpses into other people’s #blessed lives as we scroll through our social feeds. Here is the statement:

“(One) reason why we struggle with insecurity (and depression, feelings of inadequacy, failure, and self-hatred) is because we compare our behind-the-scenes (off-camera) lives with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Just like TV mothers like Donna and June Cleaver may have set an impossible standard for mothers then, the highlight reel to which we expose ourselves on social media may do the same thing today. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about sharing happy memories. I love it when Facebook brings back old photos of my kids and videos of summer vacation in my feed. I love it! But we know social feeds do not represent the whole story. If we could see “behind the scenes” of all the smiling faces and sunset kissed beach portraits, our jealousy just might turn into empathy because we know all about behind-the-scenes reality.

“When Impossible Standards Meet Amazing Grace.”

Obviously, with that title, the application will extend to each one of us, not just mothers. But I’ve prepared this especially with moms in mind as we focus on one primary text in the New Testament. From this single statement made by the Apostle Paul, I want us to see three gospel realities that I believe will help leverage grace in all of our lives, and especially for moms who struggle with feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and failure.

Moms, I want you to believe this passage. I want you to embrace it and wear it like a full-length down North Face jacket in sub-zero temperatures. I want it to cover you completely and securely. Are you ready for it? The passage is Romans 8:1, where the Apostle Paul proclaims,

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Three gospel realities. The first is that…

1) Parental failure in the past does not define your true identity in the present.

Notice what Paul says in verse 1, “There is therefore, now…” In chapter 7, the Apostle Paul has lamented the influence of his sinful nature in his life. In a moment of spiritual and mental anguish, he confesses with deep sadness, grief, and regret that, under the influence of his flesh, he does not do what he wants to do and has done what he doesn’t want to do. I think we all can relate to that frustration.

For many of us, the past is filled with regret. There is so much we would do differently if we could. So many decisions we would change. Words we wouldn’t say. Words we would say, instead.

It may feel like there is time to recover from past mistakes. Your children are young. The days ahead are more than have passed. But some of us feel as if the opportunity is lost. Your kids are older or grown and it just feels like irreparable damage has been done.

While it is never too late to change course, seeking to right wrongs and invest in places we have neglected, there is something we need to believe before we start making amends or else we will set ourselves up for even more disappointment. Because, like Paul confessed in Romans chapter 7 (the context of 8:1), as long as the sin nature remains to corrupt us, deceive us, and undermine our best intentions, we will continue to experience moral failure and frustration. This means we must wholeheartedly embrace the “now” of Romans 8:1.

What does Paul mean by now?

He is contrasting the present with the past. In his past, he recognizes that, in view of God’s moral standard, he has accumulated a debt of sin that rightly establishes him as worthy of the death penalty before the law as a traitor to God as a cosmic King. Of course, the same is true for each of us.

And we are not talking about the mothering standard of The Donna Reed Show or the examples of parenting success we see on our Instagram feed. The standard to which Paul refers is the perfect moral standard of God’s law. As we behold that standard, we recognize there are plenty of failures to regret. We all stand guilty.

But that was then. With the word “therefore” in verse 1, Paul transitions to the present — the now. In between the past and present stands the cross of Jesus, representing the place in space and time when all my failure, guilt, shame, inadequacy, and sin was removed from my record and imputed to the record of Jesus. Since he, as my sin-bearer, has taken away the penalty my sin deserves, my identity is no longer based on my former life but is defined by who I am right now in Christ.

Before the law, I stand guilty. In view of the cross, I stand righteous — fully forgiven, perfectly accepted, and eternally loved. Now. In the present. That is who I am and, if you are a disciple of Jesus, it is who you are. If I fail to embrace this present gospel reality of who I am in the now as a result of pure grace, I may be tempted to pull myself up from the bootstraps, just trying harder to be better. Sadly, that will very possibly lead to a sense of self-hatred over my perpetual failure to meet the impossible standard.

This leads to the second gospel reality, which is that…

2) Self-condemnation is anti-Christian behavior for the disciple of Jesus.

Beating ourselves up with words of self-hatred may feel like humility but it is just the opposite. Honest confession is humility. Self-condemnation is pride, and to be a proud believer is oxymoronic at best and anti-Christian at worst.

It is right to hate the flesh — the sin nature — and its effects. But to loathe yourself is to despise the person whom the Father loves. In essence, self-hatred is a form of unbelief, and as such is a tactic of Satan to undermine the power of the gospel in your life.

Remember, Romans 8:1 is a legal proclamation, rendered from the court of heaven: “there is now no condemnation” for the person who looks to Jesus as their sin-bearing substitute. As a result of Jesus obeying the law perfectly in life and sacrificed himself willingly unto death for our disobedience, condemnation has been replaced with justification. Paul could not be more clear. No condemnation means none. Zip. Nil. Nada.

In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before Jesus was crucified, we read of Jesus’ prayer in Luke 22:42, where he asked the Father, “If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” What did Jesus mean by the cup? In several places in the Old Testament, the imagery of a filled cup depicts the judgment that must be consumed in order for justice to be fulfilled.

That is what took place upon a cross where Jesus drank the cup of wrath. He didn’t just take a sip but consumed it to the dregs so that there is not a drop left for us. Instead of a cup of wrath, we are invited to drink and keep drinking from the springs of mercy that flow from the very cross where justice was served.

For me to condemn myself with self-hatred when Jesus has already been condemned in my place is a denial of the gospel. It is to render my verdict as more authoritative than the Lord’s verdict. THis is why self-condemnation is not an act of humility but of brazen arrogance.

The Father has already handed down the verdict. Not guilty. You are righteous. Beloved! That is who you are in Christ. For mothers who will believe that, that is who you are.

Your sin no longer defines you. The grace of God in Jesus defines you. The verdict is already in. Don’t go trying to reverse it. It can’t be undone.

This leads to the final gospel reality, which is that…

3) The best thing you can do for your kids is to boast in the cross of Jesus.

Here’s the deal. Mom, your kids already know you are not Miss Perfect Parent. You, along with the rest of us, are a big sinner who has regrets that you’d like to forget and bury. But the gospel calls us not to forget and bury them, but to admit them. In fact, simple, honest confession of guilt and need is how we boast in the cross. It is how we show our kids that the most important thing in the world is not their obedience to God but the obedience of Jesus for them — his substitute obedience.

Remember, the law was not given by God to make us try harder to be good boys and girls but to make us give up trying harder and collapse upon Jesus as our justifier. In Galatians 3:24, Paul writes, “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified through faith.” That is the goal of Christian parenting. To let the law lead our children, as it has led us, to Jesus as our perfect righteousness.

The law has been designed to act like the torrents of rain in Noah’s day, telling us that a flood is coming and we need to get in the Ark. Instead of getting into the ark for safety, we are called to get “in Christ.” He is our safety and rescue from the flood of judgment. And we want our kids on the ark — in Christ!

If I try to take Jesus’s place by being the righteous one in the family, I will create a roadblock for my kids getting on the ark of Jesus. If I blame others for my mistakes, deny or minimize my sin, I will unintentionally set an example of self-righteousness for my kids. If I will not confess when I am wrong, why should they confess when they are wrong? If I fake self-righteousness, they will learn to fake it, too. And looking to their own perceived goodness, they will never know their true need for God’s grace. They will never see their need for the ark.

Though continuous, ongoing, self-awareness style confession of our need for both forgiving grace and enabling grace, we take ourselves off of the parental pedestal and let Jesus be the hero we and our children need. That may feel like a huge risk? What about respect? How will my kids listen to me if I let go of the moral high ground and confess to needing Jesus even more than they do?

The fact that you do need Jesus more than they do. You’ve lived longer and sinned more. To act like you haven’t not only makes you not only a big sinner but a big hypocrite to boot. If you have been a hypocrite, just confess it. See how easy it is to boast in the cross!

What do you really want for your children?

If my chief goal is outward obedience, I’ll miss the greatest opportunity God gives a parent, which is to help a child come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God’s grace in Jesus. You see, if my chief goal is outward obedience, I’ll be big on conformity to the rules. But if my chief goal is inward, spiritual renewal, I’ll be big on magnifying the cross.

Think about this. What are rules for? They are examples — practical applications — of ways we can love other people.

  • We clean up after dinner not because of the rule but in order to bless the one who served us by preparing the meal.
  • We get home by curfew not because it is the rule but because it is a way to love our parents, keeping them from worrying if we are okay.
  • Why do we tell our children to share their toys? Not to obey the share rule, but because sharing is a way to love a sibling or friend.

Every law or rule is an application of love.

So, do we throw out the rules? Not at all! The difference in grace-focused parenting vs behavior-focused parenting centers on how parents use the rules.

In grace parenting, rather than iron fist expectations, rules become tools that help lead us (and our kids) to Jesus, showing us how unloving we really are, and how much we need to receive the love of God expressed to us in the cross — the place where perfect love fulfills the just demands of the law for sinners like us.

When a child truly believes himself to be a sinner rescued by Jesus, just like mom and dad, the Spirit begins to work in his or her life to produce the beautiful buds of spiritual fruit. Fruit such as humility, kindness, repentance, and generosity. Like love, joy, peace, and patience. But the blooming of these virtues is fully dependent upon the soil in which the roots are planted.

This is why boasting in the cross may be the most important influence you can possibly have upon your children, protecting them from a moralistic religion of self-salvation by showing them how grace flows downhill and waters the soil of their souls with the love of God.

There will be a highlight reel.

With all this talk of repentance and confession, you may think that mothering is a big downer. No, no, no. Not at all. You know better than that. You will have plenty of memories to post on your social feeds.

You’ll read your children bed-time stories, some of which will become favorites that you’ll reminisce about into their adult years. You’ll take them to recitals, help them with school projects, and work on college applications together. There will be silly games, inside jokes, and favorite dinners the kids ask for when they come home from college.

There will be a highlight reel. And that is what social media is. Highlights, not lowlights. And that’s fine.

We know that most of life does not get posted online because much of life off-camera is broken. We wish we could live a life of highs without any lows. But that is not reality, is it?

Here is where I want to encourage you moms.

You will have the greatest opportunity to influence your children, not by being a perfect mother but by being an honest, self-aware mother who has allowed the impossible standards of your calling to meet the amazing grace of Jesus, the one who has met all the standards for you, so that you can be real about your limitations and sin and confident in God’s love and mercy, which will free you to show your kids what it looks like to live in view of the cross. It is a view that may not make Facebook, but I trust will be remembered for eternity in the scrapbook of heaven.

You see, the gospel-centered mother isn’t the one who wears a dress, heels, and pearls, but the one who clothes herself in Romans 8:1. It is the mother who believes the proclamation of God: “There is therefore, now no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

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