When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” John 19:26 NKJV
The biggest struggle for me as a mom has been learning to handle my anger, which is hard to admit, but I know that many, many other moms have this struggle too. Most of the anger is unrighteous, my own impatience with their immaturity and behvaior, and for that I beg forgiveness.
But occasionally, when a child is rebelling knowingly and without remorse, the anger is closer to righteous, making it harder to deal with and understand. The root of it is heartbreak, angry that they’re rejecting the rules that I set for them in love. I’m angry that they don’t understand they’re not rebelling against me, but against God. That they’re hurting themselves; compromising their honesty, friendships, or other essential parts of their character.
The weird thing for me to realize this Lent is how natural these feelings are, and to notice its reflection in the Old Testament and in the events leading up to Good Friday. If God is the Father, then the Israelites are the child that learned every lesson the hard way.
Their story starts blissfully in the garden, His creation abounding with the joy of newborn innocence. In Adam and Eve’s ignorance they were incapable of sin. Their bond with God as close as a baby resting on a mother’s chest. Peaceful, harmonious, perfect. I bet they even had that delicious newborn smell radiating from their foreheads.
The bond suffered as they bit into the apple. With knowledge comes pride; He may be God, omnipotent and loving, but still they thought they knew better. Suddenly there were consequences and an independence they weren’t ready for. God could have been angrier. He had warned them that sin meant death, but He could have chosen to smite them on the spot, to start over, but He loved them, and what loving parent doesn’t choose mercy the first time their child knowingly rebels? He set the consequences, but He also promised them they would get through it. That someday He would reconcile it all and all that was lost would be restored.
But the bliss of newborn innocence was forever lost. As with all toddlers, lawlessness began to reign supreme in their collective conscience. I am thankful that in actual parenting, the flooding of the world and fire-bombing of cities is hardly metaphoric, that less drastic actions are enough to discipline rebellion. In their sin His anger may have raged, but far above it all his love remained. A Rainbow was given in assurance; a sign of that he would never give up on them completely. And promises were made. Promises that were bigger than the number of stars in the sky.
Finally the day came, in the elementary age of their existence, when His chosen people were ready for law. Many knew it already in the depths of their heart, that obeying Him was right, and ignoring Him was wrong. But they were ready to have it written in stone. Ready for the independence of knowing the rules all at one time, without the constant explanation of why they needed to be followed. Some days they listened perfectly, and sang beautiful songs of praise. Walls fell down and battles were won. A beautiful king, a man after God’s own heart, led the people to a golden age of trust and obedience. A temple was built, unparalleled in grandeur and beauty. Wisdom was not only given, but also received. People came from foreign lands to bare witness to this beautiful relationship- the bounty of blessing between a creator and His chosen people.
If only all the days of this stage were that beautiful, for anyone who raises elementary children knows they will only be ruled for so long before they want to see what their own will brings. It doesn’t matter that your knowledge exponentially exceeds their years, or that their disobedience causes destruction mostly to themselves. You love them so much, you can’t help but feel angry. As they grow, the crimes become bigger, the consequences more serious. The lectures last longer and the punishments grow more severe. No matter what’s said, their hearts are increasingly their own, and they are no longer so easily swayed. You dole out the consequences and they cry. They listen to and reconcile to your love, but it’s almost the very next day when they make the same mistakes again.
So it was with the Israelites, they broke the law as soon as it was written. With their increasing knowledge of the world, they clung more and more to other people’s ways, to Baal and other idols. It worked for everyone else, why would it not work for them? They didn’t want to be set apart, to be special anymore. Even if it was the truth, even if it meant blessing and joy. They wanted to be normal; to eat, drink and be merry like their other, ordinary neighbors.
After so many prophets and repeated warnings with zero repentance, it was time to follow through with the consequences. No more would God protect them from their insolence, and the nation was exiled. Like grounding a teenager, He let their city be emptied of its treasure and privilege. He was furious, as any parent would be. How could they be so ungrateful? After everything He had done for them, how could they be so careless with the grandeur of His blessing? How could they still not know who He was, and how much He loved them?? Because surely if they knew, they would not continue to behave this way.
It took 70 years, but after the time apart God was willing to rebuild the trust again, surely they learned their lesson this time. He wasn’t expecting them to be perfect, but maybe more faithful. The nation, now in its young adulthood, was also ready. It was time to rebuild and say it was sorry. At first, things were glorious. They started rebuilding the temple, sweet psalms of praise on their lips again. But after a while it was clear this nation was not a penitential child anymore. Something was different now, self-righteousness, unaware that it was no longer God, but their ability to follow rules that they worshipped. They assumed they knew it all, so God stopped telling them otherwise. He was done showing them his anger, letting them feel the wrath of his displeasure about their choices. They had always been stiff-necked and no matter how many times he punished them for it, He knew part of them always would be. His hope to reach them now was by unleashing the fullness of His love- by making good on His promise of redemption. He would crush their enslavement to sin and those willing would truly be reunited.
But the time was not yet right. He would love them from a distance while they aged, vigilant for the moment to offer them mercy and forgiveness. But, oh! How He loved them, more than any parent could. Though they continued to misrepresent and ignore Him, He loved them so.
He had loved them silently for 400 years when the time had finally come. He knew His truth would largely be rejected; that most people’s hearts would still be too hardened to understand. But he also knew every bit of the Israelite’s character. He knew all the hairs on its head, and he knew that among them were enough pure hearts to carry out his plan. He would need one crazy guy to announce it. Someone who wandered the wilderness eating bugs. It would take one humble virgin, betrothed to an heir of the great King David and 12 faithful disciples. Sadly, one of those disciples would be corrupted, but that was how the prophecy was written. He would need others to support the servants in their moment of desperation, maybe a woman, a harlot. Someone who would be redeemed from so much evil, and therefore be able to accept the moment of truth when the others had lost all hope. These would be the most lowly of people, sinners, uneducated, and from nasty parts of town. But God knew, through these people- this tiny, faithful remnant of his chosen nation- he could fulfill his promise to Abraham, to bless all the people of the earth.
Our good, good father foresaw every detail, and it went exactly to His plan, but the plan was brutal. In order to save one child he would have to sacrifice another, the one that was the Word, that was there in the beginning. ‘All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ (John 1:2-5)
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It is hard to fathom as a parent. The story is so relatable up to this point. The anger that stems from rejection, the pain and frustration, the difficulty remaining patient with people who are incapable of accepting the truth. Parenting is a vulnerable endeavor, and that’s terrifying. To think that the fruit of your womb, that you would sacrifice your own life for without a second thought, could possibly grow up and reject you. Or that they could embrace the normality of the world over the eternal joy you are trying to so hard to introduce them to. We try not to live in this fear, but it always looms in the future, waiting for us. The time will come when they’re young adults too, and your feelings and consequences will no longer sway their heart. They will make a decision to follow God or the world, or maybe they’ll try to do both. There is wisdom, that if you train them in the way they should go they will not depart, but there are no guarantees. It seems like it would be nice to retain control, and have sone assurance against this possible pain. But if God refused to control the hearts of the Israelites, then would really want that control over our own offspring?
Before I had children, surrender was easy. Take my money, for I really didn’t have that much. Take my house, because there are other places to live. Take my stuff, it doesn’t make me that happy. I’m eternally grateful that I’m not Abraham, because ‘sacrifice your child’ is not a commandment I would be willing to follow. And in this story, certainly the pain of sacrificing one child to save another would crush me forever. But God asks all of us to trust him with our children and with their stories, that he will at some point reveal himself to them on their path. Even if that path leads them to some very dark and dangerous places.
Most days it feels like too much. How could God ask that of parents?
As Jesus hung on the cross, almost all of his followers had fallen away, but of course His mother was still there. A mother wouldn’t be scared by the sacrifice of her home, the loss of her dreams, the denial of the crowd, or the hatred of the entire world. I’m sure she sat there sobbing, how could God do this to her? How could He reward her obedience with so much pain? How could He call Himself merciful? When you kneel next to her at the cross, you seethe with these questions too. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be, her family or yours. They were supposed to have happy endings.
As Jesus hung from the cross, looking down at Mary, He knew the pain behind those tears.
“Woman. Behold your son.”
He knew. It’s a weird thing for a weeping father, in the form of a son, to be looking down on the son’s grieving mother. What can He say to her other than behold?
If that was the end of the story, that would still be more heartbreak than any human parent could endure, but the pain of His story continues throughout the history of humanity. Of people who feel His love, who see His works, acknowledge His presence and still continue to walk away. It continues with you and me, knowing His salvation, but choosing something less. It is no wonder that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner returns, than for the 99 who have never gone astray. Because after that much painful heartbreak, who wouldn’t ditch all self respect to display their jubilation over a prodigal son?
Parents, God knows your anger, and He knows your heartbreak, too. But today He says it is Good. It’s a Good Friday because He loves us that much. Because He loves being your father still, even after all the times you yelled at your precious children. Because He loves your children, no matter how they’ve disrespected you or Him, or even themselves. As He looks down at the cross, He says to behold. Because every ounce of frustration and pain was worth it for you, and it was worth it for me.