As the frazzled, first-time father of a two-year-old little girl, I frequently conclude my days feeling like I’m stumbling across some unforgiving finish line in last place. It would be bad enough if the steep learning curve of parenting was confined to the privacy of home, but an embarrassing amount of my parenting experience has taken place in highly public arenas filled with staring passersby.
Take, for example, an innocent trip to the supermarket. There’s a predictable set of behaviours that takes place whenever young families pass each other while out shopping. First, the parents smile and remark on how adorable the others’ little cherubs are. (Meanwhile, said offspring are invariably screaming, smeared generously with unidentifiable baby food or, worse, in dire need of a nappy change.) Both sets of parents then transition into not-so-subtly sizing up everything from the other family’s brand of pram to the behaviour of their child to exactly how tired their counterparts look. It’s desperately obvious and more than a little tedious. You know it’s happening and that you’re both judging and being judged.
I’ve slowly grown a bit of a thick skin to the judgements of others over the course of my first two years of parenthood. I’m not as easily offended by stray comments about my child. I’m a little less defensive when people offer unsolicited advice or pass judgemental looks. In short, I’ve gained a little perspective.
I’m in my mid 30s and for the past several years my social media feed seems to have transformed into a never-ending series of pregnancy or early childhood development updates. (I frequently feed the madness with pictures and anecdotes of my own.) As I scroll through the updates and see joyous announcements of births, I know well the feeling of elation as well as the inevitable fears that new parents harbour for the future.
I too am scared about what lies ahead for my child. I want to shield my little girl from the ugliness of the real world. There’s so much that I want to spare her from. I thought my parents were overly vigilant when I was young, but the tables have very definitely turned, and now it’s my turn to be paranoid. It frightens me to know that I can only hope to protect my daughter for a short time before I have to step back, let go and pray that she’ll be OK.
The Father is willing
It’s Christmastime, and as our families gather and our thoughts turn to the birth of Christ, I can only imagine the sense of foreboding that God the Father must have felt as He contemplated what His only begotten Son would go through on this earth. Unlike human parents, who have the luxury of dreaming that their child will have a long, safe and prosperous life, God knew full well that His Son would enjoy none of those things. He had to set aside His parental instinct to protect and shield His Son as He embarked upon the ultimate sacrifice in taking on mortal human flesh.
As God the Son was born a defenceless baby, His heavenly Father looked on with the full knowledge that Jesus would be horribly judged and misunderstood by society. The Father knew His Son would experience the deepest cruelty imaginable and that He would die an awful death.
The Son is willing
From the beginning of His human life, God the Son had to endure difficulties. Shortly after being born into the humblest of circumstances, Jesus and His family were subjected to the harrowing experience of fleeing the wrath of a murderous king and living the life of refugees in a foreign land.
Today we’re painfully aware of our modern-day refugee crisis. Not a week seems to go by without yet another tragic headline. We learn of African refugees drowning in a desperate attempt to start a new life in Europe. We read of walls and travel bans designed to keep out the undesirable. We hear of inhumane offshore refugee holding centres. Powerless, inconvenient, unwanted and feared—there’s perhaps no more misunderstood group than refugees. This was the early life of God the Son as He and His family fled Bethlehem to take refuge in Egypt without the securities of desirable citizenship, wealth or other status.
"The Father knew His Son would experience the deepest cruelty imaginable."
It was quite the change, going from being the most powerful Being in the universe to being one of the most vulnerable and easily exploited. And although He felt personally compelled, He didn’t have to do it. As the apostle Paul made clear in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus took on human form willingly. The real reason for Christmas is to remember that an innocent Baby would go on to unselfishly be our Helper, our Advocate, and, through the ultimate sacrifice on the cross, our Redeemer.
Before He made the sacrifice and was born in human flesh, God the Son knew the immense struggle and pain He would have to endure from the cradle to the cross. True, even as a human, He had access to immense, miraculous power—but He never used it for Himself. Philippians 2:6–8 says that Jesus “did not see equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Instead, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” in His quest to save us. Jesus willingly submitted to indignity, agony and suffering for us. He endured everything that earthly parents desperately want to spare their children from ever having to experience.
He understands pain
A somewhat counterintuitive reality of the human experience is that the unwanted obstacles and trials in life end up improving us, so long as we keep our eyes on the prize:
- an athlete goes through immense pain to win a medal
- creatives often spend years making false starts before they’re rewarded with their masterpiece painting, novel or film
- inventors and entrepreneurs usually have many failed ideas and ventures before finally hitting it big.
To eventually emerge victorious takes commitment for the long haul. It takes tremendous grit, stamina, belief and vision. If entirely human goals require so much sacrifice, why do we do everything we can to avoid pain and protect our families from it? Part of the genius of those who succeed greatly in this life is their ability to see that it’s in the crucible of adversity that we’re refined. It’s in confronting the obstacle that we’re shown the path through it to the great reward that awaits beyond it.
Wise parents (and I by no means think I’m there yet!) allow their children to endure life’s trials. They love and support them at every step, but they don’t spare them the struggle. They know that the reality of life is that you simply don’t get to the summit of whatever peak you’re climbing without the drudgery and pain of taking step after arduous step up the mountain.
As children become responsible adults, they learn this wisdom for themselves. They learn that there’s no great reward without some pain, so they begin to willingly subject themselves to it.
On an eternal and infinitely grander scale, this is what God the Father and God the Son did for us. In order to save us, God the Son willingly endured the pain, suffering and death that awaited us as sinful humans. Isaiah 53:4 says that He “took up our pain and bore our suffering.” Verse 5 goes on to say that He “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” And God the Father, who loves His Son to a magnitude we will never understand, allowed Him to do it.
A story filled with hope
For all the struggle and pain that lay ahead, the birth of Jesus was still a beautiful event. Joyful angels, travel-weary wise men and humble shepherds joined all of heaven in celebrating the Son’s birth with His earthly parents. And more than 2000 years later millions around the globe still celebrate Jesus’ first Advent.
And the gospel story only gets better. It’s a story of friendship, love and hope. Through His own life and death, God the Son showed that there’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. After experiencing death so that we could live, Jesus rose from the grave. He ascended to His Father and is preparing a place for us in heaven. Incredibly good news!
Faith in God the Son may not diminish the pain we all now must endure on this earth, but it certainly puts that pain in perspective.
The obstacles of sin, suffering and death have been conquered, and through God the Son we are invited to become part of a story of restoration and hope; the kind of hope that can heal the heartsick and lift up the weary; the kind that can comfort the oppressed and cheer the lonely.
And the kind of hope that can bring peace even to panicked young parents as they cradle their newborn babies in their arms.