worried girlI took a breath, emitted a silent prayer, and dialed the number. The voice was kind, patient, and helpful; we had an appointment. Hanging up, I felt no small sense of accomplishment. Well. Until the actual appointment, anyway.

A decade and a half of self-discipline, prayer, and positive experiences had all but eliminated my fear of the dentist that had accumulated in a mass of oral surgery, painful orthodontics, and dental work in my teens. Now that I live in an impoverished culture, my gratitude for quality dental care has only expanded! But it does mean that occasionally when I get even the best care for my children over there, their teeth have to be readdressed when we visit the U.S. And that means I had to deal with the fears I thought I’d done away with, on a whole new level: with my kids. No less than six trips in three months…and I’d have taken my sons’ place in the chair every time.

Because when our kids have to face the issues that paralyzed us, it’s a whole new ball game.

It’s interesting to me how parenthood reveals the promises we’ve made to ourselves. My daughter will never be an outcast. My son will always be able to do whatever extracurriculars he wants. My kids will always have enough money to do what they want to do. My daughter will never be alone with an adult. My kids will never have to live with that kind of disappointment.

Because even worse than going through it ourselves would be to allow someone we love more than ourselves to endure that pain again.

Do I think that’s wrong? No, I don’t. I think my desire to protect my kids from pain is in an expression of God’s fierce protection of us. The world in the original way He created it was free of suffering, pain, tears—and He’ll set it right that way again.

I do think that God uses these old, hairy fears in us as parents to craft us in a few ways. First, I think it reveals areas of pain in us, perhaps with deeper questions we haven’t addressed. (Although we do have to admit that it was an area of pain!) Why wasn’t I protected? Why wasn’t that important to my parents? It also uncovers what was important to us: to be safe. To be liked. To pursue what energized us. To feel like we can trust those who care for us. Those things are precious to us, and rightly so.
And of course, like anything precious, it can inflate to a disproportionate size. We might become overprotective. Overindulgent. Hypercontrolling. Angry at anyone who would threaten that promise we made to ourselves. Or—as I was subtly tempted to do—negligent in my care for them, simply so they didn’t have to endure pain; so they didn’t have to hold my hand, crying as I stood impotently beside them. Oddly, I think of Tolkien’s Gollum when I imagine these things that have power over us: They disfigure us, supercharge our reactions toward threats, and even isolate us as we cherish “My Precious.”

But secondly, those fears also take us to a new level of being able to turn back to God with our deep-seated cares; to commit them to him afresh when people more precious than our own lives are out there on what we see as a battlefield, vulnerable and underequipped. My mom told me once that when one of her greatest nightmares for her kids became reality, she witnessed unmistakably that God still faithfully carried her through it with every bit of grace required.

God  demonstrates great purposes even through such pain–not making the bad good (pastor Tim Keller points to Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, just before He raises him: He is angry, and weeping. The bad is still bad, and that is why God must overcome it.) But, as is the theme of the entire Bible,

The biblical view of things is resurrection–not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.*

This was true, even in the present life, for my mom. The nightmare now has no hold on her. Her galvanized soul–along with my sister’s, who will pass on this courage to her children–has seen that yes, God’s worthy of entrusting even what’s most valuable to us. And what’s most painful.

Don’t waste the fears you encounter through your kids. Explore them. Allow God to expose, in hindsight, what was taken from you—and how sovereign and loving He was then, and still will be for your kids. Remember: He’s the same Yesterday. Today. Forever.

The great benefit is that then we get to model dealing with that fear with our kids. Which not only heals us more deeply; it helps our kids to be more prepared than we ever were for the battle. We’re no longer just shielding them. We’re equipping them to be stronger than we were. It’s like passing on an immune system of sorts–not that they won’t encounter pain, but that it won’t carry the same crippling effects that still have the power to hobble us now. They’ll be fighters.

And as a side note: don’t understate how God used your past to shape you. Sometimes in our desire to keep our kids from pain or disappointment, we short-circuit their character. I still remember, in the haze of insecurity surrounding my braces, a tremendously intimate time with God as He brought me to Isaiah 40, and the God whose understanding no one can fathom, who gives strength to the weary. All the comfort and security in the world couldn’t buy who God showed Himself to be in that season.

It may be Heaven when I hear answers as deep as my most heart-rending whys. But I can overcome right now, as a sweet, alabaster box of faith–and my kids can, too.

Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Psalm 90:1

*Keller, Tim. A Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York City: Riverhead Books (2009).

Talk to us! What’s the hardest part about dealing with our kids’ fears? And what have you done that’s been successful?

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