It is common among believers to look back upon their youth and early adult life with regret, sometimes with loathing. That holy man David certainly had these feelings when he cried to the Lord: “Remember not the sins of my youth” (Ps. 25:7). Holiness brings a strong revulsion toward all sin, including those of our past. We eat their bitter fruits long after the season of transgression passes, after the Lord in mercy forgives and delivers us: more difficult circumstances now due to sin, a harder pursuit of holiness in areas of past sin, a scarred conscience, wondering what life would be like now if only we had listened more, submitted more, loved God more.
These feelings are healthy. It is always good to remember our weakness. One of the great paradoxes of the Christian life is that self-recovery comes through self-repudiation, strength through humility before God. Few things prick our consciences more or set up a higher wall against pride than honestly facing our past filth. Then, a conviction that only sovereign grace has recovered us to life makes us sensitive to the failings of the flesh and more vigilant against them in the future. We often feel that perhaps we did not truly repent of our youthful transgressions, or deeper layers of sin – ingratitude, pride, self-love, a god-complex – are revealed to us as we walk with our Lord. His presence is the light of life that penetrates into the dark corners of our heart. Often sins that dog our steps as adults began to chase us in youth. The Lord forgives our sins, but he often chastens us for many years. When we feel his stripes, we must cry for mercy, hope in his love, and resolve to turn from them completely (Ps. 119:59-60).
At the same time, it is unhealthy to be paralyzed by the past. This paralysis occurs in many forms. The most serious is the idea that the past forever defines us. Yet, this denies two beautiful teachings of the gospel: the all-sufficiency of our Savior’s blood and the newness of life we enjoy in him. When he shouted, “It is finished,” he meant it. There is no more condemnation to those who are in him (Rom. 8:1). He has provided full atonement for sin. No one, not even ourselves, can lay a charge against God’s elect – as long as we are truly “in him” and “looking unto Jesus” (Rom. 8:33). While many forgive themselves too easily, there is danger on the other side: thinking our sins are simply too great for our Father to forgive and that we must trudge through life carrying the weight of their guilt. This is not penance but pride. Our Lord not only forgives our sins when we confess and forsake them (1 John 1:9), but he also gives us new life. This is the reason that Paul could say: “Forgetting those things are behind” (Phil. 3:13). He would not allow his past crimes against God to be his chains. If Jesus has opened our prison door, it is evidence of unbelief to hover at the gate, doubting we are truly free, fearing to come out into the light.
Another way the past paralyzes us is in our parenting. Too many parents expect their children to struggle with the same sins they did, make the same mistakes, almost be the same person. This leads to fear, a harsh, controlling spirit, and utterly unrealistic expectations. It is true that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Ex. 20:5). You will notice, however, the added phrase: “to them that hate me.” There are undoubtedly family traits, struggles, and tendencies. It is commonly observed: “You are just like your father.” But this is true only to a point, for a dynamic is at work in Christian homes that is far more powerful than genes and the past: covenant. Moses adds: “And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.”
Let this sink into the depths of your soul and give you joy. You may have committed many horrid sins in your youth, whether you were an unbeliever or a wayward covenant child. Have you repented? Have you been honest before the Lord and appropriate individuals about those sins? Do you now hate what you once practiced? Have you forsaken those sins? Do you love the Lord? If your heart has tasted of his grace, if you are looking to the Lamb of God for all your cleansing and righteousness before God, you are not permitted by the Lord to expect your children to walk as you walked. You are to expect mercy: sweet, promised, covenanted, blood-sealed mercy from the throne of grace, to you and to your children.
This does not negate the importance of vigilance; it increases it. We must seek the fulfillment of God’s promises through fervent prayer, sober watchfulness, and complete turning from the sins of our past. We must mourn over them, in one important sense, all our lives, not that our tears bring forgiveness but that godly sorrow is evidence of true repentance. Your children may still struggle: with sins similar to yours or with sins of their own. He may cause them fall into the same sort of sins that plagued you due to continued sinfulness on your part: pride, trusting in methods rather than mercy, laziness, unwarranted presumption. When they do, it is pointless to build domestic prisons and parent fearfully. It is ugly to say to your child, “You are just like I was.” Do not think it; this denies God’s covenant mercy, and he will not bless or do mighty works where there is unbelief in our lives (Matt. 13:58). The most important aspect of biblical parenting is faith: in God’s promises, clinging to the cross of Christ, confessing your weakness to the Lord, and bringing before him his word. Faith says: “However sinful I was, God is faithful; though he slay me, though my children disappoint me, even, for a time, walk away from the Lord, I will trust in him. He has purposes I cannot fathom, plans so far above my thoughts that I cannot conceive of them, grace abounding where my sin once abounded. I will rest in his promise.”
It is important for us to receive God’s forgiveness and belief his promise of mercy to those who confess their sins in Jesus’ name and forsake them by the power of his Spirit. We must not spend our parenting years trying to atone for our faults by making sure our children do not commit them. They may not, only to grow a crop of their own due to our unbelief as parents, our pigeon-holing of them, our fear that our past will be their future. God is their future. Why else did he cause us to hear the precious gospel tidings but that we might forsake our sins, and having been freed from them, live as those who have been delivered from the torment of guilt and fear? This is the message our children must hear from us more than any other: God saves sinners. God forgives sinners. God remembers his covenant mercies down through our generations. Seek the Lord with your whole heart.”
Believing that we are truly forgiven changes the parenting paradigm completely. Parenting is far higher and holier than obsession with preventing your children from being a replica of what you hate and fear most about your past. The Lord calls you to trust his mercy in the present and depend upon his goodness with respect to the future. When this is believed, a parent’s prayers become covenant centered: “Lord, you have promised; be merciful. Let your tender mercies come unto me that I may live, and let me not be ashamed of my hope.” When your children disappoint you, fall into sin, and even look like you a little, it is not time to bring out the guilt manipulation or even a new set of firmer rules but the gospel of our Savior. Jesus Christ must be invited into your home, called upon, believed, trusted, clung to: like Peter. “Lord, save me, I am drowning.” It is faith we vow when we baptize them in recognition that they already belong to God and are heirs of his covenant. The necessary rules and guidelines, confrontations and hedges we build around their lives, these are wholly ineffectual unless we believe God’s promises at every step and yield sole authority to his word.
There is much in my own past upon which I now look back with self-loathing, embarrassment, and the echo of David’s prayer in my own heart. If I focus upon this past, however, not only am I denying God’s free and full forgiveness through the atoning work of Jesus Christ, but I also shrivel up inside: fearful, morose, wistful. My children do not need this emotional garbage. They have sufficient sin to overcome and battles to fight without my muddying the waters for them. They need a steady and heady dose of Jesus Christ: his loveliness, his sufficiency, his Lordship, his love. They need the hope of the gospel and its power brought to bear upon their lives. He truly, deeply, and fully forgives. There is no condemnation to those that love and trust him: only mercy down through our generations. Let us believe this promise. It is precious. It tames our fear, cleanses our guilt, and sets us free to speak of mercy through the cross in our homes. Jesus Christ saves us and our children. We must trust in his grace, walk by faith, not by sight – however long the road, hard the conflict, defeated we seem in the present. Covenant will always prevail. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:21).