Adam Raised a Cain: Reflections for Parents in Pain

Posted by on Mar 6, 2022 in Blog | 6 comments

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Back in 2016 I wrote a post, Adam Raised A Cain, reflecting on the sadness of the Genesis 4:1-16 account where we discover that the worlds first parents raised a murderer, and that the worlds opening story of two brothers is of the one killing the other. It’s not a promising start, and reflects the Bible’s deep awareness that family is usually the source of both our greatest joy and our greatest pain.

I thought it worth doing a minor edit of the post and thinking about our response when parenting doesn’t go as we imagined it would.

That the Bible’s opening snapshot of family life should be so painful, reflects its deep awareness that family does not always run to plan, and indeed, barely a chapter goes by in Genesis without significant family flaws and family hurt being uncovered.

The pain of parenting can come from many different sources. It can be because our child does not fit in, and is terribly unhappy. Or our child might have abandoned the Christian faith. Or it could be that there are some mental health issues, or addiction issues, or some deeply unacceptable behaviours. They might face a health crisis or some worrying disability. Sometimes our children are in loveless marriages, or going through painful divorces or are acting irresponsibly, or have turned against us and refuse to have contact any more. They might be unemployed and even be unemployable. Sexual orientation might not be what you had expected. Perhaps they are in prison, or you worry that they might soon be. Sometimes it is more subtle… nothing deeply wrong, but we know we are being quietly ignored and really no longer have any role in their life. Sometimes we might understand why they have turned against us (and oh the pain and regret some carry because of past actions), sometimes we are mystified by it.

What can we say to parents in pain – though it is as well to note that often silence is better than speech, and quietly listening can be the most helpful gift. But if words are appropriate, here are 10 pointers to think through.

  1. You are not alone. It is simply the truth. The pages of the Bible are filled with the stories of broken family life. It is not just Adam who raised a Cain. Esau wanted to kill his brother Jacob – and it isn’t that hard to understand why. Joseph’s brothers initially planned to kill him, and then sold him into slavery. King David’s son Absalom tried to steal the throne from his father, and would happily have killed him if he had been able to. Absalom lost his life in the struggle that followed. For David, the heartbreak never went. These stories are in the Bible because the Bible is our book and mirrors life back to us. It reflects our life and the life of our friends and community. If you are one for whom family is a source of great pain, you are not alone.
  2. God is not into blaming. When something goes wrong, most people ask, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Very painful self condemnation often follows. Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind from birth is liberating. Those around were determined to link the man’s blindness to sin, and so asked, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents?’ Jesus replies that it was neither. Rather, this is about God’s work being displayed (John 9:1-3). We can debate about just what Jesus means, but at the very least it suggests that rather than assuming blame and guilt, we should quietly hope that God will work even in the midst of circumstances that seem impossible.
  3. God knows the pain of parenthood. God knows what it is like to have rebellious children, for we are the children of God and yet rebel against God’s will all too regularly. Though Jesus never rebelled against God, the Father had to watch the painful – no agonising (words really cannot describe the horror of Calvary) death of His Son. God knows what it is like to be a parent who suffers.
  4. Sometimes you have to leave home so that you can truly return home. Though it might seem a trite thing to say, the truth is that many people have to leave home so that they can ultimately return. It is the story of the prodigal son. If he never left home, he would never truly have come home. You see it in his older brother. Superficially the one who never leaves home, he is never really at home. But the prodigal who returns is genuinely home. Sometimes our children need to try out radically different voices to ours so that they can discover their own authentic voice. It might take a while, but when they find that voice, it often harmonises with our own, with the new song being far better.
  5. It can take a while to love the adult version of your children. They say that all children die, and most don’t get a funeral, they just grow up. While the adult version of some people is not really that different to their childhood version, for others it can be completely different. It can be hard to believe that the ruthless adult of today was once the sensitive child eager to please, and desperate to help with everything. Many parents agonise, ‘where did my little girl (or boy) go?’ But one thing they know – the signs of the child they miss are no longer obvious in the adult before them. It can hurt dreadfully, especially when the childhood version was so much more winsome. Sometimes we have to ask God to help us to give thanks for the child that was – the child who still causes us to smile when we remember their funny foibles and spontaneous demonstrations of love. But we also have to ask God’s help to let those memories recede so that instead of always thinking of what we have lost, we can begin to see what we now have. And sometimes the adult version of our children is better than we acknowledge – we just need to look at them in a slightly different way.
  6. Acknowledge what your children aren’t, but don’t forget to spot what they are. This links to the previous point. So often we spend so much time grieving what isn’t, that we fail to spot what it. And what is usually isn’t all bad.
  7. Actually, what other people think is not that important. This can be really important to remember, and may be especially relevant to those who are part of a church community. Because church communities have such high ideals and aspirations, it can be excruciatingly difficult to have to say in such a community, ‘My Jake is in prison’ or ‘My Dee has never been able to overcome her heroin addiction.’ I’ve had parents say to me, ‘How can I say that when most of the parents in this church are saying, “my son is a missionary doctor in Pakistan” or “my daughter is a human rights lawyer”?’ In reality, when we are open about what we face, most of the church community will rally around with support and love and encouragement. But every now and then there will be those who condemn (‘if you had been a better Christian parent this would never have happened’). Best to ignore such people, and to be grateful that God understands a whole lot better than some of his sillier followers.
  8. It is not over until it’s over. Really, it isn’t. Never stop praying… as if you could.
  9. And if it is over. What if you have to say, ‘actually, it is over. He died of the overdose.’ Or, ‘No, the brain damage is irreversible. No going back to how it was… and no point in denying the obvious.’ Sometimes we just have to leave it with God. Without God there is no hope. But God’s love stretches beyond the grave. Only eternity can show just what that means.
  10. And love conquers all. Sometimes we might need to engage in tough love, but love is always the currency of parenting. Never ration it, or threaten to withdraw it. And I can’t think of any exceptions to that. So if he tells you he is about to move in with his boyfriend, or you notice that yet again another fifty dollar bill is missing, or another dinner date is cancelled, or you just know they are lying to you or… well, you know the kinds of scenarios you face… love keeps on loving, and in the end, love conquers all.

Adam raised a Cain. It happened to the world’s first parents – and perhaps it has happened to you as well. And if not, spare a prayer for those for whom it has – and do whatever love calls you to do.

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Please share with any who might find this helpful.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you, Brian.
    All relevant and real for us.
    I am grateful for how you have articulated it.
    Within our own faith communities we have been hugely blessed by people who been hugely supportive and have not judged, (well not to our faces :0) , and for that we have grateful hearts.

    • Thanks Christine. And so glad that the faith communities you helped so much to shape have been there for you.

  2. Comment *having been through this I do appreciate your words…. It has been a journey I wish I’d never had to go through and yet I praise god for the experience because He was so faithful throughout- and I’m so very grateful for experiencing Gods immense love – at a time when so many judged me for the situation (point 7- so painful!) ….we kept telling our son that nothing he could do would stop us loving him – yet we also needed boundaries! Now – he has turned his life around ( after drugs prison and suicide attempts) and has often said to us “ I just don’t
    understand how you could have
    loved me” …. That’s when we can just smile and remind him of how much God loved us and he was our example.

    • Thanks for sharing Jenni. Sorry that point 7 was too often true but very glad you have got through to the other side, and continue to bless so many.

  3. Comment *Wow Brian,
    What an awesome incredible blog & such culturally relevant reflection & advice. So timely.
    I am seeing the budding of my own prodigals returning home after a very long winter (12 years), God is faithful. Thankyou for sharing your God given wisdom.. . You know I could share so much more about your support ?
    Now I need you to write a book to share with others as we talk with those who don’t know the Lord to share this kind of information, please. ( If there are any books that you would recommend on this subject or your readers, I’d be interested. ) Bless you Brian.?

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