In the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul poetically spells out what sacrifice looks like through the imitation of a wholly selfless Christ, and after that poignant example he says:
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed– not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence– continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Phil. 2:12-13
I have read lots of commentaries and sat through sermons on what it means to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” Most of them relate the concept of ‘fear’ to the awe and reverent fear of God discussed in the Old Testament (like in Proverbs 9:10) , but becoming a mom has made me view this passage in a distinct way which maybe you too can relate to.
Before I became a mom, I was career-focused, and I thought I was a strong Christian, having committed my life to Christ at a young age and staying firm in my faith as the years went by. Then I had a colicky baby and while other moms were ooing and ahhing and having quasi-spiritual experiences with their firstborns, I wanted to lock myself in the closet and never come out again. From day one I realized that parenting was hard and that it was going to require way more of me than I had ever given to anyone before, even my husband. Feeling smothered during the newlywed years was nothing like nursing for hours a day, spending hours trying a myriad of ways to pacify a screaming baby and being denied more than 3-4 hours of uninterrupted sleep (with the recorded sound of a vacuum cleaner playing).
I thought that I had developed the fruits of the spirit but the warm fuzzies of love, joy, peace, patience, etc. weren’t there in those dark moments. Part of my mental difficulty in grasping the reality of my situation was that I was confusing feelings with character traits developed in us over time by the Holy Spirit which seems pretty easy to do, especially when you’re hormonal and sleep-deprived! I also tried to view all of the difficulties of that first year as a phase. She would grow out of it; life would get easier and parenting would become more natural and not so utterly exhausting and terrifying. It is true that the colicky baby grew into a toddler, but we are still in phases and all of life can be seen as a phase. By focusing on the experience as a phase I just had to survive, I missed living in the moment and being taught some of the spiritual lessons that moment had for me.
So now I’m back to fear and trembling. While there is a certain reverence toward God implied in working out our salvation, I see Paul’s command as a call to recognize the weightiness of each moment, each decision as it relates to our lifelong journey toward salvation (and, to use a big churchy word, sanctification) and this relates to our children’s salvation as well. When you think about the job we have as parents, to take little helpless people and throughout their lives help turn them into self-sufficient, godly men and women, it is a task that causes some fear and trembling, not because we don’t think God will give us the strength to do it, but because it means we need to be intentional in our parenting and weigh out and judge our actions towards our kids because they have such an enormous impact on how they view us and the God we say we love and serve. Our kids also challenge us in ways that nothing else can and while it might be our natural inclination to get angry at them for disobeying or inconveniencing us, we can instead allow them to take us a step toward salvation and develop the fruits of the Spirit that sound pretty on paper but are hard to live out, like peace when your toddler is throwing a tantrum in the middle of a busy store, patience when she is dawdling and throwing you behind schedule (as if you weren’t already behind!), love when out of anger he says he hates you and you’re the worst mother on earth.
For the longest time I thought if I could go back in time I would want the sweet, meek and mild baby over the colicky sleep-fighting one God gave me, but now I see that even back then God was using her to make me a better person if I choose to just stop trying to survive and learn to thrive spiritually in the environment I’m in.