This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Laura: Today, we're excited to welcome Nancy Guthrie to the Risen Motherhood podcast. Nancy's interview is part of our series, Faithful Motherhood, where we’re talking with women whose children are grown and how the gospel has impacted their motherhood had over the years. These aren’t meant to be prescriptive interviews for how to do motherhood, just a glimpse at one woman's unique walk and lessons learned as she lives out her calling in the Lord.
We're talking with Nancy about trusting God with the lives of our children, how we can handle anxiety in comparison as a mom, and stick with us until the very end because she gives us a clear overview of how God is the only perfect parent, so you don't have to fear your own imperfections. Nancy teaches the Bible through books and conferences. Some of our favorite resources from Nancy include her book, Holding on to Hope and her Bible studies from the Seeing Jesus series. She also has a great book on prayer called, One Year of Praying Through the Bible for Your Kids and her newest book is, Even Better than Eden, and she has a podcast. She’s the host of the Help Me Teach the Bible podcast at The Gospel Coalition. You’ll find links to all of this at risenmotherhood.com.
Now, let's get to the show with Nancy, Emily, and me.
Laura: Hi, Nancy! Thanks so much for joining us on Risen Motherhood today.
Nancy: I'm so glad to get to talk to you guys today.
Laura: We’re thrilled. Emily and I have been reading your books for as long as I can remember. [laughter]
Nancy: Wait a minute. You’re already making me feel old. [laughter]
Laura: [Laughter] We’ve done your studies, we read your books. I mean, you’re a prolific author, you’ve written so many amazing things. We've also seen you speak. You're someone we’ve so appreciated your ministry of applying the gospel, of really encouraging women—well all people—to look at the metanarrative of scripture, and you have been instrumental for us to grasp that concept apply it to our own lives. We want to start off with a big thank you for all of the work that you've done.
Nancy: I'm grateful for that. That aspect of coming to understand the Bible, as one story, has been so significant in my own life and it always means a lot to me to hear that what's flowed out of that, in terms of what I've written and taught, is helpful to someone else. Thanks.
Emily: We’re so excited to introduce you to our audience. Would you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and even what a typical day looks like for you right now?
Nancy: Certainly. Well, I'm talking to you from my office in my house in Nashville. We just moved into a new house a year ago. It's so fun to start with fresh paint in modern colors. I work here all day long, except for when I sneak away from here to go take a walk in the park near my house with some of my friends. I texted a couple of them this morning and they said no, they won’t go, so it looks like I'm going to be going by myself after our interview. My husband has a business called Little Big Stuff Music.
He creates kids musicals for the church and that business is based here in our house— that's why we moved because all of his boxes of cd's and books were growing out of our two-car garage at our old house. The other cool thing about that is a couple of years ago, our son started working for him, so here in our little house in Nashville, we create a lot of stuff, but the best thing is we all work here all day and we have lunch together. That makes for a lot of great days here at the Guthrie house.
Laura: How fun! I know my family has a family business that Emily's husband works for, my brother works for, and lots of family all together. We're a very tight-knit family too, so that's so fun when you can all spend your days together.
Nancy: It's great.
Emily: We’re excited to have you on to look back on your years as a mom and discuss how the gospel has intersected throughout different seasons of your life. Could you just jump in? What do you think it means to be a gospel-centered parent, and how is your understanding of that changed over your 28 years of being a mom?
Nancy: Well, it’s changed a lot! I think for most of my parenting years, I would’ve thought that being a gospel-centered parent means that I put all of my efforts into trying to get my child to take hold of the gospel of Jesus Christ and become a Christian. I suppose that's an aspect of it, but there’s so much more to it than that. I think I've had a couple of big wakeup calls, in regard to the gospel and parenting.
I mentioned that we have a son who's 28 who works here in our house; my husband David and I have also had two other children who lived just a short time. We had a daughter named Hope, who would be 19 years old right now, and we had a son named Gabe who would be 17 and they were both born with a rare metabolic disorder called Zellweger Syndrome which meant that their lives were very short and very difficult, honestly.
I don't remember a lot about what our pastor said when we put Hope into the grave—which I've got to tell you, I look back at it as maybe the lowest day of my life—but I remember one thing, he’d looked at me and he said, “This is where we ask the question, is the gospel really true?” I remember it, because it was so profound. I just wanted to yell out, “Yes, it is!”
When you're putting your child into the ground, you face whether or not you believe the claims of the gospel; whether or not you believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that it means that those who belong to him are going to one day be raised from the dead and joined with him forever. That's the place that really matters. I think that's one place in my life, as a mom, where the gospel has come to certainly mean a lot more than it did at the beginning.
As I’ve continued to parent, over these last almost 20 years since then, I realize that a lot of times I’ve operated as if my child actually needs the gospel more than I do. It's been so easy for me as a parent. I don't know if it's been like trying to maintain my credibility as a parent or authority, but if I had it to do over again, I think one thing that I would do would be to be a little bit quicker, to be honest about my own sin with my growing child, because, you see, the gospel means that it's not all about my righteous life.
It’s about Christ’s righteous life and the gospel means that there is forgiveness for my failures, as well as power to forsake sin.
I think I would have done better at this mom thing if, along the way, rather than trying to look so perfect with all of my good choices that I had been more honest about struggles in my life. If I'd sit at the dinner table and be willing to confess, “You know how I got so mad about this thing today? Well, I've thought about it and I realize I'm really jealous of her and that's why I am so annoyed by her and as we pray tonight at the dinner table, will you pray that the Lord will help rid me of this jealousy and instead replace it in my life with a sense of joy and celebration for the way God is working in her life?” I think that would have had a lot more power and express to my child the benefits of the gospel. That's one way. I could go on and on about that—
Laura: I would like to let you go on and on. [laughter] That was wonderful. First off, thank you for being so vulnerable to share about your children and your experience there. Second, I think that's something we all can really relate to, of having the shell around ourselves and not wanting to let our kids in and see our own need. Instead we’re like, “Well, you talk about your need and all of your sin issues.” But as a mom, we’re not being vulnerable with our own children and really leading by example and modeling what that life looks like—continual repentance, growing in sanctification along our walk as a Christian.
One thing that I think we see, especially as moms, is that we can get very bent out of shape with our kids doing different types of behaviors or having certain tendencies or even making choices that we would prefer that they didn’t. How does the gospel help us keep the main thing when we think of our mothering?
Nancy: Well, all along the way parenting, especially as our kids get into their teens and even more, I can say from personal experience as they get into young adulthood, we have to keep coming back to, what is the main thing? Because we can have a tendency as a mom to be looking at all these surface choices and behaviors, and we can get all bent out of shape about them and neglect what's underneath them.
The main thing is, is my child savingly connected to Jesus Christ? Is my child spiritually dead or spiritually alive? Because everything else flows out of that. Everything is built on that, so this means, as our children grow, as we get so frustrated about certain aspects of their lives or their behaviors or actions, we just have to keep coming back to the fact of asking ourselves, “Is my child savingly connected to Jesus Christ?”
If my child is, then one way that we can rest as moms is to recognize, “Okay, then I can trust that the Holy Spirit is going to do a work in my child's life. The Spirit and the word is going to go to work on my child bring them to a place of conviction and empower them to change.”
One big challenge for me, as a mom, has been to simply trust God's timing to do that. I have to tell you, if we'd been having this conversation even five years ago, I wouldn't have been able to say that, because I was still in so much turmoil, waiting for some things to happen. It's timely to talk to you now, because I am seeing that some things four, five years ago that I was praying for. And I'll just be honest with you, some of those things I was praying for, I really didn't have the faith to believe God was going to do. I'm embarrassed to say, but it's just true.
I was praying intently, but I couldn't see for myself how that was going to happen and I'm telling you now, I look at it and I have seen God work in some ways beyond what I could imagine. I'm realizing now what has been important is for me to trust God's timing to work and bring about change in my child, because my child is savingly connected to Jesus Christ and he has done a work.
I guess the other thing is that, if we don't see any signs of spiritual life in our child and we come to the conclusion—I mean we never know about the interior of anyone's life— but if we're seeing zero fruits of spiritual life in our child, then instead of getting so uptight about all those things on the surface, we want to be pouring ourselves into begging God to do what only God can do, by the way, which is, take our child from spiritual death to spiritual life. Only he can do that.
I think sometimes, as moms we think that it's going to happen by my great witness, my great example, I'm going to get somebody to talk to my child, I’ve got to get my child in this group of friends, I've got to get my child to read this book, I've got to get my child to go to this event.
We tend to take the reins of control and think we can manipulate to make it happen, that our children will become spiritually alive. Certainly, it's our role as moms and dads to put our children in situations where they are going to hear the gospel, to put them under God's word in terms of preaching, week to week, in the church, have them be with us seeing us experience partaking of the sacraments, but ultimately, this is something only God can do.
It becomes an incredible matter of prayer for us rather than presume upon God to save our children, we begin to pray, even beg, God to save our children.
Emily: I really appreciate that overview of what it’s looked like for you to trust God even when you can't see the outcome. I think we live in a social media, instant gratification, microwave society and when we discipline one time, we wonder where’s the change?
God really has the long game in mind, and we get that from the metanarrative of scripture seeing how God took a long time and is taking a long time to play out this redemptive story. And it's not finished yet; it’s still coming. We have to remember that's the character of the God when we're parenting our kids. It is hard to keep that in mind.
Nancy: Absolutely. It's hard to wait on him.
Laura: Speaking of trusting in God with our children, can you give us a closer look at what it's looked like in your life to trust God with your children?
Nancy: First of all, isn't trusting God like Christianity 101? [laughter] It's the very foundation. I think, as we spend our lives in this world, that the essence of the Christian life is that God keeps giving us new opportunities to trust him in new ways, but that's not one of those things we get down like, ”Yes, I’ve trusted God.” I wish it was. I wish it was like, “I trusted God with this hard thing,” because you know what, I did trust God with a really hard thing. Two times. Trusting him with the deaths of two of my children.
I can remember right when Hope was born, I was still in the hospital and I called a good friend of mine. She said something to me, over the phone, that kind of set the course for me to begin to see what it was going to mean to trust God with Hope’s life. She said to me that God's purpose would be completely accomplished in Hope’s life in the number of days that he gave to her. During the 199 days of Hope's life, part of trusting God in that situation was trusting that that was true.
I remember a couple of weeks later I was rocking her, in what was intended to be our nursery, and things had finally settled down a little bit and I thought to myself, “Okay, I'm going to pray and I'm going to ask God to extend Hope’s life as long as possible.” I thought to myself, “I've been so generous to God to be able to accept that she's not going to grow old with us but I am going to just ask him to extend her life as long as possible.” I took a breath to begin to pray that and I thought to myself, “But wait a minute, maybe a longer life isn't better for her, or for me.” I thought to myself, “Maybe, what's more significant is that I will be willing to trust God to give her exactly the number of days that are right for her and right for me.” So my prayer changed.
I just asked God, “Would you give me the grace I need to accept the number of days that you give us with Hope?” I was trusting God with her life. My husband David and I, we took surgical steps to prevent another pregnancy and evidently it didn't work, and then I discovered that I was pregnant again with a son. This time, our son Gabriel would also have Zellweger Syndrome. I'd been asking God why during Hope’s life. The second time was why again? Is there something I didn’t learn the first time? I remember going away by myself; I just needed some time to think and pray and cry.
I remember saying to the Lord, “Okay, if you are going to ask me to do this again, then do something significant with it. Do everything you intend even if what you intend is only what you intend to do inside me. I don’t want this to be wasted pain.”
I think that's what trusting God looked like there, but I think in more recent years, through some struggles in our son's life, I remember sensing one day that God was saying to me, “Okay, you trusted me with the deaths of two of your children, are you willing to trust me with the life of your living child?” I got to admit to you, often times for me, that's been a lot harder—a lot of waking up in the middle of the night worrying and strategizing and all of those things.
I was really helped by something I read on a blog post. I was feeling so guilty for my sinning inability to trust God with my child's life, and I read this blog post where he was talking about what trust really looks like. He said trust doesn't look like you never have anxiety about it. Trusting God is every time that anxiety rises up in you, you go to God with it. That really helped me because I think it's unrealistic for us as moms to think we're just going to live a totally worry-free, anxiety-free life, in regard to our children, so the real issue of trusting God is not that we never feel anxiety, it’s what we do with it. Do we simmer in it?
Do we strategize to somehow fix it ourselves or do we come to God with it and say, “You must act. I’m fully depending on you to act on my child's life, as well as to give me the peace I need to get through this day. Lord, you can probably expect that I'm going to be back here tomorrow. I'm just going to keep coming back to you to give me what I need and to work in my child's life.”
Laura: I so appreciate you opening up with a very real raw look of what it looks like to trust God. Emily and I both have children with special needs, and I know it's not the same, but it's something where you feel like you want a different path for your child, and you think that you know better that this type of genetics would mean that your child would have a good life. I just love how you’ve reframed it. I teared up as you reframed the question of, ”Let it be what is best for that child. God, let your glory shine through how you change me and how you change our family because of it.”
It's so easy to become very self-focused with what we want to see and how we assume our life will go, and in those moments where you realize, “Hey, this isn't the way it's supposed to be first of all but also that it isn't what you expected.” That is the question: is the gospel true? Is God who he says he is, and can he work through this, and do I believe that? I love and appreciate you giving an understanding of the ping pong game, that it is trusting God. If I believe, help my unbelief.
Nancy: Do I believe that he's for me?
Nancy: Or do I think he’s against me? Do I believe that he really does know what is best and is committed to what is best? We just have to keep asking and answering those questions, in our own hearts and minds, and that's what builds our ability to trust.
Emily: I’m still processing right here. It is so helpful to think about, yes, the gospel meets us—like you're saying—at the grave. It definitely meets us at the kitchen table, and it meets us when our child isn't speaking, when they're supposed to be speaking. It just meets us at every level.
Nancy: It does.
Emily: We’re so thankful for that.
Nancy: Me too.
Laura: This is hitting a chord for Emily and me, especially as we walk through our children’s needs, so thank you, Nancy.
Nancy: We share knowing what it's like to go sit in the waiting room in that geneticist’s office.
Emily: That's brutal.
Emily: Deep breath processing through that. This is a good indication of how we feel as moms. We’re just looking at motherhood and feel like there's a formula to this, there's an expectation of what I think my life should look like, my friends life should look like, my kids life should look like. So we’ll see families that turned out well and feel like, “I want to know what their secret is so that I can copy that and then maybe my kids will turn out fine too.” Or we see families where there are kids who are struggling and walking away from the faith and we want to find out, “What was the weird thing they did in their families?” so that we won’t do that. What would you say to those assumptions that we bring to the table?
Nancy: I was walking in the park recently with a woman who had some teenage sons, and she was talking to some older moms including me. I heard her doing exactly this. She was like, “What do you do to get your child to do that?” We're all that way. I mean, we want to know the secret formula, and it seems like the media starts handing us those from the very first time when we’re pregnant. Do you remember how when you're pregnant, you instantly started getting baby magazines and diaper coupons? All of those first little things you started getting, they all had five ways to, ten ways to, here's how you can, and you almost start out as a mom thinking, “I got to read it all, I got to do it all right and if I do, then I am somehow in control of how my child turns out.”
That's just false. All we have to do is look around. We all know where there are numerous children who are raised in the same home and they take very different paths, make very different promises. I think the bottom line is to know there are no formulas. Does this mean we're not responsible as parents for what we do? I don't mean that at all, but I think it means, first of all, that if we think it's a formula, then we're ignoring the reality of grace.
Grace gives us even better than we deserve as parents; grace goes to work in our child's life. When we want a formula, we're ignoring mercy—the mercy that we all need, that we don't get what we really deserve for the way we are as parents.
What's perhaps most significant is to know that as you seek to love your child and make the best choices possible for your child, the day may come when you're looking at your child and you're just thinking, “What did we do wrong? Where did we go wrong?” You're filled with a sense of regret, and if I'm speaking to a mom who's feeling that way today, what I would want to say to her is, don't make the assumption that the direction of your child's life, the bad choices, perhaps that your child is making, is completely up to you.
If you have taken hold of Christ, you’ve done the best you can to live before your child a godly life, and you’ve put your child in places where he can hear God's word, then understand that perhaps the problem is, as much as you did to set it out there for him or her, your child just simply didn't take hold of it. And that's not your fault.
So, stop beating yourself up over it. Instead, take hold of the grace that is yours in Christ Jesus and let it saturate your soul and sooth that sense of regret.
Emily: That's really powerful. Something we ought to remember is, the gospel is the power for salvation, and salvation belongs to the Lord. We want to wield that and think, as you said, “If I just do it a certain way, I can change them but we don't have the power to resurrect the dead—“
Nancy: It’s not in our hands.
Emily: I have to remind myself of that over and over and over again. I want to have the power, but I don't.
Laura: Nancy, as we close here, as I mentioned in the beginning, you're someone who speaks often to the metanarrative of scripture, and we know you have a deep love for biblical theology. Can you speak to the moms? Something we have a passion for here at Risen Motherhood, as well, is biblical literacy and understanding that everyone is a theologian, and it's very important to have a biblical theology. Can you walk us through why it's important to have that, as we think about the challenges of being a mom?
Nancy: I'm so glad you asked that because there's probably nothing more than seeing a story in the Bible that has helped me with some of those struggles I’ve had in parenting, and perhaps nothing more significant than this one central truth which is, there is only ever been one perfect parent.
God himself is the only perfect parent, and he's had rebellious children. I mean, that's a stunning truth, is it not? You think about it. God put his first children, Adam and Eve, in this perfect environment, this pristine environment of Eden and they rebelled. How many of us as parents sometimes think, “Well, if I can just create the right environment in my home, my kids will turn out well”?
It didn't work that way for them, and as we think about Adam and Eve, they were actually the first parents who had the potential to be perfect parents but because of sin, they were not perfect parents. Because of sin, we read something that explains all of our angst and struggle in the parenting department: this curse that came upon Eve in the midst of the curse given to the serpent. The impact of the curse on the serpent on Eve was going to be that she was going to have pain in childbearing.
Now, when we read that, we think immediately about the pain of labor and delivery but it means so much more than that. This is the pain of giving birth to children with birth defects, this is the pain of miscarriage and infertility, this is the pain of being a sinful mom raising a sinful child in a sin-cursed world—all of that brings pain.
So, rather than thinking that something's wrong, if we feel pain as a mother, we should recognize that this is inherent in living in a world under a curse. Imagine that God was the only perfect parent. Think about him. He had these first children, Adam and Eve, they rebelled and as we trace the story of the Bible, God’s next son—as God called him—was actually a nation; the nation of Israel. You remember that he sent Moses to Pharaoh and he said Israel is my first-born son. He brings them out of Egypt and he leads them once again into what's meant to be a beautiful environment; this land of milk and honey, and he's really clear with them what they need to do.
He's given them his law and he's been clear that if you obey, you will live, and if you do not obey, then here's all the terrible things that will happen to you. Likewise, we tend to think of parents like, “Maybe I wasn't clear, maybe I didn't say a certain thing enough, if I'd just told my child this,” right? But here's God, the perfect parent, making his law really clear to his people. And what happened with his people? They’re in the Promised Land and they rebel. They disobeyed, so that they got kicked out of the house. Basically, they were exiled.
It becomes clear in the Bible story that there’s a need for that perfect son, that obedient son, and that's who Jesus was. Jesus was the second Adam who, when tempted, obeyed. Jesus was the true Israel who obeyed rather than rebelled. Jesus embodied everything Israel was meant to be. He was everything God ever wanted in a son. We realize there is only one perfect child and the hope for sinful moms like me, is that I take hold of the perfect obedience of Christ and it is merited to my account and in that I find forgiveness. For all of my failures, all of my failures to live before my children in obedience to God, all the failures in my hypocrisy for saying one thing and doing another, all of my failures to talk a lot about the gospel and then not think that I actually need the gospel, all of those are found in that one perfect son, Jesus Christ. I need him and as I take hold of him, I find hope.
Emily: You guys can probably all now hear why we love the way God is using Nancy to write Bible studies and to help us understand how we can see Christ and see God's plan for the redemptive story in all of scripture. We're really thankful that you were able to join us Nancy, and we’ll definitely include a lot more resources for you guys on our show notes including new books out: Even better than Eden and What Every Child Should Know About Prayer and then there's also another great book that I think you guys will like, When You're Praying for you Kids. [laughter]
Laura: As I was going to say, the Seeing Jesus Series that you have Nancy, the Bible study, it's all about the Old Testament. We get a lot of moms asking, “How do I start studying the Old Testament? What does it matter to my life?” I would highly recommend those. [laughter]
Emily: You’ll find everything.
Laura: We are really grateful for you being on the show Nancy. Again, where you can find those resources at risenmotherhood.com and then there'll be a link. Of course, we’re on social media at @risenmotherhood. Thank you, Nancy, we really appreciate you taking time out to talk with us.
Nancy: Thank you so much, it’s been such a joy to talk about such meaningful things with you guys.
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