“It doesn’t matter what we do, it will never be enough for him.”
She didn’t say it in a bitter tone of desperation. It was a statement of fact, spoken over the phone by my close friend, describing her young adopted son. But the grief was tangible.
When parents recognize they can never meet their own children’s emotional needs, it is agonizing.
As parents, we want to be enough for our kids. And the reality is we never will be. We cannot protect our kids from harm, we cannot prevent them from bad decisions, and we cannot soften their hearts when they are belligerent.
But there are some kids whose needs are complicated. Often they have experienced some sort of trauma at a young age. Adopted children often fall into this category, but there are other causes too. In any case, the child is fragile. Somewhere inside of them is a bottomless pit of need, and try as we might to love away the hurt, we never seem to get ahead.
These kids crave a love that we can’t provide. They hunger for a wholeness that always floats just out of reach.
As I reflected on my friend’s words, wondering what comfort I could offer, I thought of my niece, who is also a veteran of suffering, though she is only two years old.
Let me explain. Mary Louise is not damaged emotionally, but physically. And the damage was done at the most embryonic level. She has a rare genetic disorder called CFC syndrome. It can’t be cured. Unless there is some colossal medical breakthrough, she will live her entire life with the consequences of this genetic mistake. But who made the mistake? Was it my sister and her husband? Was it Mary herself?
Was it God?
Of course not. God doesn’t make mistakes. God foreordained that Mary would live a life that, in some sense of the word, is incomplete. She will never be able to walk, play or eat as easily as her brothers and sisters. She is handicapped. Her body has a serious flaw.
When she gets to Heaven, God will make her whole. In the meantime, my sister and brother-in-law will take her to therapy appointments, hospital visits, and specialist consultations. They will research every possible way to help her development. In other words, they do everything they can to help her overcome her physical handicaps.
They recognize that, no matter the quality of care they provide for Mary, they cannot make her whole. In some sense, nothing they do will ever be enough for her.
In the same way, there are children in our lives who need extra care. They need special attention—maybe in the form of extra discipline, extra guidance, extra teaching, or even extra cuddling. But as much as we would like for our love to be the cure, it never will be.
Yet the extra love and care we provide isn’t worthless. When we feel that we’re throwing love and attention into a bottomless pit, we have to change the way we’re thinking about it.
Mary’s therapy isn’t pointless just because it isn’t a cure. The extra attention is given with the hope that she will be able to live the fullest life possible. Mary’s parents provide her with therapy to aid her development, all the while pinning their own hopes on Heaven. And as Mary gets older, they will point her, too, to the hope of Heaven’s healing.
The same is true of our children that have special emotional needs. As I mulled over the difficulties faced by my friend and her husband in raising their son, the first six words of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 popped into my mind.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
And it hit me like it never has before—the poor in spirit are those whose hurts can never be healed on this earth. So in one sense, that means it’s all of us. But the category is more specific.
It’s the orphans, the misfits, the emotionally needy and the spiritually homeless. It’s the adopted kids who never get enough love, the foster kids who never get adopted, the toddlers with attachment disorders, or those abused by the fathers who ought to protect them. For them, it might always be a struggle. They may always fight feelings of distrust, loneliness, and injustice. They may always suspect that they are getting the short end of the stick. They may always s
et their expectations too high, only to have them dashed.
If that’s the case, how do we help these kids? To begin with, we pray for them. We ask God to bind their wounds, to meet their needs, to heal their diseases. But we don’t stop there. What did Jesus say?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”
Ultimately, our only hope is in Christ Jesus. We understand that we will never be whole until we are free from the bondage of sin and death that we face each day. And this hope of eternal life is most precious to us when we are most broken on this earth.
For Mary, the hope of Heaven will never be far from her mind, I expect. As she watches a world of able-bodied people at work and at play, she will have to choose whether to resent her illness or cling to the promise of a body made whole on the day of resurrection, when she meets Jesus Christ face to face. And when she chooses to cling to the hope of Heaven, she will grasp it in her hands. In short, the kingdom of Heaven will be hers.
In the same way, we must teach our kids to cling to the hope of Heaven. If they are poor in spirit, no circumstance on earth will satisfy their desire for a perfect Father and an unbroken home. Their only hope is in Heaven, when their longing for something beautiful will finally be realized. Their thirst for love will finally be satiated, and their need for perfect communion and a solid sense of belonging and completion will be met. And until that day, if they surrender their hurt to their Father in Heaven, He will make the hope of Heaven more real, more tangible, more immediate to them. Eternal life becomes more urgent when they recognize their own brokenness.
Last but not least, we must help our kids understand the root of their pain. They need to understand, for one thing, that they are not alone in their loneliness. We must help them recognize that all of us wrestle with a desire to belong, and we need a perfect Heavenly Father to heal us of hurts that can’t be undone. But we also need to help them understand what is at the root of their desires. The desires are not wrong, but they become sin when they become idols. We must surrender even our noblest desires to the God who wrote them on our hearts.
Just as Mary will better be able to grapple with her illness if she understands the cause of it, so our kids will be able to grapple with their own spiritual poverty if they understand its cause. So often, we think that if we just ignore something it will go away. But that isn’t true with serious illness. We have to help our kids understand what makes them feel the way they do, so that they can learn to preach the Gospel to themselves and cling to the hope of Heaven.
For more helpful reading on the topics of adoption, special needs and parenting, see these resources:
Adopted for Life, by Russell Moore
The Life We Never Expected, by Andrew and Rachel Wilson
Daddy Tried, by Tim Bayly
Having a Child with Special Needs: An Interview with Abigail Dodds, Risen Motherhood Podcast, ep. 58
When You’re Walking Through More Than “Just a Season”: Perpetual Living in the Season of Chronic Dying, by Abigail Dodds