Twenty-eight years ago in December 1989, I gave birth to our fifth-born child. The temperature plunged to negative twenty, our pipes froze, we found a living python that had been left by a previous tenant of our basement apartment, the stomach flu swept through our family, and I developed a debilitating case of mastitis that left me bedridden on strong pain relief and antibiotics.

These difficulties overwhelmed our little family. When I recall that December, my chest still tightens with anxiety and panic. Last week I wrote that the childrearing years are the good old days for parents, the heydays of our lives. This is often what parental heydays look like.

As I reflect on that time, I’m first amazed that we all lived through it. No one died. No one lost it like a berserker. No one went to jail. Secondly, I recognize that God was working to strip us of our selfish behavior. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

With Christ’s Holy Spirit within us, my husband and I grew, learning to place others’ needs ahead of our own. We were in Jesus’ school of selflessness. He operates this school for believers in all walks of life, whether single or married, old or young. Today I’m detailing the parental school. Jesus is a phenomenal teacher. He changes hearts.

Because Christ was all entwined in it, and his Spirit dwells within my husband and I, these hardships cemented us together. That little baby and all of his siblings, including the one who came after him, were then and still are in ever-increasing measure the delight of our lives. I thank God for them every day.

At that time God was working several miracles in our lives. Both of us came from families with parents who had been scarred by childhood events. Both of us had fathers who had fled to the military too young to escape their childhood homes. A work of healing had to be done within us. Drastic measures were required, for our healing was slow. God, our loving Heavenly Father, began that work by turning our hearts ever more toward our children.

On one of those December mornings, my husband took the rest of our children to church, and I stayed home with our new baby. There, I read the Christmas story from Luke, beginning with the predictions of John the Baptist’s birth. Then I turned to God’s words in Malachi that set the stage for John as a forerunner of Messiah Jesus.

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:16-17 ESV).

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:5-6 ESV).

What did this turning of hearts have to do with the coming of Messiah, I wondered? Part of repentance and revival is not only the turning from disobedience and toward wisdom and justice, but also the turning of parental hearts toward their children, the opposite of selfishness, an emptying of self in order to love. The children reciprocate.

The miracle of birth, the overwhelming nature of the gift, the experience of unconditional love you never knew existed before you saw that little face, no matter how they arrived, by birth or adoption – all of these open our hearts to God in a unique way. They give us a tiny peek into how God loves us. They also bring untold sacrifices.

God was teaching us devotion and selflessness. Holding a new baby in my arms fixed my attention on the refining that prepares us for Messiah’s work in our lives. Sacrificial acts of love make us ready. Self sacrifice makes us kind and wise. Loving our children (and any other “neighbor”) above ourselves taps us into the heart of God.

The Lord was doing that work in our lives as he chiseled and refined our selfishness away, and he continues still. This is the perpetual work of the Spirit in our lives, and we are grateful.

How is God preparing your heart to welcome his Son?

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7 ESV).