Displaying candid vulnerability, father and son Alan and Jackson Stanley have written a two-part feature describing a journey they’ve been walking together in recent years. In this piece, we set the scene with part one.
The year was around 2004 I’m guessing. My wife and I had two sons: Luke, 3, and Jackson, 1. The day was a normal day. I’d been in the car five minutes – it’d be another 40 before arriving at work. I’d often use this time to pray. One of the things I would pray for was our boys. On this occasion, as I’d frequently done before, I asked God to bring both our boys to faith in Christ. But, that wasn’t the end of the prayer. I went on to ask something like: “Please Lord, may you bring this about while they are young and may they continue in that faith throughout their teenage years. May they not ‘go off the rails.’” Then it occurred to me that to pray they would come to faith while young and not go off the rails in their teens was more about me than our boys. My motive, I could tell, was I didn’t want the hassle of dealing with wayward teenagers and I was afraid of what people might think of me – a pastor and Bible College lecturer.
That was the last time I ever prayed that prayer. I still prayed that our boys would come to know God. I just didn’t put a time limit on it. I’m not suggesting for a moment that one should not pray such prayers. After all, “You do not have because you do not ask God,” writes James (4:2). I just knew that, for me, I needed to let that part of the request go.
More than 15 years on, we have a third son, Caleb. Luke and Jackson are coming to the end of their teenage years. The reason I remember 2004 so vividly is not only because of the impact it made on me at the time, but because the fear that generated the prayer actually came to pass. What follows is the first part of that story. Through it, God taught me the most valuable of lessons. A lesson, as it turned out, I would never want to go the rest of my life without. I’ll let Jackson, now 18, begin by telling the first part of the story.
“I was born and raised in Australia. Growing up, I always told myself I would be a Christian – that was that. I’d never turn away from God like so many other people I’d heard about. I simply couldn’t imagine life without God. I was surrounded by good Christian friends and there were no temptations to pull me away from Him.
However, when I was 14, we moved from Australia to New Zealand, where my parents come from. I found myself in a new world with very few Christian influences and I struggled to find friends. I began to struggle with depression and anxiety and, in the process, lose faith that God would look after me. At the beginning of year 12, I started to drink and smoke marijuana to try and be accepted. It worked. I made friends and I was happy again. I’d go out and party Friday and Saturday nights – then go to church on Sunday.
I didn’t want to be a Christian anymore, but I put on an act to try and please my parents. For six months I lived this double life. Until I got caught. It was the last day of school – instead of going to school I went to get high with some mates. I smoked the whole day. When my dad picked me up, I hopped in the car and immediately saw disappointment on his face. I’d had some close calls before, but this was it. I couldn’t talk my way out of this one.
I wasn’t allowed to leave the house all of the following day. I locked myself in my room. The only thing stopping me from running away was that my mum threatened to tell the police on my friends. I didn’t feel bad anymore for what I had done. I was just angry. Angry because my parents didn’t understand me, or the fact I didn’t want to be a Christian anymore.
When my wife and I found out Jackson had been smoking marijuana, we became policemen. Immediately! That lasted approximately 24 hours, maybe 12. It quickly became evident the policeman approach would not work. But what to do? I felt like I was losing my son. Or was I?
Honestly, what I feared losing was my hopes for my son. I didn’t mind too much about what career he decided on, but I’d hoped he would choose to follow God. That’s how we raised him. I certainly hoped he wouldn’t get into drugs. I’d even pray from time to time: “Lord, please keep our boys from drugs.” In a moment, or perhaps moments, of clarity, I knew that I was not in fact losing my son, but rather, my identity. That is, I was losing the sense of worth and value that I perceived came from having Christian sons ‘walking with the Lord.’ I was also losing the sense of peace that came from having an ‘obedient son’. It felt like a slap in the face – like he was saying, “I want nothing to do with what you’ve taught me.” Of course, that’s what he was saying. The fact I reacted so strongly though indicated I had a problem. Jackson was merely the mirror I needed to see my problem.
This may sound extremely odd, but it’s possible to find our value and worth in any number of good things. The Pharisees are a case in point. They found their worth in holiness – a very good thing – instead of God. Their identity was dependent on how holy, or unholy, they were. The Pharisees are also an example of people who found their worth and value in their theology. They cared more about keeping the Sabbath than about people who were suffering. J. I. Packer makes the point of observing “…fellow believers . . . constantly seeking to advance themselves in godliness” and yet “they show little direct interest in God himself.” According to Packer, “There is something narcissistic and, to tell the truth, nutty in being more concerned about godliness than about God.” This was the Pharisees.
Brian Rosner, the Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, has written a book on identity. He lists eleven “‘essential dimensions’ that can have an inordinate influence on a person’s sense of identity: race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, gender, sexuality, physical and mental capacity, family of origin, age, relationships, occupation, possessions, religion, and personality and character. In and of themselves, none of these are problematic.” But, Rosner points out, “human beings have the propensity to turn any of these eleven ‘essential dimensions’ of a person’s sense of identity into an idol.”
As the days and weeks unfolded, I realised my happiness, my sense of identity and worth, were tied up in being a ‘good’ parent – in having kids who were Christians and followed God. How’d I know? Quite simple – although admittedly hard to explain in a magazine article. I simply knew it in my heart. I knew by my reactions to Jackson. If I thought about Jackson never following the Lord, that thought deeply affected me. I knew it because I felt a sense of despair and hopelessness – I’d failed as a father. I couldn’t escape feeling it was my fault. Jackson’s decision to go down this path was an ongoing visible reminder to me of how far I had fallen short. I can’t tell you how much pain that caused me. None of this happened in an instant of course, but the dawning of it in my own mind couldn’t have been clearer. My fear was more about losing my identity than it was my son.
Ultimately, I realised I was not losing my son at all. I was losing what I wanted him to be. My reaction – turning into a policeman – showed I was more invested in him following my ways, than I was in him.
In his book on parenting teenagers, Paul Tripp called one chapter “typical parental idols.” Idols like comfort, respect, appreciation, success, and control. He points out these things become idols when we demand them from our children. “We reason that we have the right to quiet, harmony, peace, and respect, and we respond in anger when we do not get it.” According to Tripp, this is a “central issue” when parenting.
“I’m deeply persuaded that our idols have . . . caused us to strike back at our teenagers with bitter words of judgment, accusation, and condemnation, behaving toward them with intolerance and anger. While God is calling us to love, accept, forgive, and serve, we are often barely able to be nice.”
There’s more of me in this description than I care to admit. However, the truth is there is a difference between my sons following God and my sons following my expectations. Only God could lead Jackson to the former. I had to let go of the latter.
I thought about these kind of things during these first 12 to 24 hours of discovering what Jackson had been doing. One thought in particular changed the way I related to Jackson from then on. The father in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). What struck me was the father let his son go. He let him leave home for a foreign country to do who knows what. I knew I had to do the same thing – let go of my expectations, the picture in my mind of who Jackson should be or how he should live, and do what God would do: love him, graciously and unconditionally!
What’s that look like? What would I have to let go of? It was as much about my own journey as it was Jackson’s.
- Part two of Alan and Jackson’s feature will be live soon.
 J. I. Packer, Meeting God: A Lifeguide Bible Study (Madison, Wis.: InterVarsity, 1986), 9 cited in Larry Crabb, Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Path to Joy (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001), 182–83.
 The quotation here is from Alan P. Stanley, “Understanding the Pain of Identity Loss Brought on by COVID-19 Through the Lens of Genesis 3 and 11,” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice 27.3 (2020): 78, but based on Brian Rosner, Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity, Biblical Theology for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).
 Paul Tripp, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (P&R Publishing, 2001).
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By Alan and Jackson Stanley
About the author
Alan Stanley is a Waikato-based preacher, writer and lecturer at Pathways College of Bible and Mission. He has started a new initiative – Preachit! – aimed at training, equipping and mentoring preachers. Jackson is studying a Bachelor of Theology at Laidlaw College.
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