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Sacrificing for the future

The public square needs more parenting


Sacrificing for the future
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I write these words in the early morning hours, of which I have seen a good deal more since my wife and I welcomed our third child. We are thankful for a healthy delivery, a hungry (and sleepy) baby boy, and the love from family and friends that have made our transition to a family of five a little easier. There’s no getting around, however, that a newborn is a particularly disruptive character, showing little regard for a parent’s sleep rhythms and personal preferences. In fact, for the third time in my adult life, I have been reminded of something deeply true: Loving a new human being well means sacrificing much about the present for the sake of the future.

Sacrificing the present for the sake of the future is an increasingly endangered idea in our contemporary life. Ours is an age of aggressive “instant gratification,” a fact that shows up in everything from our technological addictions to declining Western birthrates. While diet and fitness culture may recite mantras about sacrifice, this is almost always self-focused. Forgoing pleasures right now in order to create value for someone else later is not the spirit of our age.

The evidence is plentiful. Millennials and Gen-Zers are increasingly skipping marriage and childbearing, preferring the autonomy and flexibility that comes with fewer relational commitments. Taking on unwieldy amounts of debt in order to get the full “college experience” has become a cultural rite of passage. More seriously, gender ideology encourages adolescent boys and girls to respond to those awkward teenage feelings of body insecurity with medications and surgeries. Institutions are often held hostage by social media mobs, which convince leaders who should know better to make bad decisions to relieve pressure that would go away if they simply let it.

All of these are examples of choices that seem to offer no-strings-attached benefits in the current moment, but which actually offer temporary relief through debiting the future. The young man or woman who deliberately chooses not to have a family that may impede on career or adventure will eventually have to face the cold realities of aging alone. Hormone therapies can render young people permanently infertile, long after dysphoria has given way to clarity. Modern people who destroy friendships and meaningful connections out of a moment of disappointment or frustration create a rootlessness to their lives that proves far more paralyzing than they expected.

Much of living wisely is realizing that long-term benefits often come at the expense of short-term pleasures.

Much of living wisely is realizing that long-term benefits often come at the expense of short-term pleasures. This is one reason that parenting matters culturally. No one has to convince a parent that feeding a hungry newborn at an ungodly hour is better than sleeping while they starve. A toddler’s demands to have chocolate for dinner or to play with matches are not convincing episodes of expressive individualism. We know, instinctively, that such desires cannot and must not be gratified. The parent-child relationship is a living catechism about choosing the best rather than the convenient, the long-term rather than the instant. But as this relationship becomes more foreign to modern people, so too are its lessons lost.

A while back I saw a progressive evangelical social media influencer say that it was impossible to love LGBT people without affirming their sexuality. Every parent of small children knows, however, that love not only can co-exist with disapproval when necessary—there is frequently no other choice. This is a reality we need to recover at a deep social level. We must stand athwart the conveniences and temptations of the present and say: “Stop, something better is possible.” We need to become better parents not only of our kids, but of our politics, our churches, and ourselves.

American public life suffers from a lack of this parentally informed view of time and duty. Progressives and conservatives alike are too often enslaved to presentism, recycling tired prophecies of social doom every election cycle. Evangelicals are not immune and vocabulary like “unprecedented times” can easily seep into theology, giving Christians a license to either deconstruct or weaponize their faith. These things feel empowering in the moment, but they exhaust and alienate us in the end.

So much that is true, good, and beautiful must be worked for by people who realize they may never see the rewards of their patience. Like a parent in the stillness of the 3 a.m. feeding, Christians are those who labor for the good of the church and the world in a way that those living only for the moment cannot possibly understand. We are a people of the long game: not always the ones sitting at the most elite seats of power, but the ones with peanut butter stains on our clothes and dirty diapers in grocery bags.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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