Focus on the Family Broadcast

Finding God’s Mercy When Life is Messy (Part 1 of 2)

Finding God’s Mercy When Life is Messy (Part 1 of 2)

Author Vicki Courtney encourages parents of prodigals to develop an authentic faith by allowing God to meet them in the midst of the emotional and relational challenges they face with their children. (Part 1 of 2)



Jim Daly: Vicki, is there a simple formula to doing parenting as a Christian? So, if you do A, B, and C, you get the result you want?

Vicki Courtney: Absolutely not. I think sometimes we wish there were, but no, there is not.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Well, there is hope though for every parent and we hope to give you, if not a formula, some encouragement along the path. And our guest on “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly is Vicki Courtney. I’m John Fuller and Jim, this should be an interesting program for those who think there’s a formula, but are perhaps finding out, not so much.

Jim: Hey, John, I think we all want to hope in that and I think in some cases, you know, it does work. You do certain right things. It’s like the book of Proverbs, when you do right things, oftentimes you get good results. It’s simply true though, that it’s not always the case and I know parents, we beat each other up because we have a situation or we have a son or daughter who goes a direction that we’re not pleased with. And we’re thinking, what have we done wrong? Where did we miss it?

John: I gotta take all the “My son is an honor student,” at this school—

Jim: (Laughing) Right.

John: –I’ll take those bumper stickers off now.

Jim: Right and yet, at the same time as Christian parents, we want to do the best job we can do and that’s a good thing. Scripture tells us in Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday forever.” And that is true and so, that’s what we need to rest in as we parent, as we live our lives, as we are husbands and wives to our spouses. I’m looking forward to what I would call a dose of reality.

John: Well, our guest, as I said, is Vicki Courtney and she’s the founder of Virtuous Reality Ministries. She’s a popular speaker, author of a number of books and the one that forms the basis for our conversation today is called Move On: When Mercy Meets Your Mess.


Jim: Vicki, it’s great to have you at Focus.

Vicki: Well, thanks so much for having me.

Jim: When you talk about “the mess,” do many of us as Christian parents, Christian households, do we hide beyond a veneer a bit? And there’s stuff goin’ on that is messy, but we just don’t talk about it?

Vicki: Oh, absolutely; we all have messes going on, but I think what I’ve seen in my, you know, 28 plus years as a believer now, is that there’s this tendency to lapse into the “Pretender Game,” is what I call it.

Jim: Pretender Game.

Vicki: Yes, yes.

Jim: What does that look like?

Vicki: Okay, so you walk into church on a Sunday morning and you paint the trademark smile on your face. You hopefully have a good number of people, you know, “Hey, how are you? How’re you doin’?” And you know, we usually give the default answer, “I’m great; I’m great; doin’ well. And you?” And yet, behind the scenes at times and sometimes things are clicking along and going great, right? But then there are other times when they’re not and yet, we still answer in the same way and feel that pressure to maybe present ourselves and our family as having it all together.

Jim: Now this really came home for you, because you were writing on virtue and you know, training your children to stay sexually pure before marriage and all of a sudden, something hits you right between the eyes. What happened?

Vicki: Sure, I was about to turn in a book called 5 Conversations You Must Have With Your Son and one of those conversations has to do with sexual purity, of course. And my oldest boy had just graduated from college and was home for a few months. He was engaged to be married. And so, during that time, you know, he had a job fortunately and was going into work. And that morning he left for work and 15 minutes later, he walked back through the door. And I had the hard copy manuscript sitting on my lap at the time he walked through the door and I was actually working on conversation No. 3, talking about sexual purity.

And he walked through the door and I could tell something was up and said, “Hey, did you forget something?”And he said, “Mom, I can’t stand it another minute. I had to come back and tell you, I think Casey is pregnant.”

Jim: His fiancée.

Vicki: Yes, his fiancée. And at that point, I got up and met him, you know, halfway and I was not a writer. I was not a speaker in that moment. I was a mother and I was also someone whose own life had been greatly impacted by God’s grace and mercy.

And so, I did what came naturally and wrapped my arms around him and we wept together and I said, “You know, we’re gonna get through this.” And from that point on, you know, [we] took positive steps forward.

But of course, you know, we all have that tendency, you think, “Oh, no.” There was a moment that came later like, “Yikes! This is not good timing,” right? (Laughing)

Jim: Well, yeah, I mean to unpack that a little further, I mean, you had a lot of options in front of you in terms of how you would respond. Sounds like you responded as you should have, a loving mother. I think sometimes as Christian parents, when we’re confronted with that situation or something similar, it may not be exactly that, it can test your depth of your relationship with Christ and how much we put into our relationship with our children and are they embarrassing us?

Vicki: Right.

Jim: But talk about that, because I think in many Christian households, that’s the standard we hold. Don’t embarrass me.

Vicki: Right, right.

Jim: And that’s now helpful.

Vicki: No and I need to confess, too, that there was a time when that very much was a temptation for me, to not cover up, but just not talk about that rebellious teenager, not talk about some of the challenges that were going on behind the veil, if you will.

And I think, especially for mothers, a lot of times, we worry that it’s an indictment on our parenting. If we’ve invested all this into raising our children, then we take it personally. Like, well, we must have done something wrong, because as you guys said, you know, at the front of the program, I think we like to think there might be a formula. And if you check off all the right things and you make sure your kids, you know, they do VBS when they’re little and they listened to all those old Bible Psalty tapes. Remember them? (Laughter)


Vicki:VeggieTales, right. (Laughter)

Jim:Adventures in Odyssey.

Vicki: Right, my kids loved that. And so, you know.

Jim: But they’re not foolproof plans. The point to that is, that God gives every human being a choice and—

Vicki: Right.

Jim: –you have to make good choices. And as parents, what we’re trying to do and should be trying to do is, [to] teach our children how to make good choices. They’re gonna be confronted with things. Vicki, let me ask you in your book, Move On, there is that connection and transition that you made, because you came to the Lord in your college years and you know, you had some living under your belt and you knew what it was like. You mentioned you had an abortion when you were a teenager. Those are tough things.

In that context, that 80 percent, 20 percent thing, maybe 80 percent of Christians have experiences in their life like that, where they have fallen down, the Lord has showed them mercy and grace and they then can extend it. And then there’s that 20 percent. They’ve lived a pretty good life. They were raised in Christian homes. They’ve never really stumbled in big ways. Are they more prone to that legalism that you talked about? Or are we all simply prone to it?

Vicki: You know, yeah, I love that question. My husband’s in the 20 percent, actually the top 5 percent probably. (Laughing)

Jim: Yeah and I just used those randomly.

Vicki: No, I like that. In fact, I joke in a lot of my, you know, I’ve written about it and when I get to speak, I share it sometimes, that he was the overachiever. I mean, and I don’t say that lightly, I mean, Valedictorian of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas—

Jim: Wow.

Vicki: –overachiever academically. He was the good Christian guy. He had kind of the checklist of what, you know, he was looking for in a future wife. And I only met one requirement and that is, she loves Jesus. And so, everything else, you know, he threw the list out, because God very clearly showed him, you will be a great match with this gal and vice versa. It took me a while to see that I had strengths in areas where he had weaknesses.

Jim: Sure.

Vicki: But all that to say, I think because he really is just naturally, it’s almost a personality or a temperament I believe, too. Not always, but if you’re raised in a secure home, we’ve seen this with our own children. My daughter–I have two sons and a daughter–she was more like her dad. She just likes to follow the rules. And so, he’s like that, too. But I do think that personality can lean more toward a sense of legalism.

Jim: Well, and I guess I loaded that question a bit, because you have these battles within the church. Let me say it this way, those that can live the old covenant life well, meaning the Old Testament—

Vicki: Oh, yes.

Jim: –they live it well. They do the Ten Commandments. They heed them well. They follow them well.

Vicki: Uh-hm.

Jim: I think there’s a potential for that person to be the legalist and then why isn’t that person living it well or maybe what I’m trying to say here is, how do we absorb God’s grace, which is the New Covenant under Christ? That He’s died for us, that He’s covered our sins before our heavenly Father? That’s a hard thing for a righteous person—

Vicki: Uh-hm.

Jim: –to yield to, that I didn’t earn it, back to performance.

Vicki: Right.

Jim: How do we balance that?

Vicki: Yeah, I think my marriage has been a great example (Laughter) of that. We’ve had to learn, you know, and really, my husband, he’s a wonderful and godly man, but he’s one of these that, I think as you described that, he looks at the situation and he’s like, why can’t people just follow the rules?

Jim: Live it well.

Vicki: Right. And I’m over here like, well, there are those of us, honey and my youngest son is my personality. He’s my little “mini-me.” And go figure, he’s the hardest teenager out of the three of our kids, too. But I said, there are some of us that even though we know the rules, we have to learn them the hard way. And sometimes we have to relearn them again and again and again. And that’s where grace and mercy, it comes to life. And so, yeah. It’s a balance definitely.

John: Well, our guest on “Focus on the Family” is Vicki Courtney. We’re talking about grace and mercy and she’s written about those in the book, Move On. The pre-title I guess is what you’d call it, Vicki, is You Can Stay Where You Are, Or You Can Get Honest and Move On. And we’re talking about really grabbing onto God in those moments where you might be angry with Him or bitter or confused or struggling with performance as a Christian. And you can find out more about the book and resources to help you in your faith walk at

Jim: Vicki, let me ask you this. Is there a litmus test that we can say, oh, I gotta be careful. I’m becoming judgmental? Where is that line? It seems to not be point A to B. It seems to be more jagged.

Vicki: It’s very jagged. And again, I think this is where the Holy Spirit comes in and gives us one of those nudges. I know for me, you know, even though I’m more prone to lapsing more into grace and mercy, than like rules and the law, there came a time early on when I was a young mother and had been a believer for five to eight years, where I began to feel more secure with the formula, as you referred to it.

Jim: Well, it gives you structure.

Vicki: It does and see, for me, I wasn’t raised in a Christian home. I’m still young enough that I’m flashing back to the things that I did, right? And it created a lot of collateral damage in my life and so, as that mother, I’m desperate for my kids to be spared from those decisions and those choices. And so, I latch on to this formula, even though, you know, we should know better. And so, God showed me along the way that, you know, you know what He does? They grow up and they become teenagers, right? (Laughter)

Jim: Well, I’ve heard God said …

Vicki: It’s a nice way [He] showed me along the way. They turned 13 is what happened.

Jim: I love the saying that God is the father of teenagers. All of us act like teenagers, but the point of that is, it does come out of a good heart, a heart to protect and to do the right thing. But at the same time, again those kids have choices and they’re gonna make choices. And you gotta be careful not to recriminate yourself or your spouse for not being the father or the mother that they should be. There’s always room for improvement, but—

Vicki: Right.

Jim: –I think we’re—

Vicki: Right.

Jim: –we’re very hard on ourselves as Christian parents when our kids make bad choices. And what do you do? I mean, you had that situation. What are the healthy next steps when your child comes to you at 15 or 16 or in your case, when you were 17 and you were pregnant. How did that work in your family when you were the teenager?

Vicki: Well, I didn’t tell anyone about it. You know, I hid that and I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, so for me, you know, at the time, well, I didn’t run around saying I’m pro-choice, I’m pro-choice. But when the rubber hit the road and I found out I was pregnant, I wish I could tell you that there was some sort of, you know, time period where I thought about what is my decision?

And so, of course, I’m very, of course, pro-life now, but in looking back at it then, you know, this is in the 80’s and I think there really wasn’t a lot of just heartfelt conversations going on in homes, whether they were Christian homes or non-Christian homes. There wasn’t a lot of sitting down, you know, parents with kids and saying, “Hey, you know, no matter what you’re going through, this is the safe place where you can bring your problems.”

One thing that I did do, because I wanted my children to feel like our home was a safe place and it is such a, oh, as you said, an awkward, you know, balance, because then you almost don’t want to give ’em permission to go mess up, right?

Jim: Uh-hm.

Vicki: So, if you tell them this is a safe place, there’s nothing that you can’t come tell us, then your fear in the back of your mind is, “Oh, great. Did I just like you know, give them permission to go out and go to the party this weekend and drink alcohol or whatever that is, have sex outside of marriage?”

But we told our kids that and I went a step further with my kids and said, “I hope and pray you can save sex until you are married. But if you mess up in that area and you find out you’re expecting a child, I want you to remember my story, because I have tremendous regret over that decision that I made and this is a human life.”

And so, my son [and fiancée] they never gave it a second thought when they found out that they were expecting. And I’m grateful for that, because I hear from women who tell me, you know, I was raised in [a] Christian home and my dad was, you know, a deacon or an elder or maybe on staff. I found out I was pregnant. They wouldn’t understand and I had an abortion.

Jim: Well, and that kinda goes back to your pretend comment and there are several thoughts running through my mind right now, so let me try to give them to you one at a time and have you respond to them. So often in our Christian parenting, we’re reinforcing a performance orientation. In other words, you gotta be careful. Don’t mess up, because in essence, what we’re saying, we don’t mean to do it, but we’re saying, God’s grace isn’t sufficient.

Vicki: Right.

Jim: That’s what we’re really saying to them, that it’s about living a perfect life and if you mess up, oh, man, you’re in trouble. And as opposed to teaching them that life is full of trouble, that we’re sinners by nature and that what has happened for us is, that Jesus has died for our sins. It says right there in Scripture, that all things are permissible, but not all things are worthwhile, right?

Vicki: Right.

Jim: And so, God is sufficient. He has covered those sins, but we need to teach our children, this is part two I guess, that we need to teach them the wisdom to choose wisely–

Vicki: Right.

Jim: –and know that it doesn’t come from fear. It comes out of love, the love that God has for us. And in response to that love, we want to choose wisely to show our love toward our heavenly Father. It’s hard to do that when we’re on the performance track, where you act—

Vicki: It is.

Jim: –this way and if you don’t act this way, the holy hammer’s comin’ down on you.

John: Hm.

Vicki: Right.

Jim: How do we do a better job of equipping our kids, our teenagers to understand this? Because if we’re honest, not a lot of us understand it.

Vicki: Right, for me and for my family, that “come to Jesus” moment that you know, we were leaning more toward rules and regulations, even in our home and I’m ashamed to say, at some level our parenting had more of a theme of behavior modification, rather than, hey, let’s get down to the heart of the matter.

So, our “come to Jesus” moment was that third child of ours that I just mentioned was like my mini-me, the one that has to learn some lessons the hard way. And he tells the story, he’s real active in Young Life leadership in his college years now.

And he had to fill out an application in his freshman year of college sharing his story. And so, you know, here’s a kid who has been in the church, raised going to church all his life. He was active in FCA and all kinds of stuff and he was one that, you talk about playing the pretender game. This kiddo could, he was there on Sunday, leading in you know, his youth department. And then he was out there with the world the rest of the week.

And so, I was doing a lot of writing then and I would bust him by reading his messages on his phone. I unapologetically was one of those moms. But all that to say, you know, he was a difficult teenager.

And his moment was right before he went off to start his college years and I knew that something wasn’t right, that he was straying once again. And he shared this in his application, telling his story. And when he let me read it, he sent it to me and I’ll never forget, ’cause I was sitting in a parking lot, about to go into a Starbucks. I thought, I’m gonna read this. And I just wept in my car, because it was one of those inside glimpses that parents get as your kids get older.

Jim: He was honest.

Vicki: Right and what he said was, you know, my parents, they gave me this foundation, you know, I mean, long story short, I’m summarizing, of course. And he said, “I made a lot of bad choices.” And he said, “There was a moment where a couple months ago, my mom came into my room and said, ‘You know, the Holy Spirit just dropped it into my heart that you are not on the right path. I can’t put my finger on it. You’re too old now’”–he’s 18 at that point, about to head out the door—” ‘for me to go through your phone.’”

“‘But at this point I feel like, you know, Hayden, what I want to tell you is that, your father and I have done everything we can to offer you this foundation of faith. And now it is up to you to decide whether you want to pursue the abundant life in Christ or not. But as you well know, you know, when you make poor choices, there’s fallout. And some choices bring a great deal of pain and heartache and fallout. But when we walk closely with Christ, then you know, we experience the yield, the Spirit-filled life, you know, the bounty that comes from a life lived, you know, walking closely with Him.’”

And so, I put the ball in his court and I said, you know, “You don’t need to confess anything to me. That’s not my place. You confess it to God, right?” And so, instead of like doing a kinda, you need to get your act together; I think you’re going out with the wrong people; you’re hanging out with the wrong kiddos; you know, you’re gone on the weekends. I’m not really sure if you’re drinking, you know, again or what it is that you’re doing. Instead of lapsing into any of that, I pulled it more back to, you know, and then I asked him a really hard question. I said, “Hayden, do you feel at peace with the Lord—

Jim: Hm.

Vicki: –with where you are right now in your life? And if that answer is no, then I would encourage you with a godly sorrow that leads to repentance, that you go before the Lord and you ask Him to help you start anew.”

Jim: Let me ask you this now that your kids are all in their late 20s now, I’m assuming. You’ve talked very transparently, which is helpful for all of us. I’m assuming you have their permission to do this (Chuckling).

Vicki: I do; I do.

Jim: And then the follow-up question to that is, you had that discussion at 18 with your rebellious child.

Vicki: Right.

Jim: Would you have had that in hindsight? Would you have wanted to do that at 13 or 14—

Vicki: Yes.

Jim: –to put some of that responsibility or—

Vicki: Uh-hm.

Jim: –more of that responsibility on him?

Vicki: Absolutely.

Jim: Why do we hesitate in that regard? We try to continue to mother and father? I mean, I’m right there with 14- and 12-year-olds. And my inclination is to give them more of that responsibility now, to have that chat with them now, to say, hey, we’re doin’ the best we can do, but you own this. You’re big enough to own this now. You’re mature enough to own this. Is it wise to do it as early as you can?

Vicki: Yes, I believe, if I could go back and we did actually have a couple times prior to that, right around when he was probably 15, 16 and we were beginning to discover he was leading a double life, if you will.

Jim: Yeah.

Vicki: We did. You know, we would sit him down and say, you know, Hayden, rather than us dole out the punishment, which was always my tendency, you know and I always “overgrounded.” I don’t know, every family has a parent that “overgrounds.”(Laughter) And then you’re like, oh.

John: I mean, like you’re grounded for six months—

Vicki: Right.

John: –that kind of thing?

Vicki: Yes, now I’m stuck taking you to school. (Laughter)

Jim: Jean always that to me, I overstate what I’m gonna do.

Vicki: Right.

Jim: You know, you are—

Vicki: Same here.

Jim: –never eating for another year. (Laughter)

Vicki: And you’re never—

Jim: It doesn’t work well.

Vicki: –leaving the house and then you’re stuck with ’em—

John: Yeah.

Vicki: –all the time.

Jim: Yeah. Jean’ll always gently say to me, could you make the consequence a little more reasonable?

Vicki: Right. (Laughter) Right. That was actually my husband who would nudge me and go, don’t do the “overgrounding” thing, you know?

Jim: Yeah.

Vicki: But yeah, I would lean more toward that, you know, here’s the punishment and you need to get your act together and clean it up and all of that. And then right around 15, 16, I realized with this child, that was not effective.

Jim: Let me ask you this though, when you talk about your own experience again, where you made some poor choices as a 17-year-old girl. At what age should you have that vulnerability with your child? You know, there’s age-appropriate vulnerability. So, you would speak differently with your 9-year-old daughter about that than you would your 15-year-old daughter.

Vicki: Absolutely.

Jim: Talk about the wisdom of how to talk about your own experiences as a woman when you were a teenager, with your teenage daughter.

Vicki: Yeah, for me, you know, in certain painful parts of my past, I just prayed and asked God to show me clearly when the right time would be to share with my children some of the mistakes that I made. But I caution moms when I talk about this on the road and when I’ve written about it, as well.

We never, ever dump things on our children from a place of, you know, we’re not even walking in victory, to where we’re looking to our child in a sense to come along and support us or console us. And so, we make sure we’re walking in victory from whatever that is and we speak with a confidence over God’s grace and mercy that was extended to us.

And so, for me, like take the abortion for example, I did share with each of my three children at three different ages. I can’t remember exactly what ages they were, but they were all probably 14 or older.

Jim: So, it was appropriate for them–

Vicki: Right, right.

Jim: –in their maturity level.

Vicki: And it had come up naturally in conversation. So, yeah, it’s just being very attentive to the Holy Spirit’s direction in that and when the time’s right.

Jim: Vicki Courtney, we have talked about many good things today, that life isn’t perfect, God meets us in our messiness, which is the title of your book, Move On, When Mercy Meets Your Mess. We’ve talked about how to make your home a safe place, a place of reality, not pretend.

Vicki: Right.

Jim: And I think that’s one of the core things, John. It’s hard to do, because we want our children to see a good life, a good life in Christ. And you know, sometimes like the Lord demonstrated, He walks with messiness, with the woman at the well, with the woman caught in adultery, with the tax collector, with the Pharisees. Those were all messy situations. He chose to walk with us in our messiness.

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: I am intrigued about pursuing the parenting role a bit more. Let’s come back next time, if you can stick with us and talk about the hope that we have in living a good Christian life. Can we do that?

Vicki: Absolutely, would love that.


John: And I do hope you’ll join us next time as we share more about that authentic, honest Christian faith with our guest Vicki Courtney. Now be sure to get a copy of her book, Move On: When Mercy Meets Your Mess, in which as you can tell through this conversation, she really beautifully weaves her personal journey and testimony with some sometimes challenging thoughts about faith. Each chapter closes with thought-provoking questions, so you can journal about those or even ask those in a small group context.

And today, when you make a donation to Focus on the Family of any amount, a gift of 20 or 30 or $50, we’ll send a copy of Move On, as our way of saying thank you. Look for that book or a CD or a download of this program at or call for details. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and made possible by generous listeners like you. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening in. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow for more trusted advice from Vicki Courtney about authenticity, as you walk with God and we once again, offer encouragement to help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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