A sibling squabble starts it all. My near-teenager, feeling cornered, uses sharp words and an unbending posture to respond and to make her voice known. I gently correct her, but it sends her into a downward spiral of shame—right back to a dark part of her heart that questions her worth and her value in God's eyes.
She feels trapped. And it isn't the first time. Former orphans often wear what the rest of us are good at hiding. She's still too young to have learned how to shove down shame, and my husband, Nate, and I don't want her to. Shame should be out and exposed before God, ready to be tended by His gentle hands.
"Mommy," she asks me later, "am I the only one who wonders if God likes me?"
"Nope," I tell her. She's tapping into the deepest cry of the human heart—the heart that can preach a sermon on God's unconditional love one moment and flog itself in private over a mistake the next. Indeed, this might be one of the greatest barriers to our communion with God: the belief that the One who created us doesn't like us all that much. And no matter our age or stage of faith, there are always newly vulnerable parts of ourselves that need reassurance of God's wild love.
How can we help children understand that they really are loved—and even liked—by their heavenly Father?
Who we are
In our home, our four adopted children are shedding orphan skin, a process that isn't much different for the rest of us believers in Jesus, shedding our old selves to become who we truly are. These four hurting hearts crave a carefree welcome into a father's lap, yet are terrified of such boundless love. It seems easier to dutifully serve, being vigilant about avoiding mistakes, to prove their value and worthiness for love.
I think many parents recognize this same struggle. We accept the language of being a child of God, but we still wrestle with not knowing how to rest in His arms. It seems easier and more familiar to pursue security through performance. In a way, we're all orphans trying to earn our keep, serving well and shaming ourselves back to good behavior when we don't.
So on that night when my girl is once more cowering in shame, I let her stay up later than her siblings. Her inroad is art, so we pull out drawing paper and colored pens, and I open my Bible to a verse that steadies me when I feel most raw and ashamed: "He rescued me, because he delighted in me" (Psalm 18:19).
She writes it out, hand-lettering the words, and I wonder how possible it is for an 11-year-old girl with her history to understand God's delight. I start to list out loud all the things I love about her, things I'm sure God loves about her, too.
"Did you know God loves when you dance in the kitchen, thinking no one is looking?"
"He loves the painting of the mountains you made for Daddy. He loves when you sing in the shower."
She's still sketching and listening, a small smile forming. I move on to "like," more akin to "delight," yet perhaps harder for the achievement- seeking heart to understand.
"He likes when you play basketball in your rain boots. He likes how neat you keep your drawers. He made you to love order."
I don't read Psalm 18:19 and immediately believe that God delights in me. Does anyone? But when we reflect on these words and repeat these truths back to Him, something inside moves us closer toward belief.
So much of our distance from God could be spanned if we'd let His Word inform us about who we are in Him. When we see our Creator more clearly, we see ourselves more clearly.
A need to be seen
"This shirt makes my neck look funny," one daughter says to her sister, who herself is carefully placing every wisp of her hair into a topknot. The third sister is turning for the fourth time in front of the mirror, examining her outfit. And all this just before church.
When my children were younger, I anticipated that enough love from us, along with our ongoing dialogue about God's great love for them, would shape their understanding of their identity. I hadn't imagined the extent to which the teenage years would include doubts about what we'd communicated to them so carefully and intentionally.
We all have a craving to be seen. We like to be noticed, to hear our names called out, to be celebrated for wins and held close after losses. We all want to feel that sigh of satisfaction that says, Yes, I matter.
I tell my kids that this craving comes from God. From the moment we were created, we were seen by our Creator (Psalm 139). He sees every step we take (Proverbs 5:21). God made us such that our lives would be observed with the intimacy of a shepherding father and a faithful friend.
But in this longing for significance, we become misguided in where we look for it. When we crave the eyes of people—their opinions and accolades—we break our gaze with the only eyes that can ever truly see us. Hiding behind a cute outfit, a posed selfie or a paper that's earned an A can feel safer than being seen by our Creator in all our faults and flaws. Especially when we don't believe God likes what He sees in us.
I try to help my children understand this: We all hunger for significance—to be seen and understood and loved—because we are made to be known and loved by God. Our thirst to be seen has a source, and He is the only One who quenches that thirst. So when we're discouraged because the poses and productions and performances are unable to satisfy our craving to be seen, God invites us to ask Him for His perspective—to draw close to Him, to slow down and consider His ways and His words.
To understand that a Father with kind eyes sees us, even in secret, makes daughters and sons out of all of us who struggle to know what it means to call God "Daddy." It turns prayer into intimate whispers between us and the One who made us.
My children are starting to see this. They're beginning to break free from the lie that so many of us believe: Performance earns our keep.
We're all still fumbling our way toward believing—through failures and victories—that God delights in us. And as He gives glimpses of His loving eyes upon us, even when we fail (especially when we fail), we step into our true identity.Sara Hagerty is a speaker and writer. Her most recent book is Unseen: The gift of being hidden in a world that loves to be noticed.