Some years ago, when we had our first child, the trend of putting babies in a kind of “truth telling” onesie had begun. We got several as well meaning gifts. You know the ones. They blaze phrases like, Loud and Proud or Troublemaker in Training across an infant’s tiny chest. Interestingly, I was given many more of these for our son than I was for our daughter. But in either case, I could not bear to put my newborn into a onesie that read, IN CHARGE. And not because I felt like I was in charge. In the first few weeks of having a baby at home I am fairly certain no one is in charge.

In years since, when I am shopping for friends having their first baby, I’ve had the impulse to design a line of onesies that say actual true things about being an infant. Things like, “Remember, you love me” or “I think Mama smells good.”

My initial rejection of these catchphrase baby clothes happened before I understood the concept of imputation. Imputation is theology talk for the idea that Jesus gives his righteousness to us, even when we do not deserve it, and that this is what makes us righteous. It is not something we possess on our own.

I didn’t realize it then, but I think my unease with this line of baby wear had something to do with imputation. I did not need another reason for a new baby to exasperate me. I didn’t need help giving the baby a “personality,” however humorous. I needed to speak love over the wailing infant in my care.

Because that is the thing about imputation. Jesus could give a hoot if we are proud troublemakers who long to be in charge. Once you grasp hold of the idea that it is the love of Jesus that makes and has made you lovable, you will not want to let go of it. You will see it everywhere, even in your own life—and against your own stubborn will.

I was struck this past week by the parental imputation we heard at the Rev. Billy Graham’s funeral. His daughter, Ruth, found herself with two failed marriages in a family whose righteousness is a national expectation. Her Daddy met her in the driveway and welcomed her home:

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Personally speaking, some of the most powerful writing I’ve read on Mockingbird are the pieces about parental imputation to teenagers and adult children. And I would argue that Ruth knew after enormous failure and sin that she could go home because Billy Graham had been offering her forgiveness, love, and a listening ear her entire life. Prodigal Daughter, anyone?

And yet, despite the Graham family’s witness, imputation parenting is unlikely to be the next Tiger Mom movement. For starters, we fear simply loving our children. Especially when they behave in less than lovable ways. We have to make sure they know that rules are rules and punishment is just a part of the deal. This is why books on quid-pro-quo parenting sell millions of copies every single year.

Also, Imputation Parenting is not a book anyone would want to buy because imputation parenting is not really about parenting at all. It’s about Jesus. It is about knowing you were loved despite all of your failures. And suddenly, the dichotomy of turning and punishing another human being feels pointless.  

A few weeks ago our oldest came home after having had a tough couple days at school. And to be honest, home had not exactly been paradise. It had been a big week at our church. We were all tired. Typically, what would follow would be some form of me telling our boy where the cow ate the cabbage: “Things are going to be different around here, yes-sireeeeee! You are going to get it together, son!” 

(Southern mothers turn into Yosemite Sam/Dr. Phil when it comes to lecturing their kids.)

But I just didn’t have it in me. The rant, the tears, the disconnect. So, I looked at my husband on Friday afternoon and said, “How are we going to handle this?”

He said, “We are going to love the hell out of him this weekend.”

This is imputation. It’s not magic. It’s risky love. It is allowing your kids to walk around like a bunch of everyday jackwagons and resigning yourself to love them no matter what. And the crucial piece here is not another parenting “technique,” or a number of affirmations, or a behavior chart. The important part of imputation parenting is knowing full well that God lets you walk around like an everyday jackwagon and loves you anyway.  

Imputation is screwing up everything in your life you can think of and still hearing the Comfortable Words. It is recklessly sinning and believing that the entirety of hell is about to descend on you and instead, the person you have hurt most in the world asks if they can give you a hug. Imputation is a guilty seven-year-old boy, sure that he will lose his Pokémon cards for a whole week. And then his Dad comes in the room and asks if he wants to take the dog for a walk. While they’re on the walk, Dad leans in and whispers, “We love you a lot. You take such good care of the dog.”

Perhaps this all sounds crazy. But real insanity is God loving a people who cannot control their sin. We should have had the book thrown at us. We should have been abandoned to the grave. And yet, here we are, the unlovable offered a place at the heavenly banquet.

Our mother who puts our infant bodies in a onesie that says Loved No Matter What. Our father who finds us weeping in our room and tells us that the dog needs a walk, and we are so good at walking the dog. Our Parent who meets us in the driveway of our failures and entirely misses the opportunity for reiterating what we have done wrong. After all, we already know what we did wrong. We just needed to hear that we are still loved.