When we prepared to bring home our daughter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I thought I’d be dealing with Nora’s adjustment into our family. Turns out, the harder part was dealing with my adjustments to her.

At first, I was surprised I lacked natural affection for my new 18 month-old and found myself getting frustrated with her over petty things. I read defiance and rebellion into what were obviously her normal toddler struggles, like her demanding appetite or how she wouldn’t pay attention when I was trying to interact with her. I never got angry with our biological daughter of the same age in that way. I was appalled at how my heart was feeling toward the daughter we had labored to bring home and looked forward to meeting for years.

And perhaps that was part of the problem. As adoptive parents, we spend so much time building up a vision of our lives with a new addition, and if we already have biological children, we expect many of the same joys we’ve experienced with our other children to happen again. When life with the child we’ve adopted is hard, for days and weeks and months, we have to adjust those expectations. Adoption, like marriage, is a beautiful gift with the unexpected bonus of exposing some of our darkest sins.

The struggle to love an adopted child is more typical than we think; in fact, I’d say many if not most adoptive parents have found themselves in this position (as confounding or impossible as it might seem). Even the most loving parents have hearts that resist constantly serving another—especially when that person cannot yet show the slightest gratitude for your efforts. That maternal instinct God gives mothers is an incredible force for good—and something I didn’t have with our adopted daughter like I have with my other kids.

My biological daughter, who was a strong-willed little lady, often acted out, but I never took it personally. I knew her well enough to recognize some of her triggers like, “Oh, she must be overtired right now.” But when Nora would shut down emotionally and withdraw from me, I had no ready explanation except the feeling that she must be rejecting me. It was hard not to take that personally. We didn’t yet have an understanding of each other to help explain her harsh or hurtful actions.

When Nora joined our family, I expected to have hard days… I just didn’t expect months of them back-to-back. My heart got ugly. I went from disappointed to barely surviving to bitter and defeated. I found myself thinking “Why can’t I overcome these awful feelings and just love my daughter like I’m supposed to? And whose fault is it? Am I just a terrible person or is this somehow her fault for being so difficult?” My sinful response to adoption was shocking, most of all to myself. I never expected to struggle with such anger and frustration.

We might imagine that our needy, adoptive child is a victim of her circumstances, and therefore especially worthy of our love. But like all of us, she is a sinner hurt by a broken world and able to harm others in return. We regard adoptive parents as good people worthy of praise. Yet, we too are scoundrels made up of a mix of righteous and prideful motives. It’s hard when these realities hit, but it’s the best place for Christ to continue his sanctifying work.

Just because I wasn’t aware of the depths of my sin potential until I struggled during those early years with my daughter doesn’t mean it wasn’t always lurking in my heart. Realizing my desperate need for Christ to save me again from even greater sins forced my faith to grow.

Parenthood and adoption should lead us to cherish our salvation far more than ever before. We see how undeserving our own soul was to be saved. We’re challenged to love our Father better and appreciate his sacrifice more now that we feel the pangs of rejection and rebellion from our own child. We know the miraculous power of Christ’s mercy and love now that we know the natural reaction is repulsion and frustration—not affection—for the sinner in front of us. And, Lord-willing, we get the incredible gift of seeing our heart change over time as God even grants us increasing measures of affection for our child.

After two and a half years with Nora home it’s still hard—but totally worth it. I wish my sin was easier to eradicate, but God continues to root it out of me. Loving Nora is easier, and deeper, than I thought it could get. I see huge strides in our relationship. Her smile is bigger and her giggles are louder as little by little she lets her guard down. She even has taken to snuggling and has become my most affectionate child.

When times are hard, we should be able to talk openly about our struggles with people who love Jesus. We need them to remind us of the gospel. In my case, I talked with my husband frankly about my struggles and got guidance from fellow adoptive moms. They gave me the hope I needed and helped me regain focus on my Savior, not my sin. I may have already known the gospel, but through those difficult seasons I needed it more than ever.

They reminded me that Christ knows how to love the unlovable. He came to die for the undesirable. He didn't rely on a feeling of affection; he fully trusted in the will of his Father. And the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work in my heart is going to keep making me more like Christ.

His goodness, not our worthiness, motivated his sacrifice. And in Christ's goodness, I am finding all the motivation I need to love my child well.

Brandy Lee is a work-from-home mama who enjoys family, culture, and ministry in Missoula, Montana. She enjoys blogging when life allows, but with three littles at home, she's content to share her thoughts on life in mainly tweet-sized contributions. You can follow her blog at brandyleeblog.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @brandyrlee.