Hello Church Family,
I’ve been praying for you a lot this week, for God to guard the hearts of our congregation, protect us from the evil one, and enable us to rest in his sanctifying grace.
A friend emailed me this week, asking the question, “what does it mean for a father to provoke his children?” And since we have so many young families, I thought I’d post my response here.
In Ephesians 6, the Apostle Paul instructs fathers (and mothers, by extension): “do not provoke your children to anger but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” For the longest time, I thought this was an injunction against teasing, mocking, or making fun of our kids’ idiosyncrasies or interests. But the Greek word translated “provoke” has a different nuance.
Certainly, the term forbids excessively harsh discipline. As New Testament scholar, Peter O’Brien, points out: “Effectively, the apostle is ruling out…unreasonably harsh demands, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation”; but there’s more to it than that. The word rendered “provoke” in our English translations is a term used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew) to describe God’s righteous anger incited by Israel’s idolatry. Israel provoked God.
How so? God’s anger was stirred largely because the Israelites’ actions were inconsistent with their faith declarations. In other words, they had pledged their trust to God over and over–“we’ll go where you tell us to go; we’ll do what you tell us to do”—but their persistent rebellion exposed their unfaithful hearts. And that inconsistency angered God.
So how does that relate to fathers provoking their children to wrath? Well, a provoked child, at least according to the language that Paul chooses to use in Ephesians 6, is a child that has every right to be angry because his father, or his parents, make faith claims but actually live in a way that is inconsistent with those claims. In other words: Parents provoke their children when their professed values are incongruent with their actual lifestyle. Let me give you a few examples:
:: When a father insists that his children submit to his authority but he, himself, submits to no one, that provokes his children to anger. When this dad speaks, he expects his children to listen to and come under his authority, but he comes under no one’s authority, instead bad-mouthing his boss, blasting our country’s leaders, and criticizing his pastors and elders. What does he get? A frustrated child who will not respect his father but will wait for the opportunity to be free from his control.
:: When a mother demands that one child apologize to the other; but she never apologizes to anyone. Never seeks forgiveness from his children. Children see the inconsistency there, and that can drive a wedge between parent and child.
:: When a father calls himself a Christian, and even goes to church, but there’s no evidence of gospel-fruit in his life. His interests clearly lie in other things.
:: When a father demands that his children respect him, but he shows no respect to his own children, punishing them by shaming them into obedience, always comparing them to others, mocking their struggles and embarrassing them in front of their friends.
What Paul is talking about is inconsistency. Saying we believe something but acting in a way that’s completely incompatible with our words.
The Heart of Training
Instead of provoking our children, Paul instructs believers to “bring children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” That phrase “of the Lord” is critical. It’s the Greek word, kurios, which refers to the Lord Jesus. What Paul was saying, in essence, is: train your children and instruct your children “in Jesus Christ.”
As Elyse Fitzpatick points out in her book Give Them Grace, neither Jews nor Greeks would have known what to do with this phraseology. Jews might have expected: “train your children in the Law.” Greeks might have expected: “instruct your children in the ways of philosophy.” But “in the Lord Jesus”? What does that mean?
Here’s what it means: bringing our children up in discipline and instruction of the Lord Jesus means connecting our parenting in every way to the gospel.
See, discipline is not a negative thing. Discipline is positive. It’s like the strings on a young tree. It’s like braces on overlapping teeth. It’s like bumper pads on a child’s lane at a bowling alley. Discipline can be positive. And the center that we are helping our kids to stay rooted in is the gospel: who God is (His holiness, His power, His love, His grace, His presence); who we are (sinful at birth, wicked, broken people in desperate need of a Savior); what Christ has done (left heaven to come to earth, lived a sinless life, satisfied God’s law, died in our place, rose again); and what we have now become, by God’s grace (we are God’s children, we belong to Him, we are forgiven, we are free from the bondage of sin, from the reign of sin, loved unconditionally by God in Christ (Rom. 8).
It’s this freedom that we now enjoy in Christ, this forgiveness that we have received, this love that God has shown us that enables us and moves our hearts to love God more and more, and honor Him with our lives.
Here are a few brief examples of this type of training:
:: When your kids fail and are broken by their own inadequacies, tell them: “it’s ok; God loves you and he forgives.”
:: When they succeed, make sure to inform them: “it’s only because of God’s grace that you can do anything good, therefore there’s no room for boasting.”
:: When your kids suffer, help them to see that what they’re going through is part of God’s sovereign design for their good.
:: When they notice something cool or amazing (in a movie, book, portrait or song) help them to see God’s beauty in everything good.
:: Teach them about grace in order to foster gratitude. Whether it’s more “organic” or systematic, the key is taking responsibility for the spiritual development of our children.
And don’t worry, you won’t do this perfectly, but it’s not all riding on you. Even as I write this, I am convicted of the many ways that I have failed to live up to my own advice. But here’s the good news (that’s not just for our kids): God is gracious. And because God is gracious, He often spares us of the full consequence of our parental hypocrisy. Because God is gracious, he gives us good things we don’t deserve. That’s what our hope is in: God’s kindness and mercy, not our consistency. And even when we are faithless, He is faithful, for he cannot deny himself. We—and our kids—can trust in that!