See Notes from "A Word to Fathers, Part 1"
The horror of seeing a society ruined by irreligious parents and their undisciplined children might tempt an earnest Christian father to adopt “spare the rod and spoil the child” as his parenting Bible. A child’s need for corporal discipline, however, is by no means God’s full word to fathers. Parenting solely by this precept is sure to harm your child, for he is not a trainee in your boot camp. Neither is he a robot that can be programmed with your favorite parenting code and then be expected to run efficiently and trouble-free. Pain will not save him. A child is a living person, made in God’s image, with a soul and divinely ordained, unique destiny to fulfill. He is both a sinner and an heir of God’s covenant, so he needs consistent nurture and instruction. If he is to learn that God is his Father in Jesus Christ and thus be persuaded to trust his Father and rejoice in his love, he must know your love and mercy.
This is the reason that the Bible is balanced in its parenting directives. Popular formulas and paradigms, even ostensibly Christian ones, are incapable of accounting for the full wealth of God’s wisdom. His word is too broad to be reduced to a few slogans or favorite methods of dealing with a child’s misbehavior. The Lord directs parents to ask for his wisdom and to submit to his ongoing discipline and teaching in their own lives. God must parent parents before their parenting can honor him and be effectual in the lives of their children. This necessarily means that parents will be made to feel uncomfortable, for we walk by faith. Every parenting situation will not have a tidy solution. A godly parent will often be on his face before the Lord, with his heart crying after God’s strength and promises. Then, he will learn that the goal of parenting is not control or to raise children in whom we can take a measure of pride or who agree with him in every detail and preference. The goal is that this child, this living soul, may learn to walk with God in the place in which God calls him to walk, that he may build his life upon the only foundation, Jesus Christ, and devote himself to seeking God’s eternal kingdom.
Why Fathers in Particular?
Mothers may rule the roost, as the saying goes, but the Spirit here speaks directly and uniquely to fathers. It is not that mothers are excluded or passed over as irrelevant, but it is a fact of nature, experience, and revelation that they tend toward greater tenderness, concern, and diligence when it comes to parenting. “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb” (Isa. 49:15)? A father, however, may well forget. With your battle for bread constantly occupying your thoughts, you may treat your children as subjects to be ruled or as another item in a long to-do list. If you bring the “dog eat dog” mentality of the marketplace home with you, where will be that tenderness and patience that are so essential for the Christian father – like our heavenly Father. For you, father, represent God’s authority to your child. A child receives his first and life-defining views of God from the way you relate to him. As the head of your home, ultimate responsibility rests with you for the rearing of your children and teaching them to relate to God as their heavenly Father.
Your wife, of course, is the keeper of the home (Tit. 2:5), and you should gladly delegate much of its daily operations to her, deferring to her judgment and wisdom. Listen to her insights about each child’s character and make her concerns in some measure your own. A mother’s influence is far-reaching, often heart-melting, and in some children’s lives, the means God uses to gain them for his kingdom forever. Still, a child’s view of God is shaped by his father. If you speak of heavenly truths with a cold or unloving heart, or primarily as an intellectual commitment, or what is worse as a spiritual cudgel to threaten and express displeasure toward your children, then they will never learn of God’s love except as a theoretical fact, not as the living reality that makes life worth living. If you abandon your child emotionally or never show meaningful affection, do not expect him to be wooed to his father’s God. God created children to thrive under your winsome, loving, and patient instruction. Because you are weak and never completely escape the sinful environments in which you live, your upbringing, and the sins of your heart, you tend to vacillate between excessive rigor and outright neglect. When the boat of life rocks along with apparent smoothness, you are neglectful; when a crisis arises, you swoop in with terrifying firmness that discourages and crushes. Fear of punishment, however, must never be the main weapon in your arsenal. Thus, these words are addressed to you, Christian father, so that you may take with utmost seriousness the mantle of authority God has laid upon your shoulders and may by the strength of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 3:16) learn to exercise that authority with the gentleness and patience that marks God’s fathering of us. This is beyond fathers, but it is not beyond Jesus Christ in us.
Fathering That Is Sure to Provoke to Wrath
This word to fathers begins with a warning. By their words, attitudes, and discipline, fathers must not provoke their children to wrath. The way you, Christian father, treat your children can either gain their affection and trust or stoke the fires of rebellion. They may become frustrated under the Lord’s pressure exerted through you, but make it your goal never to be the cause of their anger. Whenever they think about you, even if they wander for a time from the Lord, let the memory of your patience and love haunt them back to Christ. A child’s anger is manifested in a variety of ways. It might be a sullen withdrawal, fearfulness, or excessive timidity. If a child never smiles or cannot speak cheerfully and respectfully with you, you may be suffocating or frustrating Christ’s little ones. Sometimes a child’s anger shows itself in outright rebellion against parental commands and eventual departure from home under a storm cloud of bitterness. A father is called to consider the likely fruit of his parenting. Does the way you normally speak with your children, your attitudes and tones, the form and intensity of your discipline, encourage their repentance and listening or their anger and frustration? Will your fathering soften or stiffen their hearts? At all times, you must place yourself so firmly under God’s authority that you never view your children as your own. They belong to God, and you must treat them as belonging to him.
Fathering that provokes to anger will usually be immoderate, excessive, such as fierce words and harsh discipline for the smallest infractions. Or it may be that lesser sins receive the same discipline as greater ones. Nothing is more important for a father than to be governed by the Holy Spirit, who is the Author of that wise moderation that encourages children rather than crushes them. Never humiliate or belittle your children for their failures, for this will discourage them (Col. 3:21). Would you have Jesus Christ humiliate you? Remember his patient and encouraging way of dealing with Peter’s pride! In your corporal discipline, remember that it is not “punishment,” as if by receiving a certain number of blows your child atones for what he has done or you are a judge meting out a penalty. Christ alone provides the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and many a parent has set his child on the path of despair of mercy or feverish self-atoning efforts by the mishandling of discipline. Nor should your discipline humiliate the child, as by forcing him to be spanked on a bare bottom. Once children begin reaching puberty, it is wise to allow fathers to handle the corporal discipline of sons and mothers daughters.
Father must also seek from the Lord the grace of consistency, for children need clear, biblical boundaries of acceptable words, attitudes, and actions. If your standard is always fluctuating, it will discourage them from trying to obey and honor you, or if they do, it may finally lead them to say, “There is no pleasing my father.” A child that says this is likely to give up trying to please his heavenly Father. If a standard must change, let the change be marked by careful instruction, parental repentance and confession to the family for any sins associated with past errors, and patience in working toward greater Christ-likeness in the home. This means that you must be honest, communicative, and affectionate. An unreasonable father will frustrate his children, particularly as they grow and develop clearer thoughts of their own. Since the home is not an army camp or a classroom, the environment should rather be one of openness in discussing the things of the Lord, the way that each family member might better follow him, and with close affection that knits hearts to one another and to the Lord. It is not the parents against the children, parents trying to impose their wills upon their children, but each endeavoring to bring his will more fully into agreement with the mind of Christ. Christian fathers must therefore know God’s word, be humbled before him, and learn to talk meaningfully and intelligently to his children about the things of the Lord. If you, Christian father, will humbly enroll yourself in the school of Christ, avail yourself of the preaching of the word each time it is graciously offered, and daily seek to be taught and led by the Lord by his word, our blessed Savior will dwell in you and enable you to communicate affectionately and patiently with your children in a way that will not exasperate them but enable them to see your love for the Savior and humility before him.
To take a practical example, let us say you were foolish and sinful in past relationships. You may have put this past you through faith, repentance, and God’s strength, but now your teenage son or daughter is struggling with these same temptations. He may know something of your past. He may even urge your dating practices as justification for his own. “It turned out fine for you, dad, look at mom. I know that I shall not likely marry this girl I am currently infatuated with, but who is talking about getting married? I simply want to experience a little of life and have female companionship.” Your response here is critical. If you think, “Well, I sowed a few wild oats, so what can I expect from my son?” you have abdicated your God-given authority and missed a golden opportunity of discipleship in the life of your son. It would be better to say, “Son, I sinned against the Lord in my former days. It might seem like I am hypocritical for forbidding you to do things that I did, but the Lord has chastened me for my sins. I want something better for you. Let us turn to the Scriptures together and bring ourselves together under the authority. We must not please ourselves but the Lord.” This may require ten, twenty, or one hundred discussions, and your son may still push back. But if you are honest and broken about your past sins, show meekness before the Lord and a true desire to please him, communicate deep affection and concern for your child’s wellbeing, as Solomon exemplifies throughout Proverbs, and pray fervently for the Lord to remember his covenant mercies to those who humbly seek him, whatever the outcome, your son is receiving God’s word in a way that will not provoke him to anger but by God’s grace soften his heart to a teachable state. If he rebels, you have done what you could before the Lord, and you must leave the final results in his wise hands. You cannot yield to your son’s entreaties, but you must carefully show him that your unwillingness to yield is because of your allegiance to Jesus Christ.
To this end, in all your words, attitudes, and discipline – and who is sufficient for these things apart from the power of Jesus in his life? – fathering that is selfish and domineering will eventually frustrate your children. You might say, “This is the way it is; like it or lump it.” This, however, manifests an abuse of authority. It communicates to your children that you are more concerned about defending your authority and demanding respect than following the Lord Jesus with a humble heart. A selfish father, one who is consumed with his own interests and hobbies, even his work and especially his secret sins, to the neglect of his children, will eventually bear bitter fruit in the lives of his children. As a Christian, you have sworn allegiance to Jesus Christ, and therefore to pour yourself out for your children as your Savior did for you. This means that your fathering must never be mechanistic. A child is not a machine, which given the right inputs, will come out in a cookie-cutter fashion. Each child is different, with different gifts, personalities, and a divinely ordained destiny to fulfill. As Jesus deeply engages with each of his sheep, so you must with each of your children, getting to know what makes each of them “tick.” What “works” with one child should never become the model for dealing with the other children.
Fathering that Nurtures
Aimed at Maturity in Christ
Rather than discouraging and causing the smallest members of Christ’s flock to stumble, you must bring up your children unto maturity. “Nurture” is the broad word paideia, which refers to the whole scope of a child’s training – bodily strength, spiritual understanding, and mental ability. Jesus Christ will have his children brought up to know him. Because he is the way, truth, and life sent from heaven to reveal the Father to us, all effectual nurturing draws its life from him. You possess no inherent ability to nurture your children for Christ. You stand in his need of the Savior’s nurturing. Thus, his life-giving words must constantly fill your heart and then your mouth, for this is the sword of Christ’s mouth that confronts the sins of the heart and raises the dead to life. Effectual nurture is also grounded in the love of Christ. “The truth as it in Jesus” is not a cold and lifeless thing. It is our Savior’s own voice, his redeeming love to sinners, and his wisdom to guide us out of the world of sin to the true and lasting riches in God’s eternal kingdom. Love and wisdom in Jesus, his love in saving us and his wisdom in teaching us through his word and Spirit, are thus the Father’s two main nurturing tools. You must know the Savior and walk with him, for the secret to Christian influence in your children’s lives is to be constantly in the fellowship of the Savior! Christian, Christ-loving and knowing fathers raise Christian children. You will bear fruit in communion with him.
An Intelligent and Earnest Faith
Paideia, the nurture of the Lord, requires an intelligent faith. You should encourage thinking in your children, self-conscious, Christ-centered thinking. You must be somewhat familiar with the current attacks against him so that you can show your children the foolishness of the world. Invite them to ask questions about the Scriptures and establish such open lines of loving, intelligent communication, that when your children are confronted with a challenge to God’s truth or a difficulty in their lives, their first thought is to draw near to you for help. This depends in no small measure upon your earnestness in knowing and serving our Lord. A father who gives the clear impression that Bible reading and family worship are chores, or that going to church to hear God’s word is hardly worth the effort, is sure to raise children who are indifferent to Christ. Children must see their fathers zealous for Jesus – not arrogant, belittling to others, or know-it-alls, but filled with humble, joyful enthusiasm for Jesus Christ. Fathers, the Lord of glory is able to work this in you. This does not depend upon your personality type but upon knowing the Savior who shapes our persons and reshapes us in his image.
An Attractive and Everyday Faith
Intelligence coupled with enthusiasm is always attractive. No one likes a dull boy, and a dull father is worse! You might think that children have the Bible, so this should be enough, but they have another Bible – your life. If you say one thing and do another, this will give them an excuse, albeit unjustified, for their indifference to Christ. Treat them with dignity and speak to them as souls with an immortal destiny. Set before your own mind that the most important moment awaiting them is not college or marriage but when they stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Would you see them have boldness and confidence before him? You must present him attractively. Try to remove as many obstacles between them and Christ as you are able – dominating home life by your personal preferences, storming through the house angry, nit-picking them about everything, treating them as interruptions to your schedule. They are important members of Christ’s church and kingdom. They are watching you every moment, or they will unless you drive them away by your unattractiveness. Then, how will you make knowing and serving Christ an everyday, always relevant faith? Speak of him in the morning and evening, his faithfulness and goodness, and throughout the day in every moment of need (Deut. 6:7-8). Fathers, your whole life must be “for me, to live is Christ.”
A Christ-Centered and Personal Faith
We are not Christians on Sunday morning or when it is convenient, but we live by faith in the Son of God. He lives in us. You are the most important picture of Jesus your children will ever see, until they see him. When your faith in him is personal and dominating, then you will want to fulfill that command God gives to fathers: “We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psalm 78:4-7). Are you hiding Christ under the bushel basket of an unattractive faith? Walk with him, fathers, and declare God’s mighty works and eternal word to your children. Then, your light will shine, and your children will be powerfully and effectively confronted with the truth as it is in Jesus.
Fathering that Admonishes
Depends upon Saturation with God’s Wisdom
Nurture requires admonition, which is instruction that has as its goal confrontation and correction of sinful thought and life patterns. It is not limited to what we might think of as formal teaching times or immediate correction of sinful behavior, though these are certainly necessary. Moses commands fathers to speak God’s truth to their children at all times and seasons (Deut. 6:6-8). This is impossible unless fathers know the Bible, pore and pray over Scripture. Then, your mind will be renewed (Rom. 12:1-2) so that you can bring God’s wisdom to bear upon every subject, need, and duty. To do this, you must be saturated with God’s heavenly wisdom. His thoughts must be precious to you, the polestar of your life. Admonition requires clear understanding and communication of God’s truth. Hazy notions of sin and duty, or worse, confusing your parental preferences with “thus saith the Lord,” will prevent your admonition from striking home to the heart of your child. Not your words but God’s are able to confront and pull down sinful imaginations and thoughts. If you are led by God’s Spirit speaking through the word, your confrontation of sin will be controlled, not threatening or bitter. It is true that faith in Christ is pressing and that children are commanded to repent, believe, and know Christ. Yet, you must admonish in love (Eph. 4:15), for God’s word is not a club with which to beat upon your children but the path of life and the words of the Master that are able to melt the most stubborn heart.
Aimed at Loving Restoration to Christ
Remember also that admonition is aimed at loving restoration to Christ. In one sense, fathers urge their children as Christ’s ambassadors to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). What a privilege it is for you to be a coworker with God in your home! But if your admonition consists of screaming, belittling, or guilt manipulation – “How do you think this will make us look? What will others think of us? Do you have any idea how much I do for you? – then they cannot be expected to hear the voice of Jesus calling them to faith and repentance. The Lord disciplines us because he loves us, and his love must be evident when you confront and correct a child. If you are typically mad or frustrated with them when they do wrong, this does not communicate his love. Many a parent has seriously harmed his child by ruling with an iron hand, forgetting that only the Lord has this kind of authority, and yet he is meek and gentle with us!
Thus, there should be an element of joy in all correction. The Lord might have allowed you to slide away, you say to your child, but instead he calls you to live and be happy in your Father’s house. Disobedience makes you sad; obedience will make you happy. Thus, you need correction not because I am angry with you or want to control you but because I want you to know the joy of walking with the Lord Jesus. If you do not give your child, even in admonition, a joyful example of turning to Christ, it is no wonder that his heart is filled with doubt of God’s love. Then, temptations and Satan’s insinuations find an opening. “We are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:11). Can you say, Christian father, “He has made me glad?” Do you “rejoice in the Lord always?” Morose and moody fathers poison a child’s soul. Why would a child be inclined to turn to a Lord who apparently makes his servants sad? Forsake the sins that make you sad. Repent of them by the grace of Christ and see him as “fairer than the children of men.” Walking with Christ does not make us fearful, angry, bitter, or controlling. When you see these things in yourself – or when your wife confronts you about them – turn to the Lord. Ask him for grace to bear patiently the frustrations of life, your job, or your children, and to help you to fight against them by yielding to his providences and looking unto him so that you will come to know that “in his presence is fullness of joy.” His “Be of good cheer” in your heart gives vitality and attractiveness to your admonishment. Ask him to make your heart glad again, to recover in your heart that “first love” that will make you a powerful influence for his love and truth in the life of your children.
Requires Loving Discipline
Because Jesus is Lord, admonishing young children especially requires a wise use of what the Holy Spirit calls “the rod of correction.” Doing so requires that you have and enforce a clear definition of sin. It is true that children must obey any parental command that does not require their sin. At the same time, a wise and understanding parent will work to make what are more parental preferences than direct commands of God, matters such as cleanliness, order in the home, and particular guidelines for dress and relationships, clearly tied to Scripture and patiently inculcated in their children. Clarity is the foundation of good discipline in the home. Without it, there will be little consistency of expectations and great frustration when it comes to enforcement. What is a sin today must not be winked at tomorrow. If a child requires discipline due to disobedience or disrespect, you must not humiliate your child by the form your corporal discipline takes. State the offense or disobedience. Give opportunity for the child to speak. It may be that you have misunderstood his actions. Sincere declarations of repentance prior to discipline may require you to lessen the discipline or omit it altogether as unnecessary. You are not a sheriff following a book of set penalties. Nor should you make the threat of discipline a constant weapon in your parenting arsenal, for you will not be able or willing to follow through most of the time, which will only make you ridiculous in the eyes of your children and confuse them. Most commonly our Savior used love, victory over Satan, various blessings, and the glory of God as his main incentives for our obedience. It will not do to make “If you disobey me, I will spank you” the regular motivation for obedience. It may teach them to fear punishment when they are young, but it will not draw them to love Christ and call upon him for mercy and grace to help. As hard as it is to imagine this occurring, pray that they will learn to welcome discipline – not the pain or nervousness associated with getting a spanking – but the loving time with you. Are you learning this as an adult (Heb. 12:5)?
When it is necessary to use the rod of correction, it must never be in anger. If you have blown up at your child, it is not the time to spank him. Wait until you are calm and understand the situation more clearly. The Lord rarely disciplines us immediately after an offense but waits until we are in a more teachable frame. Many a child’s heart has been melted to repentance by a father’s calm and loving discipline, whose heart would only become harder had his father struck him in anger. Do not prolong episodes of corporal discipline. Discipline is a warning shot across the bow of the soul, but it is not an atonement for sin or “punishment,” formally speaking. It is to teach the child to associate sin with pain and to get his attention. Give your child a just number of blows, though not so many that his spirit is crushed or that the purpose of discipline is lost due to his frustration at it. Scripture’s silence respecting the number of swats to be given should make you feel total dependence upon the Lord to guide your heart with his wisdom. A spanking is not a beat down. Do not think that you should discipline your child until he cries or expresses repentance. A child is an image-bearer, and not a horse. He cannot be beaten into submission. You may beat him into compliance, but then he will learn to hide his sins and nurse bitterness in his heart. All bodily discipline should be accompanied by the most earnest affection, declarations of love and willingness to forgive and help. Remember, however, the offense is not as much against you as against God, who alone judges the secrets of the heart. Pray with your child before and after discipline. Invite him to the foot of the cross and throne of grace, where he may be sure of finding mercy and strength. Make it your goal to melt your child’s heart by your patience, tenderness, and love.
You cannot reach your child’s heart, but the Lord can use you for him to reach it. If you are to know this joy, Jesus must be closer to you than your shadow, and you must know your children so that you can personally bring Christ to bear upon their young lives. Do you know where your son or daughter specifically needs to hear of Christ? Needs encouragement to seek the Lord to overcome a sinful attitude? Needs our Savior’s direction in making an important decision? The Lord Jesus confronts us in all that we do. He calls us to know and trust him in all seasons. Faith in him is personal, comprehensive, all-invading, everywhere relevant. Make it your goal to know Christ and to make him known to your children. Your only true parenting reward is for your children to be with you in that heavenly throne praising God and adoring the Lamb. Nothing will break your heart more than the thought that your children perished in hell because of your negligence, over-indulgence, or refusal to confront their sins and give them personal admonishment that led them to trust the Savior of sinners. God forbid that this should ever be true of you.