It’s a word, it’s an idea, that I have wanted to explore for some time. Within the New Testament there are two clear instructions to parents and this word features prominently in both of them. It is the word provoke. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” while Colossians 3:21 echoes “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Risking the wrath of expositors everywhere, I created a mash-up of the two that reads like this: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” I’d like to suggest a number of ways that we, as parents, may sinfully, unjustly provoke our children. But before we do that, let’s walk through these two passages together.
Fathers. The first word in both passages is Fathers. While it is fathers who are addressed here, most commentators acknowledge that it is fair to see these instructions as being written to both parents. Greek society was patriarchal so Paul addressed the mothers through the fathers. We are on good ground allowing the verse to speak equally to both parents.
Do not provoke … to anger. Both passages contain the same exhortation: Do not provoke, though Ephesians adds to anger. Provoke is the kind of word you might use when you kindle a fire into flame—you begin with something small and provoke it into a roaring fire. Or from another angle, it is the kind of word you might use when you are getting your children all excited, chasing them around and tickling them until you provoke them to being all wound up. Here, of course, Paul is using it in a negative sense of stirring, exasperating, or irritating them toward anger or bitterness. Parents must not provoke their children to anger.
I want to make an important application: Parents can cause their children to become angry and bitter. I’m sure you know this and I can assure you that they know this. But I think we can go even a step further to say there are times when our children are justified in their anger toward us. There are times when we so provoke our children, we so exasperate them, that anger is the fitting response. It may even be the right response if that anger is expressed in righteous ways. There may be times when your children’s anger toward you is more righteous than your actions or attitude toward them.
Next we read, lest they become discouraged. A discouraged child is one who has lost heart. He is so beaten down that he has lost hope, he has lost motivation, he doesn’t care anymore. One Bible translates it, “lest he get discouraged and quit trying.” The idea here is that you can so beat down your children that they stop trying to please you. Maybe your demands are arbitrary or unfair, maybe you never praise your children and take joy in them, maybe you live hypocritically before them with higher expectations for them than for yourself. Whatever the case, they eventually stop caring and stop trying. Douglas Moo says, “Paul does not want to see the children of Christian families disciplined to such an extent that they ‘lose heart’ and simply give up trying to please their parents.”
Putting it all together, God exhorts parents in this way: Parents, do not provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged. On the heels of that exhortation he offers a solution: “But bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Do not beat down, but raise up. Do not provoke with impatience and injustice, but instead shepherd with nurture and tenderness, and do this through discipline and instruction.
These two words are key: discipline and instruction. Between them they offer words of training and correction, words of admonition and rebuke, words that express both the positive and the negative sides of leadership. You need to correct your children, sometimes with a look, sometimes with a word, sometimes with a timeout, and sometimes with a spank. That is the negative side of parenting. But positively, you also need to teach them, explaining to them what is right, demonstrating how they are to live. This little pair of words covers both the positive and the negative sides of learning and growing, helping our children go from folly to wisdom, from childishness to maturity, from self-centeredness to loving others, and, we trust, from sin to salvation.
Parents, do not provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. With all of this in place, we are prepared to look at how parents may sinfully, unjustly provoke their children to anger and discouragement. We will turn to that tomorrow. (See 7 Ways Parents Provoke Our Children)
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