There are few roles in which we feel deeper inadequacy than our role as fathers. What suits us to the task of raising little people? What assurance can we have that we are doing it well? What will our children someday say of us? These are big and perplexing questions, so it is little wonder that church bulletin boards are covered with posters for parenting seminars and library shelves are groaning under the weight of parenting books. One study found that in the past 10 years alone, publishers have released more than 75 thousand books on the subject. Parenting is tough, and none of us is fully up to the challenge.
Considering the importance and difficulty of the task, we may find it surprising how little direct guidance the New Testament offers us. Its clearest instruction is found in Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The parallel passage in Colossians 3:21 adds just one minor detail: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” While we’re grateful for this divine guidance, we are probably left wishing there was more of it. Couldn’t God have answered a few more of our questions? What about spanking versus timeouts? What about homeschooling versus Christian or public schooling? What about the age to buy a child her first iPhone or the right way to oversee her selection of a spouse? Couldn’t we have just a little bit more detail?
Yet as we carefully and prayerfully consider what God has given us, we see his wisdom. He may not have given us all we want, but he has lovingly provided all we need to be successful fathers. Before the Bible tells us how to parent, it first makes sure we understand why we parent. Once we understand the ultimate goal of parenting, then we see how these two short passages provide a wealth of insight on how to raise our children in godliness. If you are going to be a wise father, you must consider this: To run to win, you need to nurture your children.
Why We Parent
What is the goal of our parenting? What is our key task? Is it to raise children who can function well in society? Is it to raise polite, well-educated, successful children? Is it to raise children who will accumulate great wealth or great accomplishments? According to the Bible, there is something of much greater importance. The key task of Christian parents is discipleship. As Chap Bettis says, “The foundational parenting text is not Ephesians 6:1-4 or Deuteronomy 6:4-9, as important as they are. Rather it is Matthew 28:18-20 (‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’). God’s desire for your family is to be a Trinity-displaying, God-glorifying, disciple-making unit.”
Ultimately, your task as a parent is to nurture your children not first toward educational, financial, or vocational success, but toward Jesus Christ. Your primary role is that of the discipler. A key part of heeding God’s commission to “make disciples of all nations” is to make disciples of your own children. What value is there in saving the whole world but neglecting your own children? The Great Commission begins in your own home with your own children.
Now, as we return to the instructions to parents in Ephesians and Colossians, we can put them in their proper context. These are words given to disciple-makers, to parents who are tasked with leading their children from darkness to light, from rebellion against God to joyful submission to him.
How to Parent: Don’t Provoke or Discourage
The wise father understands the power of his words and actions toward his children. With one harsh word, he can wound his daughter’s heart. With one biting critique, he can discourage his son. While both of Paul’s parallel passages contain the same exhortation (“Do not provoke”), Ephesians defines a specific kind of provocation: “Do not provoke your children to anger.” “Provoke” is a word used to describe kindling a fire into flame—you begin with a tiny, glowing ember and provoke it into a mighty, roaring fire. Paul lays out a challenge: Do not exasperate your children or irritate them in such a way that you provoke anger or bitterness, which will eventually lead to discouragement. The discouraged child is the one who has lost heart. He is hopeless and beaten down, he has lost motivation, he has stopped caring. Through arbitrary demands, through criticism never balanced with praise, through your own hypocritical living, and through so many other flaws of character, you can beat down a child to such an extent that he no longer cares to gain and maintain your approval.
Thus God exhorts you in this way: Father, do not provoke your children to anger, lest they become discouraged. As fathers, we tend to blame our children’s behavior on their own weaknesses and sinful tendencies. But in light of Paul’s command, you must first ask yourself: In my parenting, have I provoked my children to anger or left them discouraged? To provoke your children in this way represents a serious failure in parenting. But, of course, God does not leave you wondering how to avoid such a fate. He immediately follows with the solution: “But bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Do not beat them down, but raise them up. Do not provoke them with impatience and injustice, but instead shepherd them with nurture and tenderness. The way you do this is with discipline and instruction.
How to Parent: Discipline and Instruct
The task of Christian parenting can be summed up in the words “discipline” and “instruction.” Between them, they offer words that express both the negative and positive sides of the father’s calling. At times you need to discipline your children, to correct them—sometimes with a look, sometimes with a word, sometimes with a timeout, and sometimes with a spank. The goal of discipline is not to display your displeasure with your children, nor is it to keep them from embarrassing you in the the future. In light of the goal of parenting, discipline is meant to lovingly help your children see themselves as sinners before a holy God in need of a Savior. While I am sure you do not relish this part of your task, it is a necessary part of parenting, an inevitable aspect of being a father to sinful children. It is a negative but necessary part of parenting.
Once we have properly disciplined our children, then we may introduce the positive side of parenting: instruction. Tedd Tripp writes, “Properly administered discipline humbles the heart of a child, making him subject to parental instruction. An atmosphere is created in which instruction can be given.” To instruct your children, you must teach them, you must explain what is right, you must demonstrate how they are to live. And while it is good to teach them all kinds of knowledge and life skills, you must also teach them the deep spiritual truths that can save their souls. This is the positive side of parenting, the part you are meant to relish and enjoy.
In both discipline and instruction, you must remember that your primary task as a father is that of a discipler. Tripp writes, “What must you do in correction and discipline? You must require proper behavior. God’s law demands that. You cannot, however, be satisfied to leave the matter there. You must help your child ask the questions that will expose that attitude of the heart that has resulted in wrong behavior.” Through disciplining and instructing your children, you are helping them understand the sinful motivations of their heart and their failure to trust God. You are leading them away from a destructive path and toward knowing, trusting, and obeying the perfect, heavenly Father.
Do It Now!
Let me provide a few practical pointers on parenting.
- Confess your sin. Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 is to you as a father. This means that you must admit where you have provoked your children, where you have failed to discipline them in love, and where you have neglected godly instruction. Before you remove the speck of your children’s disobedience and rebellion, you must remove the plank of your failure to parent them according to God’s design. Confess to your wife, to your community, and even to your children where you have sinned as a father. Ask a trusted friend to help point out your blind spots in parenting. Give him an open invitation to speak to you if he ever sees anything concerning.
- Spend time with your children. Perhaps no habit will so shape your relationship with your children as spending time with them. Find ways to spend one-on-one time with each of them, perhaps through special trips or breakfast dates or shared interests. Search for the appropriate mix of quality time and quantity time. The best opportunities for modeling the way of Christ, for encouraging them, and for raising them into maturity comes in the informal, everyday margin of life.
- Enjoy your children. There is little doubt that parenting has plenty of moments of exasperation and discouragement. As much as we love our children, we can grow weary of them and grow weary of the task of raising them. But we need to learn to find joy in them, even when they are at their most difficult. Instead of provoking them to anger, find ways to encourage them and celebrate them. A host of older parents will tearfully tell you just how quickly the years went past, how they regret their exasperation, and how they wish they could return to the days when their children were young.
- Get parenting help. There are many good books on parenting, and there is value in reading at least a couple of them (such as Shepherding a Child’s Heart or The Disciple-Making Parent). But even better, find someone in your local church who has raised his children successfully, disciplining them in love and instructing them in godliness. Take that person out for coffee and say something like this: “I want my children to end up like your children. Tell me what you did.” Listen humbly, consider carefully, and imitate wisely.
- Parent with confidence. If the last 10 years have brought us 75 thousand new books on parenting, they must have brought us 75 million blog articles and listicles. The sheer volume of counselors can confuse and discourage us. The opportunity for comparison that comes through social media can convince us we are not the parents our children need us to be. But if you are raising your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, if you are raising your children under the watchful eye of friends and pastors who have the freedom to speak into your life, you can parent boldly. Be confident that God is at work in your children through your efforts, however meager they may seem.
Run to Win
Few callings are as joy-filled and as sacred as the calling of father. Yet few callings are as difficult and leave you feeling so inadequate. Perhaps this is all God’s plan to cause you to rely on him all the more. You can trust that through the Bible and through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, you have all you need to be the father God has called you to be. You can trust he is willing to forgive your faults, to redeem your failures, and to glorify himself through your children. If you are going to run to win, you must nurture your children.