Parenting with Grace

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. 22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:17-25)

We have so far read and talked about husbands’ and wives’ relationships in the home and children’s attitudes and duties toward their parents – all of this from Colossians 3. Today we move toward another very important relationship in the home, and that is parents’ relationship toward their children. Specifically in the ESV we read it this way: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

Parenting makes for interesting discussion. From a child’s perspective, parenting appears to be a very simple task. From their perspective, what is so hard about being a parent? Right? I mean, you just get to tell the kids what to do! That sounds easy enough. In fact, from the perspective of kids, it might seem best for parents to not really do anything, just let the kids do their own thing, go their own way. And unfortunately, even some parents buy into that philosophy. 

So on the one hand, there can be parents who are very lax in their parenting, they simply let the kids go, let them make all their own decisions, go their own way. Now some of you kids, I know you are thinking, “Wow, I wish that was my parents’ philosophy!” On the other hand there are parents that go to the other extreme, parents who micromanage every detail of their kids’ lives. I mean from the time they get up until time for bed, every detail is managed for the children, every decision, every move. In most homes, however, neither of these extremes are adopted, but some compromise between the two. 

Paul seems to be focusing here on one particular aspect of parenting. He is not giving exhaustive parenting instruction here, but he’s giving an important nugget of truth that all parents can and should embrace. It is general instruction, it is an important aspect of parenting that we should all consider carefully and adopt into our parenting styles. Again, what he says is simply this: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Let’s look at this together and see if we can understand it, and more importantly, live by it in our homes.

The first thing you will notice is the word “Fathers.” The Greek word for “fathers” used here is sometimes used to refer to both parents. An example would be from Hebrews 11:23 where we read, “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents.” So it can mean both mom and dad, parents, but we also understand that ultimately, it is the father’s responsibility in the home to manage the home and even the care of the children. Culturally, in the first century this was very significant. It was said at that time that homes were under the “power of the father.” Fathers had ultimate authority over the children, and this being so, they would have been in the most obvious position to at least potentially parent in a provocative way. We don’t want to get to hung up on the culture of the first century though, as even now, fathers may, and many do, lean toward a tendency to parent without sufficient grace.

Paul warns that fathers, or parents in general, are not to provoke their children, or some translations read they are not to embitter their children. This is close to what Paul said to husbands in verse 19: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” Do not be harsh with wives, do not provoke children.

When a person is given a command to be a leader over another, there comes with it a temptation to be harsh or to provoke. Leadership can easily morph into a harshness that is more focused on ruling than it is on loving. This can be true in our homes, in our churches, in business, and in government. Leaders, Christian leaders must be extremely careful how they rule. 

Now concerning parenting, what exactly does provoking mean, what is it that fathers should avoid? The word means to “cause someone to react in a way that suggests an acceptance of a challenge.” Now that doesn’t sound so bad. An example is in 2 Corinthians 9:2 where Paul is talking about the enthusiasm of the Corinthian church to give money to help others. He says there that they were “stirred into action.” They were in a positive way “provoked” to get involved and share in a good thing, that is, giving to others who were in need. This is a provoking to good works.

Most times, though, this word is seen in a negative way in the Bible. Parents are commanded to not parent in a way so that they provoke a child to rebelliousness. In Deuteronomy 21:20 we see a sad instance of extreme rebellion in a child. Under the Old Testament law parents in that case were to bring their child before the elders where extreme measures would be implemented against that child. Paul is saying here, in effect, that parents should do all they can, their utmost, to raise children in such a way that they do not provoke their children to such rebelliousness. 

We live in a complicated world, in a day where children are sometimes influenced by people in many ways which in years past would not be possible. I suppose there was a day in some societies where children were certainly primarily and maybe even exclusively influenced by family. Those days are gone. With media of all kinds constantly on around us, influence seeps in or maybe floods in from all directions.

Parenting is much more than speaking truth into kids’ lives, it is also filtering what comes in and countering what comes in. Many kids today grow up in homes of non-Christians, and sadly even in Christian homes where there are no filters in place to protect the child. No filters with some, while others are frantically trying to filter everything. For believing parents it can be a frightening time to raise children.

But parents, take heart, God has put us here in this day, in this time, with the children that He has graciously entrusted to us to live out His Word, and this includes in our parenting. But we are not to parent out of fear. I think that parenting out of fear can be one way that we provoke our children, as Paul is talking about here.

I can think back on times in my parenting where I was driven to discipline my children or parent them in a way that I would not normally do, just because I was embarrassed in front of other people. Years ago, when our kids were much younger, one was at the age of sitting in a high chair to eat. We were visiting with a family over dinner at their house. The man brought in a high chair for one of our kids to sit in for dinner. I looked at it, and it was an odd looking chair. The way it was built, it looked unstable, really it looked like it would tip over with the weight of a child in it. My son must have been really perceptive at such a young age because he too was looking at it and had already decided he wasn’t getting in it. I started to put him in it and he started grabbing for me with a fearful look on his face. Now, none of our kids were ever shy about eating or dinner time. He wasn’t being rebellious, he was scared. But the man of the house, you could see he was looking at this situation, and had in his mind already decided that what my son needed was a good spanking, and reached over and even handed me a rod to spank him with. The pressure was on for a young dad who didn’t want to appear weak in front of these new friends. Fortunately, in this case, I didn’t capitulate to what he wanted me to do, though I was tempted to. My son and I had a talk in another room instead, and it was one of helping my son to trust my judgment concerning that odd looking chair rather than spanking him out of embarrassment. 

I remember hearing a parent once telling their child, again, out of embarrassment, “If you are going to act in an overtly sinful way, then at least don’t do it around our church friends. Go somewhere else to live in your sin, just not around my friends.” The point was, “Don’t embarrass me. Do what you want to do, but don’t do it around here.” The message to that child was this: “I’m not so concerned about your sinful behavior as I am how it reflects on me.” That is a terrible message to send a child, and it may provoke them to further sin.

Now, let’s look at this last phrase from verse 21. It says, again, do not provoke, or embitter, exasperate, aggravate your children lest they become discouraged. The meaning here is plain. Paul does not want to see children in Christian homes disciplined in such a way or to such an extent that they lose heart. He does not want them to be treated with such harshness that they simply give up trying to please their parents.

Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt like you simply could not please the other person? Maybe in marriage or in a work relationship or in any relationship really. You tried really hard, but no matter what you did, what you got back from the other person was criticism or some kind of negative response that minimized your sincere effort? That can be really hard. We can do this, be this way as parents toward our children. We can be so unreasonable with our demands that children lose heart and come to think that it is useless to try and please parents. We may so elevate petty offenses so as to discourage our kids to a place of giving up on obedience.

Now, I know that each person is responsible before God for their behavior, and ultimately children, even, are accountable to God. However, as parents, are we doing our part to help them not to become discouraged, not to provoke them toward discouragement? Are we leading them with grace? Do we recognize their efforts even if they seem slight? Are we encouraging them in their walk through life in this difficult world, or are we setting expectations even above what we are able to bear?

Paul does not delve into much practical application here, nor does he give examples of what he means by provoking to discouragement. We are left to analyze our situations, our children, our parenting, and consider how to apply this passage in our lives. Each of our lives are unique, and so there is no way we can cover all possible ways that we may be tempted to provoke our children to a place of discouragement. But I do want to give you some possibilities to consider. I do want to mention some ways in which we may be guilty of this, not to discourage you or to depress you, but so that we may each carefully and honestly consider ways that we may need to change. 

I didn’t come up with these possibilities on my own, most are from John MacArthur in his commentary on Ephesians 3:21, but I think they may be helpful for us. Again, these are ways that we as parents may provoke our children to become discouraged…

Overprotection – No trust, all rules. You never ever allow them any liberty. You draw the lines so narrow and the boxes are so closed that they soon feel that you do not believe in them, you do not trust in them. No matter what they do to earn that trust, they never experience that trust. Consequently, they give up and say, “What’s the difference anyways?” Then you’ve got that seething rebellion. You can really irritate your children by overprotecting them. Give them a sense of trust. You don’t have to cover every single detail of every single thing they’ve ever done. Certainly at times there may be reason to know every detail, but for the most part, maybe not.

Favoritism – The second way you can really irritate your children is by favoritism. Make sure you don’t compare them with the other kids in the family who do better than they do. “Why can’t you be like you brother? He always does his homework.” It’s very irritating for a child to be less than an individual. It’s very irritating for the child to be a lemon on the assembly line. Favoritism means you constantly compare the child with the other child.

Depreciating his worth – A third way you can irritate your child is by depreciating his worth. One good way to really depreciate his worth is whenever you have company, never letting the child participate. That’ll really let him know that he just really isn’t worth having around for anything important. Or else, when he comes in and has something to say, you say, “Hush up and go to your room.” Don’t depreciate their worth. Don’t tell them to shut up and go to bed. There are boundaries, yes, but appropriately include them in family life and in the social life of the family.

Discouragement – A fourth way you can irritate your child is by discouragement. Don’t ever reward him for anything. Make sure that he never feels like he’s succeeded. Kids can easily get discouraged. It is like no matter what she does, it is never enough. No matter what her grades were, it was never enough. No matter how well she did, it was never enough. Sometimes parents who feel that way about a child are trying to get a child to be something the parents never were. That’s not fair. It’s sad. Discouragement – no rewards, no honors.

No affection demonstrated – Another good way to irritate your child is never demonstrate any affection for him. Don’t ever go out of your way to love him or hug him or kiss him or pick him up, squeeze her, or be gentle or thoughtful in a physically affectionate way. It’s very, very discouraging. So if you want to discourage your child, don’t reward your child, don’t honor your child, and never demonstrate any love or affection. So the child just begins to feel totally alienated, totally unacceptable, can’t do anything right, isn’t worthy of your love, isn’t worthy of your affection. He gets very, very discouraged.

Not providing for his needs – Another thing – this is kind of practical – you can irritate your child by not providing for his needs. You know what a child’s needs are? A place to live, clothes to wear, a place where they are safe and loved and cared for, good meals. But beyond that even, do you know what their needs are individually? Let them know that that you are concerned about him and about her as a person.

Lack of standards – On the other hand, you can irritate a child by a lack of standards. You know, there are children and young people, and when I use the word child, I mean anybody who is still in the home, but you can really irritate your young people by not giving them any rules. Because then they are totally left on their own and they can’t handle that kind of liberty, and they are constantly getting into problems that they really can’t cope with.

Criticism – Another way to irritate your children is by criticism. A well-known doctor, Dr. Haim Geno, says this: “The child who lives with criticism does not learn responsibility. He learns only to condemn himself and find fault with others. He learns to doubt his own judgment, disparage his own ability, distrust everybody. Above all, he learns to live with continual expectation of impending doom.” Now that is no way to live. Don’t irritate your child with criticism. Create a positive environment, an uplifting, upbuilding one.

Neglect – Another way to irritate a child is by neglect. You know what a classic illustration of that is? Absalom. Absalom was a tragic young man, who tried to kill his own father, David. And Absalom is a classic illustration of a son who was neglected by a father. You can really irritate your child by indifference, neglect. Play with your children.

Over-discipline – And then, of course – and this is the last one I’ll mention – you can really irritate your child by over-discipline. This is where your discipline is hurtful. You know, when you haul off and really hurt them. Or it can be when you just scream at them all the time, or holler at them or yell at them, or shut them in their rooms. Some may even discipline their children in a show of their superior strength, if you can believe it. You talk about battered children. But the idea is that of over-disciplining children. You can do it by yelling and screaming at them for every single thing they do. You can over-discipline them by actually using your brute strength to show your superior power over your child. I’ve often thought that we say things to our children we’d never say to anybody else, don’t we? Don’t ever discipline them in anger.

I want to encourage you as parents to consider ways in which the Lord would have you to parent your children. He is here to help us, He is here to go with us, He is here to encourage and strengthen us to raise children not for ourselves, but for His glory. 

Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Colossians 3:21)