Fathers and Exasperation

The final verse in our short passage from last time reads, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart” (Col 3:21).  The parallel passage in Ephesians 6 exhorts fathers, “Do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).

It is a sad observation that the role of fathers exasperating our children is an easy one to fall into.  I have been there myself.  It is also a sad fact of fatherhood that many of us dads park on the discipline and control part of parenting while we seem to overlook the “don’t exasperate your kids or provoke them to anger.”  How do we exasperate our children?

We exasperate our kids when…we punish for childish irresponsibility.  James Dobson, in his original The Strong-Willed Child, drew an important distinction between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance.  In short, we do not punish a child for leaving their baseball glove out in the rain or placing their glass of milk too close to the edge of the table.  These acts are simply part of being a child, part of the “not thinking ahead” of being a child.  We teach responsible action to children through various means, but punishment is not one of them.

Willful defiance is another story.  This is crossing the line when a child clearly knows it is wrong.  This is refusing to pick up their toys.  This is choosing to outright disobey when they know the rules or what is expected.  Willful defiance must be answered with discipline.  It breaks the will of a child without destroying the spirit.  It teaches children about self-control; about doing the right thing whether they feel like it or not.

We exasperate our kids when…we demand perfection.  When we require perfection, we send the message, whether intentional or not, that you must perform at some level of accomplishment to earn my love, my pat on the back, my acceptance.  Communicating an expectation of perfection is a relationship killer with your kids.  Do we want them to do their best?  Of course.  But just be aware of the wide gap that may exist between their best and our perfection expectations.

We exasperate our kids when…our first answer is always “No”.  This was a challenge for me in the early days of our child training.  And what I realized is that I usually said “No” because it was the easy answer.  No thinking or evaluating was required on my part.  It was the response of a lazy father.  I have also found that it is easy to say “No” when we don’t have a plan.  When you approach your parenting with a godly well thought out plan, it becomes easier to respond with thoughtfulness and grace rather than a natural knee-jerk reaction of “No”.

At our house, Rhonda and I put a new plan into action.  We tried to make our first answer “Yes” if at all possible.  If there was a glimmer of hope as to this working out, if there was a possibility of this moving forward, if there was some idea of this building up our relationship, we said “Yes”.  You will have to ask our kids how this turned out.

We exasperate our kids when…we fail to lead with love.  In pursuing the goal of being a loving father, I must convey two messages to my children.  First, “I love you.  I love you more than you can know.  You can never lose my love.  You can’t do anything to cause me to withhold my love.  I would choose you over all the other eight-year-olds in the world.  I love you.”  Second, “I am in charge.  I am in control.  I demonstrate my love by taking charge.  God has put me in charge.  I am in charge because I am the mature one.  I love you and I am in charge.”

In summary, we exasperate our kids when…we have no plan.  We fly off the handle with anger or unwarranted punishment because someone upsets us and we have no thought out plan that distinguishes between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance.  We have no plan for the evening or weekend, but we answer their suggestions with “No” out of convenience or laziness.  We have no plan to develop a relationship with our children, so we keep our words of encouragement to ourselves.  After all, we would not want our kids to get a big head.  Oh really?

I’m sorry, but I want my kids to have a giant head filled with compliments, encouragement, instruction, and great memories of the relationship we have built.  The world will do a fine job of tearing them down.  They need to know that we are in their corner.  They need us there spurring them on to love and good deeds; spurring them on in the “training and instruction of the Lord.”  And in the end we will find a close relationship built on love rather than an emotional separation built by our exasperating approach to being a father.

At Home with a Life of Love

Continuing our Colossians chapter 3 theme of a life of love, we come now to what love looks like in family relationships.  “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them.  Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord.  Fathers, do not exasperated your children, that they may not lose heart” (Col 3:18-21).

These instructions are not a random list of one-off ideas assigned to four groups of people.  They are designed to work together, to work in unison to provide balance in a healthy family.  For example, a focus on “wives be subject to…” without the balance of “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25) leads to a distorted view of headship.  It leads to using the Bible to support an ugly, domineering, version of male authority.  Male headship without unconditional love has no support in Scripture.

Wives practice a life of love when they show, in tangible ways, respect toward their husbands.  When they encourage their husband.  When they speak highly of their husband.  When they honor their husband.

Likewise, husbands practice a life of love when they love, lead, and protect just as Christ does with His bride, the church.  It is a love that is unlimited and unconditional.  Husbands, there is no competition between loving your wife and loving God.  We show in a very practical way that we love God by how we love our wives.  Loving God and loving our wives are not two separate circles that we are always having to figure out how to prioritize.  Loving our wives lies in the big circle of loving God.

Moving to children and parents, our goal in child-training is to motivate our children to obey us out of a love relationship and see our kids transfer that into obeying God out of a love relationship as they mature.  When our kids are young, we teach them to obey the rules because that is what is required.  We enforce the rules with threats of punishment for bad behavior and the promise of rewards for good conduct.

But as our children grow up, our interaction over the rules becomes more influenced by our love relationship with them.  When we see that developing a relationship with our child is just as important as rules of control,  we set the stage for a healthy transition to obedience out of love.  After all, this is the eventual goal for the adult believer.  Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15).

Our proper obedience to our Lord is based on a love relationship, not rules of control.  God did not say, “If you know all the rules, you will obey.  If the rules are clear, you will obey.  If you work harder, you will obey.  If the threat of punishment is strong enough, you will obey.”  No, He said, “If you love me, you will obey.”  And this obedience on our part, just like the child obedience described in our Colossians 3 passage, “is well-pleasing to the Lord.”

Well, we have run out of time with one verse to go.  Since fathers and exasperation is a connection that needs some explanation and understanding, we will try to give it the time and space it is due next post.

Are You a New Testament Family?

Our last post about the lessons learned in the story of the lost son rekindled a spark that has been brewing in my brain for quite some time.  One of the major disappointments I face in family ministry is the number of “Old Testament” families I encounter in the church; families that are not experiencing the beautiful unfairness of grace that we wrote about last time.  What do I mean by an “Old Testament” family?

It is a mindset that lifts up the principles of the Old Testament as the norm for living the Christian life today.  It likes the formula and predictability of the Old Testament rules.  “Don’t do A, or B will happen to you.  Don’t do C or you will be punished.  Don’t do D or you will lose your blessing.”  At its core, it is a fear-based way to live and a fear-based method of parenting.  And it has no place in the lives of New Testament families.

Our poor theology that elevates the Old Testament to a par with the New is one of the drivers of this unfortunate situation.  I have written many times that the Bible clearly teaches that the New Testament is far superior to the Old so I will leave it at that for now.  But trust me – or better yet, trust God’s Word – on this; the old covenant has literally been “brought to an end” [Gk. katargeo] (II Cor 3:11) and deemed “obsolete” [Gk. palaioo] (Heb 8:13).  I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrases the end of Hebrews chapter 8 in The Message, “By coming up with a new plan, a new covenant between God and His people, God put the old plan on the shelf.  And there it stays, gathering dust” (Heb 8:13).

But we can’t leave well enough alone.  We keep taking it back down from the shelf, blowing off the dust, and somehow mix it in with the new covenant in trying to live the Christian life.  But when we do this, we produce a form of legalism that is not only deadly in our churches, but deadly in our families as well.  No one would say, “Our family is following the Old Testament Law,” but we do that exact thing – with a hint of a New Testament twist – when we practice legalism.

And just like its Old Testament foundation, legalism is based on fear.  It is obeying the rules out of a fear that your sin will find you out or God will become angry with you.  It is a focus on externals driven by fear.  It is a focus on things I can measure.  “How am I dressed…How early did I get up to do my wisdom booklet…How hard am I working…”  We are fearful that we will not measure up.  Or worse yet, we look down on our Christian brother or sister because they are not measuring up.  It is an Old Testament style of law-keeping through and through, and it is life-draining.

By contrast, the New Testament is life-giving with its focus on qualities and attributes that God has already given us by virtue of becoming part of His family.  And it is based on love, not fear.  In I John chapter 4, we learn that God in His very essence is love personified.  And as His seed, love should be our essence as well.  And one of love’s attributes is that it casts out fear.  “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (I Jn 4:18).  Obedience informed by the new covenant is obedience based on identity – who we are in Christ – not based on fear of punishment.

We make a grave mistake in our parenting and our churches when we put the “wrath of God” and “children of God” in the same sentence.  Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, these two phrases are never to appear together.  “The wrath of God is reserved for the sons of disobedience [the lost]” (Col 3:6).  It is never in the picture with God’s children.  But somehow, whether direct or subtle, I see the wrath of God held over the heads of parishioners and children alike, and it is not biblical.

One reason I am so vexed by this topic is because not only is the Old Testament approach not appropriate for the New Testament family, but it is clearly not working.  We have a generation of young adults raised in this legalism and because of the misguided marriage of Old with the New, many are basically throwing the whole thing out the window; unaware of the freedom in Christ and resurrection power that is waiting for them in the provisions of the new covenant.

Let me encourage you, “BE A NEW TESTAMENT FAMILY.”  Tap into Christ’s life-giving, resurrection power.  Train your children to obey out of a sense of identity; a sense of who we are “in Christ”.  I say as humbly as I can, but also unapologetically, that this is who we tried to be as a family.  We tried to practice grace at every opportunity.  We tried to practice love, acceptance, and forgiveness as modeled by Christ.  We tried to live out the fruit of the Spirit that God has already planted in us by the new birth.  Were we always successful?  No.  But by God’s grace and by following His ways, we experienced a result that was joy, not fear; loyalty, not selfish ambition; harmony, not confusion in our family.  Who wouldn’t want to grow up in a family like that?  I know I certainly would.

The good news is that you can do this.  You can be a New Testament family.  You can be a family characterized by love, not fear.

Now before we go and lest you think I have just cut the Old Testament out of my Bible, be assured that it is still there in its rightful place.  And it does have a rightful place.  We will talk about where that is next time.