Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fathers, Do Not Provoke Your Children to Anger ...

"Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)

A lot has been written about Paul's exhortation to raise our children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (KJV).  (For an excellent book on this, read Shepherding a Child's Heart by Tedd Tripp.)  But I hear very little about what it means to not provoke our children to anger.  And since they're set in contrast to one another--that is, godly discipline and instruction must somehow be the opposite of parenting that exasperates children--we cannot do the one if we don't understand the other.  While I'm hardly an expert and have only officially been a dad for fifteen days, here are a few thoughts that have come to my mind as I've chewed on what this means.

1. We need to keep our own anger in check.  I've heard some say that children are like dogs: they can smell fear.  When others around them become boisterous, enraged, or anxious, they follow suit.  As a high school teacher, I've learned the hard way that when teachers and authority figures raise their voices in anger, teens respond by getting equally pushy and loud.  They're trying to save face amid a power struggle.  But the best way to avoid putting children on the defense and keeping them calm so that they might actually listen to what we're trying to say (the whole "instruction of the Lord" part) is to stay calm ourselves.

The other night as Ephraim's screams rose for six straight hours, I felt such an overwhelming tension and anger within me.  Honestly, it scares me to think that I understand how some parents can shake or strike their baby children.  I felt a bit of that inside me.  But as Olivia and I grew more and more beside ourselves in desperation, Ephraim just grew more distraught.  I had no ability to soothe him with gentle strokes and prayers, because all I felt was, "Kid, just shut the f*** up!"

2. Know where anger comes from.  James teaches that anger comes from our unmet desires and the inability to control our own lives (James 4:1-3).  We get angry when our children (or whatever else) don't act on our own terms.  Anger is a form of pride that refuses to allow God to control our lives according to his desires, in his ways, and on his timetable.  James's antidote is to understand that "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."  We should therefore submit ourselves to God, casting all our anxieties on him, trusting he will care for us and shape our life in his wisdom (4:6-7; cf. 1 Peter 5:5-7).

We must remember that God didn't give us children to be created in our image (you'll know exactly what I mean if you've ever watched TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras"), but to become disciples of Jesus created in his image (Gen. 18:19; Mal. 2:15; Rom. 8:29).  This is why we raise children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  Our parental authority is merely a delegated authority.  We do not set our own standards for our children; God does.  We are merely the instruments in God's hands for shaping and rearing our children to know their God, who is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, ... forgiving iniquity and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7).

3. Know your own need for grace.  I somehow miraculously expect my two-week-old son to know how to soothe himself when he cries and to cry only when there is a readily apparent reason for it.  I'm little different than the debtor who was forgiven his debt of $500 million and yet wrings the neck of another man for owing him $15,000 (see Matthew 18:21-35).  Few of us can honestly say we want to be measured by the same yardstick we wield against others' lives.  Yet how much scolding and nagging, which provokes our children by defeating their spirits and guilt-tripping them, comes from a misguided desire for perfection?  Dealing gently with others comes from the humility of knowing we ourselves are broken and sinful, often failing in life and certainly incapable of achieving God's perfect standard.  As we apply the gospel to our own lives--that is, we are loved, forgiven, and accepted by God our Father not because of our own goodness and obedience, but because Jesus was perfectly good and obedient for us--its beauty will shine through in how we treat our children.  And doing so, I hope and trust that my God will make its light shine in little Ephraim's heart someday soon too.

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