Parenting can quickly become a reactionary calling. From our earliest days as mommy or daddy, we’re summoned by piercing cries for food and attention. Other callings in life are regularly interrupted and inconvenienced by our new role, with its responsibilities in which we’re still just learning to walk. The pattern continues as our children grow and mature, finding more refined ways to summon us to nourish and cherish them.
With the sheer quantity of time and energy it takes simply to react to our children’s needs, and to their growing manifestations of sin, it’s all too easy to focus only on discipline and punishment, and neglect the proactive and visionary calling of parenting.
The New Testament’s twin texts on parenting (Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21) begin with a check for our own sin, but both have more to say — and in doing so they give us a sightline into a positive vision for parenting that is fully Christian.
Nourish Them in Jesus
Ephesians 6:4 tells us positively to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Our task is to nourish our children with what God has revealed to us in the Scriptures about himself, humanity, our sin, our world, and his Son. We are to bring our children up toward adulthood in the very things we teach and expect, with God’s help, of Christian adults.
I say “nourish” because the word for “bring them up” in Ephesians 6:4 is the same word translated “nourish” just a few verses prior in Ephesians 5:29: “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” Such proactive nourishing, not just reacting, applies to husbanding and fathering alike in its distinct expressions.
Christian childrearing is not mainly about disciplining the devil out of our children, but joining with God by nourishing his creative and redemptive good at work in our children, and then graciously correcting the incursions of the world, the flesh, and the devil against their growth. And does it ever require self-sacrificial initiative and energy.
“Beneath every manifestation of sin and rebellion in our children is some God-created good to affirm.”
In a day in which parental discipline in many forms is under societal assault, it is still important for Christians to insist that the most important tool in parenting is not the belt, but the Bible. We reach first not for the rod of discipline, but for the revelation of the divine. And on the flip side, we find that it is not leniency that nourishes our children, but self-sacrificing love that takes the tireless initiative, and gives its best energies, to invest in our children’s long-term good.
We live in a difficult day for parents. Voices from society pressure us to pamper our kids at every turn, and it is easy for voices in the church to overreact and inadvertently put the emphasis on reactive discipline, rather than proactive instruction. But the twin texts of parenting remind us to not allow our society’s going soft on discipline to provoke in us an abdicating of our calling as “gentle, patient educators of [our] children, whose chief ‘weapon’ is Christian instruction focused on loyalty to Christ as Lord” (Ephesians, 447).
Encourage Them in Grace
The latter part of Colossians 3:21, then, gives us a glimpse into how to think about our children’s hearts. “Lest they become discouraged” guards against the negative, and points toward the positive pursuit of parenting: that they become encouraged. Rather than behaving toward our children in such a way that they lose heart, our task is to seek to grow and develop the heart God has given them.
Far from squashing our children’s interests or suffocating the spirit in them, we’re charged as parents to cultivate their hearts, and direct them in ways that are true, beautiful, and good. Surely, this will include the pruning of discipline, but our first pursuit is not to hunt for the evil in them and attack it, but look for the good and instruct them. It is far too easy to fall into a kind of merely reactive “discipline” that tries to kill off the weeds of sin by chopping aggressively at the heart of the plant. But true discipline carefully identifies the bulb and gently pulls away at the weeds of sin, so as not to harm the heart of a fledging plant before it ever has the opportunity to blossom.
Beneath every manifestation of sin and rebellion in our children is some God-created good to affirm. Which means that pointed moments of discipline are not only opportunities to correct our children, but to connect with them. Our hardest times as parents are not just occasions to identify and punish the depravity in our children, but opportunities to identify and encourage their dignity. To parent their hearts, not only their behavior.
Working for Our Children’s Joy
Provoking our children to anger and causing them to lose heart is the opposite of the call of Christian parenthood. To say it positively, our calling is to be the smile of God to our children, gladly spending and being spent (2 Corinthians 12:15) for our children’s deepest and most enduring joy. Our calling, in the language of 2 Corinthians 1:24, is to work with our children for their joy. And by joy, we mean joy at many different levels.
“Pointed moments of discipline are not only opportunities to correct our children, but to connect with them.”
At the heart of Christian parenting is helping our children learn which joys to pursue and when. A loving parental heart will swell at times to immediate and physical joys, like ice cream or new toys or some small indulgence. And often, in pursuit of greater and richer joys, we will model for our children the denial of such merely physical and immediate pleasures for the sake of deeper and more enduring joys.
Then, most significantly, beyond the short- and long-term physical, earthly joys of our children, we as parents will labor for their deepest and most enduring joy — the joy that cannot be had apart from God himself, the “surpassing value” of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord (Philippians 3:8). The joy that is the greatest goal of our encouraging and nourishing them in the discipline and instruction of Christ.
We are not mere correctors of behavior, but developers of the heart. We are not just reactive disciplinarians, but pro-active instructors. Our task is not to discourage them, but self-sacrificially invest our best energies and initiatives to encourage them.
We are not provocateurs to anger, but workers for our children’s joy.