The single greatest lesson I’m learning in six years of parenting twin boys — and now eighteen months with a daughter — is that parenting is first about my sin and need for growth, not first and foremost about my children’s.
It can be so easy as an adult, as the physically mature one, to presume that my relationship with my children assumes that I have it mostly together, and that the whole parenting enterprise is about my skillfully disciplining the sin nature being expressed in my children.
I’ve found it’s all too easy as a parent to often forget that I too have a Father — and a sin nature — and that his fathering of me is ultimate, and my fathering is secondary. It can be easy to overlook the fact that my being a parent doesn’t mean I’ve graduated from his school, but that now I am in one of the most intensive courses.
Six wonderful years, with plenty of hard knocks along the way, have helped shed light for me on the apostle Paul’s twin, perceptive charges to fathers that once seemed so enigmatic.
Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
As a father, I not only need to protect my children from the world, the devil, and their own sin, but the first order of business is protecting them from my sin.
Children Are Vulnerable
In both texts, the apostle has just directly addressed children and directed them, in plain terms, to “obey your parents” (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20).
Such obedience is vital and contributes to the domestic environment in which a child, from infant to adolescent, can grow into the fullness of adulthood. Holistic human development doesn’t happen automatically. It takes intentional nurture and deliberate care from adults to bring children into healthy, stable adulthood.
“Parenting is first about my sin and need for growth, not first and foremost about my children’s.”
Obedience, then, is the essential orientation of children to their parents. Children do not yet know enough, and have their bearings in the world and in life, to stand on their own two feet. They need parents who are faithful guides and loving authorities — and children, for their own long-term and short-term good, need to learn to obey them.
However, it is important to recognize that the story doesn’t end here — and neither does the apostle’s instruction. Children must learn obedience, yes, but such also makes them vulnerable to the sins of their parents. This is why the second foot lands and gives the most important charge to the fathers, and with them the mothers, which is, in essence, don’t abuse the vulnerability of your children.
Father’s First Concern
It’s important to see that the children’s obedience is given here as the concern of the children. The apostle speaks directly to them. He doesn’t say, “Parents, make sure your children obey.” Rather, “Children, obey your parents.” The first concern of the parents isn’t their children’s obedience. That is, no doubt, to be their concern in due course as they seek to bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, which includes this command. But the parent’s first concern here is their own sinful behavior, not their children’s.
Similarly, it is the concern of the husband to love his wife (Ephesians 5:25, 28, 33), and the wife to respect her husband (Ephesians 5:33) — not first the husband to see he’s respected and the wife to see she’s loved. So Paul puts it first on the children to obey, and puts it first on the fathers not to provoke them.
It is striking — perhaps especially for the most disciplinarian among us — that the apostle doesn’t summarize the task of fatherhood as, “Make sure to establish and exercise authority over your children.” Rather, given the authority that fathers already have by ordinance of God, Paul cautions fathers to exercise it with care, and be mindful not to harm their children, but help them.
Don’t Sin Against Your Children
What, then, does it mean not to provoke our children?
The verbs are different, though similar, in the twin texts. Colossians 3:21 has a more general provoking in view, as in simply to stir up, by one’s action, an emotion in someone else — and in this context, it’s plainly negative. “Do not stir up your children, lest they become discouraged” is to stir them up in an unhelpful, even sinful, way by sinning against them. It is misuse and abuse, in greater or lesser degree, of a father’s God-given role in the lives of his children.
“A parent’s first concern is their own sinful behavior, not their children’s.”
Ephesians 6:4, then, more specifically mentions provoking to anger. It is a warning against sinful fathers unjustly provoking their vulnerable children to (at least what begins as) righteous anger.
Implications for fathers (and mothers with them), then, begin to become clear. We should not give our children any good reason to be angry. They may indeed get angry with us, as all sinners lash out against God’s own authority manifest in his appointees, but the charge to parents is not to give our children any just reason to be angry with us.
Lavish Them with Christian Virtue
In other words, we should not sin against them, but treat them with Christian virtue — with as much kindness and respect as we treat any fellow adult in our lives, whether at work or at church or in the neighborhood. Having them as our children, instructed by the Lord to obey us, is patently no excuse for sinning against them. If anything, it is all the more reason to pursue every means possible, with God’s help, to treat them with the utmost Christian kindness and respect.
We may even go so far as to say that our children, of all people, should be the ones we treat best, given their vulnerability and our vocation as parents, not the ones we treat worst. Which is a sobering calling. Sadly, the members of our own household are often the recipients of our poorest treatment. A wife is often the witness, and object, of her husband’s most unfiltered words and actions, and the children can be an even more troubling target. There’s more accountability and parity with a spouse who is a fellow adult, with more recourse for help, but children are in an especially defenseless situation.
So, Paul’s charge, general and specific, not to provoke our children, is in essence a penetrating warning not to abuse the remarkable stewardship God has given parents for the nurturing of their children. It is especially wicked to sin against our children — because they are our children and the very essence of our relationship with them is for their good and not their harm.
Among the sinful attitudes and actions of our lives that we should grieve most are those expressed against our children.
More Important Than Parenting
The wakeup call for parents — and for fathers in particular — is that we are sinners too, adult sinners, and our sins have even greater repercussions than the missteps of our children, and tragically our children are frequently the victims of the dragon still within us. It’s not as if we’re sinners only in our relationships with other adults, and above the law when parenting our children. We are sinners in every facet, and often most dangerously so in our parenting.
“Even more important than the work God is doing through us in parenting is the work he is doing in us.”
Parenting is not first and foremost about our children’s sins. It is first about ours. Yes, our children are in need of our gentleness and careful attention to help remove the childhood specks from their eyes. And we first, and continually, need to remove the adult logs from ours, so we can genuinely help our children, and not harm them. To put it positively, as Jim and Lynne Jackson write, “The parenting journey provides one of life’s greatest opportunities for spiritual growth” (How to Grow a Connected Family, 2).
Even more important than the work God is doing through us in parenting is the work he is doing in us while parenting. Even more, the work he is doing in us in this season of life is vital to our being a vessel of his work for our children.