Matthew, a teenage listener of the podcast, writes in to ask: “Dear Pastor John, when I hang out with my dad, I feel discouraged in my Christian walk because he gives me the feeling that God is a God who is full of rules of what I can’t do, whereas when I hang out with my friends, they encourage me by talking about the joys we have in Christ, and how awesome Christ is. I am only 15 years old, and I feel as if this is driving a wedge between me and my dad. How can I overcome this feeling? Am I in the wrong?” What would you say to Matthew Pastor John?
I don’t know enough about Matthew or his dad or his friends to pronounce whether he is in the wrong, but I do have things I want to say to Matthew. There are three of them, and here they are.
1. Honor your parents with empathy and understand.
First, Matthew, never lose sight of the biblical command to honor your mother and your father. Here is what the Bible says. You know this; it’s just a reminder.
“Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Ephesians 6:2–3)
One way to honor your father is to empathize with the long, hard challenge of raising children. It seems to me that your dad has put in 15 years into this job — if not more if you have got brothers and sisters. I have been a parent five times over for now 42 years. One of the things that makes it so hard is the unusual responsibility for children that parents feel that friends don’t feel. Parents long for their children to make wise decisions that don’t ruin their lives or ruin their Christ-exalting influence in the world.
So for all those years — 15 for you — your dad has had to balance dos and don’ts, which are absolutely necessary to raise kids, with the blessings of forgiveness and the wonders of grace. This is not easy, and I would encourage you to honor your dad by empathizing with this enormous difficulty of getting the balance right. You are going to do it yourself someday, perhaps, and you will want your kid to be patient with you.
You say, “When I hang out with dad, I feel discouraged in my Christian walk.” I would also encourage you, Matthew, to honor your dad by admitting that some of the feelings you have when you hang out with your dad may be owing to some things that are in you that cause you to overreact to your dad, rather than being a problem that is only in your dad. There might be some issues in you that make you respond in a discouraged way. A lot of children feel oppressed by their parents when it is not all the parents’ fault. It is just the way a young person feels.
I will give you an illustration, Matthew. When I was 13 — I can remember this day. It is not a proud day for me. One day my mother asked me to take out the garbage. I can see the place where I was standing. I can see the white, round-topped garbage can that you had to lift off. I can just see it like it was yesterday. And I almost screamed at her, “Do, do, do. All I ever hear around this place is do.” Now that was not true. It wasn’t true. My mother was a servant of no small proportion.
So what was going on? There was something in my 13-year-old frustrated soul that was all out of whack on that afternoon. I was dead wrong to talk to her that way. I was factually wrong to talk to her that way. But something was going on in me. She was not responsible at that moment for my anger; I was. And so, I just want to suggest, Matthew, that you be careful: be careful that some of your frustration that may be building up might be coming from stuff in you, not just from stuff in your dad. That is my first suggestion: honor your dad in those ways.
2. Grow in your grasp of how Bible rules and Bible joy fit together.
Second, I would suggest that you use this season of life and growth — this season of frustration, in a sense — to make sure that you have a balanced and biblical view of how gospel joy and gospel rules, or dos and don’ts, relate to each other — how they fit together.
Because right now you feel like Dad is all rule-focused, and my friends are all joy-focused and Christ-focused, which raises the question (and this is just a question), Do you have a biblical understanding of how the two fit together? Be careful that you don’t just go with what makes you feel good. It may be that biblical rules and biblical joy fit together in a way that is different than your experience, and that you need to adjust your experience some in order to live in accord with the way the Bible talks about the relationship between biblical rules and biblical joy.
Don’t make the mistake that Martin Luther, the Reformer, made. Martin Luther read the book of James, filled with rules and imperatives and commands, and he felt the same way about the book of James that you feel about your dad. He felt: rules, rules, rules — where is the joy of the gospel in this book? And he is talking about a book of the Bible. He was wrong. He called it “an epistle of straw” because he didn’t have it sorted out properly yet. Well, you might possibly make the same mistake Martin Luther made in regard to your dad, like he made in regard to the book of James.
Just be careful. I don’t want to defend your dad here because I don’t know whether he is lopsided in his understanding. I just want to make sure that you take this season as an opportunity to grow in your own balanced understanding of how gospel joy and gospel rules relate to each other.
3. Care about ministering to your parents.
Here is the last thing I would say, Matthew. At this stage in life, imagine something that may be almost impossible — namely, you may be at a position of growth and maturity where you can actually minister to your dad, and not just focus on his failures to minister to you. A lot of kids never get to this place. I mean, think about this, Matthew: you are 15, and you are discerning some things very well.
Here is one thing I want you to ask the Lord to do. Pray like this: God, give me the grace, even at 15, without being presumptuous, without being proud, without being disrespectful, to be a lover, a blesser, a minister to my dad. My dad seems to be hung up on some stuff. I wish he had more joy. Well, instead of going to bed at night angry at your dad, frustrated with your dad, disappointed with your dad, how about going to bed at night praying for your dad, longing that some things that the Lord is teaching you could become a blessing to your dad?
Matthew, believe it or not, there are kids, who, in their thirties, forties, or fifties, never have learned to do this. They never have. They are still angry at Dad. They are still angry at Mom. All they think about is what they didn’t get, rather than how they might minister now to a broken dad, a broken mom who never got it quite right. So what a gift of maturity that would be for you at age 15. So those are my three suggestions, Matthew.
- Honor your dad with empathy and understanding.
- Grow in your grasp of how Bible joy and Bible rules fit together.
- And then care as much about how to minister to your dad’s discouragement or your dad’s encouragement as you care about his ministering to you.