Parents, do not provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This single sentence combines the New Testament’s two most prominent passages on parenting and, as I said yesterday (see Fathers (and Mothers), Do Not Provoke Your Children!), offers a significant warning to parents: We can parent our children in such a way that we provoke them to anger and discouragement. There are times when we so provoke our children that anger is the fitting and inevitable response. Today I want to offer a few ways that we, as parents, may provoke our children to that kind of anger and discouragement.
Goodness instead of holiness. We may provoke our children to anger and discouragement when we teach them to be good instead of holy, when we care more for their good behavior than their holy hearts. We can too easily content ourselves with outwardly moral children instead of children who are inwardly holy. We can focus on bad behavior instead of the sinful heart that causes and enjoys that bad behavior. This will eventually provoke our children to anger and discouragement because they will see that we are calling them to a standard of behavior that is impossible, a standard they cannot reach until their hearts are first transformed. Not only that, but they will see the gap between what the Bible teaches and what we promote, and they will sink into angry despair. Parents, don’t content yourself with good kids but pray for holy kids, for children whose good behavior flows out of a transformed heart. Shepherd them with and to the gospel instead of badgering them with unfair and impossible demands.
Hypocrisy instead of authenticity. We can provoke our children to anger and discouragement when we live with hypocrisy instead of authenticity, when we hold ourselves to one standard but hold them to another one. When we allow this, our children will see that we have no firm standard and they will come to believe that the Christian faith only calls for change in the eyes of other people, not in the eyes of God. Yet God calls us to discipline and instruct our children by explanation and demonstration, by explaining with words and demonstrating with our lives. We need to live before our children in such a way that we can say not only “Do what I say” but “Do what I do.” We need to take our cues from the apostle Paul who could boldly tell others, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). (See The Humblest Words.)
Doubt instead of confidence. We can provoke our children when we live in great doubt instead of great confidence in God’s desire to save them. There are all sorts of good things we want for our children, but nothing more than their salvation. Parents can live with crippling fear that God will not save our children, and this fear has consequences: We can become heavy-handed, demanding our children turn to Christ, or we can become manipulative, constantly begging or pleading with them to make a profession. Our children may then grow angry and discouraged because they will see their parents professing faith in a God who is sovereign and good but then acting as if God is neither one. God’s instruction to parents is to discipline and instruct our children with confidence that God loves to save the lost and that he saves them through the appointed means—the gospel. (See 1 Timothy 2:4 and What Gives God Pleasure.) As we expose our children to the gospel through our discipline and instruction, we can expect that the gospel will do its work. We need to raise our children to hear the gospel proclaimed and to see it lived out. All the while we need to trust that God will work through his gospel.
Fear instead of boldness. We may provoke our children when we raise them in fear instead of boldness. It is wise parenting to protect our children by holding back evil influences until they have developed and matured. But it is unwise parenting to so shelter our children that they never see and experience sin and its ugly consequences. Many parents make decisions about relationships or church or education or family involvement based on fear. But fear-based parenting provokes children because we create a fictional world, a bubble that does not reflect reality. Not only that, but we hide from our children the experience of seeing sin and its consequences, the undeniable reality that sin promises joy and life but brings sadness and death. While we need to boldly raise our children to be in but not of the world, we cannot do this by sheltering them entirely from the world. We need to wisely protect our children, but without fearfully sheltering them.
Anger instead of patience. We may provoke our children to anger and lead to their discouragement if we raise them with anger instead of patience. So many can testify that their parents used anger or the threat of anger as a means of correction and punishment. Discipline was not delivered with calmness and self-control but with angry slaps or cutting words. And of course this leads to anger. A parent’s anger leads to their child’s anger. How couldn’t it? But in this case the parent’s anger is unjust while the child’s anger is just. God expects that we will discipline and instruct our children with patience and kindness. This involves modeling the very actions, attitudes, and words we want them to display.
Aloofness instead of involvement. We may provoke our children when we raise them with aloofness instead of involvement. Too often we are involved in our kids’ lives only when there are problems. We have little real relationship with our children, but then come rushing in during times of danger, disobedience, or difficulty. The parents I most want to imitate are the ones who deliberately build friendships with their children, who have a vision of their grown children being their friends and Christian brothers or sisters, and who then work deliberately toward those goals. These parents give time and attention to their children while they are young, they raise them with kindness and discipline, and they do this by holding in mind the future relationship they long to have. Parents, we need to pursue and befriend our children. (See An Unexpected Blessing of Parenting.)
Pride instead of humility. We will undoubtedly provoke our children to anger and discouragement if we raise them in pride instead of humility. Every generation of Christians seems to have to rediscover the ugliness of pride and the beauty of humility. Every parent needs to discover it as well. Parental pride manifests itself in a hundred different ways, but perhaps never more clearly than in an unwillingness to seek our children’s forgiveness. Pride convinces us that apologizing to our children displays weakness, that it gives them power over us. Nothing could be further from the truth! Humility convinces us that apologizing to our children displays the greatest strength, that it models the very character of Christ. We will inevitably sin against our children so we need to humbly seek their forgiveness, trusting that while God opposes the proud he gives great grace to the humble (see James 4:6).
There are undoubtedly many more ways that we can sinfully, unjustly provoke our children. There are undoubtedly many more ways that we actually do. So we honor God and love our children by examining ourselves and our parenting to find our particular temptations. Where we find them we must confess and repent. And all the while we can have confidence that God chooses to display his strength through our weakness, his power through our inadequacy.