One of the greatest privileges that many of us will ever have in life is the challenge of parenting. If you’re a parent, you still remember the day that you held your new baby in your arms. We probably didn’t realize it all that day, but life is never the same again. We get the privilege of shaping this brand new individual, of being the greatest influence in their lives for the most critical phase of their lives. I remember the sense of awe that I had both times I experienced becoming a father. Of course, that sense of awe was soon replaced by feelings of exhaustion, but every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of the privilege that is ours to be parents of children. Bill Cosby remarked that being a parent is the “most beautifully irrational act that two people in love can commit,” and he was right.
Parenting isn’t just a privilege; it’s also a challenge. Somebody once said, “Before I got married, I had six theories on raising kids. Now I have six kids and no theories” (Lord Rochester, 1675). The stakes are high in parenting, and the answers aren’t always easy. James Dobson once wrote a book called Parenting Isn’t for Cowards, and he was right. The problem with being a parent is by the time you have it all figured out, your kids are all grown and you’re out of a job. Parenting is tough. It’s rewarding, but it’s also a challenge to know how to love and discipline and shape our children as they grow, until they’re released as adults, and most of the time, as parents themselves.
One of the challenges that we have in parenting is that we tend to parent our children the way that we were parented. That can be a very good thing if your parents were good parents, but it can also be a very bad thing to replicate the mistakes that our parents made in raising us. I personally am fathering without ever really having had a positive role model from my father. Some of you are in the same situation. I can’t afford to make the same mistakes with my children that my father made with me. How do I learn how to be a father?
I want to look at a passage of Scripture that talks about the responsibility we have as parents. It’s found in Ephesians 6, which is found on page 1321 of your pew Bibles. Paul addresses both children and fathers in this passage. The word that he uses for father could actually be translated parent. This passage speaks directly to some of the issues of parenting, and I want to look at it today to see what the Bible says about how we can fulfill our responsibilities as parents according to God’s instructions.
I’m still learning about parenting myself, and I thought it might be a little presumptuous for me to share these principles as if I have it all together. So I’ve asked some veteran parents in our congregation to share what they’ve learned as parents, now that their children are grown. I’ve collected some of their insights, and I will share them as we go.
I was also amazed to realize that many of the parenting dilemmas we face are addressed in Ephesians 6. I’ve found myself skimming over this passage, but today I want to take a bit longer to reflect on what Paul says about how to effectively parent according to God’s instructions. The instructions we’re about to read were part of something called house codes. They were common in that day in various religions and settings. They basically described how the family was to operate. Before we read this passage, you need to understand the context of how families operated back then, and then we can look at how Paul’s teachings apply to us today.
Back when Paul wrote this passage, families were different from today. Back in that day, fathers had almost unlimited rights. We looked at how this related to marriage the other week. Husbands could look at their wives and say “I divorce you” three times, and the divorce was official. Wives couldn’t divorce their husbands, but husbands could divorce their wives very easily.
The same sort of relationship took place between a father and his children. Back in those days, there was something called the right of a father. When a child was born, the father had the right to determine whether that child should live or not. Fathers could and did sell their children into slavery. They could punish them as harshly as they wanted to; they could work them at any age as hard as they wanted; they could even put their children to death. Many parents, of course, did have very good relationships with their children, but abuses were also common. It’s in that kind of context that Paul writes his instructions on parenting.
The underlying principle of all relationships in Jesus Christ is found in Ephesians 5. Read with me what verse 21 says: “And further, you will submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Everything that we’re going to read is an application of this verse. When we come to Jesus Christ, he doesn’t just change us as individuals. He also changes our relationships. This applies to all that we do – our marriages, our work relationships, our friendships, the relationships that we have with our children. The idea of submission is not that we become doormats. The idea is that we put the interests of other people ahead of our own interests. It means that we stop being self-absorbed and that we start putting the interests of others ahead of ourselves. How does this apply to parenting?
Ephesians 6:4 says, “And now a word to you fathers. Don’t make your children angry by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord.” The word that Paul used for fathers is one that could mean just fathers, but it could also be a generic term referring to both parents. We’re not sure. In any case, what he’s about to say applies equally to both fathers and mothers today.
But before we look at what Paul says, you need to know that it was amazing that Paul even addressed parents at all. In a day in which parents could do almost anything they wanted with their children, Paul all of a sudden stops parents and says, “Your relationship with Jesus Christ has just placed obligations on you as parents.” Parents are no longer free to do as they please with their children. No other house code ever instructed fathers on how they were supposed to treat their children. But the fact that you’re a believer in Jesus Christ means that now you have new obligations in your role as a parent. You are now called upon to parent in such a way that you parent “in the Lord,” in such a way that you put the rights and interests of your children ahead of your own interests. We’re called to treat our kids the way that God treats his kids – to treat them the same way that God treats us.
Before we go on, I just want to think about that for a minute. The amazing thing about being a parent is that we get the opportunity to treat our children the same way that God treats his children. In other words, any parenting that we do as Christians is an imitation of God. If you’re a Christian father, guess who your role model is? God. The same for mothers. That significantly raises the bar of what we’re doing as parents. Our model is no longer how our parents treated us. Our model as parents is now much higher. Our model is how God is treating us.
It goes even further. Our kids aren’t really even our kids. They live at our house, they eat all of our food, they take all of our money. But our children, in a sense, aren’t our children. They’re God’s children. A child, in a sense, is always adopted. The God of this universe is crazy about them. We get to be their father or their mother, but we always have to remember that their real Father is God.
How can we raise our children as God’s children? How can we treat our kids the same way that God treats his? Four ways:
1. GRACE THEM
Okay, I had to use a noun as a verb, but it’s the closest I can get to what Paul says in Ephesians 6:4. It’s consistent with the way that God treats us. In an age in which fathers were allowed to treat their children as harshly as they liked, Paul said, “And now a word to you fathers. Don’t make your children angry by the way you treat them.” Colossians 3:21 tells us why. It says, “If you do [provoke or exasperate them], they will become discouraged and quit trying.”
There are some parents who push their children pretty hard. I know firsthand what an exasperated child looks like, because I’ve exasperated mine on more than one occasion. We have all kinds of ways we can exasperate them. It’s possible to blame them more than praise them; to set standards so high that nobody could ever keep them; to push them in an unreasonable way academically or athletically or musically. I find that one of the ways that I sometimes exasperate my children is to rush them. I can get in such a hurry that I get them all flustered because they’re not moving as fast as I would like. Paul tells us not to do that, because if we do – if we place unhealthy expectations on them, constantly criticize and blame them, or even worse, attempt to live through them – then they will get discouraged and give up.
One of the best gifts that we can give our kids is to extend the same grace to them that God extends to us. In a time when parents had the right to treat their children any way that they wanted, Paul told the parents to think about what would encourage the kids; what would grace them. Some of the parents I talked to said the same thing this week. They said things like, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you are always nagging about something, then when it is important you don’t get the impact.” Another said, “Focusing too much on producing kids who perform well can get in the way of producing kids who are giving and compassionate.” Another gave advice to the next generation of parents by saying, “Affirm, even when mistakes are made. Love and support them, regardless of their mistakes and the choices they make. Oh how I wish I could have been that kind of parent!”
When you think about it, the best example of that kind of parent is the father of the prodigal son. He had every right to treat his son harshly, and to reject him. But he didn’t treat his son as he deserved. The father of the prodigal son is a picture of God, and the way that he treats us. Psalm 103:10 says, “The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.”
We’re going to see in a few minutes that there may be some parents here who never have a problem with pushing your kids too hard. You may have the opposite tendency of not pushing them all. But there may be parents here whose standards for their children are so impossibly high that your children are always frustrated. They never measure up. You find it easier to criticize your children than to praise them. Your children may have let you down, and you haven’t forgiven them. You may even be in a situation in which you need to humble yourself and apologize to one of your own children.
There may be parents here who are sometimes too harsh with their children – who make rules without explaining them, are sometimes unreasonable or inconsistent with boundaries, who ignore their children’s wishes without explanation.
The solution, your obligation as a Christian parent, is to do the opposite: to grace them, to treat them the same way that God treats his kids. He extends grace, encouragement, and forgiveness. It’s like what was said of Jesus: “He will not crush those who are weak, or quench the smallest hope” (Matthew 12:20).
Grace them, and then Paul says:
2. NOURISH THEM
Ephesians 6:4 continues, “Don’t make your children angry by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord.” The word for “bring them up” literally means to nourish them. The idea is about providing for physical needs – but it’s much more than that. It’s about treating them with tenderness. It’s about fondly cherishing the gift of your children. Paul used the same word in Ephesians 5:29 to refer to the way that husbands were to treat their wives: “No one hates his own body but lovingly cares for it, just as Christ cares for his body, which is the church.” We’re called on to lovingly care for our kids – to nourish them, to provide for them emotionally as well as spiritually.
This changes as kids get older. Right now I’m at a stage when it’s still relatively easy to nourish my kids emotionally. Both my kids will still kiss me in front of strangers. They don’t mind snuggling up to me. The main barrier to nourishment is my schedule. I constantly have to remind myself that my kids are more important than staying an extra half an hour to tie things up at the office. The time will come when my kids will be too busy for me. The tragedy is that my kids aren’t right now, but many parents are too busy for their children.
One parent said she wishes she could have changed three things about the way that she parented. “I wish I had left the dishes and cleaning, to read stories, play, and spend time with my children. I wish that I had listened with all my attention. I wish that I had been at home more.”
As kids grow into teenagers, that nourishing takes a different form. It involves being available for those moments that come when your kids are open to talking with you. It involves becoming a student of their personalities so that you know what their emotional needs are – what their spirits are craving from you.
If you’re like me, the greatest change that you will have to make to nourish your kids is to adjust your schedule. One man said it’s about learning to cheat. You’re going to cheat someone, he said, because you just don’t have enough time to be everything to everyone. You’ll never cross every item off your list, and have enough time to be everything to everyone. He said that for himself, he was learning to cheat his to-do list and even his career rather than your children. You will have to ask what it will take to nourish your kids – to give them the priority they deserve in their lives. It’s a call to do more than to chauffer them and to drop them off at gymnastics or hockey and to cook them dinner. We have an obligation to get to know them at the soul level – to nourish their spirits at the deepest levels of who they are. One parent said, “Be there for your kids, and be as involved as you can be in their lives.”
As parents, we have the primary responsibility of nourishing our children’s spirits – to lovingly care for them, to give them the place of priority in our lives. Paul calls us to grace our kids, and to nourish them, and then, Paul says:
3. DISCIPLINE THEM
Ephesians 6:4 says, “Bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord.” The word for discipline in this verse wasn’t used lightly. It refers to a very strict discipline. The Bible is clear about the need for parents to discipline their children – not by abusing their authority and being to harsh, but by setting firm and consistent boundaries. Proverbs 13:24 says, “If you refuse to discipline your children, it proves you don’t love them; if you love your children, you will be prompt to discipline them.” Proverbs 19:18 says, “Discipline your children while there is hope. If you don’t, you will ruin their lives.”
Our society has shifted in the past twenty or thirty years. People have reacted so strongly against harsh parenting that many have thrown the idea of disciplining out with it. Many parents now treat their kids as their friends – even as equals. They reason with them; they give them choices; they do everything but discipline them. They may even threaten discipline, but they don’t consistently follow through. But the Bible says that we must discipline our children, and that if we don’t discipline them, it shows we don’t love them, because we’re ruining their lives.
One parent I talked to this week said, “Disciple firmly and fairly. Stick to what you say. If you say you’re going to do discipline them, it’s a big mistake to not do it.” She went on to encourage husbands and wives to support each other in the discipline – that if you disagree with how the other is disciplining the kids, to resolve that privately rather than in front of the children. Another mother said, “Don’t be afraid to make rules, they make a child feel secure. Don’t be afraid to discipline, a child will not stop loving you.”
If you find that you’re inconsistent with the discipline of your kids, I would encourage you to get help. Talk to some veteran parents that you respect and ask them how they handled discipline. There are lots of good books out there on how to discipline children. The first few verses of this chapter talk about what happens when children do honor and obey parents – that it’s actually a source of blessing in their lives. We’re robbing our kids if we don’t discipline them firmly and consistently. Discipline them so they know where the boundaries are. Stay consistent with the boundaries so that we can provide our kids with security. And don’t be manipulated by all the mind games that kids know how to play to get us to move those boundaries. Paul says to grace them, nourish them, discipline them, and finally:
4. TEACH THEM
One of the greatest privileges that we enjoy as parents is the privilege of teaching our children about the Lord. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord.” Deuteronomy 6:6-7 says:
And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again.
My wife learned a lot from her parents spiritually. One of her strongest memories is watching her dad read his Bible every morning, and praying. She saw that his walk with God was genuine. It’s something that’s always stayed with her. We can instruct our kids, not just with our words, but by our example.
Listen to what some of the parents said that I talked to this week. “Take every opportunity to teach the children about the Lord – both by your life, and by your teaching. Show your family that their parents love God, each other, and their children.” Another said, “Set a godly example, and instill godly values.” Set an example for your children by your life, but do more than that. Teach them about Jesus Christ. Teach them that he loves them and wants to be their friends forever. Show them what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
There’s so much more that we could cover. There are other insights I could have shared from some of the parents, like these: “My dad was right about more things than I thought,” or this: “I’ve learned that it costs a lot to send a kid to university.”
But what I want you today is to pick one of these four areas that may be weak in your own life as a parent and to work on it this week. It could be by getting a book from the library, or talking to another parent, or talking to your own spouse about steps that you can take to improve in this one area. It may mean changing your schedule. Which of these four actions do you need to work on as a parent? Do you need to grace them more? Do you need to nourish them more? Do you need to discipline them more consistently, more firmly? Do you need to teach them more, by your life and by your words, about Jesus Christ? Write it down. I’m then going to give you a minute to write down what steps you’re going to take this week to begin to actually address this area – to come up with an action plan for how you’re going to love your kids more in that particular area.
I want to close with what one parent said to me. She said this:
I always thought I would make a great parent because I loved children and I was a fun-loving, people person. When God gave us an independent, headstrong, child, I wasn’t prepared to look at a side of myself I didn’t know existed and I didn’t particularly like. I discovered that I wasn’t such a great parent in my own strength. Only by submitting to the Holy Spirit many times during the day could I accomplish the huge task God had entrusted to me.
You can’t parent God’s way without God’s help. Another parent said, “Pray. It’s the most important part of being a parent. It’s too big a job to do alone.”
One parent said, “When the kids were little I thought I was in control. When the kids got older I thought I’d lost control. When I was listening to God I realized he was in control all the time, and my attempt to control was one of the big problems.”
I want to close today by praying for you who are parents, and committing the very important job that you have to the one who is your own heavenly Father, who can give you all the strength that you need.
Today, if you would like to come into relationship with the God who wants to be your parent, and how can help you treat your kids the way that he treats his kids, you can do so. He is the Father who never lets his kids down – who graces them, who nourishes them, who gives them everything they need; who disciplines them with his strong and tender love; who forgives them and who leads them. I invite you to pray through the name of Jesus Christ, who died for your sins, to invite God to lead your life from this point on and to forgive your sins.
I want you to pray for God’s help in your role as a parent. Thank him for the privilege of parenting, and ask for his help in the one area that you’ve identified. Commit the action that you want to take this week to him, and ask him for his help.
Father, thank you for the privilege we have of being parents. Thank you that you entrust these little ones to us, and you allow us to shape their lives, to help build their characters, so that they will grow to know that they are loved, that they are valuable, and that they can best live their lives in submission to you and in a relationship with you.
I pray that you would strengthen every parent here today for the task that they have. Help us to treat our kids the same way that you treat your kids. I pray this in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In his name I pray, Amen.