Hope for a Discouraging Dad

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I still remember hearing the door slam for the first time: anger from MY child. I can still see the despair on his face, telling me how incapable he feels of living up to my standards: discouragement from MY child.

I was totally blindsided the first time I experienced my firstborn showing persistent signs of anger and discouragement in response to my masterful parenting. At first I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I love Jesus, I love my wife, I love my kids, we love our church, so what’s the deal? When I reflect on how I responded in that time, I am reminded of the thoughts that flooded my mind: “My children are more rebellious than I expected.” “I am a lot meaner of a dad than I expected to be.” “I must be the only dad struggling with this.” “I’m a pastor for crying out loud – if I can’t control my kids, I better pack it up.” “I am letting my wife down.” “I’ve let my son down.” Obviously, it didn’t take too long to get to a dark place.

Parenting hasn’t become “easy” for me by any stretch of the imagination, nor am I or my children free from anger and discouragement at times. But the good news of Jesus continues to free me to trust the sovereignty of God as I strive to obey his commands to father my children in grace.

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4) And to the church in Colossae Paul writes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Col. 3:21)

As I dwell on these commands, I am blown away at what Paul saying, namely: regular anger and discouragement in my kids is an indicator that I (the dad) need to change, not my kids. Ouch! Paul leads with “Do not provoke” when speaking to dads about their parenting because he knows the tendency for fathers to be either too passive or too reactionary with their kids. Bottom line, God is holding fathers responsible for their kids who have been provoked to anger and discouragement. Dads have a responsibility to be in tune with their kids enough to see if they struggle with anger or discouragement.

What provokes our children to anger or discouragement?

In his commentary on Ephesians, Andrew T. Lincoln provides the following list of actions by a father (or mother) that may provoke a child to anger or discouragement: excessive severe discipline, unreasonably harsh demands, abuse of authority, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation, subjecting a child to humiliation, and all forms of gross insensitivity to a child’s needs and sensibilities. [1]

I wish I could say that I am not guilty of some of these, but I definitely am.

In a positive sense, Paul then teaches Christian fathers to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Discipline and instruction means training in general as well as chastisement for wrongdoing, but the most important phrase is “of the Lord.” Here Paul has in mind uniquely Christian discipline and instruction. Paul speaks to dads who have been changed by Christ; therefore he expects them to parent with patience and perseverance. He uses the example of a father to describe how he treated the church members in Thessalonica: “like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (I Thess. 2:11-12) Look at the picture Paul paints of a father: exhorting (urging or imploring) and encouraging (comforting, building, strengthening) and charging (testifying, instructing, witnessing) them to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls them into his own kingdom and glory.

When I see my kids showing patterns of fits of rage, consistently looking defeated in their posture, frequently sounding discouraged in their words, or maybe even acting out more than usual, I must avoid the temptation to view them as the problem. I must reflect on the graceless, merciless, standard I have been imploring as a father. Here are three principles for fathers like me out there who desire not to provoke their children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord:

  1. The gospel has freed us to admit our failure: Show your kids the verses above on parenting. Tell them (charge them, testify of, witness to) what God is teaching you about your failure in parenting. Apologize for provoking them to anger, seek their forgiveness, and rest in the grace of Jesus. Of course they did things that were wrong, but if I condition my admission of failure as a parent on their recognition of personal sin, they will not see the grace of Jesus but sinful self-protection of man. In confessing our sin to our kids, we celebrate the cross of Jesus Christ and prove that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, not our parenting techniques, or our kids’ recognition of their own wrongdoing.
  2. Jesus saves our children, not us: Using our discipline and instruction as our means to change our kid’s hearts is going to leave us frustrated and our kids crushed. Paul does not write, “Fathers, make sure your kids become Christians.” No, our role is not to provoke, but to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Salvation is God’s sovereign work in their lives, and while we pray that our children would repent and believe in Jesus, we do nothing to bring our kids from death to life. That is all the work of God.
  3. The gospel is opposed to earning, not effort: You are accepted because of Jesus’ obedience to his Father, not your child’s obedience to you. Now go, and do not provoke your child to anger and discouragement, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Dads, let’s admit failure, trust in the sovereignty of God, and feed on the finished work of Jesus.

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11

[1] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, World Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), 406.

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