We live in a culture that sends parents multiple, conflicting messages about their children. On the one hand, children are to be the center of our universe—given all they desire, and praised to the hilt (in order to prevent low self-esteem, of course). They are to be protected from all sorts of suffering, doted upon, and be busily involved in every activity possible (that they enjoy). On the other hand, children are also to be left to themselves, so they can make their own choices as early as possible. They are to be treated as independent mini-adults, given the respect to develop their own beliefs and values. But over and above these confusing parenting techniques that either smother and spoil, or neglect and abdicate, is the one mantra that rules them all: Make sure your child is always happy—especially with you. Or, to put it in the negative: Don’t ever make your child angry.
After all, isn’t that what the apostle Paul is getting at in Ephesians 6:4?
4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Now, we would be reading through our own modern cultural glasses if we think Paul is telling us to never make our children mad. So what’s he driving at with these very sharp words on parenting? It’s tempting to try to come up with a list of possible things that provoke our children to anger. Unfairness and perceived injustice would be right up at the top. Not getting their way certainly can produce an angry child. Parents who play favorites or over-indulge one child instead of another can provoke a child to wrath. We could go on; but thankfully, Paul gives us the answer within this one verse. By way of contrast, he outlines for parents what will most certainly produce angry children…in three easy lessons.
Lesson 1: Don’t discipline them according to God’s Word.
Our child-indulgent culture seems to believe that it is discipline that produces the biggest problems in our children. The constant message that all spanking is child abuse, and that any form of punishment is unloving, can even confuse Christian parents. But Paul says that it’s quite the opposite. We will produce angry little souls if we refuse to discipline our children. Undisciplined children may seem quite content with being able to do what they please and avoid any consequences; but that is only a temporal, surface feeling. In the end, they will become wrathful adults who are used to getting their own way, hating people who try to get in their way.
Of course, we need some important modifiers and qualifiers here. Discipline of our children is to be Biblical and godly. It is to be clear, immediate, and consistent. It is to be done out of love, and grounded in grace and mercy. It is to show our children their sin and a need for a Savior. It is part of the overall process of disciplng their young hearts!
Lesson 2: Don’t instruct them in God’s Word.
Have you ever considered that NOT teaching your children God’s Word (and how to look at this world God’s way) will provoke them to anger? Again, our culture says that we will injure our children’s psyches by pounding them on the head with the Bible! And it may seem that your children are much happier and content when they get to skip church, Sunday School, catechism, or family worship. But the truth is that this temporary happiness gives way to a deep anger and bitterness. All children long to learn eternal truths from their parents, since they are made in the image of God!
The reality is that parents cannot really avoid or neglect teaching their children. We teach by everything we say and do, and by everything we don’t say and don’t do. The challenge is to purposefully teach God’s Word and apply it to their hearts and minds, rather than our own worldly wisdom. It’s just too easy to teach children a whole host of other things that seem important, ignoring the most valuable instruction of all.
Lesson 3: Fathers, don’t take the lead in discipline and instruction.
Yes, children can be provoked to anger by either parent. But there is a reason that Paul addresses the father, the spiritual head of the home, in Ephesians 6:4! One very simple way to produce an angry child is by leaving the discipline and instruction to mom. After all, she is with your children most of the time, right? Yet, the very job description of spiritual head demands that fathers take the lead in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. When fathers are physically or spiritually absent, you can count on angry and anxious children.
So, do you see how easy it is to produce angry-hearted children? May God, by His grace, enable us to do the hard, Biblical work that will instead produce the lasting fruit of righteousness in their hearts!