Today we have a question all parents must answer for themselves. How do I not exasperate my children? It’s today’s question from a young dad, a new dad, named Matt. He writes, “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for taking my question today! Colossians 3:21 warns fathers, ‘Do not embitter your children’ (that’s the NIV). Or ‘Do not provoke your children’ (that’s the ESV and the KJV). Or ‘Do not exasperate your children’ (that’s the Holman Bible). We are to avoid embittering or provoking or exasperating our children so they do not become discouraged. So what does it look like for a father to embitter his children? This text seems super important to me as a new dad, and at the same time super abstract. What would this look like?”
Well, I’ve given a lot of thought to this question recently because I’ve been working my way through Colossians in Look at the Book. And so let me see if I can hold down my enthusiasm to ten minutes or so here. Let’s put the text in front of us with enough context to make sure we can get this dad in the right frame of mind.
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children [or embitter your children], lest they become discouraged. (Colossians 3:18–21)
Dad’s Peculiar Responsibility
Now, the reason I give that much context for verse 21, which says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged,” is that I want fathers, I want Matt, to feel the amazing responsibility that God gives in a special way to fathers. And the reason I say special way is because verse 20 says that children are to be obedient to their parents, not just their fathers: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” But when it gets to verse 23 and the peculiar responsibility for the children’s encouragement, he does not say, “Parents, do not provoke your children.” He says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children.”
And of course, mothers shouldn’t provoke their children and discourage them either, but he gives the fathers this peculiar responsibility in a special way. So, dad is the head of the family. And the reason I say that is because, in verse 18, it says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” So, if children are to be obedient to mom, and mom is to submit to dad, then there’s a peculiar burden, a responsibility, that God places on dad to lead the family. And he is to lead it in a way that is, first, not harsh with his wife and, second, not discouraging to his children.
So dad’s call not to discourage his children is part of a larger fabric of his peculiar husbandly, fatherly responsibility. And I emphasize the word responsibilityrather than rights, because that’s the tone of the passage. That’s the tone of reality. God gives to husbands and fathers a burden of responsibility. This isn’t a place for the blustering of a man’s rights as head. This is a place for bearing the peculiar burden of responsibility as husbands and fathers.
Authority Without Provocation
You can see it is a daunting — and I would say even impossible, in one sense — responsibility to so deal with our children that they don’t become dispirited or discouraged or lifeless. This involves a work of God, not just man. The translations include “don’t exasperate your children,” “don’t provoke them to anger,” “don’t embitter them.” Those are all the translations that you see in versions that are out there.
But the general idea is this: since verse 20 says that children should obey the fathers and mothers, the father should not back away from requiring obedience just because a child tries to use pouting to coerce dad not to make him go to bed when it’s time to go to bed. Verse 21, “don’t discourage your children,” can’t be used to nullify verse 20, which calls us to require obedience from our children.
So, children can’t blackmail their parents into canceling out verse 20 because they say, “Look, Dad, you’re not supposed to discourage me. I’m feeling discouraged, and so you can’t require that of me.” You can’t do that with the Bible. So, verse 21 must be saying there is a wrong or a counterproductive way to require obedience of your children, which only discourages, and there’s a helpful way to require obedience of your children. The command to dads not to provoke our children to discouragement can’t be used to make the dad passive or lazy or indifferent to the children’s misbehavior.
How Not to Require Obedience
So what I take Matt to be asking is this: “What does it look like when you are requiring obedience like verse 20 says you should, but doing it badly so that you’re knocking the spirit out of your child?” So let me direct Matt and the rest of us to these eight ways that I would describe for how not to require obedience of your children. How do ways of fathering knock the life out of a child, discourage a child, dispirit a child? I’ve got eight of them. I’ll just name them briefly.
Don’t try to get obedience by nagging. The word nagging was invented because there is such a thing as repetitive demands or repetitive requirements that are really annoying and exasperating because they are demeaning. You feel like, “I’ve heard you say that three times now. I’m going to do it in the time frame you gave me. You don’t need to keep telling me to do this.” That’s what the child might be feeling, even if he’s not saying it. So, don’t require obedience by nagging.
Don’t try to get obedience by being the dad that only demands. Demand, demand, demand, demand — and he never has a conversation with the child. He never gives a compliment to this child. He never celebrates anything with the child. He never explains anything to the child. All the child ever hears is do, do, do, do, do, demand, demand, demand, demand. So, make your requirements part of the fabric of a much richer communication with your child, so he knows you are more than a demander.
3. Getting Angry
Don’t try to get obedience by setting the tone where every requirement sounds angry. “Dad’s always angry. He doesn’t know how to give any cheerful requirements. He thinks that in order to get anything done, he has to sound harsh and mad.” Well, Dad, you don’t. That’s counterproductive. That’s discouraging.
4. Always Resorting to the Rod
Don’t try to get obedience by always using blows. There’s a world of difference between a thoughtfully and firmly and lovingly applied discipline of spanking after defiance, and a slap-happy dad who always seems to be swatting at his children. Don’t accompany your requirements of obedience with hitting the child.
Spankings are fitting and hopefully, carefully, soberly, patiently, and lovingly applied so that the child himself knows that the reason he’s being disciplined is clear. He knows what he’s done, and he deserves this measure of discipline, but don’t make slapping or swatting or blows a normal accompaniment of your requirement of obedience.
Don’t try to get obedience by embarrassing the child — perhaps by asking him to do something in front of people that is so obvious, he’s going to do it anyway. Seek ways to make your commands respectful, showing that you expect intelligent obedience.
Don’t require obedience by belittling your child. For example, don’t call him names. Don’t speak in a way that he feels contempt coming from his father. Don’t ask him to do something the way you would ask a 3-year-old if he’s a 9-year-old.
7. Requiring the Impossible
Don’t demand things that are impossible for the child to do at his age. Don’t set him up for automatic failure. Don’t say, “I want you back here in thirty seconds,” when you know that’s not even possible. You’re asking the child to fail, which is discouraging.
8. Withholding Forgiveness
Perhaps most important — they’re all important, I think, but this is probably most important — don’t try to get obedience without creating an atmosphere of gospel forgiveness. So many dads and moms fail to teach a child early that Jesus has provided a way to get relief for their guilt after doing bad things — a way to be forgiven.
Without this, the child doesn’t know what to do with his own sins, which he knows he commits. Every kid knows he does bad things. So every command starts to feel like a potential digging of a deeper hole of guilt. Without a pattern of confession and forgiveness, the child will probably become secretive and deceitful. So, Dad, you must speak the gospel, teach the gospel, so that the child understands how the blood of Jesus gives forgiveness and life and relief. And you must embody the gospel in your own confession of sin and your own offer of forgiveness.
So, Matt, take heart. You have a heavenly Father that has modeled all of this for you and toward you. And there is hope, therefore, that you can be a father with children who are both obedient and encouraged.