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How Do I Not Provoke My Children?

Audio Transcript

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.

“There’s a peculiar burden, a responsibility, that God places on dad to lead the family.”

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 responsibility rather 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.

1. Nagging

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.

2. Demanding

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.

5. Embarrassing

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.

6. Belittling

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.

“Don’t try to get obedience without creating an atmosphere of gospel forgiveness.”

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.

Sending Missionaries Well: How Churches Support Global Ministry

In 1987, a sequence of thought from one of the shortest books of the Bible grabbed hold of me and never let me go. Bethlehem Baptist Church was in its fourth year of missions renewal when a veteran missionary serving in Mexico said to me in passing, “There is a big difference between a church that has missionaries and a church that sends missionaries.” As a young missions pastor, I drank this comment in, wanting to know more. A short time later, I read in my New American Standard Bible,

You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers with the truth. (3 John 6–8 NASB)

On my fortieth anniversary as a pastor at Bethlehem, on August 1, 2020, Pastor John Piper prayed the commissioning prayer as my wife, Julie, and I joined the ranks of the “goers.” After helping to send some of the dearest people I know to some of the most remote places on earth, I am now one of the church’s “sent ones,” training current and future pastors in Cameroon to be both goers and senders in the greatest cause of the universe. I have been a happy sender, and now am a happy goer, backed up by a church who has sent me in a manner worthy of God.

The main point of the passage in 3 John relates to this ministry of sending. You can see it in verse 6: “You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.” I see three important aspects of sending in this passage: (1) the value of sending, (2) the mandate of sending, and (3) the manner of sending.

Value of Sending

Sending missionaries must be valuable, because look at how happy it makes the apostle John. Some missionaries from John’s church, it seems, had visited Gaius’s church and told him of their work (3 John 7). The missionaries then returned to John’s church and testified in front of the whole congregation of Gaius’s love for them (vv. 3, 5). When John hears this testimony, a big smile fills his old-crinkled apostolic face, and he writes to Gaius. Listen to the joy and warmth of the first four verses of this neglected letter:

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth. Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers. For I was very glad when brethren came and bore witness to your truth, that is, how you are walking in truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth. (3 John 1–4 NASB)

According to verse 2, perhaps Gaius was not doing well health-wise, and perhaps his business was struggling — and so John feels the need to pray for these matters. But Gaius’s love for the missionaries assures John that his soul was prospering. The prospering soul is the soul that is walking in the truth (v. 3) or working together with the truth (v. 8). In other words, he’s not living a fantasy; he’s not living “the American Dream.” He is living in a way that fits with ultimate reality, where God is at the center.

The value of sending can also be seen in the phrase “you will do well to send them” (v. 6). The word for well carries with it the sense of beauty. It is beautiful to wash the feet of those who go out for the sake of the Name. If the feet of those who carry the gospel are considered lovely by God (Isaiah 52:7), it should be no surprise that God views the people who wash those lovely feet as doing something beautiful.

“It is beautiful to wash the feet of those who go out for the sake of the Name.”

Finally, notice in verse 8 that in God’s eyes there is no hierarchy of value, with the missionary on top and those who send playing second fiddle. In verse 8, we read that both the goers and the senders are “fellow workers with the truth.” Both are equally valuable before God, the lives of both equally significant in God’s opinion — which is the only opinion that matters. The most important thing is to let our lives be consumed with seeking the kingdom first. Whether we seek his kingdom in Cameroon or Myanmar, or where we currently live, is a secondary issue. But if God does lead you to stay where you are, your soul will prosper as it ought only if you are involved in sending others to the mission field.

Mandate of Sending

God commands us to be senders, to be actively engaged in helping missionaries get to the field and stay on the field. It is not optional. We can see this in verse 8: “Therefore we ought to support such men.” Since they go out for the sake of the Name, and since they don’t sell the gospel for money, therefore we ought to support them.

Sending missionaries is one of the oughts and shoulds of the Bible. Our all-knowing and all-loving Christ knows that our souls will prosper as they should only as we look beyond our own immediate interests and lift up our eyes to God’s global purpose.

“The most exhilarating experience in life is to be a fellow worker with God in making his name known.”

One of the most exhilarating experiences in life is to be a fellow worker with God in making his name known, both in our own neighborhoods and among the unreached people groups of the world. God commands only what is good for us, so it’s no wonder he commands us to be senders.

Manner of Sending

Now, what does it mean to send a missionary? How is it done? I want to get practical here, but first I want us to look at the logic and the content of verses 6–8.

You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers with the truth.

John exalts the importance of how we send as high as can be imagined. We are to send “in a manner worthy of God.” And why should we send missionaries in a manner worthy of God? Notice the logic: “For they went out for the sake of the Name. . . . Therefore we ought to support such men.” Verse 7 is the best definition of missionary that I am aware of in the Bible. A missionary is not someone who goes out for merely humanitarian concerns, as important as those are. A biblical missionary is driven by a zeal to exalt the name of God, to declare his glory among the nations, to make known the beauty of the character and work of Jesus Christ. These are the only missionaries God commands us to support.

And since they go out for the sake of the Name, we must support them in a manner worthy of God. When it comes to sending, no verse in the Bible has gripped me more than this one. To send a missionary in a manner worthy of God means a lot more than having missionary names on the church’s website, or adding a line item in the budget, or signing a check here or there. So, what does it mean to send a missionary?

This particular word for send occurs nine times in the New Testament, always in the context of helping Christian workers get to where they need to go to do the work of the kingdom. In Titus 3:13, Paul uses the same word, writing, “Diligently help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way so that nothing is lacking for them” (NASB). To send is to offer very practical help. It includes finances, but it goes way beyond finances. Notice in 3 John 5: “You are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren.” That word whatever shows the breadth of what is included in sending.

It takes only a little thought to imagine the upheaval that a call to missions would bring to your life. Imagine that God called you to change all your career plans, to prepare to go to the mission field, and then to serve him there for years to come — all of which would be compounded if you were married and had children. Now imagine what might be a blessing to you in your preparation stage and in your time on the field and when you returned for a season of home assignment. None of us can do everything our imaginations could put on such a list, but no one is being asked to do it all. So let’s each search our own hearts as to what our particular role may be in helping to send our missionaries in a manner worthy of God.

Fellow Workers with the Truth

The ministry of sending is both joyful and dangerous. While serving as a sender, God may surprise you and lead you to become a goer, a “sent one.” And goers may return home for a variety of reasons and become some of the best senders. While senders devote themselves creatively to do “whatever” on behalf of the goers, they will be especially motivated to being a goer to their immigrant neighbor, or international students at a nearby university, or a green-card worker in the next cubicle over.

But remember, senders and goers are fellow workers with the truth — equally valuable in God’s choreography of accomplishing the great purpose of winning worshipers from every tribe and tongue and nation. Both are called to be passionately God-centered, whether they go out for the sake of the Name, or remain in their home culture helping to send others in a manner worthy of God. A prospering Christ-filled soul is vital to the task of both.

Should We Abandon “Evangelical?”

The word evangelical seems to have fallen out of favor, and perhaps for reasons that are understandable. Where the word once had a distinct Christian meaning, in recent years it has come to be conflated with politics as much as religion, with civil issues as much as spiritual. Many wonder whether the term is worth salvaging or if we should simply move on. Many wonder whether Christians should still consider themselves evangelical or whether it would better serve Christ’s cause to find a new self-description.

Michael Reeves has wondered this as well and has written Gospel People: A Call for Evangelical Integrity to address the issue. “This is a book about being people of the gospel,” he says. “In other words, this is a book about what it means to be evangelical. I believe that there is a biblical case to be made for the importance and the goodness of being evangelical.” This is not to say that he will defend everything that calls itself evangelical since “across the world, swathes have come to self-identify as evangelical without holding to classic evangelical beliefs. And then there is the problem of how being ‘evangelical’ has become associated with particular cultures, with politics, or with race.”
He believes that modern-day evangelicalism is facing a crisis of integrity in which many of those who consider themselves evangelicals “are being defined—and even defining themselves—by agendas other than the gospel.” The only solution is to go back to the foundations upon which evangelicalism was founded, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” To be people of the gospel, we must begin with the gospel. Evangelicals, after all, are people of the gospel or, as the title of the book says, gospel people. “Evangelicalism, then, must be defined theologically. To be evangelical means to act, not out of cultural or political leanings, but out of theological, biblical convictions.”
So what are these theological, biblical convictions? Reeves traces how the Apostle Paul defines the gospel and says that any teaching that will be consistent with his must be “Trinitarian, Scripture-based, Christ-centered, and Spirit-renewed.” He condenses this down to three r’s: revelation, redemption, and regeneration. Thus at the heart of true evangelicalism are three essential heads of doctrine:

The Father’s revelation in the Bible
The Son’s redemption in the gospel
The Spirit’s regeneration of our hearts

These headings serve as a kind of “table of contents” for the book, with each of them receiving a chapter-length treatment. Having examined each closely, Reeves writes about the importance the Bible places on being gospel people. When we understand this, we’re equipped to know that “with the gospel as our anchor, evangelicals are able to see that not every issue is a gospel issue, and not every error (or departure from our view or practice) is a soul-killing heresy. Some doctrines are more essential and foundational than others.” This means that evangelicals ought to define themselves by the most central, gospel-related issues, not the peripheral ones as is too often the case.
The final chapter is a call for gospel integrity—for those who call themselves evangelical to be evangelical indeed. To display such integrity we will need to examine ourselves and be willing to critique ourselves. Yet we can and must do this. “It runs against the very grain of the gospel we cherish for us to indulge in self-justification. Instead, the evangelical way is not to condone or to flee but to repent and to reform. For evangelicalism, being a gospel movement, is and always has been a renewal movement: we seek to renew ourselves and the church around the gospel (and never vice versa). It is a reformation movement, about adhering ever closer to the gospel in thought, word, and deed. On that reformation hangs the future of evangelicalism.” Only when we have great clarity on the gospel will we unite around the gospel and eagerly promote and defend it.
In the end, Reeves determines that evangelical is too good a word to lose and too significant a term to abandon. Thus it falls to us to embrace it and then ensure we are living worthy of it. “The word evangelical has centuries of pedigree for a good reason. It may have lost some of its value in some places, but that can be regained through reinvestment. And where else can we people of the gospel go? There really is no acceptable and viable alternative with anything like the historical weight or the descriptive simplicity.”

I tend to agree with Reeves that evangelical is a term worth embracing rather than abandoning for, as he says, there is simply no great alternative. There is no other word that has the historical pedigree and the depth of meaning. Hence, it falls to us to continue to use it and, even more importantly, to continue to ensure we are living as people of the gospel. There is lots to commend in Gospel People and it’s a joy to recommend it to you.

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