Slow to chide, and swift to bless.
With such a memorable tribute to our heavenly Father, pastor and poet Henry Francis Lyte (1793–1847) ends the second stanza of his hymn “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” Lyte was born to a derelict father, who sent him off to boarding school, nearly abandoned him, and signed infrequent letters “Uncle” instead of “Father.” In time, young Henry was taken in at holidays by the school’s headmaster as a kind of adopted son.
So Lyte knew personally the pains of a negligent father. Yet he came to find healing in a heavenly Father. “I have called Thee Abba Father,” he writes in the climactic verse of “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken.” And then again in “Praise, My Soul,”
Fatherlike he tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame he knows.
In his hand he gently bears us,
rescues us from all our foes.
The functionally orphaned poet came to know deeply the fatherhood of God for having had such an awful earthly one — and in seeing what he saw, he teaches us a vital aspect of all healthy fatherhood.
One Thousand Versus Four
“Slow to chide, and swift to bless” is a fitting tribute to our heavenly Father who revealed himself to Moses, and across time, culminating in Christ, as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . .” (Exodus 34:6–7). In showing us his glory, he leads with grace and mercy.
“In showing us his glory, our heavenly Father leads with grace and mercy.”
Notice, in his swiftness to bless his people, our heavenly Father is not absent of chiding, but slow to it: “. . . who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). Our God is merciful and gracious, and no pushover. He does indeed chide. When he does, however, observe the ratio with his blessing: he chides “to the third and the fourth generation” but blesses with “steadfast love for thousands.” And even then, because we’re sinners, his chiding is not at odds with his blessing, but a vital aspect of it.
Psalm 103 echoes the great revelation to Moses and adds a connection to fatherhood:
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever. . . .
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:8–10, 13)
Though he will chide, and though we feel the sting, his final word to his children is always blessing and favor and joy:
His anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)
Our Father and We Fathers
What might this remarkable peek into the heart of our heavenly Father — slow to chide, swift to bless — mean for how we raise, discipline, and delight in our own children?
Such a vision of our Father’s glory not only runs across Scripture from beginning to end but also informs human fatherhood. As earthly fathers, we take our cues from the heavenly Father (Ephesians 3:14). In Christ, we too, though typically formed and conditioned in opposite ways, want to become increasingly “slow to chide, and swift to bless.” This kind of posture fits with, and is filled out, by Paul’s remarkable one-verse vision of parenting, and fatherhood in particular, in Ephesians 6:4:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Clearly what the apostle says here is relevant for mothers too, and yet he addresses fathers specifically — not simply as head of the household, but also as the one with the particular responsibility for educating the children in preparation for sending them out into the world.
Given Authority to Bless
The most disciplinarian dads among us will do well to observe that Paul doesn’t summarize the task as, “Make sure to establish and exercise authority over your children.” Rather, he assumes fatherly authority. Given the authority (and power) that we already have, as dads, by ordinance of God, he cautions us to exercise it with care, being mindful not to harm our children with our greater abilities, but instead to help them.
“Do not provoke your children to anger.” For our part, we are not to give our children any just reason to be angry or discouraged. We should not sin against them, but treat them with full Christian virtue — with as much kindness and respect as we treat fellow adults in our lives, whether at work, or at church, or in the neighborhood. That God has given children to us, and instructed them to obey us, is patently no excuse for sinning against them. Rather, it is all the more reason to make every effort, with God’s help, to treat our children with the utmost Christian kindness, and respect, and love.
“Our children should be the ones we treat best of all people, not worst.”
Given their vulnerability as children, and our calling as their parents, they should be the ones we treat best of all people, not worst. Our adult sins have far greater repercussions than the missteps of our children.
Gentle, Patient Teachers
So, Paul assumes fatherly authority, and then exhorts us to wield it for the benefit, not detriment, of our children. The question is not whether fathers will provoke or drive their children; we will. With our presence or absence, with our holiness or sin, we inevitably will turn and shape our children in some direction. The question is whether we will drive them to anger or provoke them to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
What, then, might we avoid and pray against in ourselves? Commentator Andrew Lincoln writes that the negative charge in Ephesians 6:4 involves “avoiding attitudes, words, and actions which would drive a child to angry exasperation or resentment and thus rules out excessively 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” (Ephesians, 406). With a few moments pondering, we all might make similar lists. And, remembering Lyte, we might also rule out neglect, which is a great temptation in times of multiplied distractions and screens.
In other words, fathers are to have their children in submission with all dignity, as Paul requires of elders in 1 Timothy 3:4. We all know there are dishonorable, undignified ways to have children in submission, as well as honorable ones. “In contrast to the norms of the day,” writes P.T. O’Brien,
Paul wants Christian fathers to be gentle, patient educators of their children, whose chief ‘weapon’ is Christian instruction focused on loyalty to Christ as Lord. Christian fathers were to be different from those of their surrounding society. (447)
Countercultural parenting in the first century may have meant, especially, swiftness to bless. Today it might also require the countercultural intentionality and deliberateness that is a readiness to genuinely chide, even as we’re slow to it, and never less than loving in it.
Speed Limits of Fatherhood
In cultivating such holy slowness to chide, we parents, and fathers especially, remember not only that we are bigger than our kids physically, but also that we should be bigger people than our children — that is, in the inner man. As adults, and fathers, we’re called to be the mature ones, the magnanimous ones, the patient ones. Our physical size and strength distinguish us from our children. So should our emotional maturity.
This might lead us to keep in mind, for example, that voice volume is not a clear differentiator between adults and children. Raising our voice is no special parental ability. However, patience should be. And wisdom. Practicing Christian patience as a parent does not mean failing to discipline our children, but it does help us to be slower to chide than we might be naturally, and to exercise wisdom, in partnership with our wife, in applying the rod.
As fathers who take our cues from the heavenly Father, we are encouraged, in the words of Henry Francis Lyte, to be swift to bless: quick to commend our children when they obey cheerfully, quick to give them our attention, quick to express praise and love and delight, quick to teach them ahead of time, knowing that the lion’s share of fatherly discipline is pro-active instruction and anticipating their needs and weaknesses. And then we must correct and reprove. Indeed we will chide. And our children will be all the better for it when we, like our heavenly Father, have been swift to bless.