Years ago I was attempting to wire a three-way switch in my house. I was very uncertain how to correctly accomplish the task, so I sought out the expert counsel of an electrician who attended our church. He precisely explained what I needed to do and even provided a schematic for me to follow. I followed his instructions, and it worked! When we listen to someone more knowledgeable than us, and we adhere to their instructions, we can accomplish tasks we may have considered impossible.
As fathers, we are sometimes uncertain how we are to parent our children. With an abundance of parenting advice readily available to us, we must first seek God’s counsel and endeavor to follow His instructions. In Ephesians 6:4, God provides clear and powerful parenting guidance to which we need to listen and obey.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).
This verse can be simply divided into two primary thoughts: What fathers should not do, and what fathers should do.
What fathers should not do
Paul begins this verse by instructing fathers not to provoke their children. The word provoke means to exasperate or incite to anger. To some of Paul’s readers this would have been a revolutionary concept. He was writing to people who lived in Roman culture where fathers had absolute control over their children. A father could make any decision regarding his child’s life or death without being accountable to anyone. So in the midst of culture that promoted and accommodated the totalitarian authority of fathers, Paul introduces a radical parenting philosophy—Don’t provoke your children to anger! Paul provides this same admonition in the book of Colossians.
Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged (Colossians 3:21).
The word “discouraged” here means to lose heart, to be without courage or spirit. The warning is against breaking a child’s spirit
The following are sinful provocations that must be avoided:
- Abuse: This is a father who physically and/or sexually abuses his child. This behavior is reprehensible and should never be tolerated. Additional abuses (i.e. emotional and verbal) are sinful and should never be acceptable norms.
- Anger: This is a father who consistently speaks harsh words and demonstrates abrasive, sarcastic, and irritable attitudes. It can also be one who has an explosive temper.
- Inconsistent punishment: This is a father who tolerates his children’s disobedience and disrespect for a period of days followed by an occasional strict adherence to stated rules and accompanying punishments.
- Unreasonable expectations: This is a father who expects unattainable performance (athletics, academics, fine arts, etc.) from his children, and he communicates great disdain when his expectations are unfulfilled.
- Absence: This is a father who is intentionally absent from his child’s life. Absence can also be demonstrated through a lack of listening and conveying that his child is an unwelcome intrusion in his life.
- Favoritism: This is a father who gives gifts, opportunities, and privileges to one child that he does not regularly give to others.
- Smothering: This is a father who is unnecessarily controlling and demanding.
- Unfulfilled promises: This is a father who makes commitments which he consistently does not keep. These can be promises made to a child—to take trips, have a meal at a favorite restaurant, have a friend over to the house, or go to a favorite place of amusement—that rarely, if ever, come to fruition.
- Pride: This is a father who is unwilling to admit failures and seek forgiveness from his children.
- Hypocrisy: This is a father who manifests great inconsistency between attitudes and actions at home and public forums such as church. This is a father who may be well-liked and respected by others, but one who consistently exhibits sinful attitudes and actions with his immediate family.
Fathers must avoid the above characteristics, as well as others like them, which can result in provoking a child.1
What fathers should do
According to Ephesians 6:4, fathers are to be tenderhearted. The phrase bring them up has the following meanings:
- To nourish, nurture, or encourage
- To cultivate, feed or show tenderness toward
- To provide for with tender care
- To love
This phrase speaks to the spirit of parenting. A father is to be a tenderhearted provider for his children. Some men would equate crying or tenderness with weakness, but that is far from the truth! R. Kent Hughes states, “Men are never manlier than when they are tender with their own children — whether holding a baby in their arms, loving their grade-schooler, or hugging their teenager or adult children.”2
With a tender, caring heart a father is to instruct his children. The literal meaning of the word instruction is “to put in mind.” It can refer to confrontation or training through verbal instruction. A father is to teach his children intentionally from God’s Word. This would include times of both formal and informal instruction.
A father needs to teach his children the glorious truths of the gospel, the doctrines found in the Bible, the importance of obeying God, the need to love God and others, and how to live in victory over sin (among other things).
This is the type of instruction fathers were admonished to give in the book of Deuteronomy:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).
This instruction should also include practical skills for life. These skills would include a good work ethic, how to manage money, or how to properly maintain an automobile. Children do not learn these truths and skills by default. Fathers must take the lead in teaching their children.
Secondly, Paul states that fathers are to be loving disciplinarians. The word discipline refers to the overall training of children and includes correction (punishment) for sinful attitudes and behavior.3
How should discipline be administered?
- Lovingly: Biblical discipline should never be in anger and should never come close to being abusive! Assure your child of your love.
- Consistently: Clearly establish rules and guidelines and determine whether or not your child has clearly violated them. Also, discern between childishness and sinful foolishness.
- Appropriately: Use the Word of God to establish the basis of your child’s wrongdoing. Lead your child toward genuine repentance – this may take some time. Guide your child in making the offense right with others.
We must remember that the goal in discipline is not just external conformity or right behavior. The goal is an inward change of heart.
Paul gives us, as fathers, some very clear and understandable instructions, but we must look to God for His help in carrying out these admonitions. If you have intentionally or unintentionally provoked your children to anger, confess that God. Also, confess it to your children. As a dad, the words “I was wrong” and “Will you forgive me?” are some of the most difficult, yet impactful words that you will ever speak to your children.
Ask God to give you wisdom and grace in tenderly instructing and disciplining your children. You will never be a perfect father, but strive to be a father who pleases God by living out Ephesians 6:4!
However, children who endure such provocations do not have an excuse for anger, bitterness, resentment, or hatred toward a parent who does wrong. Children must apply the truth of the gospel, and, by God’s grace, choose to forgive as they grow in their understanding of the gospel. ↩
R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, 51. ↩
Correction can take a number of forms. Note the following verses: Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him (Proverbs 13:24). Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death (Proverbs 19:18). Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die (Proverbs 23:13). ↩