By: John Piper
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Our text is straightforward and simple this morning: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” It divides naturally into three parts:
First, there is the address, “Fathers.”Second, there is the command, “Do not provoke your children.”Third, there is the purpose of the command, “Lest they become discouraged.”
We will look at these three parts of the text one at a time in reverse order. First, we will direct our attention to the goal of Christian fathers, namely, rearing children who are not discouraged. Second, we will look at the duty of Christian fathers, namely, not to do those things that discourage children. And finally, we will focus on the leader in Christian parenthood; namely, fathers.
But first a word about the fatherhood of God.
The Fatherhood of God
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his disciples to call God Father: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” He taught that God is not everyone’s Father. In John 8:42, 44 he said to those who refused to follow him, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God . . . You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”
Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him . . . All who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
Not every one can lay claim to the privilege of knowing God as Father. Only those who are born of God (John 1:13), who receive Christ (John 1:12), and who are led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14) have the right to receive the inheritance of the children — promises like Matthew 7:11, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” The privilege of prayer and the promise that God will work all things together for your good is part of the inheritance of sonship. That is what it means to have God as your Father.
There are two reasons I begin with this word about the fatherhood of God. One is that I believe all human fatherhood should be patterned on the divine fatherhood. The overarching guide for every father should be to live in such a way that his children can see what God the Father is like. They ought to see in their human father a reflection — albeit imperfect — of the heavenly Father in his strength and tenderness, in his wrath and mercy, in his exaltation and condescension, in his surpassing wisdom and patient guidance. The task of every human father is to be for his children an image of the Father in heaven.
The other reason I begin with the fatherhood of God is to give this message relevance for everyone in this room whether you are a father or not; and whether you had a Christian father or not. I want to make clear from the outset that the sadness many may feel at never having had a father like the father I will describe, and the sadness others may feel at never having been a father like the father I will describe — that sadness can be swallowed up and overcome with joy this morning because God offers his fatherhood to anyone who will accept the gift of adoption by trusting Christ and yielding to be led by the Holy Spirit.
There are two ways to listen to this message this morning. One is to take it as a straightforward exhortation from the Word of God to fathers on how to rear their children. The other is to take it as a parable pointing to the way the Father in heaven loves those who believe and follow his Son. Frankly, I hope all of you hear it in both senses.
1. “Lest They Become Discouraged”
Let’s go to the text and begin with the last phrase of Colossians 3:21, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
The goal of a good father is to rear children who are not discouraged. The word implies losing heart, being listless, spiritless, disinterested, moody, sullen, with a kind of blank resignation toward life. Don’t be the kind of father who rears that kind of person. Instead develop a style of fatherhood that produces the opposite of discouragement.
The Opposite of Discouragement
Now what is that? I would sum it up in three characteristics.
The opposite of being discouraged is being hopeful.The opposite of being discouraged is being happy.The opposite of being discouraged is being confident and courageous.
So I would say that the negative form of verse 21 really implies a positive command as well. It says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” But it means not only avoid one kind of fatherhood; it also means pursue another kind; namely, the kind of fatherhood which gives hope instead of discouragement; and gives happiness instead of discouragement; and gives confidence and courage.
Distinctly Christian Teaching
If we stopped right here, we would not have said anything distinctly Christian. There is not one parent in ten thousand who thinks that the aim of parenthood should be to discourage children. But the apostle Paul would be distressed if all I did were to use his words here simply to express some everyday common sense, or some natural wisdom. He was not inspired by the Holy Spirit to confirm the insights of Dr. Spock. He was inspired to teach parents things that no natural eye has seen and no natural ear has heard (1 Corinthians 2:9–13).
Here is what I mean. Paul’s teaching makes it clear that when he says we should be fathers who give hope instead of discouragement, he means hope in GOD, not hope in money or hope in popularity or hope in education or hope in a spouse or hope in professional success. If you had asked Paul, or Jesus, “What kind of freedom from discouragement do you want our children to have?” he would not have said, “I want your children to be freed from discouragement by being filled with hope that they will become wealthy . . . or well-known, or intellectual, or married, or successful.” We know that is not what he means. He means, be the kind of fathers who do not discourage your children but rather fill them with hope in God.
Happiness That Kills and Happiness in God
And when we consider happiness as the opposite of discouragement, Paul would not be content if a father simply made his child feel good by giving him whatever he wanted. There is a happiness that kills. To some kinds of happiness the Scripture says, “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection” (James 4:9). There is a happiness that has nothing to do with God, and therefore has no value in the sight of God. It comes from the creation alone and not from the Creator. That isn’t what Paul wants fathers to put in the place of discouragement.
But there is another joy that comes to expression, for example, in Psalm 4:7–8,
Thou hast put more joy in my heartthan they have when their grain and wine abound.In peace I will both lie down and sleep;for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety.
Fathers, don’t discourage your children, but fill them with joy in God! Teach them early on — and show them earlier yet — that through many sufferings they must enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22), but that they can rejoice in sufferings, knowing that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” — IN GOD (Romans 5:3–4). Don’t discourage them. Make them happy in God by helping them to hope in God.
Self-Confidence and God-Confidence
And when we consider confidence as the opposite of discouragement, the message of Scripture takes a dramatic turn away from the common sense natural wisdom of the world.
The world says: Don’t discourage a child; build up his self-confidence. The Scripture says: Don’t discourage a child; build up his God-confidence. In fact the Scripture is more precise than that; it teaches: Don’t discourage a child, but do your best to root out his self-confidence and replace it with a confidence in God. And when it teaches us to root out self-confidence, it means root out the desire to be and to appear self-confident.
The Scripture knows that most people don’t succeed in being self-confident. Most people are quite unhappy about their inability to appear self-reliant and self-assured and cool and in control. So when the Scripture teaches us to root out self-confidence, it means go for the root, not the half-withered branches. Go for the DESIRE to be self-confident, not the meager manifestations of it that make their way into peoples’ actions.
Self-Confidence Being Rooted Out of Paul
One vivid illustration of how Paul’s heavenly Father was patiently working to root out Paul’s self-confidence is given in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9. Here is a description of how God the Father was working on Paul twenty years after his conversion, which means this is a very deeply rooted sin in all of us. He writes,
We do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely [or: be confident] not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
In other words, the divine purpose of Paul’s affliction was (as it is the purpose of all good fatherly discipline) to root out the remaining self-confidence of Paul’s heart and to cast him on God alone. Why? Because God didn’t want him to be confident? Because he wanted him to be listless, spiritless, moody, sullen, weak, fearful? No! It was God who came to Paul in Corinth and said, “Do NOT be afraid, but speak and do NOT be silent; for I am with you.” So the confidence that we are to build into our children is not self-confidence, but confidence in the grace and power of God. “Do not be afraid . . . I AM WITH YOU.”
The Goal of Biblical Fathers
Andrew Bonar, the 19th century Scottish pastor, said concerning the teaching of children, “We tell them, ‘You are sinners, exposed to God’s wrath and curse, and you cannot save yourselves; but God’s own Son can save you, by Himself bearing that wrath and curse.’” In other words you teach a child to despair of all self-confidence and direct his desire for confidence to the grace of God. The goal of biblical fathers is to have children who say (with Psalm 60:11–12):
O grant us help against the foe, for vain is the help of man! With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.
A good father will ponder: How can I be like my own heavenly Father? How can I banish self-reliance from the heart of my children and fill them with confidence and courage and zeal and boldness that are rooted in the grace and power of God and not in themselves? How can I be the kind of father whose children do not lose heart or become spiritless or listless or sullen or discouraged, but are filled with hope in God and happiness in God and confidence in God and courage to attempt great things for the glory of God?
That question leads us to turn now to the second part of our text; namely, the duty of Christian parents to not provoke their children.
2. “Do Not Provoke Your Children”
“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Again we notice that the commandment is negative — something to be avoided. It is a warning against the misuse of legitimate authority. Paul has just said in verse 20, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” That gives to parents tremendous authority and responsibility under God. Children are to do what parents say.
Ruining a Child’s Confidence in God
Now in verse 21 he cautions fathers against a misuse of this God-given authority. The misuse he has in mind is that fathers might treat their children in such a way that their spirit is broken and they become hopelessly discouraged. Paul calls this misuse “provoking” them: “Do not provoke your children.”
In Ephesians 6:4 a different word is used that specifically means, “Do not provoke to anger.” But this is a very general word here in Colossians 3:21. It can even be used positively in 2 Corinthians 9:2 where it says that the Christians in Achaia provoked the Christians in Macedonia to be more generous. In other words, they “stirred them up,” or “motivated” them.
In choosing the broad and general word I think Paul would have us teach that parents should avoid everything that ruins a child’s confidence in God and leaves him hopeless and discouraged. This requires tremendous wisdom from fathers, because not all short term discouragements result in long term hopelessness. On the contrary, our heavenly Father clearly brings short term frustrations and discouragements into our lives precisely to put us on a new footing of faith. Great wisdom is needed here.
So let’s ask, then, What do fathers do that provoke children to long-term discouragement and hopelessness? I’ll mention two things.
Failing to Be Happy and Hopeful in God
First, some fathers fail to BE happy and hopeful and confident in God. Fathers, what you ARE in relation to God is far more important than any particular parenting technique you try to employ. Will your children hope in God if you hope in money? Will your children be happy in God if they see that fishing is a happier experience for you than worship? Will your children be confident in God if your whole demeanor communicates the desire to be seen as self-confident?
The most important work that a father can do for the sake of his children is to be converted. The most important strategy for rearing children is to become a new man in Christ — whose hope and happiness and confidence are in God and not in himself.
We know this is true from Scripture because there we are taught to imitate our heavenly Father. We are told to be holy as he IS holy (1 Peter 1:16). We are told to be merciful as he IS merciful (Luke 6:36). To be a good child is to copy daddy. It honors a father to be imitated, and we are commanded to honor our fathers. And so the most important question a father can ask is not what shall I teach my children, but rather who am I before the living God and before my children?
That is the first thing that fathers can do to provoke their children to long-term discouragement and hopelessness — they can fail to BE hopeful, happy, and confident in God.
Disciplining in an Impulsive, Erratic, and Inconsistent Way
The second thing that fathers do which provokes children to long term discouragement and hopelessness is to discipline them in an impulsive, erratic and inconsistent way.
Unpredictable, impulsive, hostile discipline makes children fearful, bitter, deceitful, and discouraged. They don’t know where or why the explosion will come next. They say to themselves, “What’s the use! How can I hope that being good is any better than being bad?” And so the spirit of moral hope is broken, and in its place comes calculated, deceitful, discouraged maneuvering.
On the other hand, when discipline is controlled and appropriate and consistent and based on clear rules and principles of justice in the home, an atmosphere is created where children flourish in freedom. They know the limits and they feel secure and free to dream and play and plan and work inside those limits of righteousness.
They gain confidence that this is the way God is. He is not a capricious God. He is not impulsive or erratic or inconsistent. There is order. There is justice tempered with mercy. There is hope and encouragement. Why, I might even be able to accomplish something of value or even greatness if I fit into this order and depend on the goodness of the Father who loves me like this.
So fathers, don’t provoke your children by being impulsive, erratic, or inconsistent in your discipline. Be like your Father in heaven, so that your children can know him and become hopeful and happy and confident in him.
Much more could be said about the kinds of things that provoke long-term discouragement and hopelessness in children. But time is out.
3. “Fathers . . . “
We can only briefly refer to the third part of the text; namely, the address: “Fathers . . . ” Verse 20 said, “Children, obey your parents.” This clearly teaches that mothers as well as fathers are to be obeyed. Mothers and fathers have a shared authority over the children. But in verse 21 fathers are addressed in particular.
Why this is so is the issue we will take up tonight. There is a peculiar role that the Scripture gives to husbands and fathers. Fathers bear a special responsibility for the moral life of the family. So I urge you to take that responsibility, fathers, and that you be the kind of man who gives hope and happiness and confidence to your children because you yourself have found your hope and your happiness and your confidence in God.