If you’re looking for a gauge to measure how un-Christlike you are, try raising kids. At least that works pretty well for me. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis speaks of “the bad manners of parents to children.” Ahem. Guilty.
A while back, for instance, I yelled at my eldest. I really let him have it. When he was rude an hour later, my wife, Megan, corrected him. “In our home we honor each other with our words,” she told him. I had to interrupt and apologize right there or make her a hypocrite.
Exasperating our kids
When preaching through Paul’s marriage advice, pastors often make the comment that Paul has to instruct husbands to love and wives to respect because if they’re prone to going off the rails, it’ll be in those directions: men lacking kindness and wives losing respect.
Apply the same thinking to Paul’s instruction to fathers. Twice he says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children.” In his letter to the Colossians he adds “lest they become discouraged” (3.21), and he warns the Ephesians about provoking children “to anger” (6.4). When I go wrong with my boys, that’s exactly the direction I head: I drive them to discouragement and frustration.
I read some patristic commentaries on these verses, hoping for a few dazzling insights. But, no. They mostly passed over this part. I think it’s because there’s not much to unpack here.
It’s like Bob Newhart’s “Stop It” routine. Paul and the fathers don’t need to give a lot of advice and teaching here because the point is clear: As dads, you’re prone to exasperating your kids. Don’t.
But is that all?
What the monk says
I have been reading Elder Porphyrios’ advice about parenting in the book Wounded by Love. It slays me. “[P]arents need to devote themselves to the love of God,” he says. “They need to become saints in relation to their children through their mildness, patience, and love. They need to make a new start every day, with a fresh outlook, renewed enthusiasm and love for their children.”
Do I really do that—or do I build a file on my children, one that tallies sins more than it forgives them?
Children’s behavior, says the elder, “is not improved by reprimands, disciplining, or strictness. If the parents do not pursue a life of holiness and if they don’t engage in spiritual struggle, they make great mistakes and transmit the faults they have within them.”
A parent must employ “disciplinary measures,” admits Porphyrios but adds, “Above all, you need to pray.” And it’s in reading words like these that I realize how much grace I truly need.
The answer is grace
There’s a prayer in the Orthodox church for parents. “O Righteous Judge,” it says, “who punishes children for the sins of their parents, punish not my children for my sins, but sprinkle them with the dew of Thy grace.”
This is what’s behind Porphyrios’ comment about transmitting our faults. The idea stems from Exodus 20 where it says God “visits” sins from one generation to the next. Neither the text of the scripture, nor the theology of the church would suggest punishment per se; it’s probably clearer to say that kids bear negative consequences of their parents’ sins.
I can correct my son all day, but if it’s coming from a hard heart, I will only close his. I will, as the apostle warned, drive him to discouragement—or worse. To pray the prayer above is to ask God for mercy in their lives, to relieve the ill effects of my own sins, and instead to “sprinkle them with the dew of [God’s] grace.”
As we say in the litany, “Grant this, O Lord.”
Image credit: Internet Archive.