READ : Colossians 3:20-21
Paul’s instructions for parents and children are like a doctor’s prescription, not always easy to take, but likely to produce good results if followed.
In this series of studies in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, I’ve come to a section that deals with relationships. In the last message I looked at what the apostle had to say about the relationship of husbands and wives. Now I want to complete the scriptural teaching on the family by considering the relationship of parents and children. Paul addresses these family members in Colossians 3:20-21:
Children must always obey their parents. This pleases the Lord.
Parents, don’t be hard on your children. If you are, they might give up.
(Colossians 3:20-21, cev)
The apostle expands on these brief commands in Ephesians 6:1-4, where he outlines the duties of each generation to the other:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” – which is the first commandment with a promise – “that it may go well with you. . . .”
[Parents], do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
(Ephesians 6:1-4, niv)
The responsibility of children toward parents is simply stated: “Children, obey your parents.” The word Paul uses has the root meaning “to hear.” There can be no obedience unless first there is understanding. So children are enjoined to listen carefully to what their parents say to them, to try to understand it and then to carry it out. True obedience does not play games: for example, complying outwardly while rebelling inwardly or obeying the letter of a command while violating its spirit. Nor does biblical obedience mean getting by with doing as little as possible or having your own way as much as you can. Rather, it means to understand, accept and carry out the will of those who may rightly require your obedience.
Now, we have to understand that this is not an unconditional or unlimited obedience, because Paul says children are to obey their parents “in the Lord.” That means that if an occasion should arise where obedience to parents would clearly conflict with obedience to the Lord (for example, if a father told his child to steal), that child, like anyone else, must obey God rather than people. Nor is obedience of children to their parents unlimited in the sense of being lifelong. Paul is not speaking to adult children. It is obvious from the context that he has in mind here a family in which the children are still young and living at home. Children are no more commanded to give lifelong obedience to their parents than parents are commanded to give lifelong care to their children. Paul is talking about primary responsibilities during the “growing-up” years, when young children’s primary responsibility is to obey their parents in all proper, lawful and biblically legitimate matters.
Notice also the comment Paul adds concerning children’s obedience. “This is right,” he says; “this pleases the Lord.” Children are not supposed to obey their parents only as a matter of necessity (because they must). They are not to obey their parents as a matter of expediency (because that’s the only way to avoid punishment). They are not to obey their parents as a matter of policy (because that’s the best way to get more things out of them). No. Children are to obey their parents as a matter of principle, because obedience is simply right. If we belong to Christ, if we are “in the Lord,” then our way of living is going to be transformed. We are going to start to love and to do what is right simply because it is right, and not for any benefits it might bring us.
But the apostle does also note a personal benefit to this kind of right behavior. He quotes the commandment to honor father and mother, and notes that this is the first commandment with a promise attached. God’s law was given to us, not as a burden to make our lives grievous, but as a blessing, to make them joyful. When we live according to the law of God we allow our natures to function in the way they were designed. So when children obey their parents in the Lord they will be happy. “It will go well with them,” Paul says, because that is how God designed them to live.
Now consider the duties of parents toward their children. The first responsibility of parents is to nurture them, to “bring them up,” to raise them properly. Paul uses a word here which means “to nourish” or “to feed.” It carries with it connotations of gentleness and tender care. The words “nurture” and “nourish” in English are related to the word “to nurse.” That exactly captures the way parents must treat their children. They need to recognize that children are fragile and tender creatures, easily bruised and broken, not just physically but emotionally as well. God, in entrusting children to parents’ care, expects them to tenderly and gently raise their children to maturity – in a word, to love them. Just that.
Of course, it’s natural for parents to have deep affection for their children, the most natural thing in the world. Indeed, where this is lacking we are shocked and horrified. But when God says that we are to nourish and love our children, he intends that we display more than just the natural affection which we feel because they are our offspring.
What God desires is for us to love our children in the same way he has loved us. God’s own fatherhood is the biblical model upon which our human parenting is based. And how does God love us? He loves us unconditionally. That is how we are supposed to love our children. Although their obedience to us is not unconditional, our love to them must be. This means our love for them is not based on their performance. We never say to them by our words or actions, “You be good or I won’t love you.” Unconditional love also means that our love is not based on our children’s gifts or abilities. We don’t love one child because she’s more athletic than the others, or another because she’s more beautiful or still another because she’s smarter. We must strive to love all our children equally and absolutely because that is just how God loves us.
So, parents, love your children. That comes first, before anything else. Love them, and let them know it. Don’t keep them guessing about your feelings for them. Don’t let them wonder if you really do care about them; tell them. Better yet, show them.
Our second responsibility as parents is to discipline our children: “Bring them up in the training [literally, the discipline] of the Lord,” writes Paul. Discipline means correction and punishment where there is wrongdoing. The reason that we discipline is not to make our children behave. We are not involved in what psychologists call “behavior modification.” We don’t just try to make our children toe the line and do what we tell them to do. No, the underlying purpose of discipline is to teach our children morality, that is, the difference between right and wrong. Morality is not just a matter of actions. At its most fundamental level, morality is a matter of faith. Moral people are people who believe in right and wrong because they believe in God, and who try to do right and to love the good because they love God, who is supremely good, and they desire to honor him.
In exercising discipline we must be very careful not to be too hard on our children. Paul says, “Do not provoke your children to anger,” which means to frustrate or exasperate them by treating them too harshly. We will hurt, not help our children, if we subject them to discipline that is brutal, arbitrary, unfair or inconsistent, or by harassing them emotionally with insults and negative comments. In our society we are increasingly being made aware of the sickeningly high incidence of child abuse. We as parents must take extreme care how we correct andor punish our children. Even the smallest child has built into his nature a sense of fairness and justice. He usually knows when discipline is out of proportion, or when the punishment does not fit the crime. He knows when he is being unjustly punished for something he did not do. The quickest way to provoke our children to anger and bitter resentment is to mistreat our children under the guise of disciplining them. Civilized nations are those which live under the rule of law. We have laws prohibiting the arrest of innocent citizens, or imprisonment without a fair trial, or even the use of cruel and unusual punishments on those who are guilty. Should parents be any less committed to fairness, any less careful of protecting rights, when it comes to disciplining the children whom they love?
There’s one more duty which parents are given: to teach our children. “Bring them up in the instruction of the Lord.” In instructing our children we should teach them not only about life and work – about how to get along and make a living and be a success – or even just about manners and morality – about right and wrong and how to behave properly. Above everything else, parents must strive to teach their children to know Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, your supreme concern as a parent will be to raise your children in the instruction of the Lord. That means teaching them the way of life that leads to Christ.
This is our responsibility as parents. It’s not something we can shift off to the church or Sunday school or delegate to the pastor or youth minister. The responsibility belongs to us. How can we fulfill it? I really think that there is only one way we can teach our children about Jesus Christ and that is by leading them to him ourselves. It’s not enough just to read Bible stories and to pray with our children. It’s not enough just to take them to church or send them to Sunday school, as important as all those things are. We can only finally lead our children to Christ by setting before them the example of our own devotion to him.
Do you want your children or grandchildren to know Jesus Christ and to live for him? Then look at yourself. Do you know him? Are you living for him? Think about how the fashion industry works. Here is a company that makes fine clothing. Now they want me to buy one of their suits. How can they do that? They can’t force me to buy it; they can’t bodily drag me off the street into the store and set me down and thrust my arms into the sleeves and my legs into the pants and then take my money. What they can do is to display the suit to me. They hire a model who puts it on, and then they take a picture and put it in a magazine so I see it and want it, thinking, “If I had that suit I would look like that.” (Of course, I wouldn’t. Nothing will make me look like a model, but that’s beside the point.) The point is that we will want to have what we see attractively modeled before us.
That is exactly how it works with us and our children and the Lord Jesus. We can’t force them to come to Christ. We can’t cram him down their throats. We can’t make them love him, but we can model him before them. We can show them how beautiful it is to be clothed in his righteousness, to be dressed with his Spirit. In doing that we will truly fulfill our duty to nourish our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.