Although his comments are brief, Paul cared deeply for the welfare of the family and the relational dynamics that governed it. Having addressed both husbands and wives (Col. 3:18-19), he now turns his attention to the parent/child relationship. “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord [literally, ‘this is pleasing in the Lord’]. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Colossians 3:20-21).
I consider myself incredibly blessed. I was born and raised in a free land with indescribable physical, spiritual, and social blessings. No one has ever threatened me for attending church or suggested I be jailed or persecuted for my Christian faith. The educational and vocational opportunities in the U.S. are staggering, especially when compared with most other countries around the globe. But all such blessings pale in comparison to what God has given me in my family.
My father died in 1983, only 62 years of age. My mother recently turned 86 and is in remarkably good health. I have one sister whom I love dearly. Being obedient in our home came easily, not because my sister and I were free from sin (far from it, especially in her case!), but because my father and mother were Christians who consecrated and committed our home to the glory of Christ in all things. Neither of my parents was perfect, and I’m sure they made their fair share of mistakes, but I can never recall feeling “discouraged” or “disheartened” by their discipline and authority.
That’s what I mean when I say that obedience came easily. Their love and patience and constant affirmation made obeying their rules a joy. As much as was possible throughout the course of growing up, I never doubted that their guidelines and restrictions were designed for my welfare. If it could be said they were “strict” (and I suppose some might have thought they were), I never felt it. Even when I disagreed with their decisions, I never questioned their love for me.
In a time when “dysfunctional” families have become something of the norm, my sister and I praise God that we were “functional,” at least as far as four sinners saved by grace can be. But I realize that perhaps most who are reading this can’t say the same thing. That deeply grieves me. God is grieved even more. It’s obviously too late to change how you were raised, but it’s only the beginning of how you choose to live from this point on, whether you are a child or teenager still at home or a parent trying to figure out how to glorify God in your family.
To the children, Paul says: “obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Col. 3:20). Given the fact that Paul addresses these “children” directly indicates that they are old enough to understand and respond to his exhortation. And one can only assume that they are young enough to still be living at home and are under the authority and oversight of their parents. Paul appears to have the Christian family in view, for he says that such obedience is well pleasing “in” (not “to”) the Lord; i.e., “in that sphere in which the Christian now lives, that is, in the new fellowship of those who own Christ as Lord” (O’Brien, 225).
When Paul says their responsibility extends to “all things” he’s reminding us that children are not the judges of what they should or should not obey in terms of parental precepts. In the parallel passage in Ephesians Paul declares that obedience to one’s parents “is right” (Eph. 6:1). He doesn’t contemplate the situation where parental orders may be contrary to Scripture, but as is true with the submission of the wife, the law of Christ must take precedence.
There is something to learn from the fact that disobedience to one’s parents is included among the pagan vices that indicates a refusal to acknowledge and honor God (Romans 1:30). Paul also mentions disobedience to one’s parents as a mark of the last days when wickedness will abound (2 Timothy 3:2). Needless to say, this is no small or insignificant matter!
But parents beware: the obedience your children must render to you in no way excuses or justifies insensitivity, brutality, or an overbearing authoritarianism that crushes their spirit. “Fathers,” says Paul, “do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21). Although “fathers” are here singled out as being primarily responsible for discipline (but note that this Greek word means “parents” in Hebrews 11:23), in homes where there is no father (due to divorce or death) the mother assumes that role. Of course, she also must be a partner with her husband and the two of them, ideally, of one mind when it comes to establishing the moral and spiritual guidelines by which the family will be shaped.
To “provoke” or “exasperate” refers to the result of undue severity in the exercise of discipline. Firmness is necessary, but should always be tempered with purity of motive and a loving spirit, lest “they become discouraged” (the NASV says, “that they may not lose heart”).
This is crucial: an overly obsessive and exacting posture in parenting leads to emotional and spiritual irritation in the child. An inflexible, judgmental, and demanding temperament creates despondency in a child’s heart. Faced daily with this harshness, children often simply give up, convinced that nothing they ever do will be quite right or good enough to please their parents. When it comes to motivating your children, the threat of punishment, while often necessary, is less successful than the promise of reward.
Although his prose is a bit dated, John Eadie’s comments are deserving of our attention: “If children . . . never please their father, if they are teased and irritated by perpetual censure, if they are kept apart by uniform sternness, if other children around them are continually held up as immeasurably their superiors, if their best efforts can only moderate the parental frown, but never are greeted with the parental smile, then their spirit is broken, and they are discouraged” (261).
Parents, let me highlight one critically important principle mentioned by Eadie. One of the worst things we as parents can do is constantly talk about how beautiful, competent, successful, and smart other kids are without being as complimentary of our own. If we are always quick to laud others without praising, affirming, and expressing our heartfelt pride in our own children, they can easily become disheartened and discouraged.
Parenting is undoubtedly the most difficult, yet rewarding, endeavor any of us will ever experience. We need the wisdom of the Word and the patience of Job and the kindness of Christ and the authority of the Father and the power of the Spirit, and, well, just about all the help we can get!
Ever thankful for my mother and father,