The duties of a godly parent are profound and challenging. This is particularly the case when you are dealing with little ones who cannot explain anything to you. They don’t know their own heart, and they could not tell you about if they did. We have to get our guidance from Scripture. And like everything else, parenting is completely dependent on the grace of God—but on this subject, it should be immediately obvious to us that we are dependent on the grace of God. But when that grace is operative, what does it look like?
“If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well” (James 2:8). “Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones” (Luke 17:1-2).
The context of James’ injunction is interesting. He has just been talking about a biblical refusal to show partiality between rich and poor. And after this statement in our text, he moves on to give a general statement about heart attitudes. “For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (v. 13). My particular point here is not the larger social point that James is making, but rather the attitudes that drive it, and what those attitudes look like in the microcosm of the home. In the home, who are the rich and who are the poor? Who is the establishment, and who are the ruled? Who has control of the courts and who does not? And can it be said of parents generally that they love mercy, and that mercy triumphs over judgment? In the passage from Luke, Jesus warns against stumbling or offending little ones. He attaches one of the most dire warnings in the Bible to this caution (v. 2). Jesus said a lot of things about children that are routinely ignored today, just as the first disciples tended to ignore them. When we stumble or offend little ones, we are not letting mercy triumph over judgment.
Parents should always desire to be like God in their relationship to their children. But when we think this, we gravitate to what we think or assume God is like instead of gravitating to what God reveals Himself to be like. Here is the fundamental attitude. “The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing” (Zep. 3:17). “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:13). Parents who are “evil” frequently are better to their kids than parents who think they are being good by imitating a Cosmic Slavedriver. Delight in your children. Be crazy about them. Don’t hold back. They are cuter than everybody else’s. Parents should always desire to be like God in their relationship to their children.
The Structure of the Garden
But you must take care to structure your delight. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, He gave them, in principle, the run of the world. There was one thing, and one thing only, that was off limits, and that was one tree in the middle of the Garden. What does this tell you about God’s sense of proportion? Which way does He lean?
You are trying to imitate God, not some federal regulatory agency. Keep life simple. Keep the rules simple and easy to memorize. Don’t keep changing them, and don’t multiply opportunities for disobedience. God had one rule in the Garden, and ten rules at Sinai. The rest of the Old Testament are commentary on those ten rules, which can actually be reduced to two—love God and love your neighbor. I recall vividly the three rules in my father’s house when I was growing up—no disobedience, no lying, and no disrespecting your mother. This is the spirit of Scripture.
Make sure there is always a boundary (delight is not indulgence; delight has a backbone), and carefully police that boundary. But don’t multiply boundaries. Don’t multiply opportunities for disobedience. “Come here. Put on your coat. Put that down. Find your boots. I thought I said to come here!” Reduce the number of commands you issue by about 90%, and then enforce all those commands. Don’t exasperate your children (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). Remember their frame. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13-14).
Discipline That Delights
Yeah, but when does the hammer fall? Doesn’t there have to be moral order in the home? Don’t we have to have the rule of law around here? Depending on what you mean by putting it this way, probably not. A parent who disciplines effectively is refusing to allow his child to make himself unlovely. “I love you too much to let you do that to yourself.” Discipline is corrective, and it is applied for the sake of the one receiving it. It is not punitive, and it is not rendered for the sake of the one giving it.
When you are spanking a child, you are either being selfish or you are being selfless—one or the other. You are doing it because you are exasperated, frustrated, beside yourself, and frazzled, or you are doing it as a fragrant offering to the God of your fathers. An ungodly sentiment can be roughly categorized as, “Take that, you little swine,” and a godly sentiment as, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” What does Scripture say? “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). When you are highly motivated to discipline your kids, you are not qualified. When you are qualified, you don’t feel like it.
Discipline, rightly understood, is not an exception to the rule of delight mentioned earlier, it is a principal expression of it. “If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (Heb. 12:7-8). Refusal to discipline (with the right attitude) is a form of disowning a child. Refusal to discipline (again, with the right attitude) is a form of hatred. “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Prov. 13:24).
All who love, discipline. But it does not follow from this that all who discipline, love. A child must grow up in, be surrounded by, and be nourished in, the love of God revealed for His people in the Word Incarnate and the Word revealed. This is the context in which godly child-rearing occurs, and, outside of which it cannot occur.