Mankind has had, in various cultures, different metaphors to describe the workings of our internal psychology. For example, we easily speak of the difference between the “head” and the “heart.” The head represents propositional assent while the heart represents genuine commitment. But the biblical writers had a different set of internal organs to represent (roughly) the same thing—the “heart and reins” (e.g. Ps. 7:9), which is to say, the heart and kidneys. All this is to say that in using a particular metaphor for this message, it is important to note that this is a metaphor, and is not intended as any kind of “scientific” image.
“Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged” (Col. 3:21).
This text is parallel to the text we used for the message last week, which was Eph. 6:4. Here we are given additional information on the results of parental provocation. In both texts, we see the possibility of childish anger, but here there is the additional result of discouragement. Don’t discourage your children, St. Paul says. It would be very easy to falsely conclude from this that discipline is what discourages, but this is not the case. Children are provoked, either by the wrong kind of discipline or by no discipline.
The parental task is to break the child’s will, without breaking the child’s spirit. The metaphor is taken—if you like—from the world of training animals. The thing to avoid is breaking the spirit, and the second thing to avoid is that of failing to break the will. All right, so what does this mean?
Given the constraints of this image, there are four possibilities. The first is that a child’s will and spirit could both remain unbroken, in which case you have yourself a wild banshee child—known to all your friends as the Demon Toddler. The second possibility is that a child’s will and spirit are both broken, in which case there is no overt disobedience because all the child can contribute is a lethargic and glassy stare. The child is cowed, like a dog that was beat too much. The third possibility is that of breaking the spirit without breaking the will. The result here is that the child is introspective, moody, self-absorbed, and discourage, but it is entirely impossible to encourage them. They cling to their lousy perception of themselves, as stubborn as the pope’s mule. And the last option, the one that all parents should strive for is that of a broken and submissive will and an entirely unbroken spirit.
Unbroken will and unbroken spirit—this is the condition of the rebellious and dissolute child. An elder with sons like this is disqualified from office (Tit. 1:6). The parents in Deuteronomy with a son like this would no doubt be greatly ashamed (Dt. 21:20; cf. Prov. 23:19-21).
Broken will and broken spirit—this is likely the condition of children in our text. They have been angered, and are discouraged. They are just beat up. When this happens, it is often the case that the father who is doing it has no idea that this is what he has done. He looks at other families, like the one above, and he shakes his head in disbelief. He has eliminated disobedience, he thinks, but there is no constructive obedience.
Unbroken will and broken spirit—when this happens, the children show their uncooperative “rebellion” by passive/aggressive means. In other words, they are not downtown shooting out the streetlights, but they are stubbornly limp and unmotivated.
Broken will and unbroken spirit—the children here are obedient and cheerful. Obedience is a matter of the will, and cheerfulness is cheerfulness of spirit.
It is important to note these four options because if you limit them just to two, you will make false judgments on any number of levels. If your gauge of assessment is simply whether the home is “calm” or “rowdy,” for example, you might find yourself misjudging things radically (Is. 5:20).
Loved and Loving It
Do your children like the discipline they receive? No, not necessarily in the moment of administration (Heb. 12: 11), but do they experience your discipline as an act of restoration and love? “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Prov. 13:24). The man who lets his kids run wild is hating them. He is disowning them in effect (Heb. 12:8). But a man who is clobbering his kid in the spirit, and leaving bruises there, and is making them say that “this is love” is catechizing them in lies. In other words, not spanking is a rejection. But that doesn’t mean that every kind of spanking is automatically love. Obviously not. And the difference between the two is the difference between love and creepiness.
With this as the standard, here are a few observations that will help parents in this important task with their children. And remember the context of all this that we set in the first two messages—love, grace, happiness, contentment, delight, and more grace.
Discipline should be restorative: discipline is corrective, not punitive. You discipline your children for the same reason that you bathe them. You are not meting out justice at the Last Day, you are teaching and training. And you can measure whether this thrust of this message is functioning in your home by whether or not your children want to be restored to fellowship with you.
Discipline should be simple to understand— predictable and consistent: now in applying this, don’t underestimate your kids. They understand a lot. But what they don’t understand is if spankings for a particular offense are connected to nothing other than the phases of the moon. They understand cause and effect. What they don’t (and can’t) understand is randomness. We tend to switch this around, thinking that they can follow random flukes, but that predictable causation is beyond them.
Discipline should be for disciples: since everyone in your home is a disciple, this means that everyone is under discipline, and everyone should be visibly under discipline. Put another way, the kids are not the only ones in the home who sin. When sin is regarded as the adversary, this prevents parents and children from developing an adversarial relationship.