FAITH AND FAMILY - SERIES 5
Paul exhorts fathers that they should not, “exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6: 4).
Paul's instruction in this section is rooted in the larger context of the biblical understanding of the relationship between parents and children. The most significant insight in this respect is introduced early in the Bible through Abraham's attitude to his son, Isaac, on the one hand and his absolute obligation to God, on the other (Gen. 22). Isaac is the child of Abraham's old age, received as a gift from God. Even more importantly, he is the son of promise. All these make Abraham's relationship with Isaac very special. But that does not dilute either God's claim on Isaac or Abraham’s importance as the father. Isaac, and through him children in general, are in a state of ‘double ownership’, so to speak. Isaac belongs to Abraham, whose son he is. But Isaac belongs also to God, whose gift to Abraham he is. Indeed the second is the more primary identity. Isaac belongs to Abraham only as God's gift. And, therefore, the decisive authority rests with God. But this does not either interfere with parent-child relationship or dilute their mutual devotion.
The awareness of parents that their children belong, in a real and ultimate sense, to God brings an element of higher discipline into their relationship and protects it against arbitrariness, egoism and harshness. It also demarcates distinct boundaries to the scope of parental authority as well as filial responsibilities, especially vis-à-vis every person's need to obey and honour God. Nothing, not even one's filial loyalty, should be allowed to come in the way of a person's obligation to God. Hence Jesus' rebuff to the would-be disciple who gave the excuse of having to bury his dead father, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9: 60)
The alternatives to this model of understanding parent-child relationship are:
Children as items of exclusive ownership, which involves a blindness to the biblical assumption that children are gifts from God. The biblical outlook obliges parents to be accountable to God for the way they bring up their children. When children are seen as one's own exclusive property, they may be seen either as an investment for the future (old age support) or as means for wish fulfillment. In the latter instance, parents seek to realize their unattained dreams and goals through their children. This introduces all sorts of tensions and traumas into their relationships and endangers the joy thereof. As and when parents begin to suffer from 'frustrations' concerning their children's achievements, they need to stop and self-examine. It would help if parents were to recall occasionally their own academic track record, lest they become too unrealistic and unreasonable in forcing their children to frog-leap to dizzy limits.
The other alternative is to idolize one's children, to set them up in the place of God. This parental capitulation does enormous harm to both parties. The present writer does not know a single parent, unwise in such idolatry, who has not come to grief thereby.
In a sense, Paul's instruction to fathers that they should not exasperate their children is rather strange. Would any father or mother want to ‘exasperate’ his or her child, deliberately or knowingly? It might seem unlikely that they would. Yet, parent-child relationships are being characterized increasingly by exasperation and alienation. And, what is more, the degree of exasperation tends to be in excess of the provocation offered. The situation seems to fly in the face of the law of motion that “action and reaction are equal and opposite”. They are, in the domestic and inter-personal contexts, more likely to be in excess rather than proportionate. ‘Exasperation’ alerts us to this imbalance. The escalating exasperation in parent-child relationships has, at least, two major causes.
As regards the first, the extent of exasperation that a parent causes varies from one parent to another, determined by a host of variables in the given family contexts. Stern words would be better tolerated if they come from a serious-minded and well-meaning person, than they would be if they were to come from an intemperate, frivolous or irresponsible person. Even harsh words are welcome if spoken out of love; whereas even innocuous statements could cause resentment, if uttered in apathy or disdain. A person who is out of sorts with himself, or is negatively oriented in personality, need not try hard to exasperate others, including his own children. But a great deal of correction will be taken, and taken even gratefully, if it comes from a person of self-restraint, large-heartedness and magnanimity. So, the first implication in Paul's instruction to fathers is that they need to mind their own personality formation and personal stature. They have to become, prayerfully, persons who have the spiritual authority to correct and discipline their children. This involves, perforce, their standing with God. The only guarantee for personal stature of this kind is our day-to-day walk with God. Redemptive love, born out of godliness, ensures that the discipline we exercise proves helpful and redemptive.
The second part of this instruction –pertaining to the upbringing of children- needs to be examined in greater detail.
As against the above, Paul exhorts parents to bring up their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord”. Paul prescribes this as an antidote to ‘exasperating’ them. Paul's insight here is an important one and it needs to be appropriated unapologetically.
Children may get exasperated because of two things:
While the first is obvious to all, the importance of the second is seldom apparent to parents because its dynamic is spread over a period of time. Treated in an irrational, harsh or arbitrary manner, a child gets exasperated in an obvious and immediate sense. But that is not the case when exasperation is the product of a certain upbringing. It is commonplace that some children are more easily exasperated than others. Sadly, it is also true that some children are exasperated at everything that their parents suggest or stand for. The cause of exasperation could either be what the parent does or what the child concerned is like. Exasperation is a symptom of rebelliousness. In his instruction to fathers, Paul has both these types of exasperation in mind. The logic of the text suggests that he is more concerned about the latter than the former.
Paul insists that children should be brought up ‘in the training and instruction of the Lord.’ The essence of this training is the capacity for 'fullness of life,' and what it takes to achieve it. Jesus' eagerness to obey the will of his Father and to do His work is an aspect of it. So also his capacity to love and serve selflessly. This training and instruction of the Lord aims at the perfection of our human nature and the full appropriation of our greatness as people created in the image and likeness of God. From the perspective of such a redeemed nature, our need to love God absolutely and our duty to love others as we love ourselves become self-explanatory. So also the need for correction, reproof and training in righteousness so that we are equipped to do every good work (2 Tim. 3: 16). It is to be expected that any defect in this nurture is bound to produce unhappy and painful consequences.
It is in this light that we need to see the larger implications of the ‘exasperation’ that children are likely to experience in respect of parental discipline. The practical truth is that children who are not brought up in the training and instruction of the Lord are likely to be exasperated even at the basic discipline that parents are obliged to impose on them for their own benefit. They mistake advice and sound counsel for ‘interference’. They fail to see the distinction between discipline and harshness and resent parental efforts to keep them in the right path. They resent it all the more when the keenness of their parents to urge them along the narrow path is not matched by a matching parental willingness.
Paul suggests that training in the righteousness of Jesus Christ is the foundation for parental authority. Parents who neglect this aspect in the nurture of their children, but labour hard to do their best for them otherwise, are indeed building their houses on sand. Evidence is mounting today to the effect that the neglect of godliness in family culture and the nurture of children has pushed parent-child relationship into the murky zone of mutual exasperation.
Bringing up children in the instruction of the Lord is not a matter only of repeating certain biblical texts and principles. It is more a matter of living an authentic life at home, which instills in children a sense of awe and wonder about the sanctities and the farther reaches of their life and destiny. The goal in bringing up children in this manner is to enable them to be Christ-like. It is obvious that children cannot be nurtured thus unless parents put themselves under the same discipline. That being the case, the emphases in this area should be on:
The basic challenge of parenthood, especially in our times, is to create a family culture in which obedience informed by mutual love is experienced as a joyful privilege rather than as a reluctant concession to exigency. Parents who expect to be obeyed must so conduct themselves as to enable their children to obey them, even as a matter of privilege. Alternately, they can make obedience seem inconvenient, even humiliating.
What dims the luster of parental authority in the eyes of children is the chronic conflict between their parents. This spoils the sweetness that should characterize every home and subjects children to contrary pulls between their parents that they know not how to handle. This infects their life with anxiety that expresses itself as exasperation. Husbands and wives, by maintaining wholesome relationships based on obedience and mutual love, can provide the umbrella of security for children and so save them from avoidable rebelliousness and exasperation.
[Serialized from recently published book]
[Faith and Family: Signposts to Fullness of Life addresses the foundational issue of our times: wasting of the family. Tragedies arise, often, out of trivial things. Fortunately, the remedy too is simple. We do not have to move mountains to heal our homes. But we do have to turn a new leaf. Sadly, moving a mountain rather than turning a new leaf appeals to most men and women. Those who refuse to make even minor adjustments move inexorably to desperate remedies like divorce or suicide. Millions of men and women live in avoidable domestic purgatories. That should not happen to you. Healing and happiness can come to your home. This book tells you how. ]
CHAPTER 2 - WIVES, OBEY YOUR HUSBANDS
CHAPTER 3 - HUSBANDS, LOVE YOUR WIVES
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