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I have learned to be a dad who paddles upstream. I’m not perfectly consistent, but I’m learning to forge this path now more than ever.
Two Paths to Provocation
The Bible gives me an alarming warning as a father to my four daughters: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21).
This means I can potentially frustrate my children to the point that they simply give into discouragement and give up on obeying me and pleasing Jesus (Col. 3:20). And this threat is so real and ominous, that the Bible warns me about it not once, but twice (Eph. 6:4).
I have seen personally and pastorally two main ways Christian dads discourage their kids: being permissive and being perfectionistic. Both of these types of dads can do equally terrible damage as they pastor their sons and daughters.
The Permissive Dad
The permissive dad tries to love his kids without correction. He is an enabler who fails to confront sin and foolishness. He never employs hard consequences for disobedience.
His children, despite his best intention towards the contrary, feel unloved. They will commonly rebel just to get a reaction from dad. They break rules and cross boundaries then wait for correction. And when dad refuses to act, the child refuses to believe he really loves him or her.
In this way earthly fathers distort the view of our heavenly Father. The permissive dad provokes his child to discouragement—the very thing the Bible warned him not to do.
The Perfectionist Dad
The perfectionist dad tries to correct his kids without love. He is controlling and overcorrects his kids for failure or immaturity. He commonly employs the harshest consequence—the withdrawal of his delight in and approval of his child—for nonperformance of every kind.
His kids may exhibit outward signs of compliance, but their hearts are hard and moved by fear instead of love. They too rebel in hopes that dad will love them no matter what. And when he doesn’t, his children conclude that dad won’t ever love them.
In this way, earthly fathers distort the view of our heavenly Father. Perfectionist dad has provoked his child to discouragement. The very thing the Bible warned him not to do.
If you as a dad are discouraging your kids, you don’t get the word of Christ, the gospel.
The Way Upstream
All dads provoke their kids in some way at some time. And most dads, myself certainly included, live with regret. I have been both permissive and perfectionistic—sometimes on the very same day!
How do we get past our failure? How do we get off the path of provocation, whether it is permissiveness or perfectionism? The Bible offers us a third way to go, and it leads upstream from Colossians 3:21.
The warning of Colossians 3:21 is like water from a river that flows downstream from the spring of Colossians 3:16, which reads, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” So if the waters of fatherhood are tainted, there must be pollution at the headwaters upstream.
Simply put, if you as a dad are discouraging your kids, you don’t get the word of Christ, the gospel.
Two Toxic Distortions
According to the Bible, Christians distort Christ’s gospel in two major ways: with the “license to sin” and the “legalism with sin” fallacies.
Some think that the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness for our sin gives permission for the believer to stay stuck in sin. We refer to this false understanding of the gospel as licentiousness. This position is challenged head on by Romans 6:1–2: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? By no means!”
Toxic license to sin in the wellspring of our hearts flows downstream in the form of permissiveness. In other words, if the “gospel” gives dad the freedom to keep on sinning in his own life, he will see no need to discipline his kids. The artificial, sticky syrup of empty, false grace flows out of the father’s own heart until it sets into the discouraged heart of his child.
The brackish, salty water of self-righteousness flows out of the father’s own heart until it sours the discouraged heart of his child.
On the other hand, some think that good news of Jesus’ forgiveness for our sins is only good enough for a do-over. It provides a starting point from where we can get to work and make something righteous out of a previously wicked life—Jesus gives a new start to do more and try harder.
This false understanding of the gospel is called legalism. The Bible reserves its harshest language for this distortion. Galatians 3:3 asks this hard question of legalists, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Toxic legalism in the wellspring of our hearts flows downstream in the form of perfectionism. In other words, if the “gospel” compels dad to achieve his own right standing before God rather that trusting in Jesus’ righteousness, he will errantly believe he can motivate his kids to obedience apart from the love of Jesus. The brackish, salty water of self-righteousness flows out of the father’s own heart until it sours the discouraged heart of his child.
The Repentant and Faithful Father
Practically, this means that we have to get off the path of permissiveness or perfectionism lest we completely discourage the kids we love. We call this repentance.
In Christ you are forgiven of your sins as a father. So when—not if—you fail and act like a permissive or perfectionist father, then model the work of the gospel in your life by confessing to your children your sins and asking for their forgiveness.
Point your children to Jesus by sharing your life and trusting in him.
It also means that we need a new path, one that leads us upstream to the headwaters of our own hearts where we rely completely on Jesus’ work for us. We call this faith.
From this place, the place where Jesus’ word lives in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, the new, clean, and pure water of his love will flow from our lives into those of our kids.
As a father, you want to point your children to Jesus by sharing your life and trusting in him. Share your life and how Jesus has forgiven you and changed your life with them. Let them know why you do what you do because Jesus is Lord and because he is worthy to be worshiped with every part of your life. Point them to Jesus in everything that you do. This will encourage your children to see how their life connects with Jesus, too.