I can remember a day when I would watch the adults around me parenting their young children. I’d be in church, looking on from a distance and I would, honestly, marvel. I would think, “Man…look at those parents…they’re such idiots.” You know how it is. When you’re twenty-five you’re a genius. But then you become a parent and join those other idiots all trying to figure how to keep these tiny humans alive and free of major psychological trauma.
Marriage and children teach you things and one of the main things they teach you is how selfish and impatience you are. At least that’s been my experience. So, understand that I come to this topic from two perspectives. 1. I’m in the boat with harsh parents. I get it. 2. I need Scripture – God’s word – to point me and shape my heart. And I’m confident that it does do that for all of us.
The Subject: How Not To Be Harsh With Your Children
Note: Because the focus here is particularly on children and parents that’s going to take up the bulk of this space – but understand these things could apply to many other relationships.
First: God clearly commands us not to be harsh
- Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
- Colossians 3:21, “21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
- Proverbs, 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
What “harshness” looks like:
26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
We especially see Verse 31 express many of the marks of a harsh person:
Harshness is a “work of the flesh”
“19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
- Harshness is evident – if it’s not obvious to you it’s obvious to everyone around you. It does not stay hidden. You may not be aware that you’re harsh but everyone else does. You might want to ask someone close to you about it. These things are evident.
- Harshness, i.e., enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries and things like these, provoking one another are works of the flesh. If these things are recurring problems, you are walking in the flesh and that makes your harshness a spiritual problem
- Harshness is the kind of spiritual problem that could cost us the kingdom of God (v. 21).
- If this is how we are commanded to treat those in our church, who we do not live with, how much more would it be expected toward the members of our own household; our children.
Second: What To Do
1. Pay attention to yourself
What I’m talking about here is an honest assessment of yourself, an honest confession of your sin, and a change of heart that can only come through the gospel of Jesus.
In the days of the Puritans you would have been told to “Take heed to yourself”. First Corinthians 10:12, “12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
The reason you are harsh is NOT that your kids are difficult. They may be difficult, but that’s not the reason you are harsh. You are the reason you are harsh.
I’ve heard it illustrated this way: If my car breaks down and I cross the street to look under my neighbor’s hood, I’m probably not going to fix the problem. I can’t go looking under my neighbor’s hood for things that are going wrong under mine. The person who keeps trying to change their child through their own harshness is the same as the person who keeps looking under his neighbor’s hood for why his own car won’t start. This insight actually comes straight from Jesus.
Matthew 15:18-20, “18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person.”
Water Bottle Illustration: Paul Tripp also has a famous illustration of this point. If you shake a water bottle, and its contents spill out, it’s natural to say that water was spilled because the bottle was shaken. This is true. But it’s also true that water spilled out because water was in it. Ultimately, what comes out of the bottle is determined but what’s inside the bottle in the first place. So, your kids shake you. Sure, they do. But what spills out of you is not your kids’ fault. It’s what’s in your heart. James says the same thing.
James 4:1-4, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people!3 Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
2. Don’t Keep Score
Harshness grows as our catalog of offenses is kept and remembered.
Matthew 18:21, “21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Jesus doesn’t change the rules for your children. You have to forgive them as often as they sin against you.
Illustration: Your child commits a sin – rips something away from or speaks hurtfully toward their sibling. The sin is confronted, it’s confessed, the child actually names the sin, agrees with you and God about that sin, and then prays to God with you, asking for forgiveness. They talk to their sibling, asking for forgiveness. That’s all done. Then 30 minutes later (or 30 seconds), he does it again. After all the work that went into getting back into fellowship the first time, your response is usually going to be, “Seriously?” Didn’t we just do this?
But, you have to remember two things: (1) that’s not what God says about your sin and (2) that’s not how He’s called you to respond to your child’s sin. How often should I forgive? Is seven enough? No. Not even close. But what about when he sins 10 minutes after we just… “No. Every time. Forgive every time.” That’s what Jesus is saying.
Paul says it this way in 1 Corinthians 13:5, “4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…”
That word “resentful” in many other translations (and better ones) is “keeps no record of wrongs”. It doesn’t keep track of the way other people fail. It doesn’t do that because it has no desire to keep digging things up that have been forgiven.
The last thing we want to do with our kids is let bitterness toward them take root. And that’s what bitterness does. Bitterness writes catalogues of offenses, keeps track of them all, ready to be looked up and brought out anytime you want to feel superior, or you want to win an argument, or want to feel right for being ticked off.
3. Teach and Model Genuine Confession, Repentance and Reconciliation
So, this one is especially for when you blow it. When you give in to anger, and become harsh with your kids or spouse, or someone else. You’re not perfect, you are a work in progress, and so you need to know what to do when you sin in this way and that means you need to know what biblical, gospel-centered, reconciliation looks like.
And hopefully, your kids grow up in a home where this is modeled for them over and over again. It’s the best way to learn about it anyway.
Reconciliation that is Gospel-centered:
The news of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection means that those who have placed their love and and trust in Jesus Christ have actual forgiveness for their actual sins. We don’t have imaginary sins or imaginary forgiveness. We have real sin, but also real forgiveness.
So, we want to confess and repent and be reconciled to God and others as if this is a fact. Because it is for those who are in Christ.
1 John 1:8-9, “8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Reconciliation that we model first:
When we are harsh we need to model this so that our children also know what to do when they sin.
Confession: Confess actual sins – not nice sounding words for hidden problems. Don’t say that you are sorry for “losing it, getting steamed, or testy” or some other cute way of describing what God calls anger or bitterness or wrath. You want to identify your root sin. Call that sin what God calls that sin. Confess it to God. Confess it to the person, or the child you sinned against. Ask for their forgiveness. And then pray with them to God for forgiveness, a right relationship with one another, and help in getting your heart right.
If you do this you’ll find how quickly kids can forgive. You’ll be modeling humility for your child. Honest confession and quick reconciliation.
And, when they sin and you need to lead them through this same process it will make sense to them. This is what mom and dad do, this is what I should do when I sin.
RECONCILIATION: Once it’s done, it needs to be done. It doesn’t need to be brought up again. Consequences are one thing. If the sin needs to come with a discipline and the consequences of that discipline will be felt for a brief time – that’s not the same thing as holding a grudge. That’s just the natural consequence of sin. But, as far as the temperature in the relationship goes – it should be the temperature of reconciliation. There should be lightness, joking, laughing, smiles, friendliness. If there’s real confession, repentance, and reconciliation, that’s what it should be like.
I have often made the mistake of continuing to lecture my children long after they’ve named their sin, confessed it to God, asked for forgiveness and embraced the discipline. That’s my problem – that’s me just not letting go of my anger.
4. Practice Saturation Love
Saturation love is a term I’m borrowing from an evangelist named Jim Wilson. He wrote a talk years ago – it was later adapted into a chapter of a book called “How To Be Free From Bitterness”
Not many months ago I read it and, just to be transparent, there are still things in it that I question – but to me, the heart of it, the central idea, is spot-on and so I heartily recommend it.
So, when it comes to describing the love that parents should have for their kids, he chooses the term, saturation. He talks about how the saturation point in anything is when it’s so full that it can’t be fuller. So, if you pour sugar in water, there comes a point where the water cannot absorb any more of the sugar. It’s reached its saturation point.
My wife had a friend years ago and this was her theory about the use of cologne in Abercrombie and Fitch. She said if you walked by any Abercrombie and Fitch in any mall in America you would just get hit with a wave or horrible smells as if they “saturated the floor” with their Abercrombie cologne. Well, that’s what we’re going for with our love toward our children.
Allow me an extended quotation:
“What are the results of not getting enough love? Disobedience is directly proportional to the shortfall in love.* Discipline for the disobedience, even if administered correctly, is not effective if the child is not loved enough. He thinks, “The last time I got any attention around here was the last time I got spanked.” His disobedience becomes his means for getting attention. Therefore your training and teaching is ineffective if you are not giving your child enough love.
Sibling rivalry, competition, selfishness, and jealousy are inversely proportional to love toward your children. So when all of the kids are saturated with love, there is little or no rivalry, squabbles, or fights. The more love, the less whining, disobedience, and jealousy, and the less crying and tantrums. Also, the more love, the sooner the child will become a Christian.
“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” (Romans 2:14)
God’s means for leading us to repentance was to pour on the kindness and show us tolerance and patience even when we were sinners. How much more should we do this for our children.
What are our problems? We do not want to give hugs and attention to a whiner. We do not want to endorse bad behavior. That is true, but we are not endorsing bad behavior. We are curing it. This giving is not giving in to the child’s dictations, but to his real need. His perception is more true than your perception. The “whiner” is asking for attention—loving attention. We will give a small baby attention when it cries. There may be nothing wrong; he is not hungry, wet, dirty, or sick; he just wants some loving. When the child is two or three or nine or ten and asks for attention, we do not want to give it. We do not think the child needs it. Believe me, if he asks for it, he needs it. When he is saturated he will quit asking.
Finally: Two Biblical Indications He’s On To Something:
1. The perfect Father/Son relationship
Matthew 3:16-17, “16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Ok. So, many of us know this verse. But what does it teach us about parenting? Well, it’s the perfect Father/Son relationship for starters.
And what is the baseline of the relationship? What is it like? It’s a Father who wants his Son, and everyone listening, to know that He loves His Son and that He is pleased with His Son. Love and pleasure are the marks of the relationship.
So, of course, parents need to tell theirs kids that they are loved. They need to do this and show this in front of other people. But, far more neglected is the commitment to tell and show your kids how pleased you are to be their parents.
So, frequently, I will end the night by praying to God or just by telling my kids about how happy I am that I get be their dad. Parents should find ways to do this frequently.
The other biblical indication that Jim Wilson is on to something here is the way God issues commands. In other words,
2. God’s Love Always Precedes His Law
In other words, love first, and then the commands.
A couple of examples:
Exodus 20:1-2, “And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”
So, notice the order. God gives the command, and 9 others after the command in verse 3. But he only gives that command after he reminds them, “I brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And if you look at that story it’s filled with extreme terms of affection for Israel. Israel is my “firstborn son – let my son go.” So, when God, delivers the most famous commands in all the Bible, He front loads them with these reminders. “You are my son, you are my children. I love you. I rescued you. I am happy to be your God and your Father.”
It’s the same thing in the New Testament.
Ephesians 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
You see it again here. Be imitators of God, how? Be imitators of God, as what? “Beloved children.” So, our status as beloved children, precedes our obedience. It precedes God’s commands.
You see it in verse 2 also: Walk in love…how? As Christ loved you and gave himself up for you. Again, love first. Then the commands.
So, God saturates His people with his divine, self-sacrificing, perfect love and this love overflows in his people and results in their obedience and loyalty and service to God. It is the alternative to harshness.