Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
The ultimate meaning of marriage—the ultimate purpose of marriage—is to dramatize on the earth the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church. What we saw last time was that this flesh-and-blood drama of the love between Christ and the church is the God-designed setting for making children—and for making them disciples of Jesus. These are two purposes for marriage. And the ultimate one creates the God-ordained setting for the other one. Ultimately, marriage is a flesh-and-blood drama of how Christ (dramatized by the husband) loves his church, and how the church (dramatized by the wife) is devoted to Christ. And this flesh-and-blood drama creates the setting—the physical, emotional, moral, spiritual nest—for the other purpose of marriage, namely, bringing children into the world and bringing them to Jesus.
In the missionary prayer letter I read this week from Steve and Kim Blewett, one of our veteran missionary families to Papua New Guinea, they explained that both their children are married now (Matthew and Merilee). So under Steve’s and Kim’s picture were the words “empty-nesters.” Everybody in our culture knows the meaning of the term empty-nester. Behind it is the assumption that one of the meanings of marriage is to be a nest for the younger birds until they can fly and find their own worms and build their own nests. And if we are Christians, we say that the very essence of that nest is the flesh-and-blood drama created by a husband and a wife living and showing and teaching the covenant-love between Christ and his church. That activity is the essence of the nest.
A Focus on Fathers
So the question today is: What is supposed to happen with children in this drama? What is supposed to happen to the children that God puts in this flesh-and-blood parable of his Son’s love and the church’s devotion? What happens in this nest for the sake of the younger birds? In answering this question, there are two reasons why I will focus on fathers. The less important reason is that it’s Father’s Day, and the more important reason is that in the text Paul begins by referring to parents in verse 1 and then shifts to a focus on fathers in verse 4.
Notice verse 1: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord.” So clearly both parents are giving guidance and instruction that can be obeyed, because the children are told to obey their parents, both mother and father. In this nest, both mother and father are teaching and modeling and guiding and disciplining.
But then notice what happens when we get to verse 4. We might expect Paul to continue the united focus on parents and say, “Parents, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” But that is not what he says. He says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” So I made the point last time that in marriage and in this nest created by marriage, fathers have a leading responsibility in raising children. Not a sole responsibility, but a leading one. The way I like to say it is that if there is a problem with the children at the Piper household, and if Jesus knocks on the door, and Noel comes to the door, he is going to say, “Hello, Noel, is the man of the house home? We need to talk.” Not that Noel bears no responsibility. But I bear the leading responsibility in seeing that the children are brought up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Headship Extended to Raising Children
This leading responsibility in raising the children is simply the natural continuation of the leading responsibility in relation to the wife. Back in Ephesians 5:23, 25, Paul said, “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church. . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” God doesn’t make the husband the leader in relationship to his wife and then make the wife the leader in relation to the children. We husbands bear the responsibility in both directions. If it were otherwise the children would be very confused. In fact, millions of children today are confused and a host of personal and social problems can probably be traced to this confusion.
So when Paul says in verse 4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” he is simply extending the implications of headship in relationship to our wives to the leading responsibility for the upbringing of our children. That is what it means to be a married man: sacrificial, loving headship in relationship to our wives, and firm, tender leadership in relationship to the united task of raising our children in the Lord. So that is what we want to think about today. What does Ephesians 6:4 call a father to do? Someday perhaps we will do a whole series of messages on parenting. But this is not it. So I am going to focus only on one part of verse 4, namely, the charge not to provoke our children to anger.
In Ephesians 6:4, Paul begins by saying that fathers should not do something. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” Of all the things Paul could have encouraged fathers not to do, he chooses this one. Amazing. Why this one? Why not, Don’t discourage them? Or pamper them? Or tempt them to covet or lie or steal? Or why not, Don’t abuse them? Or neglect them? Or set a bad example for them? Or manipulate them? Of all the things he could have warned fathers against, why this: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger”?
Anger Arises Against Authority
He doesn’t tell us why. So let me guess from what I know of Scripture and life. I’ll suggest two reasons. First, he warns against provoking anger because anger is the most common emotion of the sinful heart when it confronts authority. Dad embodies authority. Apart from Christ, the child embodies self-will. And when the two meet, anger flares. A two-year-old throws a tantrum and a teenager slams the door—or worse.
So I think Paul is saying, there is going to be plenty of anger with the best of parenting, so make every effort, without compromising your authority or truth or holiness, to avoid provoking anger. Consciously be there for the child with authority and truth and holiness in ways that try to minimize the response of anger. We’ll come back to how.
Anger Devours Other Emotions
The second reason, Paul may focus on not provoking anger in our children is because this emotion devours almost all other good emotions. It deadens the soul. It numbs the heart to joy and gratitude and hope and tenderness and compassion and kindness. So Paul knows that if a dad can help a child not be overcome by anger, he may unlock his heart to a dozen other precious emotions that make worship possible and make relationships sweet. Paul is trying to help fathers do what he had to do with his spiritual children. Listen to the heart-language of 2 Corinthians 6:11-13: “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.”
So what shall we say to us dads about this matter of anger in our children? First, we should say that this verse may not be used as emotional blackmail by the children. Blackmail would say, “I am angry, Dad, so you are wrong.” Some people never grow out of this childish self-centeredness: “My emotions are the measure of your love; so if I am unhappy, you are not loving me.” We have all experienced this kind of manipulation. We know Paul does not mean that because Jesus himself made many people angry, and he never sinned or failed to love perfectly. Since all children are sinners, therefore, even the best and most loving and tender use of authority will provoke some children sometimes to anger.
Avoiding Legitimate Anger in Our Children
So the point of verse 4a is not that any time a child is angry a father has sinned. The point is to warn fathers that there is a huge temptation to say things and do things and neglect things that will cause legitimately avoidable anger in our children. Most of us are aware of the obvious things to avoid: yelling, unjust and excessive punishment, hypocrisy, verbal putdowns, etc. But even more important than avoiding the obvious aggravators, we fathers should think about what kinds of preemptive things we can do that don’t just avoid anger but diminish or remove anger. That’s the real challenge.
Think of this: God has never done anything that should legitimately cause anger in any of his children. We are never warranted in getting angry at God. Ever. It happens. And we should admit it, and tremble, and repent, and turn back to humble trust in his sovereign goodness. But even though God has never done anything that legitimately provokes our anger at him, what has he done about the breakdown in our relationship with him? He has taken initiatives to heal it. Initiatives that were infinitely costly to him.
Overcoming Anger by the Death of Jesus
Look back at what Paul says about overcoming anger in relationship to God’s Fatherhood. This text is a model for us fathers about one of the most crucial strategies for overcoming anger in our children. Look at Ephesians 4:31-5:2. Here God, you could say, is speaking to his children: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another . . . .” Now, so far, it is just a command: Don’t be angry; be forgiving. But commands are powerless in and of themselves. What comes next is powerful: “. . . as God in Christ forgave you.” So here is our Father in heaven sending his own Son (“God in Christ forgave you”) to pay the price for our sinful anger. Our Father is not just telling us not to be angry; rather, at great cost to himself, he is overcoming his anger and our anger in the death of Jesus.
Then in the next verse, Ephesians 5:1, he says explicitly that he is playing the role of a Father in this: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” We are children of God if we are united to Christ by faith. He is our Father. He has taken very painful initiatives to overcome his wrath and our sin—our anger. We are infinitely loved by God in Christ. So, fathers, imitate your heavenly Father.
Replacing Anger with Joy
So the point I am stressing is this: When Paul says in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,” don’t just stop doing things that provoke anger; start doing things that remove anger—overcome anger. Start doing things that awaken in the heart of a child other wonderful emotions so that they are not devoured by anger—the great emotion eater.
The main task in all this is that you overcome your own anger and replace it with tenderhearted joy. Joy that spills over onto your children. When the mouth of dad is mainly angry, the tender emotions of a child are consumed. In other words, being the kind of father God calls us to be means being the kind of Christian and the kind of husband God calls us to be.
The Gospel Is the Key
And being a Christian means receiving forgiveness freely from God for all our failures and all our anger. It means letting the smile of God in Christ melt the decades of hardened, numbing, emotionless, low-grade anger. And then letting that healing flow to others. “Let all . . . anger . . . be put away from you . . . . Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” God forgave you. God has been kind to you. God is tenderhearted to you. It is all because of Christ. Therefore, in Christ, by the Spirit, fathers, we can do this. We can put away anger, and we can forgive, and we can experience and awaken in our children tenderheartedness with a whole array of precious emotions that may have been eaten up by anger. They can live again. In you. And in your children.
“Fathers, don’t provoke your children to anger.” Be like God to them. It was very costly. He did not spare his own divine Son in order to rescue other children from his own wrath and from their own rebellious rage. God does not call us do this before he does it for us. That’s the gospel. Before he commands us to love the way he does (5:1), he forgives all our failures to love. Get this, fathers! I am not calling you to love your children like this so that you will have a Father in heaven who is for you. It’s the other way around. I am telling you that God, by the sacrifice and obedience of his Son, Jesus, through faith alone, has already become totally for you. “And if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).
God Has Forgiven You
And now, after becoming that kind of forgiving, supporting, tender, sacrificial Father to us fathers, he calls us: “Be imitators of God as loved children” (Eph. 5:1). Experience the fullness of God’s tender and tough emotions. He has overcome his wrath. He has forgiven our sin. And in him—if you will have it—there is healing for decades of soul-destroying anger.
What our children need from us is that we experience the fullness of God’s offer of healing. Here is the dynamic of fatherhood: As God has forgiven you, forgive your wife and forgive your children (Ephesians 4:32). Sever the root of the whole cycle of anger by savoring to the depths of your soul the preciousness of God’s forgiveness. Don’t provoke your children to anger. Show them in your own soul how it can be replaced with tenderhearted joy.