In Ephesus, a pagan seaport city on the western edge off what today is Turkey, attitudes toward children could be harsh and even brutal. That’s why it is noteworthy that Paul gives the following simple instructions to Christian fathers new to the faith living there: “Don’t anger your children.”
The New International Version translates it, “Don’t exasperate your children;” and The Message paraphrases it, “… don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them.”
In all three treatments of the text it is evident that the Apostle is not so much counselling fathers to control their own anger as to be mindful of how their way of relating is affecting their children emotionally. They are to relate to them in such a way as to avoid creating unrelieved exasperation.
We can amplify this advice as follows: don’t ignore them when they need you or brush them off when they ask for attention; don’t reply at full volume when they need controversial questions addressed gently. Even when they are in trouble with the family over failed expectations, wait to talk to them about it until you can do it without rage because rage often begets rage and alienation.
Above all, even when disciplining them, treat them with the dignity God has endowed them with.
I recall spending time with a young man who suffered from an acute sense of alienation from his father. There was no active rebellion involved as yet, but he presented his situation with deep feeling. He sometimes sat rubbing his knuckles when he talked to me. He came for several visits, and each time uttered one sentence several times, his chin quivering with emotion: “I want my father; I need my father; I can’t have my father.”
The issue was not abuse or physical abandonment on the father’s part; it seemed emotional distance from his son was causing the son deep distress. I never met the father but got the impression that some important ingredient was missing from his emotional connection with his son.
On another occasion, a respectful young man in his senior teens said in exasperation and with tears in his eyes, “I wish my Dad would talk to me.” The family would pass general public inspection with good grades, but the father lacked the skill of interacting emotionally with the son on his level and this was proving costly. It was causing a breach of the Apostles instruction, “Don’t exasperate your children.”
Consider three reasons why the Apostle’s terse advice to Christian fathers is so important. First, the Christian family works best when reciprocity between father and children is practiced. “We are all members of one body.” This instruction to the church can be appropriated by the family, too (Ephesians 4:25). In fact, the Christian family should be marked by mutuality of respect because of the reconciling power of the Gospel.
Second, Paul’s advice speaks to the father’s need to manage male aggressions well. These are a gift from God. They can have an appropriate place in the everyday world and may be particularly important when father is called upon to protect the family from external threats, whether physical or emotional. And particularly when children are teenagers, the same male forcefulness is occasionally needed to maintain the order of the family.
Third, a father’s attention to how he is affecting his children contributes a gentle strength and a sense of order to the family that give evidence that the Gospel makes life radically better.
(Adapted from my book, God’s House Rules)
Photo credit: Yvette T. (via flickr.com)