Want to see how un-Christlike you are? Try raising kids

Want to see how un-Christlike you are? Try raising kids March 7, 2013
fathers don't provoke your children
David Castillo Dominici, FreeDigitalPhotos

If you’re looking for a gauge to measure how un-Christlike you are, try raising kids. At least that works pretty well for me.

In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis speaks of “the bad manners of parents to children.” Ahem. Guilty.

The other day I spoke harshly to my son. An hour later he was rude, and Megan corrected him. “In our home we honor each other with our words,” she told him. And I had to interrupt and apologize right there, lest I make her a hypocrite. I had not honored my son in my words and tone.

Exasperating our kids

When preaching through Paul’s marriage advice, pastors often make the comment that Paul has to instruct husbands to love and wives to respect, because if they’re prone to going off the rails, it’ll be in those directions: men growing cold and wives losing respect.

Apply the same thinking to Paul’s instruction to fathers. Twice he says, “Fathers, do no provoke your children.” In the letter the Colossians he adds “lest they become discouraged” (3.21), and he tells the Ephesians to not to provoke “to anger” (6.4). When I go wrong with my eldest, that’s exactly the direction I head: I drive him to discouragement and frustration.

I read some patristic commentaries on these verses, hoping for some dazzling insight. They mostly passed over this part, and I think it’s because there’s not much to unpack here. It’s like Bob Newhart’s “Stop It” routine. Paul and the fathers don’t need to give a lot of advice and teaching here because the point is clear:

As dads, you’re prone to exasperating your kids. Don’t.

What the monk says

I’m reading Elder Porphyrios’ advice about parenting in the book Wounded by Love. It slays me.

“[P]arents need to devote themselves to the love of God,” he says. “They need to become saints in relation to their children through their mildness, patience, and love. They need to make a new start every day, with a fresh outlook, renewed enthusiasm and love for their children.”

Do I really do that — or do I build a file on my children, one that tallies sins more than it forgives them?

Children’s behavior, says the elder, “is not improved by reprimands, disciplining, or strictness. If the parents do not pursue a life of holiness and if they don’t engage in spiritual struggle, they make great mistakes and transmit the faults they have within them.” A parent must employ “disciplinary measures,” he admits but adds, “Above all, you need to pray.”

Lord, have mercy.

The answer is grace

It’s in reading words like these that I realize how much grace I truly need. I can correct my son all day, but if it’s coming from a hard heart, I will only close his. I will, as the apostle warned, drive him to discouragement or worse.

There’s a prayer in the Orthodox church for parents that has these words: “O Righteous Judge, who punishes children for the sins of their parents, punish not my children for my sins, but sprinkle them with the dew of Thy grace.” Amen.

Lord, help me bless my children in all things and see my own sins.

Side note: Sins of the fathers

One reader messaged me about the use of the word punish in the above prayer. The line itself comes from Exodus 20 in which we read that God “visits” sins from one generation to the next. Neither the text of the scripture, nor the theology of the church would suggest punishment per se; it’s probably clearer to say that kids bear negative consequences of their parents’ sins.

I am, for instance, divorced (having since remarried). Andrew Root has written very compellingly that children of divorce have a radically altered sense of self. Divorce is an ontological crisis for a child.

My kids from my first marriage bear the consequences of my sin in a very real way and will probably reap that whirlwind for the rest of their lives. My mistakes are being visited on them them, to use the language of Exodus. To pray the prayer above is to ask God for mercy in their lives, to relieve the ill effects of my sins, and instead to “sprinkle them with the dew of [God’s] grace.”

Something elsewhere

Check out Frank Viola’s post about handling criticism. “[B]e thankful to the Lord for criticism,” he says. “Receive the constructive kind with a spirit of gratefulness and ignore that which is rooted in falsehood. . . .”

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  • This is convicting and timely, Joel. Thank you!

    • Joel J. Miller

      You’re welcome. I needed the message too.

    • Alexis Pappas

      Our assistant priest always reminds me (I can’t remember who is quoting), “You’ll do more talking to Christ and the Theotokos about your children than talking to your children about Christ and the Theotokos.”

      • Joel J. Miller

        That sounds about right.

  • hey joel,
    i could totally relate to your post!
    just a little observation from my 26 years of parenting –
    what i have come to discover in my life as a daughter of God and a parent of 2 girls and 1 boy is that in my intense desire to “help them” not suffer from the sins of my past and inherited dysfunction, i have often acted under my own “unction” and not that of Grace – as you beautifully highlight. i am desperate to keep them from the pain of the addictions that destroyed my childhood and almost drove me to suicide as a teen. in an effort to take my vocation as “Mommy” with all grave responsibility, i would regularly forget much that i both knew in my mind and had experienced in my life–namely, that GOD works all for the good, that JESUS is the Good Shepherd Who SEEKS OUT THE LOST (not me- i am the border collie who howls until He gets there!), that i could go as far as giving my body to be burned, but “if i have not love” …. only i thought what i was doing WAS loving! i lack HUMILITY. at 52, i am Beginning to See and to BEG for Him to drape my soul and change me – to Humble me. it is not that i had been seeking anything “wrong” in my desire for my children to deeply know the love of God and to respond in kind, but i was pushing for them to somehow discover Him in My Time, My Way. wow! what a stupid, dull-witted, self-absorbed sheep i have been! i also had wrongly believed that my sins primarily were born from the evil perpetrated in my family of origin. That may have been the case for some of them, but i had put far too much ownership on the idea that “if only…..then….”. That false premise set me to “right the wrong” and i somehow presumed that their healthier childhood would “keep them” from making free-will choices to sin. one in particular has “gone astray” and it took some Spiritual Direction from a holy priest to help me work through this. Ezekiel 18 also set me straight about “inherited” consequences.
    so, although my childhood abuse was a burden i know He continues to deliver me from and He helped my children NOT SUFFER to the extent that i did, i also know that even in that horrible pit, He was present. just as He was present to Joseph the Patriarch. (don’t you wonder what was happening in the young man’s soul in that pit before being sold? i think he may have had more than a “dream”!) Our Father, in an inexplicable mystery, allows and makes provision for the very fact that our hearts are only made whole in His love (if there was a perfect parent, wouldn’t that take the place of God in our child’s heart?) and their need for Him is discovered by our very imperfection. He is made perfect in weakness.
    Let us love one another in Truth, with Humility, Contrition, Gratitude, Joy, Hope, Entrusting those we love to His Care.
    and a little “discipline” in the “training” sense. He makes ALL THINGS NEW.
    Good day, my brother.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Much to ponder there. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kathryn MacDonald

    Interesting read. I particularly appreciate the subsection on the sins of the father…it was very well explained, at least to me.

    I am the child of a first marriage. My mother remarried a wonderful man when I was still quite young. He adopted me and is Dad, full stop. I could not have asked for a better father than the one God gave me in Dad. They had 3 more children; the 6 of us are still very close and we all manage to have fairly healthy relationships with each other.

    Well into my 40’s now, I still find myself experiencing the visits of the sins of my parents’. I know the divorce was the right thing and have never had cause to question it…the fallout still remains–for me it shows up in lifetime habits and beliefs I get to reprogram. You are the first I’ve read who has addressed HOW the sins of the fathers can be visited on future generations, thank you.

    We believe that God forgives sin and wipes it from His memory and we are right to believe so. We frequently forget there are still real world consequences to sin that cannot be escaped. While the sin is forgiven, we get the opportunity to walk out the repentance (walking out the opposite spirit)…and sometimes the repentance lasts longer than we do.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks for that, Kathryn. You’re exactly right about consequences of sin. My grandfather had an affair; long after his passing that choice still affects our family, and will continue to do so.

      I’m reminded of something I’ve heard Fr. Tom Hopko say many times, that our job as believers is to leave a better humanity than the one we inherited. By walking in repentance and holiness we can have the opposite effect our sins have — we can bless those that come after us.

  • Karen

    Thanks, Joel. I happen to have just finished reading Wounded by Love and your book on angels (in that order! The subject of your post is also a major part of my experience as a parent and one of the key things the Lord uses for my own salvation–could so relate to what you had to say. Keep up the good work.

    Debby, this temptation to overcompensate for the negative inheritance we have from our families of origin is, I believe, a universal parenting experience. Thanks for sharing your insights.