November 9th, 2015

The goal of a Christian family is to provide the same refuge we are given in Christ.

Proverbs 14:26; 17:6; 19:18; 20:11; 22:6; 28:7 29:15

November 8, 2015


It’s not possible to preach a sermon about family in a vacuum.  There’s always context.  When we turn to what Proverbs has to say about children, there is context.

Today my context, and perhaps yours, is a 24-year-old member of this congregation on life support.  I’ve known Luke Garrison since he was 2, and watched him grow up.  The context his situation gives me is that raising children is fraught with uncertainty. When you bring a child into the world or into your family, you don’t know how the future will unfold.

You also don’t know how a child will develop – whether they’ll do well in school or struggle, where on the spectrum between anorexia and obesity they will fall, how they’ll respond to discipline, whether they’ll be healthy, how they will respond to Christ, and a thousand other variables.  This is especially true for adoptive families.

You don’t know how parenthood will change you, for good or bad.  All of us discover parts of us we didn’t know were there.  I’ve often heard my wife Linda say she never knew she was so selfish until she had children.

I vividly remember a story about our oldest child, Philip, sitting in a high chair when he was a year or two in age.  Linda was there, I’m sure.  It seems like maybe others were present as well – maybe her parents?  I don’t remember.

What I remember is that I put milk and sugar in my hot tea, as I still do every morning, and stirred it with a metal spoon.  Then I took that hot spoon and touched it to my young son’s arm.  Naturally he pulled back and started crying.  You may think I was cruel, but at the time I thought everyone would enjoy the joke.  They didn’t.

Why did I do it? I had seen my Dad do the same thing to my little brother, seven years younger than I.  I’m sure Dad did it to me and to my older brothers.  The spoon was never hot enough to burn the skin.  The milk in a good cup of British-style tea cools the tea down a bit.  But it’s not exactly amusement either from the standpoint of the child.

And I wonder how many other things I did to my kids that I only did because that’s how my Dad raised children.

No child ever has the chance to grow up normal.  No child.  First, the child is born with a sinful nature, a bent toward narcissism.  Second, that child has two parents who inherited some form of screwed-up-ness from their parents and pass that along to their children.  When Dr. Curt Thompson was here a few weeks ago, he said, “The only way not to have messed up children is not to have any.”

If God knew, and he did, that every child brought into the world would have one strike against them because of the Fall, why did he add Strike 2 and Strike 3 in with a sinful Mom and Dad?  Parents usually don’t even know what baggage they’ve brought into parenthood.  At least I only did the spoon thing once, and Philip was too young remember it.  That was really a small thing compared to the other mess I brought with me.

Let’s get to Proverbs and see if we can find some wisdom.  I need to begin with a couple of caveats.  First, I’m not preaching the whole Bible on children and parenting.  There’s good stuff from Genesis to Revelation, but I’m going to stick to Proverbs.  Second, you can find wisdom on parenting outside the Bible, and I’m not dealing with that either.

What parents do: pay attention

Let’s begin with how the book of Proverbs instructs parents.  In preparation for this sermon, we identified about 20 proverbs or proverb sets among the twenty chapters (10-29) of Proverbs titled “The Proverbs of Solomon.”

Arguably the most famous proverb about parenting is Proverbs 22:6,

Train a child in the way he should go

            And when he is old he will not turn from it.[1]

The other theme that leaps off the page as you read through the proverbs is the emphasis on discipline and on corporal punishment (punishment applied to the body).[2]  Proverbs 19:18 says, for example,

Discipline your son, for in that there is hope.

Do not be a willing party to his death.


Add to that Proverbs 29:15 –

The rod of correction imparts wisdom,

            But a child left to himself disgraces his mother.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child” is a more contemporary spinoff of Proverbs 13:24, which says, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children.”

A surface reading of proverbs might lead you to the conclusion that the message to parents in Proverbs is something like this:  “Beat your kids to keep them on the right path, and they’re guaranteed to turn out OK.”

On closer examination, no.  First, let’s say it one more time: proverbs are principles, not promises.  Linda and I still remember what Professor Buck Hatch said years ago at Columbia Bible College about parenting:  “No guilt, no glory.”  Proverbs 22:6 is not saying if your kids turn out poorly it’s because you did it wrong.  Nor if they turn out well can you pat yourself on the back.  Proverbs 22:6 is not a promise, it is a principle.

As for the “rod,” Proverbs is not an argument for or against swatting your toddler’s hand if he reaches for the hot stove, or spanking your 7-year-old.  And it certainly is not justification for child abuse, physical or verbal.  The “rod” in Proverbs is the ancient parallel to prison, or should we say to juvenile prison.  It wasn’t just used in Israel.  The Egyptian hieroglyphic character for “education” includes an image of an arm raised to strike.  What we’re dealing with here is the ancient culture’s way of correcting a teenager or young adult as an alternative to throwing them in prison.

But that’s still not what grabs my attention in these verses about discipline and the rod.  Here’s what I think we miss.  The proverbs about discipline are about the effect of the discipline more than they are about the means.  The goal is to give your kids hope (19:18a) and life (19:18b).  Give them wisdom (29:15a) so their Mom can be proud of them (29:15b).  In words, discipline with intent.  Don’t do it in anger.  Don’t make it about you.  Ask yourself, what effect is my discipline having on this child?

The 2010 update of the New International Version also gives us more insight into Proverbs 29:15.  Instead of “The rod of correction….” the newer translation is “a rod and a reprimand….”  This suggests that sometimes discipline is a rod (physical) and sometimes it’s a reprimand (verbal).  Had they been invented, Proverbs might have added sometimes discipline is grounding or taking away a cell phone.  Wise parents know that discipline which is effective for one child is counterproductive for another.

So what’s the principle for parents in Proverbs:  “Active attention to your children gives them the best chance for life.”   Your children cannot raise themselves.  Understand their world.  Learn about their developmental stages.  Observe their unique personalities and gifts.  Discipline them, but watch how they respond to correction.  Keep the end goal in mind.  Pay attention to what’s happening with your children.

What children do: choose wisely

Proverbs also speaks to the children.  I learned Proverbs 20:11 as a young child, and I think it’s talking to the child.  I don’t like the latest version of the NIV turning this verse into a question, so I’m going back to the original NIV:

Even a child is known by his actions,

            By whether his conduct is pure and right.

Proverbs 28:7 also speaks to older children:

He who keeps the law is a discerning son,

            But a companion of gluttons disgraces his father.

Listen to your parents and choose your friends wisely.  What parent hasn’t said those words?

But there’s a deeper principle here.  Let’s summarize it this way:  At every stage, children, your job is to listen, learn, and choose well.

Kids are not robots.  Humans are not Pavlov’s dogs.  We have to remind ourselves – and our children – that they bear ultimate responsibility for their own choices.  No one has the right to blame the parents or the circumstances for their life.  As kids grow up, they must process the good and bad they received from their parents and let Christ redeem it for good.

What families are: a safe place

This is my favorite principle from proverbs.  Let’s look at Proverbs 14:26 –

He who fears the LORD has a secure fortress,

            And for his children it will be a refuge.

In an earlier sermon we talked about what it means to fear the Lord.  Some people shy away from that language and others probably embrace it too much.  “Fear” is a holistic word in the Bible that refers to a relationship of submission and respect to someone with power over you who also loves you and wants the best for you – like a teacher or coach.

Proverbs tells parents that if they live and model that kind of relationship with the Lord, their children will have a “fortress” or a “refuge.”  Notice that the goal is for the family to be a place of safety and security.  The means is for the parents to model a healthy, vulnerable, real relationship with the Lord.  Healthy doesn’t mean “perfect.”  Quite the opposite.  Healthy means being known and loved in my sins and failures.

Proverbs 17:6 makes this safety multigenerational.

Children’s children are a crown to the aged,

            And parents are the pride of their children.

This is the perspective gained from the passing of time.  We grow wiser about family life when we grow older.  We become proud of our parents, and they bond with our children and those things that used to raise our anxiety now are either ignored or managed with more grace.  Thus the family becomes a safer place for all when the generations are linked in that way.  Does it always happen?  No, but it’s the plan.

This is especially where New Testament thinking comes into family life.  One of our Dads told me this week he learned in John and Jackie Perry’s Sunday School class why kids who might seem lazy or disrespectful or disorganized at home seem to transform into something else when they visit friends’ homes.  What’s happening when the neighbor says, “You have the most respectful and helpful children.  They say ‘Yes Ma’am’ and ‘No Sir’ and offer to clear their place at the dinner table!”  And you’re thinking, “Are you sure that was my child?”

What’s happening is that at your house your child actually feels the most grace.  They need a place where they are unconditionally loved, where a bed to sleep in and a plate of food is theirs just because they belong.  It’s a kind of compliment when your kids show you their fallen nature, because even though they’re risking discipline (and rightly so), they’re not risking rejection.  This models the New Testament love bond with God through Jesus Christ.

It’s so easy to forget that God designed families as a safe place.  It’s supposed to be a safe place precisely because all the people in that family are screwed up.  One of the things our kids say to us in their young adulthood is that we were too good, too perfect.  I didn’t know you could mess up parenthood by trying too hard.  My kids thought their struggles and doubts and conflicts were not appropriate for family life.  I should have modeled instead that this is a safe place to be so very imperfect.  If I had it to do over again, which I don’t, my children would have heard me say more often, “I’m angry today.”  “I’m sad.”  “I really messed up.”  “I’m frustrated.”  “God doesn’t feel very real today.”  “It seems like my prayers aren’t getting through.”

But that was part of my imperfection – hiding instead of being vulnerable.  And my children have to take responsibility as adults to figure that out and learn what it’s like to seek and find intimacy in a family of imperfect people.  The Christian story is the ultimate and final and only true place to find that kind of safety.

I can wait

One of these days, I hope to finish my book on humility.  I have written a chapter on parenting titled, “I can wait.”  Forgive me if you were at the Evangelism lunch back in September, because I shared some of this same story.

Just after our son Phil finished college, he asked me, “Do you pray for me?” At that point in his life, he wanted the answer to be “No.”  He thought if we prayed for him that meant we were asking God to fix him.  Somewhere along the line I’m the one who had conveyed to him that prayer is all about informing God what he doesn’t know about the situation and what he needs to do about it.

After Phil moved to Hawaii in 2011, of course we went to visit him.  (We’ll be back again this Thanksgiving season for his wedding, and no, you can’t go in our suitcase.)  The first time we went, however, it was the most extended time we had spent with him since high school.  We decided to let go of the need to fix anyone or anything.  We would do better at what Proverbs says parenting is all about – to pay attention, to allow our children the freedom to take responsibility, and to make the family a safe place.

On our return from Hawaii, Phil sent us an e-mail:

Mom and dad, I want to tell you that something felt different with you guys during this trip – in a good way.   I sensed a sort of relaxation in both of you.  It’s not that you’ve relaxed your convictions.  Something seems different in how you interact with us and the world around you.  It’s my perception that your faith and convictions used to function almost like a shield. Now, however, I’m beginning to see your faith acting more as a lens or filter instead of a shield.  That means I see more you, and I feel like you see more me.  I like it, and I feel more comfortable with you.  I feel safer being myself.

This was the result of prayer.  Prayer is letting go of my need to control outcomes.  I asked Phil if I could use his e-mail in my book on humility and tell a little of his story in a chapter I titled “I can wait.”  Humility, after all, is about patience.  Phil said yes, but he also asked, “What are you waiting for?”  Then he added this –

Patience resulting from true surrender to a power greater than yourself involves not only contentment while waiting but contentment with waiting in vain.  

I have spent a great deal more of my life studying the Bible and theology than my son has, but he is biblically on target.  When the Bible speaks of prayer as “waiting,” it is not about waiting on or for anything or anyone except the Lord.  It is about learning to trust him completely while I wait.

And that’s family life, isn’t it?  There’s a lot of waiting.  These are the people who teach me most about grace.  These are the relationships that teach me the most about unconditional love.  These are the people with whom I risk the most in the adventure of life, because the future is so uncertain.  We have no guarantees of how long we have to love and be loved because life is so fragile.

The parents’ job is to pay attention to what instruction and discipline each child needs at a given stage of life.  The children’s job is to increasingly take responsibility for good choices.  The goal of the whole family is to model the same security we have been given by Christ.  Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, the Scriptures in this sermon are from the 1978 New International Version.

[2] The Latin root of “corporal” is corpus, meaning body.

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