“Do not provoke your children” (Colossians 3:21)?

In Colossians 3:18–21, the apostle Paul summarized his instructions concerning Christian family life in four concise directives: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (ESV).

The word for “provoke” in the original Greek language means “to irritate or arouse feelings such as anger, hurt, shame, and fear to the point of exasperation.” Other translations render the phrase as “do not exasperate” (CSB), “do not aggravate” (NLT), “do not drive to resentment” (JB ), “do not nag” (NCV), and “do not embitter” (NIV). The image is of an overbearing disciplinarian who constantly corrects and rebukes a child for every little mistake or perceived wrong. Such a father will provoke his children.

The Greek word translated “discouraged” is found only here in the New Testament. It speaks of becoming disheartened or “losing spirit.” According to A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, such a discouraged child will close down his heart and hide inside himself. “The child feels that he can never do anything right and so gives up trying” (Bratcher, R., & Nida, E., United Bible Societies, 1993, p. 94).

The term father in Colossians 3:21 speaks directly of the male parent. Of course, the rule to not provoke one’s children ought to encompass both father and mother, but Paul reminds us that fathers hold the critical responsibility as head of the household.

“The Christian father is not to overcorrect or harass his children, or they will become discouraged, which refers to ‘a listless, sullen resignation—a broken spirit.’ To be discouraged as a child means to think things like, I’ll never get it right, or, All he does is criticize, or, He’ll never love me. John Newton is reported to have said, ‘I know that my father loved me—but he did not seem to wish me to see it.’ Christian fathers should be sure their children are as sure of their love as they are of their authority” (Anders, M., Galatians–Colossians, Vol. 8, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999, p. 333.)

Yes, children are called to honor and obey their parents (Exodus 20:12Ephesians 6:1–2Colossians 3:20), but parents must not abuse their authority. They must treat their children with dignity, respect, patience, and love. Parents are called to encourage their children. They do this by teaching each child the principles of God’s Word and promoting life-affirming, positive creativity in the child, stirring him to have confidence in his God-given uniqueness and to believe that he can do what he otherwise may never have achieved.

Endless criticism, emotional and physical neglect, and overly harsh discipline will defeat a child’s spirit. One commentator writes, “Constant nagging produces a situation where children are discouraged either because they cannot please those they love or because they feel they are of no worth to anybody” (Melick, R., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Vol. 32, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991, p. 315). Such provocation is not of God and will crush a child’s heart to the point of his becoming fearful, timid, and withdrawn. He will grow up disheartened, lacking the necessary confidence to succeed and believe he can be all God created him to be.

In a teaching on family relationships to the Ephesian church, Paul exhorted fathers, “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, ESV). The language suggests a positive, nurturing, and faith-infused environment where children will see their father’s genuine commitment to the Lord.

Parents, and especially fathers, play a critical role in representing God to their children. Just as “the Lord disciplines those he loves” (Hebrews 12:6, NLT), mothers and fathers ought to discipline their children, but with love as their primary motivation, so that “afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way” (Hebrews 12:11, NLT).

Growing up in a Christian home is meant to be a positive, foundation-building, uplifting experience where parents “start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Children need to see God’s love and character modeled through their parents’ lives. Such modeling will make it easier to live by the maxim to “listen when your father corrects you. Don’t neglect your mother’s instruction. What you learn from them will crown you with grace and be a chain of honor around your neck” (Proverbs 1:8–9, NLT).

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