Spiritual Formation + Community

Spirit Filled Parenting

Fathers, do not exasperate your children;
instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
—Ephesians 6:4


At my church in Louisville, we spent the fall teaching through the great book of Ephesians. In chapter five, the old apostle writes, “Do not be foolish… Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (5:17-18). I had the privilege of reflecting on the critical question: what does it look like to be filled with the Spirit?

Growing up, my family was part of a large, well-known church in Kansas City, MO—one of the leading charismatic megachurches of the 80’s and 90’s. An offshoot of the so-called “Kansas City Prophets,” these folks were the Midwest Campus of the 1960’s Jesus Movement.

It really was a great place to grow up: there was an incredible emphasis on worship and prayer for which I’m still deeply thankful. But there were also some… oddities. Often, worship songs would stretch out for 40+ minutes because the Spirit was a-blowin’. But because the next service had to start soon, they’d do a 3-minute sermon. (I’m not sure if the worship guy and preacher got along). Every message was about the end times and the return of Christ to get people really energetic and committed.

In fact, I remember one Easter—the church would do a lot of dramas, especially on big Sundays—a man in a long white robe and Birkenstocks came and sat next to me. He had long brown hair, a well-groomed beard, and dazzling blue eyes, and he just nodded at me as he took the empty chair. Jesus Christ!, I thought to myself. I leaned over to my little sister, “Do you see him too?”

So, everything was directed at the emotional life. There was this subtle message: “the Spiritual life is about the Sunday experience.” And I’m all for the Sunday experience and true, expressive worship of God with our emotions. But here’s the point I want to make: If we’re completely filled with the Holy Spirit, he will transform every aspect of our life, especially the most routine and mundane moments.

Have you ever noticed what Paul teaches on after exhorting the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit”? The apostle goes on for two chapters—not on expressive worship and prayer—on church membership, marriage, parenting and work (5:19-6:9). It’s a not-so-subtle way of reminding Christians for all ages that the test of your Christian life doesn’t come on Sunday, it comes on Monday—in the routine and mundane moments of life.

For Paul, a religion has no power on Sunday if it has no power on Monday. And Christian doctrine does us no good if it leaves parenting unaffected.

So what does Paul teach on parenting in particular? In Ephesians 6:4, Paul gives us an almost comprehensive theology and practice of Spirit filled parenting.

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.


Called to Encouragement

Of course, Paul directs his teaching, not to parents in general but to dads in particular. Why?

Paul addresses fathers specifically because he has just described them as the spiritual head of the household (5:22-31). Not the ruler or tyrant of the home, but like Christ, the Chief Servant of others. Thomas Aquinas’s definition of love is helpful here: “Love is seeking the good of another.”

My fellow dads, I want to remind you that we’re not secondary caregivers in the home—our job is not just to bring home the bacon and let our wives raise the kids. Paul’s basic assumption here is that the father is present enough at home to be the primary spiritual leader for the kids. Today, even though most of us don’t work from home, we can still be actively engaged in understanding how children develop, mature and change. We can spend enough time with our kids to know what they like and don’t like, what Bible stories resonate with them, which friends at school to keep an eye on, how to relate to members of the opposite sex and so on.

So, why does Paul choose to write, “Do not exasperate/frustrate/discourage/overburden your kids”?

I think it’s because we fathers are more easily tempted to discouraging our kids. Mothers, by nature, seem to be far more inclined to kindness and encouragement with small children.

I’ll quickly admit: I need Paul’s commandment here. We have three kids, all boys, and all under the age of six. It’s a lot of fun; it really is a huge blessing like nothing I’ve ever experienced. But it’s just so exhausting!!! Just like you can’t take a week off from your marriage, you can’t take a week off—you can’t even take five minutes off!—from parenting small children.

In my house, there’s constant noise, constant climbing. Bookcases getting knocked over, things being spilled. All day long, punching and yelling and farting. And keeping the house clean and clutter-free? With three boys, I need a HazMat suit to clean the bathroom.

There are times my boys are directly defiant. Recently, I told my five year old he couldn’t have dessert before dinner, he took an entire smoothie off the dining room table and poured the whole thing down our floor HVAC vent! How do you even think of that!?

Other times, my boys are sweet, loving, and playful, and I still get frustrated. A couple months ago, I took my boys sledding at a nearby park. My five-year old was begging to do one run down the steepest hill in the park (Dog Hill at Cherokee Park) and halfway down, we flipped and I landed on my shoulder. The landing fractured my collarbone and partially tore the ligament to my shoulder. (I’m healing up well, and my son was fine—he went running down the hill after the sled.) Even when my kids are being great, parenting is hard, painful work, and I’m tempted to frustration. Great, now I’m stuck in a sling!! And my boys can easily understand this as frustration with them.

So Paul says, “don’t discourage them.” Don’t ask impossible things of your kids. Don’t crush their spirits. Don’t take out your frustration with work and a million other things on them. Don’t exasperate them.


The Goal of Parenting

But Paul goes on: “Instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

In chapter five, Paul points our human marriages to the divine, triune nature of God. Husbands are to take their cues from Christ—loving his bride, serving her, and moving her toward spiritual maturity. Wives are to take their cues from the church—committing herself to Christ and the spiritual responsibility over her. There’s a similar pattern being subtly offered here in chapter six on parenting.

The apostle encourages dads to “bring up,” or raise, our children in the same way our heavenly Father raises us as his spiritual sons and daughters. See, dads are to take their cues from the perfect Father above. So how does our heavenly Father relate to his sons and daughters? What is the Father’s one goal for us? God’s primary concern for his children is the spiritual maturity and Christlikeness of his children.

Likewise, recognizing this pattern, a father’s primary goal in parenting is the spiritual maturity and Christlikeness of his children.

Our goal, as dads, is not to just get through each hour and day without getting frustrated. It’s not to get our kids out of the house as fast as possible. Our chief goal is not to get them in the best college possible. Instead: our goal, our calling, as dads is to cultivate a deep and abiding fellowship with God in the lives of our children.

Also, if you make the connection between the complexities and the importance of parenting—if we dads really understand that this is our most important business—then we will do this one thing more than any other: We will pray for our kids. We will pray with our wives, we will pray for our own patience, and we will pray for our kids—for their hearts, health, friendships, schoolwork, awkward proms, everything!

One of the reasons I’m so excited to be a part of Sojourn right now is because of all the young families. We get an opportunity as dads to cultivate our kids’ lives early on in such a way that makes them receptive to God, to real friendships, and to hard work for the rest of their lives.[1] There are hundreds of dads in our church family, and if fatherhood is the only thing we did well as a church, we’d still have a massive impact on our community!

So how might this pattern—the Father’s self-giving care of his beloved children—change your approach to parenting?


Discipline and Dialogue

Paul is still going here in his one-verse seminar on parenting. He says, “Instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

These two words are critical. Training means “discipline,” and instruction means “gentle teaching or counseling.” Wise, mature parents recognize this right away: you can’t just do one or the other. Biblical, Spirit filled parents must embrace both discipline and dialogue with their kids!

If we only discipline your kids, we’ll crush them—exasperate them. They’ll run from us as soon as they can. They are likely to grow up with a strong sense of right and wrong, but also with a crippling sense of fear. The subtle message is: achievement is everything, and failure is not an option. The last thing I want as a dad is for my kids to discover grace as a foreign concept in their late teens or early twenties.

But on the other hand, if we only dialogue with our kids but don’t hold them accountable, they won’t mature in the Lord either. When my children sin, if I only sit down with them and ask, “What did you think about that?” And, “How did that make you feel?” They aren’t going to learn biblical wisdom—at least not from me. Then, I fear, they would grow up as soft-handed postmodern hipsters who speak only critique and sarcasm, having nothing to do with objective truth and non-organic foods. (I’m mostly kidding, but you get the point.)

The simple point here, and it’s easier said than done, is that discipline and dialogue must be balanced and prayerful in our Spirit filled parenting.

Remember, to do these things well—truly encouraging our kids and raising them up toward Christlikeness—it requires an ongoing fellowship with and obedience to the Holy Spirit. Only after Paul tells the church to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” does he instruct them to parent their children in this way.

In other words, we’ll never make it as parents apart from dependence on God’s Spirit.


Parenting for Eternity

So, finally, what does an Spirit-filled perspective on family and work look like? To be “Spirit filled,” in parenting or in any area of life, is to be aware of eternity. This is an aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry: to lift our gaze out of momentary trials in order to fix our eyes on our Lord and never-ending life with him.

We are not yet what we will be—and the same goes for our children.

I’m learning lately that I can’t really love and care for my children well until I view them as more than just our children. I am raising God’s children, and I’ll get to spend eternity (Lord willing) with them as fellow heirs of God’s Kingdom. They’re not little demons—though they seem like it occasionally. They’re not little angels, incapable of sin, either. Instead, they’re future co-heirs of the glory of God. I’m praying that I get to spend eternity with these three boys, not as their father, but as their brothers in Christ!

What I need to remember is this: this life, this world, is only one one-billionth of our eternal existence. When I remember this, I don’t need to be defined by my kids’ successes or failures, obedience or foolishness. I don’t have to seek too much glory in them or get too frustrated over them. What matters most is the eternal and the Spiritual: their lives and souls as potential Christ followers. This makes us less devastated by the awful days and helps us cling less to the really great days.

What a privilege! As parents, full of the Holy Spirit and with a mind set to eternity, we get to encourage and build these little persons into spiritual maturity. By our dialogue and by our discipline, we can lovingly invite them into a life of joy, peace and meaning, and we can know that our efforts here will last for all eternity. Praise God!

Hang in there, fellow parents, for your children are not yet what they one day will be. And neither are you. Find yourself in the safe company of our heavenly Father and enjoy these days with your kids.



Excerpts of this essay have also been published by my friends at Gospel Centered Family here and here.

[1] See Rich Plass and Jim Cofield’s chapters on memory and attachment in The Relational Soul for more on how parent-child relationships can prepare us for either a life of trust or mistrust toward God.

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