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Don’t Exasperate Your Kids: A Father’s Day Meditation

Paul tells the Ephesians:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4 ESV)

Since Father’s Day is coming soon, I thought maybe we dads could be reminded of the awesome responsibility that we have been given by God.  As our families honor us, we can honor them.  We can recommit ourselves to being the kind of father that God would have us be to our kids.  Paul, first tells the Ephesian fathers what not to do.  He says, “Don’t exasperate your kids.”  Don’t provoke them to anger.  Don’t embitter them.  This is interesting in light of the similar language God uses of Himself being provoked.  In the case of God, clearly being able to be provoked isn’t a flaw.  I don’t think it is in our kids either.  It’s not their fault; it’s ours, when we provoke them through our fatherly mistreatment.

I recently listened to Alistair Begg on this topic and read some thoughts from Dan Doriani.  The following is a composite list from these two sources of ways that we can provoke our children:

We exasperate our children:

  1. By failing to allow them to be what or who they are having unrealistic demands.

When they’re young, not taking into account their age or level of development, expecting them to be “older” or more mature than they are.  When they’re older, refusing to allow them to be the adults God made them to be (trying to fit them into our mold or plan for them). 

  1. By treating them with harshness or cruelty. By using harsh words or constant criticism and correction.

In any way, pushing our weight around physically, emotionally, mentally, verbally.  Always giving them harsh criticism that makes them feel like they never measure up.  Criticizing their lifestyle, parenting, career success.

  1. By ridiculing them (in front of others).

Especially in front of their peers or the rest of the family, exposing them to shame and humiliation.  Treating them with contempt or mocking them about things that are important to them.  Mocking or belittling things that are important to them including their personal thoughts and convictions that differ from ours.

  1. By displaying favoritism or making unhealthy comparisons with others.

Treating certain children as special in the family or constantly comparing our children to their siblings or to other “model” children.  Treating our more compliant children as the ideal to which none of the others measure up.  Using “good” children as a means of shaming “bad” children into compliance.

  1. By failing to express approval of them and their accomplishments.

Not telling them that we are proud of them and what they have accomplished (even small accomplishments for younger children).  Competing with our adult children and needing to always outperform them.  Withholding affirmation, moving the carrot further out on the stick to make them reach for it.

  1. By arbitrarily exercising discipline. By being inconsistent.  By administering harsh discipline based on snap judgments.

Parents who are unpredictable in their discipline are even worse than neglecting parents.  The children are kept off guard not knowing what is coming next.  Often these parents instruct their children in one way and live in another.  Parents inconsistency in the standards set for their children is often the by-product of their own arbitrary self-discipline.  Discipline from fathers, by the way, is for younger children (pais), not for adults (Eph. 6:1).  Trying to “discipline” our adult children will be exasperating to them. 

  1. By neglecting them or making them feel like an intrusion.

Making our kids feel like our care for them is taking us away from something more important.  Treating our children, young or adults, as if it is a burden rather than a privilege to be their parents.

  1. By seeking to make them achieve our goals rather than theirs.

Not laying down our desires for them to allow them to pursue the calling that God has for them.  Always telling them what they should be doing and not asking them what they want or feel led to do.  Failing to raise them according to their bent or temperament, “the way that they should go” (Prov. 22:6).

  1. By overprotecting them.

Our love can be smothering when we don’t allow children at appropriate ages to live their lives.  Overprotection is about our anxiety issues being projected onto them.  Letting them live their lives, as fearful as that is for parents, is the most loving thing we can do.

  1. By withdrawing love from them.

Teaching our children with our words, attitudes or actions that our love for them is conditional on their obedience to us.  When our children don’t do what we want them to, punishing them by withholding our love and approval as a means of trying to regain control.  “Tough love” is often a rationalization for mistreatment.  True love remains constant and is articulated, even in the midst of differences and struggles.

  1. By not listening to them or not having appropriate empathy for their concerns.

The child who is not listened to has no place to express the inner thoughts and feelings that are part of normal living.  The failure to listen causes our children to internalize their fears and pain in unhealthy ways.  This may be the root cause of their exasperation.  Exasperation, a combination of anxiety and anger, results from not being heard.  Their cries to be understood are ignored.  This makes them feel unimportant and devalued.  They just want to be loved and heard.  When we refuse to do either, it is exasperating for them.

As a result of these kinds of treatment, our children can become discouraged, embittered and provoked to anger.  If they do as a result of our failure as their father, the accountability for the situation falls on us.  This is the primary command to fathers and yet one that many fathers set aside for the sake of “children obey your parents.”  It is very difficult for children in the home to be obedient when their fathers provoke them to anger.

On a positive note:

Paul tells us to “bring them up” (ektrepho) which means literally to nourish or to feed them, to cherish them fondly, to rear them tenderly, to sustain them spiritually, to nurture them.

In the “training” (paideia) which means to discipline through means of training including enforcement of reward and punishment.  The purpose of chastisement is to correct sinful rebellion, not childishness.  If we use corporal punishment, we need to be careful not to be tyrannical, not to spank out of envy, jealousy, anger, malice, pride, scorn, etc.  The use of excessive and inappropriate punishment by parents (a.k.a. abuse) is clearly in opposition to biblical principles.  This paideia applies specifically to the case of younger children who need godly discipline, not to adults.

And “admonition” (nouthesia) which means to lovingly confront at the heart level.  “It seeks to correct the mind, to put to right what is wrong, to improve the spiritual attitude.  The basic idea is that of the well-meaning earnestness with which one seeks to influence the mind and disposition by appropriate instruction, exhortation, warning and correction . . . admonition which is designed to correct while not provoking or embittering.” (Kittel)  This sort of loving admonition should be present between mature adults, even between parents and children who are adults and going in both directions as appropriate.

Of the Lord (kurios) reminds us that it is God’s training and admonition that we are to nurture them in.  They are His children that He has entrusted temporarily to our care.  Children are not our property.  No one is.  They belong to God who has entrusted them to us for a season.  We are stewards of Him and are accountable to Him for the way in which we care for His children.

Bottom Line:

Our job as fathers is a great privilege given to us by God.  God has called us to bring up these fragile beings with love and nurture, balancing grace and truth, exercising appropriate discipline that represents His plan for them, not ours.  May we not exasperate these precious little ones, but instead lead them to the loving arms of their True Father.  Happy Father’s Day.

This is a rework of an article originally written in 2010.

Shame-based organizations: When workplaces resemble dysfunctional families

Many religious institutions are run on the same shame that we learned in our family system.

Minding the Workplace

Please excuse the disembodied hands!Please excuse the disembodied hands!

What can shame-based family rule systems teach us about less-than-wonderful workplaces?

At the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, Dr. Connie Dawson, author of the forthcoming book, Life Beyond Shame: Rewriting theRules, facilitated a discussion group on shame-based rules for family systems. Here are the rules drawn from her poster board pictured above:

  • “Do and be right” (“Do it my way”)
  • “Blame shifted elsewhere”
  • “Do not acknowledge feelings”
  • “Keep secrets”
  • “Don’t expect accountability”
  • “Control to get what you need” (“Manipulate to ensure own survival”)
  • “None of this is happening” (“Deny reality”)

If you’ve ever experienced a workplace built on a punitive, negative culture, then these rules may resonate strongly!

Dr. Brené Brown has a lot to say about shame-based organizational cultures in this Fast Company excerpt from her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We…

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Dear Introverted Pastor

I recently received the following question from an introverted pastor struggling with the extrovert bias inside American evangelicalism. Here’s my response.

As an introvert pastor, I have a hard time fitting in at pastor gatherings, but it also seems important not to isolate myself from them. I do force myself to go because I “should”, but it can be disheartening when I am often exhorted to be more extroverted like them. It would be great if there were a “birds of a feather” gathering of introverted pastors where we can encourage and learn techniques from each other about how to pastor from that perspective. Do you have any advice?

The problem you describe is not unique to pastors, but is an important question to all of us, especially introverts. Because many introverts feel less of a need to constantly be around people, and are quite happy and capable to do what we do alone for the most part, we can tend to feel like there is something deficient about us. As you say, we feel like we “should” want to hang out with others, for two reasons I think. The culture around us tells us that putting ourselves out there is right. Being alone is frowned upon. In addition, the evangelical culture of which you are part also reinforces this bias, using Scripture as a club to make the requirement to be together (this is usually called “fellowship”) even stronger.

I’m not surprised at the disheartening effect getting together with these other pastors has on you. Having other people essentially tell us to be more extroverted is incredibly insensitive, ignorant, and hurtful. Not to mention, this practice is patently unbiblical. You and I and every person are supposed to be and become the person God created us to be, not to try to be someone else. God-given differences originate in the womb as a reflection of God-ordained diversity (e.g. Jacob and Esau).   Sanctification does not or should not refer to the process of turning introverts into extroverts. Rather, sanctification is a process whereby we each shed the baggage that typically connects with either end of the spectrum, becoming the authentic self we were made to be, without the things that detract from our original design. For extroverts, this may be moving toward greater humility and away from pride. For introverts, this may be moving toward greater acceptance and less self-loathing. This is a key biblical concept. Salvation, or sanctification, is not a one-size-fits-all process. You might enjoy a post where I recently bemoaned what I too often hear described by popular radio preachers, extroversion as salvation.

I agree with you that it would be helpful to have a connection with other introverted pastors to normalize your experiences. Realizing that we’re not alone is incredibly validating. Learning how others like us lead can be very helpful. Ultimately however, I think this is second best. The best would be to have a healthy connection with other diverse people in ministry who value the God-given differences between them as part of a deeply held biblical worldview. I often advocate for this idea when I have the opportunity using 1 Corinthians 12 as one of the main anchors. Paul, in that passage, is actually addressing the root problem you are describing, devaluing others. It looks exactly as he describes it, one part of the body saying to another, “We don’t need you.” An extrovert implying to an introvert, “You should be just like me.” In reality, the body of Christ was intentionally designed to be interdependent, all parts needing all other parts to function as it should.

One practical solution to this problem would be to do a book study together with the group of pastors to open up some healthy dialog about this issue. For this reason specifically, I included reflection questions in Introvert Revolution thinking that extroverts could use these to open up good discussion with the introverts around them. What your extroverted friends need to realize is that the impact they are having on you, they are having on at least half of their congregants. In the same way that you come away from meeting with them feeling beaten up, misunderstood or marginalized, their congregants, either knowingly or unknowingly, are probably walking out of their church services feeling similarly.

Ironically, this whole problem is culturally driven. This is a Western, especially U. S., problem related to the way we promote extroversion as the goal. When you look at the culture of Judaism, an Eastern culture, into which the Bible was written, it seems to value the opposite idea. The wisdom literature, for example, promotes the connection between wise living and things like holding one’s temper, not acting impulsively, having self-restraint, holding one’s tongue – all introverted traits. Do I therefore think that sanctification is about becoming introverted? No. I sincerely believe that the process from either side of the spectrum actually looks different and that we need to understand that fundamental reality if we’re going to truly help people from either side become who they were meant to be.

For further reading on this topic, I would strongly suggest Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture By Adam McHugh and Quiet Faith: An Introvert’s Guide to Spiritual Survival by Judson Edwards. Another book that has helped me is David Benner’s The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery.

The struggle you describe is not trivial. People or pastors feeling as if their introversion means that there is something inherently wrong with them is the root of deep and painful shame, the very thing that we should be seeking to heal. I would challenge you to take up this struggle, not just for yourself, but for many other introverts in these circles in which you find yourself that are suffering in similar ways. We have a lot of work to do. I wholeheartedly disagree with the bias reflected in the regrettable quote from Richard Halverson, the former chaplain of the U.S. Senate, “The extrovert God of John 3:16 does not beget an introvert people.” I think Rev. Halverson and some of your friends are sorely mistaken. Hope this helps.

Andy Johnson is a former pastor, organizational consultant, and the author of three books. His most recent book, Introvert Revolution: Leading Authentically in a World That Says You Can’t was written to help leaders work through and overcome the cultural bias that invalidates their authentically introverted leadership.

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Screwtape on Churchgoing

Just received the latest version of the newsletter from the C. S. Lewis Institute.  The feature article highlights the thinking of Screwtape as he explains to his nephew Wormwood that he is almost glad to hear that the man is still a churchgoer since “(a)s long as he retains externally the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one who has adopted a few new friends and amusements but whose spiritual state is much the same as it was [before].  I think this remains the fundamental problem.  Many people are erroneously thinking that churchgoing means change when it doesn’t.  Going to church doesn’t make you vitally connected to Christ any more than hanging out in your garage makes you a car.

The Dysfunctional Christian Family

The church often bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the dysfunctional family.  There is the authoritarian presence of the minister–the professional who knows all of the answers and calls most of the shots–whom few ever challenge either because they don’t dare to or because they feel it would do no good if they did.  There is the outward camaraderie and inward loneliness of the congregation.  There are the unspoken rules and hidden agendas, the doubts and disagreements that for propriety’s sake are kept more or less under cover.  There are people with all sorts of enthusiasms and creativities which are not often enough made use of or even recognized because the tendency is not to rock the boat but to keep on doing things the way they have always been done.

-Frederick Buechner-


Should We Forget?

It’s 9/11/2014.  Thirteen years ago, our country experienced the horror of an attack on the United States by terrorists, something unprecedented for most of us.  Many innocent lives were lost.  Many families lost loved ones.  They’re on TV today, the loved ones of those who died, once again reading the names of the lives lost on that infamous day, lives that factored so largely for them.  This practice is consistent with our initial commitment shortly after 9/11 that we would “never forget.”  As one reporter commented this morning, “time doesn’t heal all wounds.”  I agree.  The survivors of the tragedy of 9/11, whose lives have been forever altered by the thoughtless, selfish and even “evil” acts of others who decided that their loved ones didn’t matter, still show clear signs of grief and trauma.  They haven’t forgotten and I’m not sure how forgiveness of the terrorists who killed their deeply missed ones factors into their future ability to move on and have a meaningful life.

Is it healthy for these survivors and families who lost loved ones to reflect on the events of that day and to acknowledge the remaining feelings of anger and sadness that they still feel?  Shouldn’t they just “get over it” and “move on,” especially if they are “Christians?”  A day like today and the strong feelings that most of us have about the events of 9/11 evokes feelings in most of us that are inconsistent with the thoughts and advice we glibly offer to victims of trauma.  We tell victims of sexual abuse or rape or domestic violence that they are required to forgive.  The wife who forgives her abusive husband again guarantees that the cycle of violence will continue to repeat itself.  The child who forgives the sexual abuse of a caretaker who has violated their trust creates the opportunity for the cycle to continue.  The staff member who covers up the abuse of their former senior pastor does nothing to stop the cycle from repeating with others.

So, which is it?  Do we forgive and forget?  Or, do we not forget and remember so that we don’t simply allow these things to continue happening?  Do we still hold the terrorists accountable?  Or, do we give them a pass?  When we hold two contradictory thoughts that cannot be reconciled, it is called cognitive dissonance.  We feel anxiety, not being able to make sense of things.  To reduce dissonance, we typically revise one of the “truths” to make things less uncomfortable.  My question today is, “Do you still feel anger about what the terrorists did to our country and to the families that were directly and personally impacted?”  If so, how do you reconcile that with your approach to other similar situations where innocent people suffer at the hands of evildoers?  How do you reduce the dissonance?  In both cases, those who did what they did often show no signs of remorse and would do it again if given the opportunity.

Today is a good day to remember the reality that actions have consequences.  We need to understand that being nice to others doesn’t mean that they will respond in kind (I fear that President Obama doesn’t understand this principle.).  Removing personal accountability from our interpersonal relationships doesn’t create a better or a safer world.  We may need to be reminded that overlooking serious offenses does not solve the problem.  It doesn’t prevent future offenses from occurring.  It doesn’t validate the damage that has been done to those on the receiving end in the past.  It leaves victims with an abiding sense of injustice and sets them up to get stuck in complicated and unresolved grief.  To make things worse, we add to the pain they already feel by telling them they need to “forgive” and “forget.”  Do you feel comfortable telling the people at ground zero today to forgive the now deceased Osama bin Laden?  If you’re not comfortable doing that, why is it so easy to tell a woman that was sexually abused by her father or grandfather to “forgive” him now that he’s gone?  When he was living, he never acknowledged the reality of what he had done.  He denied her the validation that her pain was real in response to actual events.  He made her feel that she was somehow responsible for what “never happened.”  Now, we glibly tell her to “forgive” him.

As for me, I identify with the sorrow and despair of those who have suffered and been so deeply impacted by the evil of others.  I don’t struggle with mixed feelings about how I feel about them or about those who have perpetrated acts against them.  If they’re angry today as they reflect on what happened, I don’t condemn them for feeling that way.  In the same way, I identify with and support those who have suffered at the hands of other kinds of “terrorists.”  Those who have been terrorized by the destructive acts of those they trusted, who still feel a deep sense of anger or betrayal and struggle daily with trying to move on with life in the aftermath, only evoke empathy in me.  Is this somehow inconsistent with the character or commandments of God?

never forget