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Child, Beloved: Proverbs 13

Good morning, church. Please go with me in your Bibles to the book of Proverbs, chapter 13. I’m going to be reading several verses throughout my sermon, so it’s not going to be on the screens this morning. If you want to use one of our Bibles, you can raise your hand and someone will bring you one.

We’ve been in a series through the book of Proverbs for several weeks now. Proverbs is a book of wisdom, and wisdom is different from information. We have more information than we could ever ask for in our day, but wisdom is knowing what really to value in life, and how to live, what gives our lives meaning. Perhaps more than anything what we need is not the information of our day, but the wisdom of times and places other than our own to help us break free of the common ideas and behaviors which have so shaped our culture—old ideas like joviality, fortune, prudence.

And Solomon, who wrote the Proverbs, insists wisdom isn’t hiding, but God is proclaiming and revealing it in every corner of creation—it’s just in the noise of this life, it’s hard to know what to believe. Who can you trust to know and speak the truth? How can we live in a way that won’t leave us empty and alone, that won’t leave us on the wrong side of history, or regretting what we’ve done?

The past couple weeks, we talked about the power of speech. A proud word can burn a bridge, tear apart a relationship, but humble wisdom builds people up, builds families up, and the things wisdom builds endure. This morning, we’re going to allow Solomon to speak from the ancient past into our families. Our families, and we’re going to look specifically at parents and children. There’s a lot of good advice in this book about how to raise up the next generation. Pray with me briefly.

Biblically speaking, raising children is something we’re all called to do—not that everyone has kids of their own. I love and pray for many couples bearing the pain of wanting children and being unable to have them. And I also celebrate singleness, celibacy, as a gift. Jesus was single, as was Paul, but they were both very concerned about teaching, loving, and raising the next generation well. What I’m saying is, the Bible teaches that children are a blessing and should be cared for by the whole community. Invest your time, effort, and money in what comes after you; your life is short; do things which will matter eternally. It’s something, Biblically speaking, we should all be doing, so this wisdom applies to you, whoever you are.

This is a sermon for another day, because it’s a major theme I haven’t touched yet, but Proverbs rails against the kind of anti-social behavior which is common and even celebrated in our society of focusing on your own life, your pleasure or your ambitions, to the exclusion of family and society. It’s not wise to live your life just for you, but if that’s you this morning, there is grace and peace for you in Christ, and a path back to wisdom in your life if you’re willing to walk it.

Thinking about parenting all week, of course I was thinking about my own parenting. Y’all, listen. I was a really good parent before I had kids. I had it all figured out. My kids weren’t going to throw anything tantrums, they were going to be polite, all the time, even when they didn’t nap well and dinner is taking 30 minutes longer than it should. Before I was parenting, 2am, I can’t tell if she’s hungry or just complaining, I’m calm, cool, and collected in my parenting.

You hear this all the time, because it’s real, but there’s no manual, and childhood goes fast. I’ve never been so unsure about anything in my life. On bad days I think to myself, “this. This is what they’re going to talk about in therapy.” But even on good days I’m not sure I’m parenting well, and at the same time, I’ve never wanted so badly to be good at something. I’m desperate for good advice on parenting, and there’s more advice out there than I could possible take in, but who do you listen to? Who do you believe?

Like, I want to meet Brene Brown’s kids, right? Or James Dobson’s kids—these people who have spent their whole careers on parenting. How did their kids turn out? And what does success even look like? How do you finish this sentence: “I’ll know I’ve been successful as a parent when…”? When what? When all my kids have successful careers? I’ve met those parents. The kids are going between private tutors and violin practice and gymnastics, learning Mandarin, and that’s at age two, right? By fifteen they’re through college and on their second marriage, drinking too much, smoking a pack a day.

More in New Orleans I run into the opposite of that. This is the big easy, we have a lot of free spirits here. Some people’s kids have never heard the word no, right? Like, they have a tantrum, punch their sister in the face, sister’s crying, mom’s over here getting a weighted blanket and Dr. King’s letter from prison, they’re going to go drink camomile tea and talk about nonviolence. I think most parents waver somewhere between the two.

And discipline is not the only perplexing part of parenting. Honestly the harder part for me is, not dealing with their bad behavior, but dealing with mine. I already preached on this in this series, so I’m not going to again, but talking about the power of our words—what about the words we say to our children? I still have vivid memories of things my parents said to me. What will my children remember about growing up in my home, in my church?

Then there’s the existential piece. Am I spending enough time with him? Do she know I love her? Are we making good memories, is she going to be ready for life in the world, and is there anything I can do to shield him from the pain and hardship of it? Parents want their kids to be happy. I’ve never met a single person who wished their kids ill, even in my experiences as a foster parent—those can be some pretty bad situations, but whatever the parents did for their kids to end up in care, they’re usually doing the best they know to do, which is the crushing thing as a parent, that your best isn’t good enough. The only good Father is God, himself, and you know that truth deeply the moment you start parenting.

I remember the day I became a parent. For me, fostering, it wasn’t the typical your wife greets you coming home with a wry smile and a positive test, for me I’d had a crib sitting in the spare bedroom for six months without anyone in it, and then I’m at work on a Thursday not expecting anything, and I got a call from our home development worker, and all she says is, “We have a child in care; two years old.” Yes or no? So I called Annie, and we were a yes, so I asked my boss if I could leave early and about thirty minutes after I got home there’s this little boy walking through the door with a social worker who told us she thinks he likes spaghetti, here’s a single backpack of his things, and then she left and we had a two-year-old.

And people always talk about fostering being a good deed; I’ll tell you right now, that’s not how you feel when you’re doing it. You feel the weight of being the only person who is able to give this child the one thing he most deeply needs in that moment, which is a loving, nurturing caregiver, and you realize: God is love, and God is who he needs in that moment, and I am not enough like God.

I remember the first time something I did triggered a flashback, and he stopped breathing for about a minute, 60 seconds, the whole time I’m thinking I am not who this child needs to care for him, to help him heal. And I confess that to you this morning to tell you that as I’m preaching on the Proverbs and parenting, it’s not from a place of triumph. I am not an expert, I am a pilgrim. I’ve found in these verses something good to actually help me in the midst of all my mistakes and all the noise of the world.

So let’s talk about it. Our chapter this morning has probably the most controversial piece of advice, so me being an enneagram 8, we’ll start there. Chapter 13, verse 24 “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” And let’s start by saying the point of this Proverb is not to encourage parents to hit kids, and it certainly doesn’t give parents an excuse to beat their kids and act like God’s on board. That’s not the point. It doesn’t condemn corporal punishment either, though, and we’ll come back to that.

The point is, repeated several times in the Proverbs, you gotta discipline your kids. And discipline is way more than just punishment [TBRI]. But sometimes you do need to cause a little trouble in a child’s life to spare him oceans of trouble in his future. You aren’t helping a child by not giving him any boundaries, or or by letting him blow through the boundaries you set. In fact, the proverb says, if you don’t discipline your child, you must hate him. If you don’t establish boundaries for the child and hold to them, you’re actually hurting him.

As both a pastor and a former science teacher, as well as one who still believes deeply that there is no divide between science and God, because all truth in some way reflects the Creator, I find it very satisfying, and honestly hilarious, whenever modern science spends billions of dollars and decades of research to know something the Bible clearly teaches. Decades of research in the fields of child psychology and neuroscience are yielding results right now essentially saying, children without boundaries or regular discipline live life at very high levels of stress compared to children who have clear boundaries and regular discipline.

They measure stress by the body’s production of stress hormones, mainly cortisol, and what they are finding through various experiments is that when children are allowed to be in charge of themselves or to be in charge of families, they get stressed, they get scared, because they they innately know they do not yet have the skills and development to keep themselves safe and make good decisions. They need the adults in their life to do that. Essentially, if you as a parent aren’t taking care of your child, they feel like they have to care for themselves. A complete lack of discipline is a form of neglect, and the child’s neurochemical development will be negatively affected.

Which is the billion-dollar, decades-long way of saying what Proverbs has been saying all along, that you gotta discipline your kids. We as Christians, especially, should know that discipline is good and right; our word discipline comes from the same root word as disciple, and the original meaning of the word is to pursue a rule, like a monastic rule. There’s a reason we call things like reading the Bible, praying, celebrating, fasting—we call them spiritual disciplines, because the pursuit of discipline for the Christian is meant to be lifelong. You are training your heart, shaping your spirit, to know what is right. Pursuing a way of living life which will shape you spiritually to be more like Christ.

Famously, in Proverbs 22 Solomon writes, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” If you understand the language you’ll know this is the same concept. You are disciplining your child, teaching him a rule, so that he will know right ways to live and he will walk down paths leading to life.

Now, how do you discipline a child? What’s the Biblical prescription for how to change your child’s behavior? Wouldn’t that be nice? There’s not one. Every child is different. I’ll say again, the point of this proverb isn’t to encourage or excuse parents hitting their kids. I’ll also say, the Bible does not teach that corporal punishment is abuse, and frankly I think to condemn parents who spank their kids, and call them abusers is a damaging oversimplification; you are failing to make a distinction between abuse and discipline.

I’m not trying to send Mr. Joshua’s grandma to jail for making him go pick a switch off the tree, and I say that jokingly, only because I’ve seen real abuse in my children’s lives before they came to us, and there’s a big difference between spanking a child to where he’s playing happily five minutes later and what they went through, which is unspeakable, and to equate the two is to discount their very real suffering.

But again, there is no Biblical prescription for parenting, because every child is different. This passage is not teaching you must spank your kids. It’s teaching you must discipline your kids. My brother lives in Charlotte, NC, and one of his kids—lets call her Jane—she’s a bit sensitive, and I love her for it. She has a beautiful soul and loves deeply and easily. When she was younger, if my brother needed to discipline her, he would do this: he would look her in the eyes and say, “Jane,” and she would burst into tears. I’m sorry! I made a mistake and I’ll never do it again!

And I’m over here with my little boundary pushers having to threaten death and nuclear winter just to be taken seriously. I have to tell myself over and over again, “I do not negotiate with terrorists. I do not negotiate with terrorists.” And God forbid if I leave the room. It’s like a regime change, Lord of the flies, immediately. I have to hold my ground. Proverbs 13:1: “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” I have to teach my children to listen to me, because that’s wisdom, and they need it.

So you gotta discipline your kids, and circling back to what I called earlier the existential part of parenting, I’ll offer you two good words this morning: 12:25 “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” and 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The first thing I want you to notice in both verses is that both are speaking again about the heart of a person, which in that day would have been understood to be the deepest part of both your emotion and your rationality, out of which the rest of your life flows.

So the task in parenting is to shape the heart of a person. To rid the heart of anxiety and heartsickness, and pour gladness and hope into the hearts of the people in your care. I want you to see, too, what he’s saying causes heartsickness: hope deferred. Hope deferred, deferred meaning to draw out or drag out. Actually it’s a bit of a strange use of the word here talking about time, usually it would be draw as in drawing a bow to fire it, but you can understand the mental connection if you’ve ever shot a simple bow before—drawing back a bowstring takes some strength, and you can’t hold it back for long without your arm beginning to ache.

So he’s saying if hope is held for too long without fulfillment, your heart, like your bow arm, begins to ache; your heart sickens. My mind immediately goes to Langston Hughes. He asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” And he says it dries up, or festers, or explodes, or sometimes, he says, it drags like a heavy load. I’ve met a lot of people in ministry with hope and dreams deferred, and Hughes and Solomon are right. You can’t defer hope for long without something snapping or your heart getting sick.

This is what I need forgiveness for. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. I’m good to discipline my kids, but do I speak a good word to them? Do I help them fulfill their hopes? Are their hearts filled with hope or anxiety?

I’ve seen a lot of parents waiting far too long in their relationships with their children. Waiting too long to call or to visit. Waiting too long to tell them you love them, or that you’re proud of them regardless of what they’ve done or accomplished. I’ve met adults with that kind of heartsickness, hoping for that good word to make their hearts glad, but they’ve hoped for so long, that their heart has become sick instead.

Why do we do this to ourselves, when we know something is right, and it’s hard, we wait. We tell ourselves, I’m just not ready. I’ll do it tomorrow. Or next year, and we think we can draw out, drag out doing the next right thing, even as our arms tire, and our hearts get sick, and before we know it we’re at the end of our lives saying I wish I had more time. But you’re never guaranteed more time, only this time, now, and God speaks to us saying, “today when you hear my voice…don’t harden your hearts.” But we want to keep that tension, unwilling to take the shot.

But more to the point for many of us, I’d like to speak a word of hope this morning. I want you to realize that our God, our Father, is a good father. If he is speaking a word to you this morning, even if it’s a word of discipline and conviction, it will be a good word, to build you up, to root you like a tree of live by living streams. If he is forging in you some kind of hope, it will not be a hope deferred, but a hope he will undoubtedly fulfill.

There is always hope in Jesus. And his hope doesn’t disappoint. I don’t mean that in a vague, mystical sort of way, but in the sense of if you start following after him in confession, community, worship, and discipline, the heartsickness of hope deferred fades. The anxiety all the sudden has a stronghold and an ever-present good word. No longer is the world just broken; it’s being redeemed. And as you follow him, you’ll notice even you are able to be redeemed, even me.

Friends, we worship a God who is a good father, who loves us enough to discipline and disciple us, to offer us a rule by which to live. I pray we would be a people who trust and obey.