As I read through Scripture, there are some passages that just grab my attention and make me think. Often those passages involve lists. There are probably dozens of these in the New Testament alone, and I’m sure you’ll recognize a few, like
- The Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel
- The characteristics of love in I Corinthians
- The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians
- The armor of God in Ephesians
I guess it’s a guy thing. We like action, and there’s something about a list that encourages action, that breaks down a project into more manageable tasks. Some of those list passages offer a set of filters for working through a situation. Like in I Thessalonians 5:14 (NASB):
“And we urge you, brothers,
admonish the unruly,
encourage the fainthearted,
help the weak,
be patient with everyone.”
That list has always intrigued me. I had always assumed it gave instruction on dealing with difficult people, but until recently I never really dug into it. So I decided to devote several of my morning quiet times to the passage, delving into the meaning of the words, understanding the four challenges within the larger context of the passage and meditating on what the verse looks like applied in my own life.
The big picture
Right off, I saw that the four-item list was actually three specific challenges and one overarching one. The Apostle Paul points out that there are three different types of behaviors you can expect to encounter when you’re dealing with people, and how you can properly respond to them when they come up. As I studied, I was sure that understanding the passage would help me recognize situations where I could put the principles to use as I dealt with people throughout the day. But where would they show up, and how would I know it when they did?
Eventually it hit me square in the face. I’ve actually been encountering the situations and dealing with them almost every day for years … in my own home. The reason I’d missed the wisdom of this verse is because it’s listed in reverse order of how I had learned it as a dad.
My wife Ellie and I have raised seven children to adolescence and beyond. When our first was born, I was struck by how helpless he was. He was dependent on us for everything. As he grew and acquired skills and experience, I had to encourage him that he was able to do more than he realized he could. He just needed to apply what he’d learned to the life situations he was encountering.
And as he reached the teen years and started choosing his own way in the world, I had to constantly convince him that there’s a big difference between learning and knowledge, between facts and experience. And I had to admonish him that life was not just about him, but just as much about using what he’s learned in order to relate to those around him.
As each of our seven children grew in wisdom and stature, their personalities may have been different, but the principles were always the same. They needed to learn the basics, apply them to their own lives, then learn to use them in their dealings with others. And they needed someone along the way to help them navigate that path to maturity.
Epiphany! I had been doing I Thessalonians 5:14 in the everyday process of being a father; I just didn’t realize it. That understanding and experience made the whole verse and passage come alive.
Help the weak
The Greek word for weak means lacking the strength due to immaturity or inability. Whether they’re newborn babies, brand new coworkers or new believers, people come into situations where they know absolutely nothing. They’ll be confused. They’ll make mistakes. You could chide them or tell them to keep trying, but their greatest need is for someone to teach them … patiently.
The Greek word for help doesn’t just refer to using your ability to meet someone’s weakness. It implies that you put aside your own interests for theirs. As I was holding my first granddaughter the other day, I reminded myself that she couldn’t do anything for herself, including communicate what she needed. When she wailed, I had to work extra hard to understand her need, then meet it the best I could. That meant putting up with the crying and fussiness, because it wasn’t about me, but about her.
It’s exactly what Jesus did for me. “For while we were still helpless (weak), at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5). As He put aside His desires for a helpless sinner, I need to do the same for the weak in my life.
Encourage the fainthearted
The heart is the seat of the soul. The French word for heart is where we get our word “courage.” Those who are fainthearted are dealing with a heart that’s too small for the task.
With seven kids, you can imagine that their personalities are quite different. For some of ours, faintheartedness looked like despondency. To others, it looked like impatience, or maybe even frustration. Whether it was because they were unsure of themselves or unsure of the situation facing them, they needed someone there to bolster their hearts—to en-courage them. They needed someone to believe in them, to say, “You can do it.” And they needed to know that I would be there with them on the other side to say “I knew you could!”
But encouraging is not just being a cheerleader. It’s coming alongside to give wisdom, to help the person understand the reason for the faintheartedness and to do the right things at the right time. Again, like with the weak, this requires you to put away self for the sake of others.
If there was any question that this passage directly applied to fatherhood, it was put to rest as I read what Paul had said to the Thessalonians just a few chapters before.
“Just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
Admonish the unruly
I have to admit that I had completely misunderstood this one until my recent study. I had always thought it meant to put the smackdown on troublemakers. I guess that explains why I’ve been a less effective father to teenagers than I was to my children when they were younger.
I understood the unruly part. The Greek word means to be out of line, to reject rules and authority, to evade obligations or act irresponsibly. That really fits the teenage years. A lot of times a smackdown might seem the very thing they need. But as usual, God’s more interested in the heart behind the actions. Again, we need to be patient.
Adolescence, by very definition, is the transition from childhood to adulthood. Just like toddlerhood is the transition from infancy to childhood, the move comes with an attitude: “I want to do it myself and I don’t need you bossing me around.”
As toddlers and teens gain new knowledge and abilities and begin to see the world in a new light, their tendency is to see this new enlightenment as their own treasure to hoard. They are the masters of their own destinies. They tend to think that they’re now the exception to the rule.
Admonishing the unruly child means “putting correction into the mind”—to re-mind, if you will—so they can see not just the advantages of more freedom, but also the obligations, responsibilities, and personal discipline that come with it.
Every father loves to see his child gain independence, whether it’s learning to walk or learning to drive. But the wise father is there to explain to his child that the blessing of these new skills is not just self-reliance and self-absorption, but also using these new opportunities with respect to others. True maturity means knowing your own place in your relationships with others. It means serving those lesser than you (who need help or are fainthearted) and it means respecting those in authority over you. We need to admonish the unruly so that they can see this and mature in it.
Paul told the Corinthian believers that he was admonishing them not to shame them, but to help see them to maturity as he would his beloved children. He told the Thessalonians that the admonition was not because they were enemies, but because they were friends and he desired true fellowship with them.
Be patient with all
Admonition always needs to be done with the purpose of building and strengthening the individual and the relationship. That’s why it requires patience. Patience is not short-tempered or quick to correct and punish. It’s more interested in the progress than the end result. And that requires the indwelling Holy Spirit, who gives the fruit of patience and unconditional love. Patience is at the very heart of mercy and grace, and willingly perseveres.
So when your child gets difficult, ask yourself why it may be happening.
- Are they out of line with God’s truth or overlooking the relationship and just need to be re-minded?
- If not, are they frustrated and disheartened with a situation at hand? How can you en-courage them?
- If not, is their weak-ness making them feel help-less? How can you help them to know what to do?
As dads and as men, we have the great privilege of guiding kids as they face obstacles toward maturity. As God gives us opportunities, let’s resolve to rely on His Spirit to guide us in helping them, all the while building relationships in our homes and in the Body of Christ.