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A Sea Change: Obedience is Not the Goal

[Excerpt reprinted from Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and StagesWhispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood; and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]

“Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires.”
James 3:4

toddler on a sailboatOh, the toddler years, those delightful days when little ones begin to discover that they are, indeed, separate individuals from their parents and begin to test the waters to see how far out to sea their little boats can take them when they’ve got a full head of steam. This is the age when parents begin to wonder how in the world to tether their little steamboats to the docks or scuttle them in shallow waters to slow them down.

Obedience becomes a hot topic at moms’ groups and men’s breakfasts, at playdates and on park benches as parents wrestle with this new developmental stage that often shows up, unwelcome and unannounced, and the desperate, bewildered question being debated is always the same:

“How can I get my child to obey?”

Take a moment and examine what that question really means, though. Does it mean, “How can I control my child?” or does it mean, “How can I help my child learn self-control?” It’s an important distinction because the first meaning is external and temporary (i.e. only effective as long as the controlling factors are ever-present and escalate as the child grows) and the second meaning is internal and intrinsic. In the first, the rudder of a child’s ship is firmly removed from the child’s hands again and again as the parent and child struggle for control of the ship. In the second, the rudder remains in the child’s hands as the parent guides, instructs, and leads the way with their little steamboat sheltered alee of the parent ship.

Parents often feel lost at sea, themselves, when it comes to the best course for guiding and growing their children in the storm-tossed waves and murky waters of childhood behaviors, and many churches try to meet parent’s needs by offering parenting books and classes. A vast number of those resources are, unfortunately, based on a punitive, authoritarian model. These books, and the classes based on the books, claim to be Biblical, but miss the heart of the Father entirely and mislead and even intimidate parents into believing that they must train their children into instant, unquestioning obedience in order to raise their children ‘God’s way.’

Consider, though, that Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit.” (Matthew 7:16) referring to how we will recognize his children. And what is the fruit of the Spirit? Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Gentleness. Faithfulness. Self-control. What’s missing? Nothing. God’s Word is perfect. And yet obedience is not included as a fruit of the Spirit. It is not mentioned as a measure of love for God or evidence of a relationship with God. That certainly doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want us to listen to his wise counsel and remain within the safe boundaries he’s shared with us. What it does mean is that it’s a heart issue, not an obedience issue, and he wants our trust and thoughtful, considered cooperation, not our fear-driven, mindless obedience.

Did you know, in fact, that the word obey doesn’t even appear in the original texts of the Bible? When the English translators of the King James version of the Bible encountered the Hebrew words hupakouo/hupakoe and shema/lishmoa they discovered that there wasn’t an exact English equivalent, so they chose the word hearken in their translations which subsequently became an archaic term and was later changed to obey.24 So, what exactly do the original words in the Bible mean?

Hupakouo/hupakoe – to hear from above; to listen for; to lend an ear to1,2,3

Shema/lishmoa – to understand, to internalize, to ponder, to reflect upon1,2,3 

And, in the negative form, rather than the word disobedience in the original texts, there is…

Parakouo – to close one’s ears to; to ignore1,2,3

The same mistranslation also occurs from the original Greek texts of the New Testament where peitho and peitharcheo are translated into, respectively, obey and disobey but actually mean…

Peitho – to be persuaded; to be moved; to respond25 

Peitharcheo – to remain unpersuaded; to be unmoved by; to be unresponsive to25

Also translated into obey in English are the Greek words phulasso and teron and their various conjugations, all of which mean to watch, to observe carefully, to give consideration to25.

Taken together, the meaning of what is now translated obey in the original text of the Bible is more accurately read ‘listen to, thoughtfully consider, and respond to.’ That is a far, far different meaning than the ‘instant obedience’ often held up as the epitome of Christian faith and evidence of love for God and, by extension, the goal of so-called ‘Biblical parenting.’

Before we address the parenting conundrum of instant obedience versus thoughtful consideration, let’s look at several verses in the Bible with the original meanings restored:

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and obey listen to, thoughtfully consider, and respond to it.” (Luke 11:28) 

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey listen to, thoughtfully consider, and respond to my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:23) 

Children, obey listen to, thoughtfully consider, and respond to your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (Ephesians 6:1)

One other interesting note is that the word translated punish in the English versions of the Bible is from the Hebrew word avon and from the Greek kolasis/kolazo. Look at the contrast in meanings:

Punish (English) – to inflict a penalty upon; to exact retribution; to make suffer26 

Avon (Hebrew) – to carry guilt; to bear one’s own iniquity1,2,3 

Kolasis/kolazo (Greek) – removed; separated25 

The word used in English translations of the Bible, punish, conveys an external infliction of negative consequences, while the original words, avon (Hebrew) and kolasis/kolazo (Greek) convey internal, self-imposed consequences (i.e. carrying the weight of guilt/shame) and natural consequences (i.e. being estranged).

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment bearing one’s own iniquity, carrying guilt, feeling shame, being estranged. (1 John 4:18)

Jesus came to take our place, to bear our iniquities, to carry our guilt, to free us from shame, and to reunite us with our Father, and the literal translation conveys that truth perfectly.

The thing is, instant obedience and thoughtless compliance based on fear of punishment will always be an external and temporary ‘fix’ for behavior issues, as evidenced by the increasingly defiant and disconnected Israelite nation in the Old Testament, while thoughtful consideration and cooperation are internal, a heart-deep and soul-to-soul connection inspired by compassion, respect, and communication. Consider this passage from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline:

Someone once wrote, “Obedience is doing what you’re told, no matter what’s right. Morality is doing what’s right, no matter what you’re told.” History preserved the quote, but not the source with any credibility, but it’s a wise statement nonetheless.

Growing children with an inner compass that guides their steps toward kindness and compassion and generosity of spirit is far, far and away superior to training children to operate on automatic pilot. Parents often focus so much time and energy on trying to make their children obey in the small moments of life that they forget to step back and take a panoramic view of how their parenting choices may affect their children’s life course.

‘Instant obedience’ is the new catch-phrase in many popular parenting articles and books, but the reality is that, while instant obedience may be convenient for parents in the moment, it can have powerful negative impacts on the adults their children will become.

Training children into instant obedience is the equivalent of disabling their inner guidance system and strapping on a remote-controlled rocket. The end result may be adults who are easily controlled by others or adults who are deeply divided, constantly fighting the external controls, but hampered by an erratic, immature inner compass that never had the chance to develop properly.

Equipping children with a healthy, well-functioning internal guidance system, an inner compass, takes time, patience, and self-control on the part of the parents. Certainly not a convenient alternative! While it may not be convenient to slow down our hectic life pace and really connect with our children, it’s that connection that enables their internal guidance system to come online. While taking the time to really communicate may be a sacrifice, it’s in that communication that the directions on their inner guidance system are set. And, while working cooperatively with our children may take more time and effort, the fact is that inviting cooperation rather than forcing compliance raises leaders instead of reaping followers.

Clearly, teaching our children to control themselves is far more effective in the long-term than trying to control our children, but how, specifically, can we go about equipping them with those all-important internal controls?

  • Model instead of manipulate.
  • Invite instead of intimidate.
  • Support instead of shame.
  • Encourage instead of enrage.
  • Teach instead of threaten.
  • Listen instead of lecture.
  • Help instead of hurt.
  • Parent instead of punish.

Instant obedience and mindless compliance are poor goals, indeed, when raising children. A thoughtfully questioning, passionately curious, and humorously resourceful child who delights in inventing ‘compromises’ and who endlessly pushes the boundaries tends to become a thoughtful, passionate, resourceful adult who will change the world rather than being changed by the world.These are simple truths, and yet their effects are profound when we embrace them and incorporate them into our parenting. Connection, Communication, and Cooperation, the Three C’s of gentle parenting, are powerful and effective tools in guiding our children toward self-control to help them learn to steer their own ships, and, if we are to be fishers of men, then isn’t a ship headed out to sea exactly what each of us should be, anyway? Instead of mooring our children to the shore, let’s sail alongside them in the sometimes calm, sometimes stormy, but always glorious sea of life, keeping them sheltered on our leeward side until they are ready to sail alone.

“For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”
Isaiah 41:13

Related posts:

Stealing God’s Gift: Free Will is a Gift to be Nurtured, Not a Curse to be Broken

Spare the Rod: The Heart of the Matter

Did Jesus Have a Temper Tantrum?

Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting

Tattered Tapestries: Weaving Trust Through the Chaos

Fear Doesn’t Lead to Faith: Becoming Your Child’s Safe Place

Where Did You Learn Love, Child?

Practical, Gentle, Effective Discipline

L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting (Release date: May 2014) the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.


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