MY devout hearers! Christian families, founded on the holy bond of marriage, are appointed, in the divine order of things, to be the nurseries of the future generation. It is there that the young souls who are to be our successors in cultivating the vineyard of God are to be trained and developed; it is there the process is to begin of restraining and cleansing away the corruption inherent in them as the children of sinful men; there that their earliest longings after fellowship with God are to be stirred, and that they are to be fitted, by training and exercise, for future usefulness in every good work. Therefore what more interesting subject can we consider than this most important work of Christian parents? which, however, is not the business of parents exclusively. If it were so, the subject would be less suitable for us; for we are not all parents who are met here; not all even engaged in the training and teaching of children. But in this case, as in others, the great, universal law of human life holds good, that two or three are not sufficient for the carrying on of a Christian work. And therefore the bringing up of children is not the work of the parents alone, nor even of the parents in conjunction with those whom they have directly engaged to help them in the way of oversight and instruction. Rather, because we all live in relations more or less intimate with the young, and exercise an influence on them; because it deeply concerns us all, as members of the Christian Church, that Christian dispositions and faculties should be called forth in them, we may correctly say that the bringing up of the younger generation, as a whole, is a work that belongs to the whole adult community, and wo are all bound to see that our share of the work is of the right kind.
But how difficult it seems to treat in a general way a subject like this in a manner suitable for a gathering of this kind. For how is it possible in a few separate discourses to review in a profitable way so wide a field of human wisdom and skill? and what an endless diversity of opinions must be taken into account, which would first have to be reconciled. However, this is not at all the place for setting forth a finished system of human wisdom and art for the training of our children. All that we can do is to awaken or confirm in our minds convictions of duty which shall lead us, at each moment, to the right steps. And when this is all we aim at, we shall be the less disturbed by the differing opinions, though they do indeed seem, at first sight, to present a difficulty. For some people hold that a man is entirely a result of training; that if it is only set about in the right way, and each part of the plan exactly calculated and fitted to the rest, one may make anything he chooses of any child; may draw forth in him, by practice, whatever natural gift he will, and may endue him, by instruction, with all kinds of intelligence and skill. Others, on the contrary, perhaps as lazy and careless as the first are proud and over-confident, maintain that with all our labour and skill we are, after all, helpless against the power of nature; that what we have built up with long toil is often overthrown with a single blow, when the object of our care begins to be more left to himself, and is able to give free play to his real nature; and that in reality every one must accomplish the work of his own salvation and education, in so far as that depends on man. It might, therefore, seem impossible to speak with any profit to those two classes of people together. But if I say to the latter class, Little as you may promise yourselves from training, yet, if you are careful to conduct yourselves according to God's will in all your relations with grown-up people, you must be still more circumspect in your conduct towards your children, and it is only about this we shall speak; and if I say to the former, Much as you think you are able to do, even if you think the whole matter lies in your hand, yet you will not say that it is a matter of indifference how you manage, and all is left to your good pleasure; you will admit that there is a will of God, which you must seek to do: and in this both parties will be agreed, if they wish to treat the matter in a Christian way. And this is the only way in which it can be spoken of here; from no other standpoint can we consider any subject. We can only ask, How are children to be brought up for God? What, if we do not wish to miss this aim, is the will of God for us as regards them; what must we chiefly avoid; to what must we give the greatest amount of attention? Keeping these points in view, then, let us, with God's help, enter on this subject.
It is somewhat remarkable that the apostle, in speaking here of the various relationships of family life, while he treats many other relations much more in detail, on the great subject of the training of children says absolutely nothing beyond the words we have read. In a similar context in the Epistle to the Ephesians, we find, it is true, a further exhortation added; but even there it is prefaced by this same warning of our text, "Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath." This error, then -- the only one against which the New Testament Scriptures so emphatically warn us -- must be, it would seem, that which we are above all to guard against in the training of our children; indeed, it would almost appear that if we were only watchful enough against that, everything else would be of much less consequence. In the hope then that we have found the most important point in this lesson, let us try to-day to lay to heart this warning, not to embitter our children.
It is evident that, in our relations with the young, we not merely give, but receive; that they are given to us by God, not only that we may mould and guide them, but that they may be to us a strength and a joy. I believe, therefore, that we shall only understand the apostle's warning in the full extent of its meaning if we examine, first, what it implies as to what we are to be to the children; and secondly, how much bearing it has on what the children are to be to the parents.
I. When, in meditating on our text, I put to myself the question, Why, out of all the things to warn us against in connection with the young, the apostle should have singled out just this, as of the greatest consequence, that they should not be provoked to bitterness? it seemed to me this must have been his idea; that, of all treatment, this was the most unnatural and the most injurious.
Man has enemies enough within: corruption of many kinds is deeply rooted in the human heart, and sooner or later springs up and manifests itself in various forms, according to different natural dispositions. And it is a comparatively rare thing that sinful tendencies show themselves for the first time in mature life. It is only in rare instances that, while much that is good and lovely comes out in the character of a child under parental training and teaching, there is no indication, however slight, of the depravity that lies hidden in his nature, and that this depravity only breaks out suddenly and irresistibly when the attractions of a life of excitement and passion seize on the soul. Much more usually all the evil tendencies in the child's nature will have shown themselves very unmistakably before he has exchanged his father's house for the great stage of the world. And if during that time he has been watchfully cared for and guarded by those under whose authority God and nature have placed him; if every influence on his mind has come more or less through the medium of the parents, then does it not look very decidedly as if all the vices and faults that have crept into his character, having come to light during his life with his parents, have done so as the result of that life? I feel pretty sure that Christian parents who walk uprightly before God will not venture to repel this charge. If dispositions like our own have been found in our children, it was the effect of our hurtful example; the sin of the old called forth that of the young. Or, if they have opposite faults from ours, it is generally resistance of the wrong with which our faults threaten them that rouses theirs to activity. How often, too, do we see that even the tenderness of parents, when it takes a mistaken direction, only promotes the development of wrong tendencies and passionate tempers. In all this there is, unhappily, sufficient cause of regret and humiliation; and we are not to try to excuse it, for we are undeniably in fault, and these things only prove how limited are still our attainments in sanctification and wisdom; but as we see the fact daily before our eyes, and can only congratulate him as happiest to whom it applies least, we must conclude that it is at least human and natural. But when children in their daily life with us are provoked to bitterness, and the bitterness makes them shrink from us, and the shrinking grows to a secret repugnance, with all that such a state of feeling necessarily implies; this is a condition of things that the apostle could not bear to enlarge on, and nothing can be more unnatural. For bitterness, beloved friends, is an emotion in the direction of hatred, and therefore contains the possibility of a diminution, or rather, to speak plainly, of an extinction (though, perhaps, but for the moment) of the children's affection. We were lately reflecting on what an unhappy and unnatural state of things it is between married people when variance and discord take the place of love, or are even found where love still exists. And yet we must remember that the marriage union is only entered into after the character and tastes on both sides are fully formed; and that there may be many things in each of which the other is not aware, which may therefore appear unexpectedly and disturb their peace. We must also take into account that married pairs have often come from widely different circles, and that each of them may easily have habits and ideas that are strange to the other, and to which they only gradually become accustomed. Bat how entirely different the case is between parents and children! The whole being of the child is, in its very origin and essence, related to the parents; a thousand resemblances declare this to us in the most striking way; and it would seem inevitable that every new stage of the child's development must result in increasing love and unity of feeling. The child grows up in the closest connection with the parents; his earliest glance meets the loving eye of the mother; it is her notice that the first bright smile of the little one seeks to attract. The first lesson his mother teaches him is to know and love his father; and as the young minds expand, they cannot but feel more and more how everything comes to them from and through their parents. Here, therefore, is the inmost, inviolate sanctuary of love; and if here, in children, who are at first all clinging affection, there yet arises estrangement, anger, repugnance; if the love which can never be uprooted from their hearts, instead of being set on those who naturally and by God's appointment are nearest to thorn, turns away to other objects, so that they can bear from others what from their parents would embitter them; this is surely the most unnatural outcome that could be from the home training. And in the same way it is unnatural, though in a different degree, when children become embittered against other grown-up people who take a part in their training, and have an influence on their lives. For though those persons have not so close a natural relation to them, the children are given to their care by the parents; and if they work in harmony with the parents they form a part with them of the sacred family circle. The child feels himself helped forward and supported by them; and this draws forth an attachment strong enough to bear many demands and many prohibitions. It is always thus when things take their clear, natural course; and the contrary condition always stirs in us a sense of repulsion, as from something unnatural.
And as this is the most unnatural state of things between parents and children, it is also the most injurious. It is a responsibility which we cannot evade, though it bears less heavily on the more pious and experienced and wise among us, that we must, by our own weaknesses and faults help to bring out the faulty parts of our children's natural characters. It is inevitable, too, that many tendencies may begin to take shape in their nature without our at once noticing them, and that, even when we do notice them, we may not be able at once to deal with them, but must wait until they become outwardly manifest, so that they can be pointed out to the children themselves. And when we reach this point, the question of the success or failure of our work depends entirely on how far they will yield themselves to us to be cured of their faults; how far they trust us, and believe that we mean well to them and will do well by them, even in many ways that seem hard to them. And if at first many things have been neglected, it is well if, as soon as our eyes are opened to see what weeds the enemy has sown while we slept, we at once set to work heartily, and are sure of finding a trustful heart that believes that, if we weep, there must be some cause for tears, if we are alarmed, there must be actual danger, that if we have recourse to hard measures, it is because milder means would not suit the purpose. If this is the case, nothing is lost as yet. We have in the reverent confidence of the child an ally in the very stronghold which the enemy has seized; and before powers thus united he will be compelled to yield. And even if, as it may and often does happen, we have entered on a wrong path, still there is nothing lost, if at once, when we discover that in labouring against an old evil we have called up a new one, we bravely turn round and begin again. Time may, of course, be lost; many joys may be lost or postponed; but as to the real work of training there is nothing lost; for there is no diminution of our power to combat evil in our children so long as love remains unchilled and confidence unbroken. But how sadly different it is when that which has crept into our children's hearts, without our knowledge perhaps, but assuredly not without our fault, is a bitter, hostile spirit! What shall give us courage then? What confident hope can inspire us? Where are we to begin? If the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? If love has perished and confidence is gone, where is the key with which we can once more gain admittance to their hearts? where is the rein with which we can draw away these young spirits from the path of ruin? It is easy to give the answer -- unhappily, it is not far to seek for; it may be found in many neglected, disorderly families of professing Christians. For if the hearts of the children have been embittered against us, so that they have learned to shrink from us; if their natural confidence has given place to a sullen mistrust -- a feeling that we always consider our own interests rather than theirs; then there is only one way -- and God be praised there is still one -- by which even this malignant enemy can be overcome: it may be, as it were, starved out, by our withholding from it all nutriment. Only a long experience of an opposite course of conduct on our part, until even the heart that has grown cold and suspicious can no longer resist the conviction that our only desire is to win it back to us, -- only this will gradually banish suspicion, and, by making room in the closed heart for love, will give us once more an entrance there. It will call for inexhaustible patience, absolute self-control, thorough self-denial; it is a tedious and toilsome way, -- a way which I am persuaded is not followed in every Christian home in which the children have become estranged through provocation. But even if, step by step, we gradually gain a little ground on this tedious and toilsome path, we must at the same time be fighting against other forms of evil, which far from remaining in abeyance because the natural, loving relations are disturbed, will only appear in greater number and gain strength more rapidly. And what means of opposing these new evils remain to us, if our admonitions find no willing ear, our directions to profitable occupations no pliant will? There remains only the harsh way of authority; and that is the plan which, sad to say, we see only too commonly followed around us. And oh, how dangerous a way it is! We see clearly enough in other human relations how little men can be influenced by force, and we always feel drawn as by a secret spell to set ourselves in league against sheer power and its doings. And justly so. For the less a human being yields to force, he proves the more plainly that there is nothing of a slavish spirit in him; that he is conscious of a nobility in his nature that is above mere power; and the more a man tries to gain his ends with others by force, he shows the more clearly that either he is not gifted with reason and love -- the only powers that should be brought to bear on a human being -- or he does not understand how to use them. And are we to intro duce force into the peaceful sanctuary of our homes, and use it towards our children, at an age when they are capable of being influenced by reason and love? Force cannot reach their hearts, where we really wish our influence to tell; it can only restrain the outward demonstrations of their faults that disturb and annoy us. Thus we can protect ourselves against them by force, and have a right to do so, if we find ourselves in the unhappy position of needing such defence: but nothing whatever can we teach by force. It will only make their faults take deeper and firmer root, like plants whose upward growth has been cut off. Indeed the more successful we are in obtaining this mere external improvement, we have the deeper cause for sorrow; because in this way we only make it more apparent into what a slavish state our children have sunk. And therefore it is not unusual with us who are parents, when we grow weary of this struggle, to give up all godly training, and to leave the children to their own way. And being thus, as it were, defeated, we are left behind with nothing but our pious wishes on their behalf, which we have often too much reason to fear are in vain; and for ourselves remorseful tears, which at best can only serve for warning to ourselves and others for the future.
It is very clear, then, that the apostle had good reason for giving this warning the most prominent place in his counsels as to our conduct towards our children. If we only guard against the children becoming distrustful of us, everything else is easily put right; but if we have got into this unhappy condition, it involves ruin and loss in our whole relations with them.
II. But we are to speak not only of how we to whom God has entrusted the hearts of the young are to fulfil His will towards them, but also of what, according to His appointment, the young are to be to us. On this point I cannot expect to say anything new to any of you: I hope I need only appeal to the happy experience of each of you, in proof of how much blessing has come to us through our intercourse with the young; how this, more than anything else, keeps us fresh and cheerful, so that the heart burdened with many cares can still work bravely on; and how by such intercourse we are at once purified from disturbing passions and helped forward in the way of holiness. But such results can only come from an intercourse that is characterized by mutual love and by regard to God's will; for if we provoke and embitter the young spirits, all these blessings are lost. We shall be the more convinced of this if we reflect how it is, exactly, that we derive such profit from the young who are growing up in the midst of us.
Let us consider, in the first place, that the social world around us is a constantly changing scene, a hurrying succession of endlessly complicated situations, in which, at every step, we find more to impede than to help us forward, and must keep a look out on every side lest we come into collision with others. Every one will bear testimony to this, whether he moves in a higher or lower social circle. The external forms may differ, but the essential condition is the same. When we contrast this with what we are told of the peaceful simplicity of former days, we are sometimes inclined to lament that such times are gone, and long to recall them. But let us remember not only that this is out of our power, but that as this simplicity was merely an effect of the isolation in which different communities lived, it must necessarily pass away when commerce and mutual interest begin to be more widely extended. And it is God's purpose that such intercourse among men shall be extended; were it only for this reason, not to mention any other, that God's life-giving Word may be carried everywhere, and may lay hold of all men and all nations who are still strangers to it. But in proportion as this intercourse in creases, life becomes for each individual a more difficult thing; it becomes the more needful for every one to take heed against complications in his own concerns; and each one is the more liable to get involved in the cares and mistakes of others, and to be swayed by their wishes and passions. And from this maze of business, from these end less precautions and projects, from the fretting contact with the vain and selfish passions of the worldly-minded crowd, whither can a thoughtful man withdraw to find quiet and repose of mind, but first and best to his own little home circle? It is there that life after the old peaceful fashion should still be found, there that we should be able to forget, as long as possible, the world with its ways and doings, to realize afresh that God has created man with simple tastes, and be anew refreshed and strengthened by the sight of innocent, unaffected gaiety. But from whom, for the most part, do we expect this kind of help? Not from the grown-up members of the family; for either they are themselves taken up with life's troubles and cares, or their sympathy with us has by experience so sharpened their eyes that they are quick to notice when anything has occurred either to depress or to gratify us: and therefore they are often only too likely to recall our thoughts to what we wished to forget. It is only the children, joyous and free from care, who can diffuse around us this atmosphere of oblivion of the world, that is so needful for us. It is they who, when we come back to the home circle, see in our faces nothing but our joy in being there again, and themselves feel only that they have been missing us and now have us back once more. What a strengthening virtue there is in this bright atmosphere, which at once takes us back to man's original state! how quickly it effaces from the soul all traces of even the busiest and most harassing life! Happy is the man who has this as his daily experience! But this happiness is of course lost for him in whoso homo the young hearts have become embittered; for he finds awaiting him at home only more painful difficulties than those he has left behind. For from whatever cause the bitterness of children against a grown-up person may have arisen, there must have been something like this to begin with; that he has slighted them and their affairs as of too little importance to be worth his notice; that when they gave free expression to their feelings, they found in him no sympathetic response; that instead of shaking off his variable moods, before coming home, or, better still, getting quit of them altogether, he has brought them with him, and given vent to his ill-humour amidst his family. But for some such coldness on our part, or some such indulgence in uncertain tempers to cause it, no feeling of bitterness can arise. But if unhappily that has taken place, and the children have learned to shrink from us; then of course their ingenuous frankness is lost, and they themselves have only become an additional part of our anxiety and care. The gladness with which they should come to meet us is damped by the feeling that it is not only one whom they respect but one whom they fear, that is coming home; they wait with closed hearts and painful suspense to see what kind of humour we are in, and from each of our moods they have something or another to keep carefully out of sight. In this way all that is trying in our outward life, indeed almost all the vexations and unpleasantnesses that we must encounter there, are transplanted, with their desecrating influence, into the sanctuary of the home: in this way we deprive ourselves of the refreshment and strength that should come to us through the children in our home life. Alas for him whose experience this is, though only occasion ally, and through only one or another of the little ones whom God has given him.
Now let us take another thought in this connection. It is a very complicated state of things that prevails in the wider circle of society in which we move; and from that cause, though not from that alone, a most imperfect state. This is a fact that, indeed, calls for neither discussion nor proof; we all feel it to be so. But it is to be hoped that the more this is felt the more deep and habitual is our longing for the perfect state. And although we live here by faith and not by sight; yet, just as we cannot imagine any life of sight in which there should not be still some mixture of faith; as little can we have any idea of any kind of faith quite apart from some measure of sight, dim and uncertain .though it might be. Thus, animated by the faith that things are to improve in the world, we look forward gladly to that better future, and there is nothing so effectual as this hope in strengthening us to be steadfast in our warfare and unwearying in our labours. But how can we look at the future but in our children? It is they who are to come after us and fill our place: it is for them we ought to lay up an inheritance in a better order of things. And we are the more content to lose sight of ourselves in the thought of them when we recall the comforting words of the Saviour Himself in a similar connection; His prediction that the kingdom of heaven, into which the men and women at that time refused to enter, should belong to their children. Therefore if it is our inevitable lot to see our own or kindred infirmities manifesting themselves in our children, we long to see, at the same time, indications of the presence of faculties that will lighten many a struggle for them, and hasten on many a victory; we long to see for ourselves something of that which we hope for, that the sons will be better than the fathers, and as the natural consequence of that, will be more prosperous than they.
You remember that impressive scene in the life of the patriarch Jacob, when though in a strange country, yet confident in the divine promise, he regarded the land as the possession of his descendants; and, seeing in his sons, now grown to manhood, all the generations that were to follow, pronounced on each of them, by the spirit of prophecy, a blessing specially adapted to the peculiar characteristics of him who received it. We could desire nothing better than to find ourselves in a similar position when we feel that the time of our work on earth is drawing to its close. A man could hardly have a more enriching, and comforting feeling in leaving this earthly scene than that of being able to indicate to each of those whom he leaves behind what is to be his special place in the work of God's kingdom, and what his own personal share in its blessings. And if this would be a comfort to us at the time of our death, so, even now, nothing could be more cheering to us, when wearied with the business of life and out of heart with our work, than some such prospect of what our children may be able to accomplish and what will be their portion in life. But as this prophetic vision of Jacob's was not solely the fruit of his faith in the sure promise of God; his exact acquaintance with all the characters of his family contributing something to it; neither can we attain to a similar comforting anticipation, unless the hearts of our children are opened to us, so that we have penetrated to their depths and know their inmost recesses. And how can this be if we have not lived in gladsome harmony with them, if they have not been frank and ingenuous in their intercourse with us? And therefore we come back once more to the warning of our text. Parents ought, by the nature of things, to be able to form a more correct judgment about their children than can be done in any other human relation. But this only holds good when the relationship remains natural and pure. The more a feeling of constraint grows up between them and us, the more readily shall we be mistaken in their characters. If they have become distrustful by being embittered, they shut up against us the access to their inner nature; the young spirit is enclosed in a crust through which often even the eye of wisdom and love is unable to pierce. Then our judgment varies with our feelings. We are able to make no happy forecast of their future; and we lose what would be our most effectual means of comfort when cast down by the imperfection of present things.
You see the matter, then, on both sides. When we provoke and estrange our children, both they and we lose the best of our life together. And as they, on their side, can best guard against any growing bitterness by respectful obedience, according to the first commandment with promise; let us, on our part, be unremitting in that self-denying love to them, which seeks not our own pleasure and advantage, bat theirs, and which has its direct reward in the brightness and peace which the companionship of the young so naturally brings when there are no jars and misunderstandings.
It would be beyond the limits and the proper scope of our present meditation to go on to specify in what ways more particularly the feeling of bitterness is produced in children, that so it might be watched against the more surely. Therefore I can only repeat this general caution: be watchful; notice the very first appearances, and turn round at once if you find yourself entering on a wrong course. For however excellent a plan it might be to have exact and certain rules about this, who could depend on his being able to keep them all? Who could boast of being so entirely master of all his emotions that he could be sure of keeping clear of everything that went against the precepts he had himself laid down? No; even with the most thorough knowledge we cannot make sure that there shall not be now and then moments in which we both feel and give expression to something that we must acknowledge to be a cause of provocation. But let me not, in saying this, be thought to put any discouragement in the way of Christian people. If we only turn at once and earnestly exercise self-control, no real harm will be done. The evil in such cases is averted through the working of two gifts with which God has endowed the human soul; a capacity of forgetting, and clear-sightedness. The young, ingenuous mind easily forgets, especially impressions that are unpleasant; because it is intended to be nourished by love, not by fear. It is only the recurrence of the harsh or painful ways that gradually sharpens the memory of the children in that direction. Therefore we may take comfort in thinking of this gift of God in connection with what are only our occasional and infrequent failures in this respect. And it also tells in our favour in such cases, that the human soul is, from childhood upwards, abundantly clear-sighted. Children learn very early to distinguish between what we may say or do in the mere heat and agitation of the moment, and what is our real and habitual feeling. And therefore while, on the one hand, we may try in vain to bribe their confidence by a few occasional indulgences or marks of favour while the ruling tone of our intercourse with them is harshness or half-contemptuous indifference; on the other hand, we may be equally sure that if only we are truly and lovingly devoted to them, if we earnestly seek their real welfare, if we attach to our inter course with them the importance and interest it deserves, they will not fail -- even if our human infirmities should sometimes make trouble -- to take the exact and true measure of our real and prevailing feeling towards them, and to cling to us in childlike confidence and affection. Only let our whole life be pure in their sight, and our inmost heart before God; let it be our constant concern to keep far away whatever may weaken love or be hurtful to frank simplicity; then we shall never have the sad experience of our children growing distrustful through bitter feeling, and the blessing of God shall direct the whole sacred work of training in. the midst of us.