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Vision for Earthly Fathers


Slow to Chide, Swift to Bless

With such a memorable tribute to our heavenly Father, pastor and poet Henry Francis Lyte (1793–1847) ends the second stanza of his hymn “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” Lyte was born to a derelict father, who sent him off to boarding school, nearly abandoned him, and signed infrequent letters “Uncle” instead of “Father.” In time, young Henry was taken in at holidays by the school’s headmaster as a kind of adopted son.

So Lyte knew personally the pains of a negligent father. Yet he came to find healing in a heavenly Father. “I have called Thee Abba Father,” he writes in the climactic verse of “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken.” And then again in “Praise, My Soul,”

Fatherlike he tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame he knows.
In his hand he gently bears us,
rescues us from all our foes.

The functionally orphaned poet came to know deeply the fatherhood of God for having had such an awful earthly one — and in seeing what he saw, he teaches us a vital aspect of all healthy fatherhood.

One Thousand Versus Four

“Slow to chide, and swift to bless” is a fitting tribute to our heavenly Father who revealed himself to Moses, and across time, culminating in Christ, as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . .” (Exodus 34:6–7). In showing us his glory, he leads with grace and mercy.

Notice, in his swiftness to bless his people, our heavenly Father is not absent of chiding, but slow to it: “. . . who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). Our God is merciful and gracious, and no pushover. He does indeed chide. When he does, however, observe the ratio with his blessing: he chides “to the third and the fourth generation” but blesses with “steadfast love for thousands.” And even then, because we’re sinners, his chiding is not at odds with his blessing, but a vital aspect of it.

Psalm 103 echoes the great revelation to Moses and adds a connection to fatherhood:

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
     slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
     nor will he keep his anger forever. . . .
As a father shows compassion to his children,
     so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:8–1013)

Though he will chide, and though we feel the sting, his final word to his children is always blessing and favor and joy:

His anger is but for a moment,
     and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
     but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

Our Father and We Fathers

What might this remarkable peek into the heart of our heavenly Father — slow to chide, swift to bless — mean for how we raise, discipline, and delight in our own children?

Such a vision of our Father’s glory not only runs across Scripture from beginning to end but also informs human fatherhood. As earthly fathers, we take our cues from the heavenly Father (Ephesians 3:14). In Christ, we too, though typically formed and conditioned in opposite ways, want to become increasingly “slow to chide, and swift to bless.” This kind of posture fits with, and is filled out, by Paul’s remarkable one-verse vision of parenting, and fatherhood in particular, in Ephesians 6:4:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Clearly what the apostle says here is relevant for mothers too, and yet he addresses fathers specifically — not simply as head of the household, but also as the one with the particular responsibility for educating the children in preparation for sending them out into the world.

Given Authority to Bless

The most disciplinarian dads among us will do well to observe that Paul doesn’t summarize the task as, “Make sure to establish and exercise authority over your children.” Rather, he assumes fatherly authority. Given the authority (and power) that we already have, as dads, by ordinance of God, he cautions us to exercise it with care, being mindful not to harm our children with our greater abilities, but instead to help them.

“Do not provoke your children to anger.” For our part, we are not to give our children any just reason to be angry or discouraged. We should not sin against them, but treat them with full Christian virtue — with as much kindness and respect as we treat fellow adults in our lives, whether at work, or at church, or in the neighborhood. That God has given children to us, and instructed them to obey us, is patently no excuse for sinning against them. Rather, it is all the more reason to make every effort, with God’s help, to treat our children with the utmost Christian kindness, and respect, and love.

Given their vulnerability as children, and our calling as their parents, they should be the ones we treat best of all people, not worst. Our adult sins have far greater repercussions than the missteps of our children.

Gentle, Patient Teachers

So, Paul assumes fatherly authority, and then exhorts us to wield it for the benefit, not detriment, of our children. The question is not whether fathers will provoke or drive their children; we will. With our presence or absence, with our holiness or sin, we inevitably will turn and shape our children in some direction. The question is whether we will drive them to anger or provoke them to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).

What, then, might we avoid and pray against in ourselves? Commentator Andrew Lincoln writes that the negative charge in Ephesians 6:4 involves “avoiding attitudes, words, and actions which would drive a child to angry exasperation or resentment and thus rules out excessively severe discipline, unreasonably harsh demands, abuse of authority, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation, subjecting a child to humiliation, and all forms of gross insensitivity to a child’s needs and sensibilities” (Ephesians, 406). With a few moments pondering, we all might make similar lists. And, remembering Lyte, we might also rule out neglect, which is a great temptation in times of multiplied distractions and screens.

In other words, fathers are to have their children in submission with all dignity, as Paul requires of elders in 1 Timothy 3:4. We all know there are dishonorable, undignified ways to have children in submission, as well as honorable ones. “In contrast to the norms of the day,” writes P.T. O’Brien,

Paul wants Christian fathers to be gentle, patient educators of their children, whose chief ‘weapon’ is Christian instruction focused on loyalty to Christ as Lord. Christian fathers were to be different from those of their surrounding society. (447)

Countercultural parenting in the first century may have meant, especially, swiftness to bless. Today it might also require the countercultural intentionality and deliberateness that is a readiness to genuinely chide, even as we’re slow to it, and never less than loving in it.

Speed Limits of Fatherhood

In cultivating such holy slowness to chide, we parents, and fathers especially, remember not only that we are bigger than our kids physically, but also that we should be bigger people than our children — that is, in the inner man. As adults, and fathers, we’re called to be the mature ones, the magnanimous ones, the patient ones. Our physical size and strength distinguish us from our children. So should our emotional maturity.

This might lead us to keep in mind, for example, that voice volume is not a clear differentiator between adults and children. Raising our voice is no special parental ability. However, patience should be. And wisdom. Practicing Christian patience as a parent does not mean failing to discipline our children, but it does help us to be slower to chide than we might be naturally, and to exercise wisdom, in partnership with our wife, in applying the rod.

As fathers who take our cues from the heavenly Father, we are encouraged, in the words of Henry Francis Lyte, to be swift to bless: quick to commend our children when they obey cheerfully, quick to give them our attention, quick to express praise and love and delight, quick to teach them ahead of time, knowing that the lion’s share of fatherly discipline is pro-active instruction and anticipating their needs and weaknesses. And then we must correct and reprove. Indeed we will chide. And our children will be all the better for it when we, like our heavenly Father, have been swift to bless.


 (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Workers for Your Joy: The Call of Christ on Christian Leaders (2022).



Are You Glad to Be a Woman?


As a third grader of average size and ability, I had no outward reason to aspire to be the first to finish the mile. Not only was I average, but this wasn’t a competition. We were merely running as a physical-fitness assessment for gym class. Yet inside me was an overwhelming urge to win — in particular, to beat the boys.

I used all the running wisdom I had gleaned from my dad: “Don’t start out too fast. Keep a steady pace. When you round that last turn, dig down deep and sprint for all you’re worth.” And it worked. I managed to be the first third grader to finish the mile at Sunnyside Elementary School in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred ninety. Some people peak early. Let’s just say that I peaked in the third grade, in a non-existent race, against competition that had no clue I was gunning for them.

Over the years, I’ve reflected on that gut instinct to “win” a competition that didn’t exist. Nobody taught me to want to beat the boys; it was instinctive for me. I knew there was a certain sort of glory in it, albeit fading and twisted. In just a few years, it didn’t matter how much I gutted it out and pushed myself: I couldn’t beat the boys in gym class.

When Winning Is Losing

This beat-the-boys phenomenon wasn’t peculiar to me. Quite the opposite: as I went away to college, it seemed to be endemic, although not in sports as much as in academics.

There was particular praise heaped on young women who studied in fields that were mainly filled with men. There was a push to get more women into math and science and computers — to see them succeed when put up against male peers. Never mind the fact that women dominated fields where nurture and helping are primary, such as nursing and early-childhood development. Was no one curious as to why that might be? Did no one see a connection between women’s most popular professions and their bodily design?

The terrible lie sold to and perpetuated by women is that their God-given bodies are of no consequence, and not merely when it comes to the skills or jobs they pursue. The lie has gone so far as to persuade many that they should scorn their childbearing capability and instead live for self-actualization and supposed consequence-free (sexual) immorality.

Deceiving Women, Slandering God

That one lie is especially terrible because it carries a multitude of slanders against God. The lie assumes that God’s design of woman as made for man is not good, but bad; that his design for bringing children into the world through women’s bodies is not good, but to be avoided; and that a woman’s freedom to live in sin is better than the freedom from sin that God offers in his Son.

Ungodly competition with men, although seemingly harmless in its seed form, leads to a myriad of evils — it is even used to justify the murder of unborn children when they impose on the life of an ambitious woman. Is this lie not an echo of the very curse God warns us about when he says, “Your desire shall be for your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16)?

What became clear to me is that this desire to beat the boys — or at the very least, to become functionally the same as men in the world — wasn’t contained to certain competitive individuals; rather, it was and is a societally approved goal. Schools and colleges encourage it, government funds it, parents cheer it, and even some churches preach it. Yet to do so requires a willful rejection of created reality. Men and women are not the same; they are designed for different callings. And this is really good news.

Grace Agrees with God

Sometimes, Christian women can embrace the gospel, embrace their need for a Savior, and yet ignore the implications for how God made them as women. But the grace that saves us also comes to expose the blind spots that keep us from seeing that womanhood is good and serves a deeply good purpose. Our growth in the Lord Jesus and his ways is not some generic sort of genderless growth — rather, as we grow in him, we grow into godly women.

That means we learn to agree with God when he says that his creation of male and female is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). We agree with him when he says women were made as “helper” and as “the glory of man” (Genesis 2:181 Corinthians 11:7). We agree with him when he says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). We agree with him when he says women are not independent of men, but dependent (1 Corinthians 11:11). We agree with him when he says that a quiet and submissive spirit is precious to him (1 Peter 3:4–5).

Apart from his grace, we don’t agree with God. Apart from his grace, we don’t even accept ourselves or our bodies as a gift. We may be full of self-esteem talk or self-acceptance talk, but the world’s “self-acceptance” isn’t any such thing — it could better be called “sin-acceptance.” Accepting our created bodies and sex as from God, for his glory and our good, is something his grace enables.

Begin by Thanking God

There are many reasons well-meaning Christians shy away from the wonder, goodness, and necessity of a woman’s design in childbearing — her unique and essential role in this world. I believe they mainly balk because they don’t want to make a woman who isn’t married or can’t have children feel bad. I don’t want to do that either. I want single women to know that God has a good plan for their lives and that they can absolutely trust him with every bit of the path he’s laid before them.

I also want both single and married women to open their eyes to the gift of having been made a woman. And part of that gift, even if you never have children personally, is being a member of the sex that bears children, being given a body equipped for it. You are made to nurture life — physically and spiritually. You are made to transform almost nothing into something quite remarkable. You are made to take what is simple and boring and make it beautifully complex. You are made to be an irreplaceable helper.

The first place to begin for any woman is with gratitude. Start by thanking your Creator for making you a woman. Thank him for the breathtaking gift of life as a woman! Praise him for making you his precious daughter. All his works and ways are good.


 (@abigaildodds) is a wife, mother of five, and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. She is author of Bread of Life: Savoring the All-Satisfying Goodness of Jesus through the Art of Bread Making.


Religious Affections


A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections is a tremendous book. It’s potentially a devastating book. The question it addresses — what are the distinguishing marks of one who is in favor with God? — is an unavoidable one for a follower of Christ. How do I know that my faith is genuine? How do I know that I’m a real Christian, and not a hypocrite?

The possibility that my faith is false, and the fact that this book might help to reveal the falsity, is why it is potentially devastating. But this sort of devastation is good. If my faith is misguided or lacking or deficient or false in some fundamental way, far better that I discover it now than that I arrive at the final judgment only to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matthew 7:23). Far better for Edwards to devastate me with his writings than for Christ to devastate me with his dismissal. Recovery from the former is possible; repentance is still an option. But there is no recovery from the latter. “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

But the book is potentially devastating for another reason. It’s a complicated book, a meticulous book, a book by a veritable genius, written in the style of an eighteenth-century pastor and theologian. It’s the fruit of decades of theological reflection on revival, religious experience, the challenge of assurance, and the difficulty of discerning the work of God on earth. It was written on the heels of the First Great Awakening, the fourth book on the subject by its author, and his most mature reflections on the challenges posed by the revivals that swept Europe and America in the middle of the eighteenth century. The complexity of the subject and the precision of the author’s prose mean that this book can be misunderstood. And in misunderstanding, we can be devastated. Our faith might be wrecked, not because it is false, but because it is real, and we wrongly apply Edwards’s signs to ourselves.

In commending this book to the reader, I’m mindful of both types of devastation. I want to foster the first kind, if needed, and avoid the second kind, if possible. To that end, I offer a ten-step orientation to the book as a whole. Think of these as ten items to keep in mind as you embark on the difficult but valuable journey before you.

1. Structure

The book has three parts. Part 1 introduces the thesis — true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections — and then proceeds to define what is meant by affections. Part 2 then identifies twelve unreliable signs of holy affections, and then part 3 identifies twelve reliable signs of holy affections (this is the meat of the book). Definitions. Unreliable Signs. Reliable Signs. That’s the basic structure.

2. Meaning of Affections

Understanding what Edwards means by affections requires understanding a bit about his view of humanity. As a human being, you are made up of a body and a soul. Your body has five senses, by which you take in impressions from the external world. Your soul, or your mind, has two fundamental faculties or powers. The first is the understanding. It’s the faculty by which you perceive, discern, view, and judge. It tells you what something is. The second faculty is the will, by which you like or dislike, love or hate, approve or reject what you perceive with your understanding.

If you go to a football game, it’s by means of your understanding that you identify the team in purple and gold as the Vikings, and the team in green and yellow as the Packers. But it’s by means of your will that you shout and cheer for the Vikings and boo and hiss at the Packers. Crucially, it’s the inclination of the will that governs our actions. Now, some inclinations of the will are mild and minor; they barely register at all (like choosing what socks to wear today). But other inclinations of the will are vigorous, persistent, and lively (like choosing whom you’re going to marry). Only the latter are termed affections. They are the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the will.

3. Importance of Affections

Why are affections so important? Affections are often the spring of men’s actions. They make the world go round. Without lively affections, few of us would do much of anything. What animates our actions is our loves and hates, our fears and desires, our griefs and joys. More importantly, affections reveal the fundamental orientation of the heart. When you see what a person loves, hates, fears, desires, rejoices in, and grieves over, you’re seeing the bent and tendency of his heart. So if we want to know what kind of heart we have, we need to look to our affections.

4. Evaluating Affections

It’s important, however, that we don’t make a mistake in evaluating our affections. Edwards is clear that we should focus primarily on the fixity, persistence, and strength of our habitual affections, rather than on the immediate intensity of any particular affection. Clarity will keep us from evaluating ourselves (and others) wrongly. A flash of emotion doesn’t tell us much one way or another. Nor should we measure the strength of our affections by the immediate outward effects (some of which are determined by personality and culture). Rather, we should mainly be concerned with the strength of our habitual affections, the tendency of our hearts over time and through challenges. This will keep us from jumping to premature conclusions because we have an unusually bad day (or an unusually good one).

5. Unreliable Signs

We need to be clear about what Edwards means by unreliable signs. Unreliable signs are not bad; they’re simply unreliable. In other words, the presence of an unreliable sign in your life isn’t defective; it just isn’t decisive. It doesn’t count against you, but neither does it count in your favor. In that sense, unreliable signs don’t tell us much. For example, intense affection is an unreliable sign. On the one hand, intensity could be good. Think of David in the Psalms. On the other hand, people have intense affections for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with Christ. Likewise with physical manifestations. When the prophets encounter the presence of God, they fall on their faces. This is good and right. But people faint at political rallies and rock concerts. So we shouldn’t put too much stock in physical manifestations of intense emotion.

Essentially, an unreliable sign is capable of being counterfeit. Edwards’s rule of thumb is this: if unbelievers can do it, it’s not reliable. If the devil can imitate it, it’s not reliable. So we shouldn’t fear or reject unreliable signs. Neither should we bank on them.

6. Reliable Signs

When it comes to the twelve reliable signs, they follow a distinct progression, and they can be clustered together into groups. Over the years, I’ve found it helpful to think of them as a tree. The first four signs are the roots. They are foundational to the tree, but often hidden and difficult to discern (especially in others). True affections are the result of a saving work of the Spirit that gives us a new sense of the heart, a new foundation in our soul. This new sense is able to see the moral excellency of divine things, the beauty of God’s holiness, which gives rise to a distinct kind of knowledge of God. Just as there’s a difference between knowing that honey is sweet (because you read it in a book) and actually tasting the sweetness of honey for yourself, so also there is a difference between knowing that God is holy (even the demons know that) and actually tasting the sweetness and delight of his holiness. It’s this deeper, experiential knowledge that God gives us in the new birth, and this knowledge is essential for genuine religious affections.

From the roots we move to the trunk in signs five to seven. True religious affections are “attended with” these signs. There’s a conviction of God’s reality that comes from a direct encounter with him through his word. We know Christ is real because we’ve tasted and seen his beauty for ourselves. Likewise, this sight of God’s holiness and beauty humbles us, since we become more aware of our own abiding sinfulness. We don’t just regret our sins because we might be punished; we loathe our sins because they are odious and disgusting. Finally, this sight of divine glory in the gospel transforms our very nature.

Out from the trunk come the branches of signs eight to eleven. These signs begin to be more visible. Our new nature reflects Jesus in his love, meekness, and mercy. Our hearts are softened and our consciences made sensitive to remaining sin. Our pursuit of holiness is comprehensive; we don’t simply pursue certain virtues to the neglect of others, but instead seek to show all of the fruit of the Spirit. What’s more, we don’t rest satisfied in our progress thus far, but are continually striving for more of God and holiness, more of love and grace.

The final sign, Edwards says, is the most important. It’s where all the other signs have been leading. The final sign, out on the branches, is the fruit of a holy life. We know trees by their fruit, and in this case, that means a universal, earnest, and persevering obedience to Jesus. Universal doesn’t mean perfect; it means that there is no area of our life off-limits, no pet sins that we keep untouchable. We seek to obey the Lord in every way that we can, and in doing so, we show the fruit of the grace that we have tasted and that has transformed us from the inside out.

7. Testing Edwards’s Insights

It’s worth noting that it’s possible to disagree with Edwards in his emphasis in certain signs. For example, in my own experience, I’m not sure that his counsel on humility in the sixth sign is always helpful. While I agree with his basic point — there’s a difference between legal humiliation (which makes us feel sorrow because we’re being punished) and evangelical humiliation (by which we’re sorry because we’ve grievously sinned) — Edwards’s exhortation to continually evaluate one’s pride to make sure you’re not taking pride in your humility or in your awareness of your pride in your humility can be debilitating. You can easily get stuck on a treadmill of introspection and lose yourself in navel gazing. And this is just an example. Edwards, for all of his wisdom and biblical insight, is still human, and it’s good to test what he says by the Scriptures and to evaluate his applications by wisdom.

8. Body, Circumstances, and Sin

As you read the signs, it’s important to remember that Edwards recognizes the role of the body, our circumstances, and sin in hindering our affections and our assurance. Alterations in the body can affect our imaginations, our minds, and our emotions. Depression (what Edwards calls melancholy) is real, and has a bodily aspect that can influence our thoughts and emotions. In fact, Edwards says, Satan takes advantage of these bodily weaknesses to prey upon weary and depressed saints. This means that a full prescription for someone in depression will include both spiritual counsel and bodily help. While Edwards focuses primarily on the spiritual dimension, he certainly recognizes the role of the bodily dimension. And so should we.

Likewise, pay attention to the beginning of part 3, where Edwards notes the way that circumstances and sin can rob us of assurance of salvation. Those who are low in grace and have fallen into deep sin should not expect to have assurance of salvation. The lack of assurance is a mercy from God, meant to drive us to repent and seek him wholeheartedly. For the one who is low in grace, God seems hidden, as though covered by a dark cloud. What’s more, being low in grace, our spiritual eyesight is dim, and the combination of dark clouds and bad eyes means that we cannot see his smiling face. No amount of signs written in a book will overcome the frustration and fear in such a case. The only remedy is turning to Christ afresh and growing in grace.

9. Seeking Assurance

The previous item leads to an absolutely crucial statement that Edwards makes for those who are struggling with assurance. If you find yourself low in grace and in assurance, doubting and fearing that you don’t truly belong to God, what should you do? Let’s make it more concrete. If reading this book devastates you and you wonder what you should do, remember this quotation from Edwards:

’Tis not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way, than by mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it. And although self-examination be a duty of great use and importance, and by no means to be neglected; yet it is not the principal means, by which the saints do get satisfaction of their good estate. Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination, as by action. Religious Affections, 195)

The way to grow in assurance is to kill sin, seek God’s grace, and exercise it as much as you can. Assurance comes not by looking inward, but by action, by looking to Christ and living out of what you see.

10. Humble Posture

The final item is less about the book itself and more a piece of pastoral advice. Read this book humbly. Don’t mainly read it so that you can evaluate the genuineness of others. Edwards, in fact, says that, while we can make a general judgment about the authenticity of others, we can’t infallibly and certainly know that another person is truly born again. We can’t see the heart. Ultimately, only the Lord knows those who are his. Nevertheless, we can have real assurance of our own standing with God, and this book can serve that assurance by directing our attention in the right directions.

If we read humbly, if we read carefully and wisely, if we read in community with others and under the guidance of wise pastors and counselors, then this book can be more than devastating. It can be a means of grace, a gift from God, one that leads you to truly know and deeply treasure all that God is for you in Christ.


 (@joe_rigney) is president of Bethlehem College & Seminary and a teacher for desiringGod.org. He is a husband, father of three, and pastor at Cities Church. His most recent book is More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust.

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