Shepherds not Sheriffs

Chatswood Baptist Church

Proverbs 3:1-18

Approaches to parenting


Over the last few Sundays we have been looking at what it means to be a parent. Today I want us to think a little more about the role that parents have been given and suggest that parents should be seeing themselves as shepherds. Yet before we look at what this means I want to mention, what I think are just a couple of mistaken approaches to parenting.

The law-man


The first mistake is what I will call the “law-man” approach. I grew up watching American western-movies and often these movies featured sheriffs and their deputies who were there to keep the peace and enforce the law in those towns that were springing up as settlers headed westward. These were places of great lawlessness and it sometimes took tough (and sometimes ruthless) lawmen like Wyatt Earp or Batt Masterton to tame cities like Dodge city and Tombstone. These lawmen would walk down the main stree ready to have a show down with anyone disturbing the peace. In a time of lawlessness, these guys were there to keep the peace and enforce the rule of law.

Sometimes, I think that parents fall into this sort of thinking. We see ourselves as sheriffs or perhaps as God’s deputies. We are there on God’s behalf to enforce the rules keeping our little ones in order so that they grow up knowing how to properly behave and so they might do well in life. But the problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account that our real problem is with our hearts and what is really needed deep down is for the Lord to do his to work in them. We forget that what drives behaviour is what is going on in the inside.

When we forget the work that goes on in the inside we can fall into the trap of thinking that if our kids are relatively well behaved that there aren’t any real issues. We end up dealing with things superficially thinking when we’ve got them to behave or we’ve punished them for not behaving that we’ve done our job. What can happen is that our kids learn to keep the rules when you’re around them, but they have no internal motivation for doing the right thing because we haven’t addressed their hearts. Our children need us to be more than just lawmen (or lawwomen) riding in to enforce the rules.

The pacifier


There is another extreme which is opposite to this and that is what I will call today as the “pacifier approach”. We all know what a “pacifier” is. It is what you give a baby to keep them from being unsettled. You don’t want them to cry and so you stick a pacifier (dummy or soother) in. What happens is that some parents never grow out of pacifying the children. Sometimes unwittingly they give them whatever they want to keep them from becoming unsettle and life becomes child-centred rather than God-centred.

Instead of teaching the child that they are under their authority of their parents because they under God’s authority the child begins to think that they are the authority. This idea can be even fostered by well-meaning parents who handover all the decision making back to the child (Tedd Tripp makes this point well in his book, Shepherding a Child’s heart). Instead of telling the child that this is what they are going to eat we end up forever asking them what they want to eat or what they want to do or what they want to watch. The trouble with this sort of approach is parents train their children to think that life revolves around them and by the time they 7 or 8 they think that they are the ones who in control and in some households,  it might be close to the truth. Instead of teaching them that they are to obey their parents because they are to love and honour God we end up teaching them the exact opposite and make a rod for our own backs in the process.

We often swing between approaches


Now sometimes I know that I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to be the lawman and at other times the pacifier. It isn’t that we are necessarily always one or the other, but we often swing between different approaches to (or styles of) parenting depending on how we feel at the time and what we think will work in the circumstances to keep the peace and maintain order. Often, we react in these ways for we forget what we have been called to do and we are worried more about how our children’s behaviour impacts on us, rather than what it says about the condition of their hearts.


Shepherding children


Today, I want to suggest that as parents who are stewards of God we should see ourselves as shepherds. I think this perhaps is the best way that we should see our role. As shepherd we are there to lead and guide our children so that they might discover the wisdom of fearing the Lord and trusting in him rather than leaning on their own understanding. But how do we do this? This is what I want to look at with you today and I want to turn to the book of Proverbs to draw out some principles.

Most of the content of chapters 1 to 9 of the book of Proverbs are the words of a father encouraging his son to embrace wisdom. This father sees his role himself as a shepherd who guides and leads his son in the way of wisdom.

Proverbs 4:10-11

10 Listen, my son, accept what I say, and the years of your life will be many.11 I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. 12 When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble. 13 Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life.[1]


But how do we guide our children in the way of wisdom?

We are to teach and instruct


One of the first things that the of Proverbs makes clear is the important role that parents have to teach and instruct their children. The son is encouraged to hold on to his father’s instruction. He is to not let it go. This instruction and teaching is something that both parents are meant to pass on to their children.

Proverbs 1:8-9

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.


  • We teach the way of the Lord

The parents in the book of Proverbs are an ideal couple who are wise and godly[2] and who are teaching their children the way of the Lord and what it means to fear Him (see Prov. 1:7). We are not just passing on our own set of rules but the wisdom that comes from knowing and following the Lord ourselves through having hidden his Word in our hearts. In Israel the commandments and precepts that parents were meant to pass on to their children were the commands and decrees and laws that the Lord had given to his people (see Deut. 6:1-9). We are to teach and instruct our children in this wisdom that comes from knowing the Lord and his word. What we are meant to pass on to our children is a way of life shaped by fearing the Lord and obeying his Word (see Deut. 6:24; 1 Sam 12:14).


  • We can’t teach what we don’t know and live by

We are to teach and instruct them in the way of the Lord. But, of course, for this to happen we need to understand God’s way and have his Word hidden in our own hearts. We need his wisdom guiding us so that we can show our children what it looks like in the way we behave and live. It isn’t just about bringing the kids along on a Sunday to be taught but more about what goes on in the home from Monday to Saturday. It is only possible to truly teach our children the way of the Lord if it has first become our own way of life. We can’t teach what we don’t really know for teaching wisdom is more than just passing on information, it is showing them what it looks like so that they too might want to embrace it.

  • We are encouraging them to trust in the Lord


When it comes down to what we are wanting to do is to encourage our children to trust in the Lord in all their ways.

Proverbs 3:5-8

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.


Our teaching and instruction should be training our children to not trust in themselves, but to put all their trust in the Lord. Our goal is not to just to have well- adjusted and successful children who will be a testimony to our parenting prowess. We want them to understand that the only wise way to live life is under the lordship of Jesus[3]. We are encouraging them to trust in the Lord and to do things his way and not their own way. True wisdom is to not depend on our own thinking or wisdom but to fear the Lord shunning what he says is evil. It is to not be wise in our own eyes but to acknowledge him in all our ways – in everything we do.

What we want our children to learn from us is that all our ways of doing things are to be his ways because we trust him and not ourselves. Therefore, as parent for this to happen this must be the way that we are living. We are to live according to his wisdom and not our own. As a parent we have to be always examining ourselves and asking ourselves, ‘Are we doing things God’s way or have we still got our own way of doing things?’ “Are more goals as parent’s his goals or my goals?” What we are meant to be teaching them is the wisdom of trusting in the Lord and his ways.

Friends, our children listen and learn from us. From very young the watch us and learn to imitate us. It amazes me even in later life, now at the age of 55 how much I find myself unconsciously echoing and sounding like my father, even though I haven’t lived in the same household for 31 year.  Ed Moll and Tim Chester write:

“We take our children to church, read the Bible with them and pray together. But this is only a fraction of what we teach our children. They watch our every move. Listen to your children playing and you’ll hear yourself echoing back. Your everyday talk teaches them what you really care about. Your everyday talk teaches them how you love God.”[4]

Teaching and instructing our children is done more than just in what we say but how we live. It happens in the everyday talk that we do, and it happens every day as we live life and spend time with them. It happens formally as we find that time to sit down and read the Word of God with them and pray with them and it happens informally as we are going down the street, driving to school, doing the shopping etc.

We are to correct and discipline


The other side of teaching and instructing is correcting and disciplining. As parents we are called to correct and discipline for this is what a loving parent does. Parents who love their children discipline them so that they understand that they are going astray and to guide them back onto the path of wisdom.

Proverbs 3:11-12

11 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, 12 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.

  • Disciplining children is about loving them

The book of Proverbs makes it clear that disciplining a child is about loving them. Discipline isn’t meant to be punitive or vindictive, but about correction. You discipline your children because you care for them and you want to see them turn around. The parent who loves their child is careful to discipline them.

Proverbs 13:24

24 He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.

  • We are to be careful how we discipline them

We are to be careful to discipline and correct our children. But we are to be careful how we discipline them for not all that we might think is discipline is really about correction. We sometimes discipline our children and it isn’t about them but about us. We discipline because of how their behaviour impacts on us. We tell ourselves that we have a right to become angry and that they deserve to be punished. We shout and yell at them not because we are wanting to correct them but because we’re just really frustrated and angry with them.

  • Discipline that is about us is about control

But, discipline that is not about them is really about us and discipline that is about us is usually just about controlling them so that their behaviour doesn’t impact us. Discipline that is about controlling them rather than correcting them usually ends up using ways and means that don’t address their hearts and don’t accord with Gods ways. Moll and Chester in their book “gospel-centred family” give five examples of such misguided ways and means[5]:

Manipulation (‘Your sister did it okay.’)
Fear (‘You won’t know what’s hit you.’)
Bribery (I’ll give you a sweet if you shut up.’)
Emotionalism (‘After all I’ve done for you.’)
Inconsistency (‘Okay, just this once.’)

  • Discipline that is about them is about correction


Now as parents who find ourselves under pressure we have probably all fallen into these ways and means (I know I have). But these things are not the Lord’s way and if we are to teach them the things of the Lord, we need to ask the Lord for his help and forgiveness and seek to learn how to make his ways more part of our own ways. His ways don’t come naturally. We don’t find them by following our natural inclination, doing what our gut tells us to do. Disciplining that is not selfish (that’s not about us) is not just about controlling their behaviour but correcting and guiding them. It’s about coaching them to understand their own hearts and what motivates them so that they might turn from folly.


  • Discipline that is about them means being slow to become angry


Discipline that is about them means being slow to anger because the Lord is slow to anger with us (Ex 34:6, Num. 14:8). In the book of Proverbs, it is the fool who give full vent to his anger and it is the wise man who keep himself under control (see Prov. 29:11,22). The apostle James wrote that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19). He goes on to say that our anger doesn’t bring about the righteous life that God desires[6]. Now we have all fallen into that temptation to become angry, but when we do we should not think that we are doing God’s work as a parent. We might think that if we get angry enough that surely that they will not doing it again, but we aren’t teaching them to fear the Lord, just us. We are to be like the Lord who is slow to anger and patience.


  • Discipline that is about them means trying to understand them


Discipline that is about them means listening and seeking to understand them first. This doesn’t come naturally to some of us. I know I’m more inclined to think that it is matter of just letting them have it and telling them what the rules are and how they should be keeping them. But discipline that is about correcting and coaching them is more than just a one-way monologue letting them know everything that they’re done wrong and telling them to do better. It is about understanding what are the things that have hold of their hearts. What are the things that are driving them to make the choices they are making? Are our children being driven for acceptance by friends? Are they looking for approval of someone? Do they fear what others might think of them? Do they need to be the centre of attention? Do they want to be wise in their own eyes? Is it matter of pride and having to be right all the time?


Understanding them means that communication must be a two-way street. It means listening to them and asking questions about their motivation[7]. “What is that you are wanting?” What are you hoping to achieve? What did you think would happen? “What is that you are concerned about or fearful of? I’m not naturally inclined this way but it something we can learn with the help of the Lord. I take encouragement that James also wrote that if we lack wisdom that we should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault (James 1:5). I think that sometimes the problem is just leaning on my own understand and that I’m not asking enough for the wisdom that only God can give.


  • Discipline that is about them means being clear and consistent


Discipline that is about them means being clear and consistent[8]. If discipline is to be effective teaching a child the way to go then it must clear and consistent. We need to be clear about what we are telling them to do. We need to be clear and both parents need to consistent about what are the boundaries that they are not allowed to cross. And when they cross them, as inevitably they will, we also need to be clear about why they are being disciplined linking their bad behaviour with the discipline. Moll and Chester makes the point that for very young children this “means that discipline must be immediate.” [9]


We are to show them where to find grace and forgiveness


So, we guide our children by teaching and instructing them and through loving correction and discipline. But we must remember that we aren’t just teaching our children a set of rules to follow. What we are hoping to do is to lead our children to understand their need of Christ so that they might put their trust in him. We aren’t trying to produce children who keep all the rules. We know that they can’t. We know that we can’t. Like us they need to understand that they are hopelessly in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. As shepherds we are to show them what this grace and forgiveness look like in our dealing with them and we are to lead them to where they kind find it for themselves by showing them where we found it – in the cross of Christ.


  • We need to show them what grace and forgiveness looks like


We need to show them what this grace and forgiveness looks like in the way we keep loving and  forgiving them and not treating them as they deserve but picking them up when they stumble and accepting them and welcoming them back like the father in the story we looked at last Sunday, the story of the prodigal. Rather, than being like the older standoffish brother who expected his brother to pay back for all he had done and to earn his forgiveness and love. We can give them a little taste of what the love of the Father is like for us as we seek to be like him.


  • We need to show them how to receive grace and forgiveness


We also need to show them how to receive such grace and forgiveness. God doesn’t chose perfect people to parent children. He chose us. There are no such things as perfect parents. He chose people like us who struggle with our own sinful hearts and who are constantly stumbling and failing and making a mess of things. He didn’t make a mistake in choosing people like us because people like us can show children like ours that we all need grace and forgiveness like His. If we humble ourselves and admit our failures rather than pretending that we are always right, we can teach our children the greatest lesson that they need to learn in life – their need for a saviour. It doesn’t matter where we are at or what we have done we can teach them this.


  • We are to lead them to the good shepherd


Friends, parents are to be the sort of shepherds who lead their children to feet of the good shepherd. We are to help them find God’s grace and forgiveness in what the Lord has done for us. We need to teach them to humble themselves and we can only do this by being ready to humble ourselves admitting our own failures and sin and seeking his forgiveness. Our children need to hear that we have made mistakes and are sorry and that we need the help of the Lord, just like they do. We can show our children what it looks like to turn to God for forgiveness and mercy. We can lead them to the true shepherd of the sheep, the only truly good shepherd – the one who laid down his life for them. The good thing is that God can use even our weakness for his glory – that’s the kind of good and amazing God that we serve.

[1] Except where otherwise indicated all Biblical references are taken from The Holy Bible: New International Version—Anglicised. (1984). (electronic edition). London: Hodder & Stoughton.

[2] Ernest Lucas, “Proverbs”, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary” Kindle Edition, Location 1395 of 11346.

[3] Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, 35% location 1267 of 3639.

[4] Ed Moll and Tim Chester, “Gospel-centred Family – becoming the parents God wants you to be” page 62

[5] Ed Moll and Tim Chester, gospel-centred Family – becoming the parents God want you to be, page 39.

[6] See the section “No place for Anger” in Tedd Tripps book, “Shepherding a child’s heart”

[7] Chester and Moll make this point in their book. They say “focus on the motivation of your child not just their behaviour.”

[8] Moll and Chester says good discipline is about 1. Calmness – making the focus of discipline your child’s heart not your emotional state. 2. Being clear. Making your commands clear. 3Being consistent. See page 40 for a much fuller discussion

[9] Moll and Chester, page 40.