Nebuchadnezzar was irate. You would be too if your plans were foiled like his.
The music played and the people bowed down to worship the golden image. The music played and everyone obeyed. Isn’t the world a lovely place when everyone just does what you tell them to do?
Isn’t the world equally unlovely when someone, anyone, decides to resist? And so Nebuchadnezzar was irate because Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego would not bow down and worship. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter” (Dan. 3:16).
As the fire was stoked seven times hotter and as the three men tumbled fearlessly into the furnace, the contrast between those three men and all the rest was made vivid. It was not, however, a contrast between obedience and disobedience, as Nebuchadnezzar might have imagined. Instead, it was a contrast between slavery and freedom, between compulsion and love.
Nebuchadnezzar would have been satisfied to have everyone obey and for his kingdom to be full of dutiful slaves. It’s all he was aiming at. He did not care what was in their hearts. He did not care if they only did it because they feared the furnace. And so he commanded and compelled and that was good enough.
But the God of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego was different from Nebuchadnezzar. The three men worshiped Him freely. They served Him willingly. And they trusted Him with their lives: “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king” (Dan. 3:17).
That’s the goal. That’s what God wants: free sons and not slaves, love and not compulsion. That is clearly so much better, and that is what every parent should want as well: children who are willing and not under compulsion. Children who are free and not slaves.
Nebuchadnezzar’s tactics are enticing. Every parent knows how valuable it is when a child obeys. A child who does what you say when you say it—what could be better than that? It’s tangible. It looks good. And it’s attainable. All it takes is the right application of force, the right system of punishments and rewards, consistency and follow-through.
At the same time, every parent knows there’s something better because every parent knows how much more glorious it is to see joyful and willing obedience than mere or grudging obedience. When there are no eye-rolls or sighs or complaints or dragged feet, that’s a gracious thing in the sight of every parent. It’s even better when a child obeys because he wants to be helpful or recognizes the good of the task or trusts that his parents have his best interest in mind.
Nonetheless, parents are easily tempted to imitate Nebuchadnezzar, to settle for mere obedience from their children or even to aim at it; to play the music and be satisfied if the kids go through the motions; to forget about heart and soul and to long for anything resembling compliance.
However, to settle for compliance is to deny the humanity of your child. It is to treat him like an animal, “like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you” (Ps. 32:9). Worse than that, it is to destine a child for a life of slavery. A man who is formed by compulsion never learns self-control and will always be a slave. “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28). That leaves only the question of who his slave-master will be. Ultimately every spiritual slave becomes beholden to sin, death, and the devil.
But children are not animals, and they are meant for freedom. Contrary to the educational ideals of our age, children are not best formed by the indulgence of their passions or thoughtless conformity to bureaucratic standards. This is common sense, as was J. Gresham Machen’s observation that “what is good for a Ford car is not always good for a human being, for the simple reason that a Ford car is a machine while a human being is a person.”1 Likewise, C.S. Lewis noted that former ages had a better grasp on the sanctity of human nature: “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.”2
It’s common sense, but it’s an insight that also has divine proportions beyond what the wise men of old realized. After all, Christian parents are charged with bringing up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). That is to form their children into the image of Jesus, the firstborn from the dead, the truly free Son of God. Paul Gerhardt shows us what that freedom looks like when he puts on Jesus’ lips these stunning words: “Yes, Father, yes, most willingly I’ll bear what you command Me. My will conforms to Your decree, I’ll do what you have asked me.”3
It is to that Son of God that the heavenly Father has promised a people who would “offer themselves freely” (Ps. 110:3). They are a people with whom God has made a covenant. No longer would His law come from outside of them, compelling and threatening them, but “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:33-34). That’s the goal: life as a forgiven and free child of God.
You could describe the process of getting there as a move from discipline to self-discipline. Somewhere along the way children must learn not merely to respond to the correction and direction of their parents towards what is good. They must learn to correct and direct themselves. They must learn not merely to do what is good, but to love what is good. They must learn not merely to obey, but to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10) and to be pleased by it as well.
Any lesson that needs to be learned must therefore also be taught. How do parents set out to teach self-discipline? How do they teach their children to be free?
Note, from the outset, that discipline is required. You can’t get to self-discipline without going first through discipline. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son” (Prov. 13:24). A child must learn that he needs correction. He must learn to be like the wise man who loves the one who reproves him (Prov. 9:7). He learns all of that in being disciplined by a father and mother who love him and who have been charged by the Lord with training him in righteousness. Even more, he learns that best from a father and mother who have been forgiven and know how to forgive. “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?… For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:7, 11).
But again, you cannot stop at discipline. The training must be towards self-discipline. Moreover, all the tools of teaching should be applied to this goal: explicit instruction, practice and repetition, and, perhaps most importantly, a sound example for imitation.
That sound example is often overlooked. Here’s one way to put it: you cannot discipline your child until you have first disciplined yourself. “None can give to another what he does not possess himself. No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got.”4 That was C. S. Lewis’s diagnosis of the failure of one generation to hand the faith over to the next. The same goes for self-discipline. In order to teach your children to be free and not slaves, you must yourself “live as people who are free” (1 Pet. 2:16).
That means diligence in the mortification of the flesh. It means saying “no” to yourself, your sinful desires, your bad habits. It means saying “no” to yourself, not just in front of your children, but also when they are not looking. After all, if you want to teach your children to indulge the passions of their flesh in secret, all you must do is indulge the passions of your own flesh in secret.
This also means doing things willingly and with joy. How often do parents teach their children to be slaves by doing things grudgingly and under compulsion? “I HAVE to go to this meeting.” “I HAVE to go down to the DMV.” “I HAVE to go wash the dishes.” And thus the kids are taught that there are some things you must do simply because someone else is disciplining you. And they are taught that your attitude towards such tasks may be as grumpy as you like.
But there should be no such tasks for the free children of God. There should be no tasks which you only do because someone is forcing you. There’s not even a hint of goodness in acting with bitterness or contempt. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). To do things any other way, with grumbling and complaining—it is, at best, lip-service to God and, at worst, to submit again to the yoke of slavery.
In short, parents should be the kind of people they want their children to become. Live and act as one forgiven and loved and set free by God, and your children will learn to do the same. They will see your joy in willing obedience, and that joy will become their own. They will see your treasures that are eternal and incorruptible, and they will desire those same treasures for themselves.
Instruction and practice are also integral in learning self-discipline. It is best to think of these lessons as preparatory. Too often parents think that nothing needs to be taught until there is an emergency. That is, you don’t need to teach self-control until the lack thereof really starts to cause trouble. But that is no way to think of such vital and valuable skills.
Consider how a basketball team practices, or how an orchestra rehearses. Consider how much time is spent repeating the fundamentals, running the plays, learning the cues, memorizing the passages, and developing muscle memory. Far more time is spent in practice than in the game or in rehearsal than in the performance.
That’s so for at least two relevant reasons. The first is that expertise takes time. You get good at what you practice, and the more you practice, the better you get. And secondly, the time to make mistakes is when the stakes are low. The time to get things right is when getting things wrong will not be costly.
Apply those principles to teaching self-discipline, and you can see how the best time to teach and practice self-discipline is precisely when it seems to matter least of all. It’s when the stakes are lowest. It’s when you’re least provoked by their grudging obedience. It’s when you’re cool-headed and hardly upset. It’s then that teaching your kids to obey willingly and insisting on cheerful and prompt behavior make for good habits that will carry them through when the stakes are high and self-discipline is needed most of all.
The world would have you think that all of this is a pipe dream. Does it seem unimaginable that your children would be joyful and willing? Does it seem too lofty a goal that they would be able to stand before a Nebuchadnezzar unfazed? It’s tempting to aim for something that seems more realistic, but listen to the promise of Jesus: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). This move from discipline to self-discipline is a lesson taught by God. It’s by means of the Gospel, the power of God, that those in bondage are set free. And it is parents whom God has appointed as His instruments to communicate this freedom to their children.
1 J. Gresham Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School,” reprint of a lecture given at the Educational Convention held in Chicago under the auspices of the National Union of Christian Schools, August 1933, accessed June 22, 2023, https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/necessity.html.
2 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 88.
3 Lutheran Service Book, (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006), #438, “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth”, v. 3.
4 C. S. Lewis, “On the Transmission of Christianity” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 116.