Get your free copy of 'Digital Discipleship'


“I love you, but you need to obey.”

Every English-speaking parent has said that phrase at some point or another. It’s our attempt as parents to express commitment to our children even as we require them to obey: “I love you despite anything you do, but you also need to obey what I tell you.” I’d like to take issue, however, with using the conjunction but between these phrases. Using but may be communicating something we don’t want to say—namely, that there is some kind of conceptual opposition between “I love you” and “You need to obey.”

You may be dismissing me as a sharp-nosed grammarian at this point, but let me explain why this is important. I grow concerned when I see well-meaning parents who, in an attempt to practice gospel-centered parenting, do not readily insist on obedience because they want to display that their love for the child does not depend on obedience. Unfortunately, parents take on an apologetic air when wills begin to collide. They hesitate to subdue disobedience out of fear of transgressing the unconditional part of love. Insisting on obedience from children feels legalistic or repressive. They fear that they’d slowly stiffen into the hawk-eyed disciplinarians of a bygone era with timorous children arranged silently around the dinner table.

God is not an unreasonable parent. But he is not a permissive one, either. He demands obedience from his children not in order to love them but because he loves them. Consider the relationship between the Father and the Son. Jesus’ sonship and God’s insistence on obedience were not contrary facts. Jesus proved his obedience in suffering (Hebrews 5:1-8) so that “being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (5:9). Jesus’ obedience secures God’s love for us, and (notice I didn’t say but) enables our obedience. Being called to obey is a sign of our adoption. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7) Discipline for the purpose of obedience is a privilege of being a son or daughter of God. Obedience and sonship are complementary, not oppositional.

The but has to go. Try so instead.

“I love you, so you need to obey.” This conjunction more effectively communicates the logical relationship between the two concepts. It’s not a relationship of opposition, but of grounding. The reason you are to obey me is because I already love you. This is how parents can be grace-based while insisting on obedience. We should never communicate even a hint of opposition between parental love and children’s obedience.

Thinking Practically

A necessary part of loving a child is discipline.  

You’ll often hear the parental advice, “Just make sure your kids know you love them.” Okay. The only ones who would disagree with this are ogres, and they don’t exist. But this universally held principle can mean extremely different things. It often means merely making clear to the child your affection for him as you watch him determine his own way in life. This falls short of the complex parental love we’re called to.

Rather, we show parental affection in hugs and affirming words as well as discipline and words of warning. Proverbial wisdom equates discipline of children with love for them (Prov. 13:24), hope for their future good (Prov. 19:18), and delight in the parent-child relationship (Prov. 29:17).

So we should also avoid saying things like, “I love you, but I need to discipline you.” We’ve all said that a thousand times. It’s much clearer theologically to say, “I’m disciplining you because I love you.”

Punishing disobedience is not anti-gospel; in fact, it prepares children to understand the gospel.

No one enjoys disciplining a child. Well, no one in his right mind does. Not only does it require us to get up from the recliner, it also makes us sad. We feel like ogres ourselves when we hear the desperate wails of a child undergoing the various sanctions we just placed on them. But think about it this way: Parents are preparing children to know how high-stakes the Day of Judgment will be by giving them low-stakes days of judgment now. You prepare them to understand experientially just how much they should desire mercy from one’s judge. It is a part of teaching children that they should obey a Father who judges impartially (1 Peter 1:14-17) but provides a ransom through Christ (1 Peter 1:18-21).

Children should know that disobedience will be confronted quickly and patiently. 

My mother always said to her six children: “To delay is to disobey.” And she was right. She knew that God is not an annoyed parent excising obedience from his children with sharp words of disapproval. But he is undaunted in his patient insistence that they submit to his design for human flourishing.

He will not be annoyed, nor will he be ignored. We should be the same. No children should feel the freedom to ignore a parent’s direction, nor should they feel like the parent’s quickness is motivated by personal annoyance. That may be hard to compute for those raised by angry parents whose rebukes proceeded largely from personal exasperation. But it is possible. Parents must ask for grace to deal patiently with sin, as well as to distinguish the varying degrees of culpability as the child develops. But deal with it they must.

We cannot attain perfect obedience from our children, nor should we want to.

Our children will fail to obey. Our goal is not to produce perfect obedience, but to provide regular demonstration that sin has consequences. The point of discipline is to show need for the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to hone children to the point of not needing it. Not only is that goal of perfection impossible, it also makes for a rigid and performance-based relationship between parent and child. Knowing the frailty of the human heart will allow parents to shepherd patiently with realistic expectations.

Discipline is concerned with behavior as a display of the heart. 

We do not wish merely that our children would obey, but that they would want to obey from within. The desire to obey comes from being redeemed by the love of God (1 John 4:17-5:5). So in every confrontation of disobedience and commendation of obedience, a child should be reminded that behavior merely points to the greater issue of the personal need for God’s redemptive love.

I’ve learned from wise parents who reinforce this in two kinds of situations. When punishing their children, they say, “Even though your disobedience makes me sad, I love you just as much now as when you obey me.” And, perhaps more brilliantly, when commending their children for pleasing them, they point out, “Even though your obedience makes me glad, I don’t love you more because of it.” What a picture of God’s unflappable love for his children.

Maybe along the way we’ll learn a thing or two ourselves about responding to the unfaltering love of our own Father with, “I know you love me, so I will obey.”