How do you help a legalistic dad? You know the kind. He demands his family do as he wants, the way he wants, on the basis that he has GOD on his side.
I have had to deal with several dads over the years that have dug themselves into a hole but refuse to change because they are the DAD and the Bible tells the kids to obey them. The children become hurt and rebellious and that only affirms to the dad that he is on the high ground and they are wrong.
Call For Help
I was asked recently by a Christian counsellor for some suggestions to help a legalistic dad face the mess he has created and the pain he and his family are living in. The dad appeals to the Biblical command that children obey their mother and father as his trump card to justify his stern stand.
As I considered the question, my thoughts about sad situations I have seen over the years led me to a new suggestion to help a legalistic dad.
The problem is getting the dad to listen and to be prepared to review his own actions, when he has a strong sense of being “right” and others being wrong.
Test the Fruit
Jesus told us we can know the truth about people by the “fruit” of their life. A father’s life is not measured by the legal ground he claims as his authority, but by the fruit of his actions. “By their fruits you will know them” is a basic litmus test we can apply quite widely.
“You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” Matthew 7:16
“So by their fruits you will know them.” Matthew 7:20
I suggest we can apply this to test those legalistic dads who think they are right and others are wrong.
Fruit in the Family
A child starts out as a blank page. And children are very resilient and forgiving. They have the ability to cope with disappointments and the distractions of their parents. And children learn much of their concept of life by watching their parents at close quarters.
So, at least in general terms, the way the kids turn out can be regarded as the “fruit” of the family. If a family produces selfish, proud, loud, disobedient kids, you know that the home has some serious problems. If a home produces quiet, obedient, loving, thoughtful children, the quality of the home is attested to by those kids.
So let’s use that fruit factor as a searchlight on the legalistic dad.
Stubborn Kid from a Stubborn Dad
When a legalistic dad digs in his toes and will not budge from his conflict with a child, and the child digs in his or her toes and will not budge either, we can see that the child is the “fruit” of the father. The stubborn father has produced that stubborn child.
So, if the dad thinks he has the ‘moral high ground’, standing in the place of being right while the kids are wrong, he had better re-think things. The “fruit” of what he has produced is a public testimony to his failure. Instead of standing on moral high ground, he is standing in the place he accuses his kids of standing on.
Humility in the Home
If the dad is looking for a spirit of humility in his children, then we need to see that same fruit in him. If he doggedly defends his opinions and the rightness of who and what he is he can only expect his children to be as stubborn in their stand for their own rightness too.
First let’s see the dad humble himself before God and admit that he needs God’s wisdom. Let’s hear the dad admit that he has failed in his role as dad. When we see that kind of humility we know there is hope for the family.
If dad defies the evidence then he has invalidated his stand before God. God gives grace to the humble, not to the defiant and arrogantly proud.
Another important truth for a legalistic dad is that the issue is not rebellious kids, but the condition of the dad’s heart. Yes, rebellion in the family is wrong and the rebellious children need to have that resolved. But the dad is the head of the home and it is vital to get him sorted out as a key to healing the whole family. And getting dad sorted out means dealing with dad’s heart.
The Bible points out that the real “issues” of our life are not the things that come against us but the things that come “out of us”.
“Keep your heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” Proverbs 4:23
When we seek to heal a home, the real “issues” are not the rebellion of a son or daughter, but those things that come out of the heart of the dad and mum. In the case of a legalistic dad in conflict with his children, it is what is coming out of the heart of that dad.
Out of the Heart
Listen to what Jesus said about the significance of what comes out of us.
“And he said, That which comes out of the man defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” Mark 7:20-23
The issue that is defiling the father and likely bringing real problems into the home is whatever is coming OUT of the father’s heart.
And we know what is coming out of the heart by what people say.
“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings out that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings out that which is evil: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45
A legalistic dad will speak judgment of his children, rejection, condemnation, fault finding, pride in his own standards, negativity, contention, and so on. And those words of his mouth reveal that he is not standing on moral high ground, but is polluted.
A heart that produces evil speaking reveals an “evil heart”. The legalistic dad has deep troubles in his heart that lead him to produce toxic speech and bad fruit.
The more a legalistic dad is challenged about his stand the more virulent he may become in attacking others, asserting that he is right, feeling rejected and intimidated and so on.
All of this reveals that the dad is not walking and living in God’s grace.
Fruit and Heart
The dual matters of the “fruit” of the dad’s fathering in the home and the “issues” in the dad’s heart expressed in his legalistic stance and speech, show that the dad needs help. The home is what it is because the dad has internal issues that need to be resolved. He will never be able to lead his family into joy and wholeness while he is beset with personal problems that have produced bad fruit in the home and which reveal bad issues pouring out of his heart.
Legalism as a Cover
If a dad has produced bad fruit in his home and his heart pumps out evil things he has issues. And legalism may just be a way to cope with life and excuse his situation. Legalism may be a cover. By being legalistic he can point at others, rather than get free on the inside himself.
Just about anything could cause a person to become legalistic, but since legalism prompts a person to reject others it is reasonable to assume that rejection has a part to play in the legalistic dad’s heart.
Certainly there is a lack of the grace of God. And the writer of Hebrews warns that failing to receive and give out God’s grace leads us to having a root of bitterness which causes us to defile others.
“Be diligently attentive lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” Hebrews 12:15
Legalism and the attendant accusation and rejection certainly defile and offend people so an important need in the life of a legalistic dad is to experience the grace of God and to give God’s grace to others.
Give Grace to Dad
If you suffer under a legalistic dad you will find it easy to become hurt, offended, resentful, judgmental, angry and so on. And by so doing you will be tempted to let a root of bitterness spring up in your life. If that happens then the problem has been passed down to a new generation, instead of being dealt with and rooted out of the family.
So if you have a legalistic dad press in to God for sufficient grace so you can give grace to your dad, even though he does not deserve it. If you can give grace to those who have no grace, you will not come under the power of their failures and weakness but have triumphed into liberty for yourself and your children.
If your dad is legalistic and refuses to see that there is anything wrong in his life, you are in a very vulnerable place. Determine with God’s help to give abundant grace to that graceless dad.