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    by Mike McHugh

Fathers and Sons
Date Posted: May 1, 2008

The story I am about to tell you was sent to me by a friend several years ago. The author is unknown. The story does not mention God and it is not sprinkled with Scripture references, but it reveals several characteristics of a good father which I believe illustrate Biblical virtues.

The story goes like this.

There once was a little boy named Johnny who had a bad temper. His father, Mr. Smith, gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the fence in their back yard. The first day Johnny had to drive 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the day came when Johnny didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about his accomplishment and Mr. Smith directed that Johnny now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails had been removed from the fence.

Mr. Smith took Johnny by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave scars just like these. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say you’re sorry, the ugly wound will still be there."

Today, I can imagine the story going like this.

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father wasn’t around much and was too busy to notice.

Or it might go like this.

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. When he would lose his temper, his father would chuckle and say, “He’s really something else, isn’t he?”

How about this version?

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. When he would lose his temper, his father would shout, “Hey, I’m trying to watch the game here!”

Too often today, the story would go like this.

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father, who also had a bad temper, would beat him severely.

The original story is a good one. It is short, and easy to remember even for a child. It illustrates a good point about words spoken in anger.

The lesson I would like to draw from this story, however, is not the obvious one about learning to control anger or understanding its consequences. I would direct your attention, rather, to the kind of father described in this story.

In contrast to the absent father, the immature father, and the abusive father, the father of our story is the kind of dad we ought to be. Let us learn from him.

First, we see that Mr. Smith is aware of Johnny’s character flaw. He has spent time with his son and he knows him. He has paid attention to what kind of person Johnny is becoming. He recognizes that there is a problem. So the first thing we see is that Mr. Smith is aware.

Beyond awareness we see that Mr. Smith has understanding. He knows Johnny’s temper has implications for the future. Perhaps experience has taught him what is in store for a man who cannot control his own anger. He does not want this character flaw to destroy relationships throughout the course of his son’s life. It may have occurred to him as well that his own reputation as a father would suffer if Johnny’s temper were not ultimately brought under control.

We can learn from the way he instructs his son that he knows this problem is not just a matter of outward behavior. It is a matter of the heart. It is a matter of how the son is responding to temptation. Mr. Smith knows he must deal with Johnny’s heart in order to achieve long-term change. He knows it will do little good to speak harshly and thus deal only with the behavior of the moment.

Next we see that Mr. Smith has clearly given due consideration to the nature of Johnny’s problem and how to best deal with it. He does not fail to respond as in the case of the too-busy dad. He does not respond with excuses or inappropriate humor as in the case of the immature dad. Neither does he respond with the anger of the abusive dad, thus fighting fire with gasoline and further provoking his son. Rather, he thinks about the particular problem and determines what change of heart—and what change of behavior—he wants to see in his son. He then formulates a plan that will deal directly with the current behavior, and, over time, deal with Johnny’s heart.

Johnny’s dad intervenes in a creative and constructive manner. He follows the old customer service proverb which says, “Don’t react. Respond.” Instead of reacting according to his own feelings, as did the other fathers, Mr. Smith responds according to Johnny’s need. His goal is not so much to punish—though if you ever tried, as a small boy, to hammer a nail—there is an element of punishment. His primary goal is not to shame his son or break his spirit, but to develop in him the virtue of self-control. He designs the task and its consequences to teach the desired lesson.

Note that this dad takes a directive approach. He does not just hope Johnny will grow out of such behavior. He demands that his son carry out the assigned corrective. Johnny is given no choice in the matter but to take the medicine, and thus the outcome is hardly in doubt.

Mr. Smith sets up the remedial task in such a way that his son would naturally become involved in monitoring his own progress. In other words, Mr. Smith built in a very creative accountability component. The task was fairly hard. It is hard enough work for a full-grown man to drive a number of nails into wood. Imagine what a laborious task it was for a small boy! I’m sure that, after many strokes of the hammer and several smashed fingers, Johhny could hardly wait for the moment when he could tell his dad that he didn’t have to drive any nails that day.

Finally, Mr. Smith graphically demonstrated to Johnny, by way of the nail holes, the lasting consequences of improper behavior. In doing so, he gave his son a valuable gift, that of thinking beyond his immediate temptation to the what the future would hold if he gave in to it.

You know, we could learn something too about an obedient son from Johnny’s response to his father’s discipline.

I suspect Mr. Smith’s discipline has been consistent over time because we do not see here that Johnny balked when his dad set the task before him. It seems, rather, that he set right to work. 37 nails the first day. It seems that, even though he could not foresee the outcome, he trusted his father’s chastening and bought into the plan. He worked with it. Perhaps he knew from previous lessons that this one too would do him good.

This story reminds me of some familiar Scriptures for fathers…

Train up a child in the way he should go,
And when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

Mr. Smith trained his child in the way he should go. I daresay that Johnny will remember the lesson of the nails when he is old. I would even say he will probably teach that lesson, or one much like it, to his own sons. Would you even guess that Mr. Smith may have learned it from his dad?

Another Scripture verse says…

And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

Some of you have perhaps thought this proverb teaches fathers to avoid confronting their sons, to avoid making their children angry. The sense here is, rather, do not allow your children to remain unregenerate; and do not let them fall into patterns of ungodliness. Mr. Smith did not allow Johnny to remain, in a very real sense, a child of wrath. He risked the temporary anger of his son when he corrected him because he saw that by doing so he would spare Johnny another and more terrible kind of wrath down the road. When we fail to instruct, when we fail to correct, when we fail to chastise, we provoke our children to wrath.

These next verses are for sons...

Proverbs 1:8,9 says,
My son, hear the instruction of your father,
And do not forsake the law of your mother;
For they will be a graceful ornament on your head,
And chains about your neck. (They might even save you a smashed thumb.)

Psalm 127:3–5 (This psalm has primary reference to sons, particularly those who would support their father in his old age.)

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them;
They shall not be ashamed,
But shall speak with their enemies in the gate.

Many of us, particularly those of us who have been associated with Christian education, have become familiar with the “quiver full” of Psalm 127. A large family has become something of a merit badge in some circles. The full quiver, however, is not an end in itself. The purpose of an arrow is not to rest in a quiver, but to be sent forth from the bow to fell the enemy. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, our children are to be carefully prepared and made straight. Then, at the proper time, they are to be sent forth as an extension of our own assault on the gates of hell. They are a kind of multiple-warhead weapon in that they will, if they were properly prepared, produce straight and true arrows of their own.

Fathers, let us commit to train up our sons in the way they should go. Sons, commit yourselves to hear the instruction of your fathers.

Copyright 2008 Mark L. Beuligmann

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Biography Information:
This column is written by the staff at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights, Illinois. As a pioneer in the homeschool movement, Christian Liberty ministries has been operating a full service, K-12 home school program for over thirty years and a Christian textbook ministry (Christian Liberty Press), since 1985. The mission of Christian Liberty is to provide parents with quality, affordable educational products and services that will enable them to teach their children in the home and to train their children to serve Christ in every area of life. A more extensive explanation of the CLASS home school program can be obtained at
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