From the Naughty Chair to the Knowledge of God

That is not asseptible

Since becoming a father to young children, watching re-runs of Supernanny has taken on a whole new level of meaning for me. It used to be entertaining to laugh at the incompetence of others in raising their families. Now, it’s like rubbing salt in my own parental wounds. Despite the pain, however, I think that Supernanny also has some helpful things for all of us to reflect on as as followers of Christ, regardless of whether we are single or married, and whether we have children or not. For ultimately, we are all members of God’s family. What’s more, it’s not just that God is like a human father to us; rather, God is the Father, from whom all fatherhood is named (Eph 3:14-15).[1] One of the foundational statements of our identity, then, is that we are God’s children (Rom 8:16-17). So it’s no surprise that what makes for healthy human family relationships can help us reflect on how God the Father relates to his children, and how we ought to relate to each other as his family.

This happened anew for me recently. As I sat on the couch, enjoying my favourite moment in the show – yet another ratty kid getting the naughty chair treatment – when something struck me for the first time: the naughty chair reflects the heart of who God, the Father, is. At first glance, this might seem rather unlikely, but as we turn to an examination of God’s character in Scripture, I think it’s not only accurate, but has important implications for how we relate together as his people. And this is ultimately because the naughty chair is not about the naughty chair. The naughty chair is about love and faithfulness. And love and faithfulness lie at the core of God’s character.

The God of Love and Faithfulness

The Bible teaches us several aspects of who God is: he is Sovereign Lord; holy; righteous; unsurpassed in power; perfect in all he does; and more. However, if we ask what is central to his character, the answer would be his goodness, which is expressed in his love and faithfulness. As Ps 100:5 puts it, The Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. Love and faithfulness go on to be the sustained characteristics describing who God is, and how he relates to his creation.

He is first of all loving. More than simply a feeling, love in the Bible means a passionate commitment to doing good to another (e.g. Ps 25:7); hence its synonyms are mercy (e.g. Dan 9:18), and grace (e.g. Isa 26:10). Faithfulness, likewise, is closely associated with truth and justice (e.g. Ps 91:4; 59:15; Isa 11:4). God is loving, because he is gracious and forgiving to those he loves. He is faithful, because he gives his word and always keeps it. He thus speaks truthfully, and acts justly, in all that he does.

The central expression of God’s good character to us comes in the person of his Son. As John declares: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). Moreover, our salvation was the climactic demonstration of God’s goodness to us: as Paul says, our justification is a demonstration of both God’s grace (Rom 3:24) and his justice (Rom 3:26).

This is who God is. He is the Father, who builds and establishes his family by pouring out his goodness – his love and faithfulness – everything he does for us, and most of all in giving his Son for us. But what, if anything, does this have to do with Supernanny?

The God of Love ; Faithfulness ;…The Naughty Chair

Think about the consistent narrative that happens in each episode. The naughty chair is introduced, and the terms of its use are explained and modelled by Supernanny. She then leaves, after which chaos ensues, and the parents lose even more control. Supernanny returns, and points out the mistakes they made.

After watching a few episodes, you can t help noticing that there are two, basic errors that keep reappearing (sometimes simultaneously). First, some parents grow impatient and degenerate into anger or manipulation. Second, some don t enforce the terms of the naughty chair – they fail to place the child back in the chair when they get out, or attempt to switch to another punishment. Either way, it is a total failure, until Supernanny walks the parents through the process again, this time stressing the responsibility of the parents to stay calm, in control, and persist in enforcing the terms they set until the child accepts the punishment on their terms.

In other words, the effectiveness of the naughty chair is ultimately dependent on the love and faithfulness of the parents. In order for it to work, they need to be gentle but firm, and also faithful to their word. If they say that the child needs to go to the naughty chair for 5 minutes, they make sure the child is in the chair for 5 minutes. If they fail on either front (in being loving or faithful), the whole exercise fails. When they succeed, the parents are freed up to express their love more fully and joyfully to their children (and, often, each other). The children, likewise, flourish and grow in the stable and secure framework of such parents, and are more able to engage in the beautiful giving and receiving of love that characterises deeply healthy, harmonious families.

Implications for Christian Life

I want to conclude by drawing four implications for us: one caveat, and three ways Supernanny helpfully draws us to reflect on the way we relate; in our human relationships, in our church families, and in our relationship with God.

First, the warning. The show is highly scripted, and so somewhat unrealistic in its representation of family life. In the reality of the fallen world, tension, frustration and difficulty will continue to rear their ugly heads and impinge on the safe haven that our homes should be. We will simply not be able to completely shelter our families from the effects of sin. In fact, the façade of perfection – whether in expectations on children, or in the example of parents – can be a debilitating and crushing weight. We all have weaknesses that compromise our conduct in relationships. We all need help growing in godly patterns of relating. Indeed, such a realisation is an important gift from God, for it allows us to model to our families the repentance and asking for forgiveness that lies at the heart of the gospel call. In fact, good relationships often must be fought for faithfully, and are only really found on the other side of years of tension and conflict.

Second, despite its artificiality, what Supernanny tries to portray is the truth at the heart of the universe: that God himself is relationship. He is Trinity – three persons in a perfect relationship of self-giving love and service of the other. For those made in his image, then, life is ultimately found in relationships of love and trust; first with Him, and then with others. While this side of Jesus return, our earthly families will never be places where this love and faithfulness are completed, they are still God’s gracious provision by which we can model and taste the good things that Christ has won for us.

In this, we each have several aspects of responsibility in the bonds of giving and receiving that make us families – as brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, parents, uncles, aunties, family friends, and so on. These will change and grow as we do, but underlying them must be the constant foundation of conducting ourselves in love and faithfulness towards each other – seeking the good of the other, as they do likewise.

For those who are parents of human families, Supernanny can highlight, perhaps quite painfully, our weakness in this area. It’s all to easy for unhealthy patterns to creep into our parental discipline: resorting to empty threats and raising our voices beyond being firm, into being selfish in anger and agression. In this, we fail to model and express faithfulness (ie. giving our word, and then keeping it), and love (in patience and forbearance).[2] Instead, we need to work hard at controlling our words and emotions, and think and plan ways and means of discipline and dealing with our children’s misbehaviour that teaches them, as far as we are able, the joy of living under God’s goodness.

Third, the Bible stresses that our human families – as important as are – are themselves models of a greater reality: the family of God (cf. 1 Tim 2:15; Heb 2:5-18). Our Christian fellowships, therefore, must be more than simply gatherings to hear God’s Word taught. This they must be at their core, but we must also remember that it the one speaking to us is the God of love and faithfulness.

His family, shaped by that gospel, is then to reflect His love and faithfulness in our actions towards Him and each other. Our churches must indeed be hospitals for sinners , where those who have been victim to unfaithfulness and lovelessness (and perhaps also perpetrators) may find forgiveness, restoration and healing. They must also be communities of faithfulness, where honesty and integrity characterise relationships, such that no one will malign the word of God…[and] in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive (Titus 2:5, 10).

Fourth, and finally, the growth of the children in Supernanny helps illustrate something of how we experience God’s Fatherhood. For, despite their initial resistance, the effect of the parents love and faithfulness is to prune the children of their immaturity, so that avenues for deeper, more joyful and mature relationships are opened up. It reminded me of Heb 12:7-13:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes disicipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

We have a Father who in all things works for the good of those who love him, in conforming them to the image of his Son (Rom 8:28-29). It is because this is our God, that passages like Heb 12:7-13 don t trivialise the immense suffering we may experience in our lives. But grounded in the rock solid assurance of God’s love and faithfulness in the gospel, our suffering is profoundly transformed. We no longer experience it as simply tragedy and frustration. Instead, around, above and beyond these, they are his tool for pruning and discplining us, that we may grow in righteousness, peace and hope in his return, and as we experience his goodness even in the midst of our suffering. As Spurgeon once put it, I have learned to kiss the wave that dashes me against the Rock of Ages.

I will never look at the naughty chair the same way again.

[1] The word translated fatherhood here can also mean family (patria), which is how most contemporary Bible versions translate the word. However, the Greek has a play on words in these verses, between Paul kneeling before the Father (pater), and the fatherhood (patria) that is named after him. In fact, even if we choose to translate the word as family , in the context of the First Century a family was considered to be those people linked by a common progenitor, ie. a father .

[2] I am not suggesting that there is no place for anger in the Christian life or in parenting; there is. There is, however, an unrighteous anger that domineers, manipulates and twists another to one’s own selfish desire for control, and stands totally at odds with godly anger over sin (cf. James 1:19-21; Eph 4:26).

Dan Wu lectures in Old Testament and Biblical Languages

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