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Bullying and the Gospel: What’s a Parent to Say and Do?

Bullying is a common childhood problem.

How would you help your child if this happened to him or her? Are Christians always to turn the other cheek? How does the gospel apply?

Listen in as I have conversation with Kevin McKay about the wise way he walked his son through this very problem.

Resources From This Podcast

The Crown and Covenant series, by Douglas Bond

Episode Transcript

I’m Chap Bettis, and you’re listening to The Disciple-Making Parent, a podcast of The Apollos Project where we seek to equip parents and churches to pass the gospel to their children.

Bullying in school is a constant problem. Has your child been a victim? What does a Christian parent do? How does the gospel apply to handling a bully? Listen in for answers that you may need today, or soon.

Hi, I’m Chap Bettis, author of The Disciple-Making Parent, and host of the podcast by the same name. And in this episode, I invite you to sit in on a conversation with a man I admire a lot. His name is Kevin McKay and he’s the lead pastor at my church here in Providence, Rhode Island.

Chap: A few weeks ago we were talking, and he related how he had coached his fourth grade son to handle another boy who was starting to pick on him. Now, if you’re in school, this is an issue, and I remember facing it in grammar school myself. And as he started telling me what he said and did, I thought, “Wow, this is really, really good.” It’s biblical, it’s gospel-oriented, and it’s wise. So we sat down for a second time and walked through the whole thing, and I know you’re going to find this episode very helpful. You’ll leave equipped for thinking wisely about getting your child through an issue just like this.

So this conversation came about because we were, I think, before an elder’s meeting just shooting the breeze. Then you, Kevin, had just described how you had walked your son through a case of bullying ex in school. And I thought, “Man, this is really good. And so that’s really what prompted this conversation. So thanks for having this conversation with me.

Kevin: Glad to have it. I hope it’s helpful.

Chap: So just tell me a little bit about the whole situation, how it happened.

Kevin: Well, the first thing that we started to notice was that Silas normally is just a happy kid to pick up from school. How was your day? It was great. And, his whole demeanor had changed in picking him up after school. So I started asking him about how things were going, and he just immediately started talking about his experience with this one kid. And he was clearly upset, and that turned into anxiousness before school. So there was a lot of anxiety- not wanting to go, so getting out the door was harder, quiet on the way over, and he was just clearly anxious about the school day.

Chap: What grade was he in?

Kevin: Fourth grade. And eventually that turned into him asking if he could change schools, if he could get into a different classroom. He didn’t want to go to school anymore. He started expressing sorrow over not having any friends, he’s not sure whose friends are. So yeah, it was a pretty heavy thing for us as parents to watch. So we started asking more questions.

Chap: Well, a couple things I noticed about that is that. So you drive him to school, which you had that freedom as a pastor, so you’re tuned into this whole change of demeanor in him, and then you’re listening to the questions as well. Had he had any problems like that before, anything like that?

Kevin: Not at all. Silas, he’s always had a lot of friends. He typically is the guy that all the other kids want to be around. So it was real surprising that this was going on. And as we got into the weeds with him on this, it seemed like a lot of the bullying was actually stemming from jealousy, I think, of Silas. Of course, Silas doesn’t take it that way; he’s experiencing the pain of it. But I think this kid didn’t like Silas precisely because he was good at sports and has a lot of friends.

Chap: So what did you do? So, here you noticed the change. He’s talking about changing schools, didn’t know if he has any friends. So how did you kind of pop the bubble? Do you remember the sorts of questions you were talking about, and how that conversation went, and he said to you?

Kevin: Well, one of the things that was helpful for getting into that conversation is actually, I think, a fruit of your own ministry and talking to you. Even before we went to the public school route, we had talked about parenting issues and just seeing every opportunity as a discipleship opportunity. So we weren’t giving up our kids to a school system. We were using this however we could as a discipleship opportunity for our kids. I knew there was an opportunity here, plus he’s my kid and my heart is just breaking over this whole thing.

So things are getting harder. But on this one particular day, he was really upset and he didn’t want to go back to school, wanted to be in different school. And so we sat down on that day. And I wanted to sort of get together a plan. I said, “Okay, let’s talk about how we’re going to handle this, Silas, because it can’t keep going on like this.”

Chap: Before we get there, how did you find out? What did he tell you was happening?

Kevin: I think initially it was just being called names on the playground, being cursed at. But that turned into this kid sort of getting everybody else to be against him, so he ended up sitting by himself at lunchtime. And then it got physical. And I think this was actually the trigger for us sitting down and talking. I don’t want to give the impression that this kind of thing was going on forever. All this happened pretty quickly. But being yanked down on the playground while playing basketball from behind. And, you know, he is physically being hurt and they were making it look like, Well, we’re just playing a game and that sort of thing. But he clearly felt picked on.

So at that point I sat down and said, “This can’t go on. Let’s get a plan together.” And the first thing I did was open up scripture to him and we turned to the gospels, and we read about Jesus’ suffering. And I specifically opened up to read how Jesus was mocked and reviled, and look, they hit him. They spit on him. And I just got to say to him, “Jesus knows how you feel. He knows what it’s like to be treated the way that you’re being treated right now.” And to be able to say, “And he did that for you. So right now, Jesus can identify. You’re not alone in this. He knows exactly how you feel.”

Chap: I’m getting choked up just as you describe it to me.

Kevin: The second place I turned to was Romans 12:17, where Paul writes to not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible on your part, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves. Instead, leave room for his wrath, for it is written, vengeance belongs to me. I will repay, says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he’s thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing, you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. So as much as Jesus identified with him, I also wanted to show how Jesus had done this for Silas.

And so to imitate him, we’re going to go back. We’re not going to go looking for a fight, we’re not trying to pick a fight. We’re not going to have hatred for this boy. We are going to try and live at peace with him as far as it depends on you. And so that looks like trying to be kind to him. We’re going to go back and be kind. And then there was a big “but” and all that .

Chap: But before we get to the but, tell me, you had described how attentive he was as you were going through these scriptures. So we’ve got these kids, they grew up in a Christian home. They’re here in Sunday school lesson after Sunday school lesson, sermon after sermon. And it can go in one ear and out the other. And yet now, one piece of scripture is applied to a very, real trial. A fourth grade trial, which is huge to a fourth grader.

Kevin: Right.

Chap: It’s very real. So just talk about that.

Kevin: Yeah. This was a particular blessing for me because we talk about the Bible, we have family devotions, we pray. But when we said, “Hey, I want to show you what the Bible says about this,” I mean, Silas was on my hip on the couch looking into the Bible, wanting to see what the Bible says. He really cared to know that God had something to say about this, and particularly on the aspects of Jesus’s own suffering. It seemed to strike home with him at a different level. So yeah, I had my son’s attention- God did at that point. I think that God has used it.

Chap: Yeah, I can think of some times in our family where just stewarding those times. You’ve said we see this as an opportunity, a discipleship opportunity, God is sovereignly in control. And so to realize, “Oh, here is a time, if we can bring the scriptures to bear in a gentle way.” They suddenly come alive. What is it, Psalm 119:71, “It was good for me to be afflicted that I might learn your decrees.” And so we all have times, I think, where certain verses just attach themselves, Velcro themselves to that trial. And you’re saying, “Man, I really learned that verse.”

So go ahead. Having said, “We’re going to try and live at peace. . .”

Kevin: Yes. As far as it depends on you. I said, “But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for him to mistreat you like this. So what you’re going to do is you’re going to go back tomorrow to school. And again, we don’t hate him. We’re not looking to fight. So you’re not looking to be mean and set other people up against him. You’re looking to love him. If he speaks to, to you in a certain way, you’re going to tell him, You can’t talk to me like that. You just can’t. And you can say it authoritatively like, You can’t talk to me like that. Because it’s wrong. He shouldn’t treat you like that. It’s not just a sin against you, it’s sin against God. He can’t talk to you like that. And then if he does, then we’re going go to one of the authorities. You’re going to tell a teacher, and if that doesn’t work-“ There was another aspect of this, if there was something physically happening again on the playground or whatever. . .

Chap: Didn’t you say they were twisting his collar or something?

Kevin: Yeah, they were grabbing him by his hood and yanking him down from behind. So he was going backwards and hitting the ground. And they kept doing that because playing basketball gave them sort of the ability to do this while playing.

First of all, I told him, “Look, if you are defending yourself after you’re trying to do these other things, I’m not going to be mad at you.” You know? So I just told him, “If you end up getting in a fight over this, you won’t get in trouble at home.” And I actually physically showed him how to hit this kid’s arm down real hard and then step back. You know, just to let him know he can’t just do that. I let him practice on my arm. So he kind of had an awareness of This is how that that aspect of it works.

Chap: So you’re a) giving him permission and b) training him what to say verbally, to sort of defend himself and then, and then what to do physically to defend himself.

Kevin: Yeah. Because part of this is, jumping back a little bit here, when you first hear this, you want to go in and just take care of this problem right away, right? As a parent, you just want to step in and say, “Okay, that’s not going to happen anymore.” I wanted to call the principal right away, the teacher right away, and meet the kid’s parents right after school. That’s what I wanted to do.

But again, this was a discipleship opportunity. And I do think that, knowing my son, some of the areas of weakness and what he needs to grow in, and aspects of leadership, and I think suffering a little bit. . .  I think this was an, an opportunity. As much as I wanted to stop it right away, I think there was something here and I didn’t want to just step in and rescue him. I wanted him to be able to stand up for himself because I think that will be important as he grows up, Lord willing, as a Christian suffering persecution in this world to be able to handle some opposition, some hostility, and just be okay with that. I think that was all good.

Chap: Well, in every Old Testament story that we love in the Bible, God is bringing his people into some sort of trial and he is rescuing, but it’s as they cry out. So, it’s in a similar way. Their faith is strengthened, they’re stronger because they come out of it.

That’s how I was thinking about it. And so if I said, “If this doesn’t work, you go to a teacher. And then if that doesn’t work, if you get the teacher’s authority involved and the kid’s still doing this thing, then I told him I would go and speak to the kid’s parents myself. And we left it at that. Because that’s exactly what he wanted me to do right away. He said, “I want you to talk to his mom and make sure he stops doing this.” I had plans further down along, even if that wasn’t going to work, I was prepared to go to the principal and say, “Look, my kid is stressed out going to school. This is adversely affecting him in the classroom. Something needs to be done.” But those were the steps that we were taking to take care of the issue.

Chap: So first of all, every dad out there is clapping right now, just because you’re giving permission. I don’t think we know what to do with “turn the other cheek.” Do you want to talk about that just a little bit?

Kevin: Yeah, I had to think about that. Especially when you’re reading Romans 12:17 and I’m, I know I’m going to the place right after I get through these verses to tell my son, “Hey, you can defend yourself.” And you read those verses and I’m thinking, “Well, am I about to tell him something that goes against scripture?” But I do think the Bible leaves room for self-defense. And one of the verses that kind of trips us up sometimes is “turn the other cheek” out of the Sermon on the Mount. But if you look at the context of that verse, Jesus is giving us, you might call it a cardiographic reading of the Law.

So these self-righteous Pharisees think they’re righteous, they’re keeping the Law because they’re following it to the letter. And Jesus is saying, No, it’s really about your heart. So you might think that you are righteous because you’ve never committed adultery. But I’m telling you, actually, if you lust after another woman in your heart, you’re at fault. Your heart’s not right. And it’s the same thing with turning the other cheek. He’s saying, Okay, you’ve heard it said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” So you think you are righteous because you’re just carrying out the sentence against the other person. But part of what he’s doing in that passage is uncovering the heart and saying, No, if you’ve got hatred for your enemy, that’s a problem. I tell you, love your enemies. So just because you have a legal reason to inflict pain on somebody doesn’t actually mean you are righteous. The issue is love. And so he’s trying to do away with self-righteousness there with say, turn your other cheek, meaning, you’ve got to love them. So the issue there is really a self-righteousness that’s justifying hatred for our enemies. And you’re justifying it by saying, “Yeah, I’m just being just.”

So Jesus takes care of a heart issue. That statement about the heart needs to be balanced with lots of other statements in scripture, like “love your neighbor as yourself,” and with a real love for justice. So again, that’s why I was telling Silas, “We we’re not going back to school to pick a fight. We’re not going to make him our enemy that we’re going to get others to be against also. We’re going to try and love him. But you can defend yourself!

Chap: And every dad out there goes, “Amen! Amen! That’s what my gut feels. But what you’re also kind of prosecuting with the first part of what you did is, we’re not going to go sort of that self-righteous whip him, you know? You’re not going to go, “Okay, you go bloody his nose tomorrow.” So what I liked about this was I felt like you really walked the fine line of saying “We’re going to love him. And we’re going to defend ourselves.

Kevin: Vengeance really is to be the Lord’s. You see places where Jesus will tell his disciples, “Take up your sword.” And in Luke 11 he shares a parable in which a guy is protecting his home. When a strong man comes to his house, he’s ready to defend it. And he tells that in such a way that everybody realizes the virtue, the rightness in defending one’s own house. And Paul will do this in Acts- he’ll defend himself and keep people from further harming him.

And it’s interesting, Silas and I were reading a historical fiction book by Douglas Bond on the Covenanters in Scotland. and, and one of the things in that book that the Covenanters were doing was saying, Part of loving our neighbor is not letting them inflict further judgment on themselves by harming other people, including ourselves.

So yeah, I think he absolutely has the right to love himself, and to not hate his brother at the same time.

Chap: That’s cool. So now we’ve got to resolve the story here. How did everything turn out, and how did all that resolve?

Kevin: Well, in some ways the Romans 17 helped out initially because he was kind. He said he went out to the playground, asked the kid if he wanted to play, and they came, and so he had a good day that day. It did require him to one day speak up for himself. I can’t remember the exact words he said, but he essentially told him to stop. And they kind of had a good rest of the year. I think that kid had other ended up getting into some other trouble at school, which helped. Some discipline came along for other situations that also helped in indirectly with Silas. But at this point, the two, they’re both kind of friends. They’re not close friends, but they get along. They’ve been on other sports teams together, and I’ve watched them. I’ve watched them closely.

Chap: You have a smile on your face. What’s that story about?

Kevin: Well, I’m not sure I’m proud of this, so you might have to delete it, but without Silas knowing, because I didn’t want to step in and just rescue him, we were at one of these sporting events and the kid walked by and he knew I was Silas’s dad and I gave this young little boy a pretty hard stare .

Chap: So Kevin is not the perfect pastor. There sin and you need grace. And I can tell you I have been sinned against as a pastor, and I have been able in my heart to extend forgiveness. And even a couple times it was pretty severe pain, but the hardest people I’ve had to forgive are the people who hurt my kids. There just, to me, is another level of forgiveness where I’ve got to reach down and say, “Okay, Lord, you’re in control and you’ve forgiven me much and forgiven him much.” So I can see that as a dad.

Well, were there other lessons that you’re going to take away from this? Oh, one thing you told me was that you went out and talked to people in the church who had been bullied. Did you do that before you talked to him, or after?

Kevin: It was, it was the day after I had that conversation where I had the Bible open with Silas and I’d sent him back to school with some lessons. I called a friend to say, “Hey, this is what’s going on.” And I knew from his testimony- we hear everybody who joins, their testimony. I knew from his testimony that bullying had been a big part of his childhood all the way through high school.

Chap: So you’re calling somebody in our church here who had been bullied?

Kevin: Yes. Who had been bullied all through school. And I said, “Hey, here’s what’s happening. Here’s what I told him. What do you think?” He said that everything that I had told Silas was really encouraging to him. He said that was more than he had gotten, and it would’ve been really helpful. He did say, this was helpful for me- He did say that he wishes that at some point his parents would’ve done something more other than just say, “Well, you know you’ve got to forgive him. You know you’ve got to go back and try to love him. Trust God.” He wishes his parents would’ve stepped in and helped because sometimes for a kid there’s only so much you can do.

And that was helpful to hear. So I reassured Silas that if it didn’t get better, Dad was here for him. You’re not going to do this alone. I want you to be able to stand up for yourself and work through this on your own. You’ll need to be able to do that in life. You’re not always going to have mom and dad here to help you, or somebody else. But I was ready to step in and help if this didn’t work.

Chap: That’s cool. Are there lessons that you think might be applicable for pastors who are advising sheep who are being bullied? As parents, we’re shepherds of our children and pastors of the church are shepherds of their sheep as well. So I wonder if there’s any things that you think, “Oh, I can see the sort of parallels that I might speak to other people.”

Kevin: Yeah. I think one of the parallel areas that supplies to is abuse in marriages. So there can be the belief, the thought that I’m called to love my husband and submit to him. So I shouldn’t talk bad about him to others or let people know about the problems we’re having and what he says. And so as pastors, I think we need to just be able to say from the pulpit in different ways, maybe in our pastoral prayer, maybe in an application of a sermon, just acknowledge abuse happens even in Christian marriages. It’s not okay if you’re going through that. We want to shepherd you through that and let people know that we’re ready to walk alongside them. I guess that fits with that principle of love your neighbor as yourself.  That aspect of self-defensiveness can apply to going to others and saying, “I need your help.”

Chap: That’s what I see. So here you were, a proper authority, and so Silas comes to you and you discern that he is at the age that he can handle this, perhaps. But you’re there, you’re providing comfort, but you’re also an escape. And then the sort of the theology you gave him was, “We’re not going to hate this person. We’re entering into the sufferings of Christ in a sense, and we’re going to leave room for the Lord to repay. But having said that, there is also room for us to defend ourselves verbally, physically, self-defense, and get other authorities in, in that case. So it seems, there’s this tension of, I’ll receive some of this from the Lord in the sense of God is sovereign; I’m somewhat receiving it. And I’m a person made in God’s image, and so I get to defend myself.

Kevin: And again, you see God’s people do that throughout scripture, right? They crying out for help when they’re oppressed. They’re asking for the Lord to come to their defense. And so there’s an element that even if you can do that before God, that somehow that must get fleshed out in real time in this world, with other authorities. And, again, what level of authority do you have as an individual? You have some level of authority not to be mistreated yourself. Again, we’re real lovers of, of justice and righteousness. And so as far as it depends on us, we’re going to live at peace with everyone, but sometimes I can’t live in peace if you’re not responding to my peace, so. . .

Yeah. That was another great thing throughout of all this, to be able to see a good result and praise the Lord for the way that he helped us and heard our prayers. To do that with Silas and to just pray each day on the way to school for this specific situation and watch the Lord work there. I think overall there’s lots of things be thankful for this and thankfully it didn’t go on so long that there’s a great deal of follow-up to do with Silas. He’s good.

Chap: It’s maybe one of those Ebenezer stones you raise and say, “Hey, remember when the Lord delivered us this way?”  So that’s really cool.

Well, this has been a great conversation and I think it’s really helpful, the richness of the way you dealt with it, the wisdom and the richness, but also the wisdom for other parents. And especially, I hate to say this, but maybe as it becomes more prevalent in the days ahead, and at some level, it’s always going to happen just because we’re human. But it may be more prevalent. So thanks.

Kevin: Yeah, and just to follow up on that, I think that that maybe one of the other parallels that we can mention here is that more and more Christians are going have to figure out, how do we deal with mistreatment in the workplace, or among our neighbors for being Christians. And there will be many times where we just need to turn the other cheek. But there may be some times where we’re called to suffer, but we might speak up and say, “Actually, you can’t treat me like that.”

Chap: Well, thanks. Thank you.

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