Principles of Divine Discipline
When the Bible speaks of the relationship between God and His people it does so in terms of the most intimate family relationships. At times the people of God are likened to a bride-to-be or a wife (e.g. Isa. 62:5; Jer. 3:32; Ezek. 16:32; Hos. 2:2; Eph. 5:22-33; Rev.21:9). At other times the relationship of believers to God is likened to that of a father to his son.
“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Israel is My son, My first-born’’” (Exod. 4:22).
“I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you” (1 Sam. 7:14-15; cf. also Deut. 32:6; Isa. 63:17; 64:8; Jer. 3:19; 31:9).
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name (John 1:12).
For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15).
J. I. Packet believes that no other phrase sums up Christianity better than “the sons of God.”55 This relationship is especially helpful to parents who wish to discipline their children in a godly way, for the discipline which parents are to practice is patterned after that of our Father. Divine discipline is therefore the model for parental discipline.
My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord, or loathe His reproof, For whom the Lord loves He reproves, Even as a father, the son in whom he delights (Prov. 3:11-12).
We have previously discussed why parents must discipline their children. We must use the rod because Proverbs commands US to (Cf. 13:24; 19:18; 23:13; 29:17). We must also use the rod because God does. If we are to be godly (God-like) then we must deal with sin just as God does. It is never godly to ignore evil. If we understand why we must discipline, certainly we should also seek to understand how we are to discipline. The pattern is that of God the Father as He disciplines His children. We will better grasp how the rod is to be employed in obedience to the instructions given in the Book of Proverbs if we consider the methods God employs in disciplining us.
This is the subject of our study--The Principles of Divine Discipline. Since this is an extensive subject, we must deal with it in two successive lessons.
We should understand that God deals differently with His children than He does unbelievers. Unbelievers are punished because of their unbelief and willful rejection of God’s provision for sinners (cf. Prov. 1:20-32). Since Christ has borne the punishment of those who have placed their faith in Him, Christians are not punished for their sins--they are chastened in order to bring them to obedience and maturity.
Going another step beyond this it is necessary to point out that the term “discipline” refers to God’s working in the life of His children in other ways than just correcting them for sins committed. In other words, God is said to discipline those who are not guilty of a specific sin. Notice several instances of this broader use of the term “discipline.”
“Out of the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you; and on earth He let you see His great fire, and you heard His words from the midst of the fire (Deut. 4:36).
“Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him” (Deut. 8:5-6).
“And know this day that I am not speaking with your sons who have not known and who have not seen the discipline of the Lord your God--His greatness, His mighty hand, and His outstretched arm” (Deut. 11:2).
The word “discipline” appears in each of the verses, but not in a context of punishment for sin. In Deuteronomy 4:36 God “disciplined” Israel when He gave them the law from the mountain, demonstrating His glory and power by lightning flashes, sounds of the trumpet, and smoke from the mountain (Exod. 20:18,22). The purpose of the manifestation of God’s greatness was to cause Israel to fear the Lord God so that they might not sin (Exod. 20:20). We might call this preventative discipline.
In Deuteronomy 8:5 God spoke again of disciplining Israel. He did so by leading them in the wilderness, without normal supplies such as water and food. During those years the people of God were tested and were taught to trust God to meet their every need (8:2-3).It was in Israel’s time of need that they learned to fear God (8:6) and to trust and obey Him.
In Deuteronomy 11:2 the same kind of discipline is evident. God “disciplined” the Israelites by manifesting His greatness and power. By His works during the exodus and after God proved that He alone was worthy of Israel’s worship and obedience. It was on the basis of God’s greatness and His redemption of Israel that His commandments were to be obeyed (11:8-9).
The same kind of discipline described in these chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy is found elsewhere in the Old Testament, as well as in the New. Joseph endured the hardship of being betrayed by his brothers, of being a slave in a foreign land and a prisoner for no just cause (Gen. 37--41), not because of sin in his life, but in order to strengthen and prepare him for the responsibilities which were ahead (cf. Gen. 50:20).Job did not suffer on account of his sin, for God had called him “a blameless and upright man, fearing god and turning away from evil” (Job 1:8).
In this same sense even the Lord Jesus was “disciplined” by God in order to learn obedience in the midst of adversity.
In the days of His flesh, when He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and who was heard because of His piety, although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered; and having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation (Heb. 5:7-9).
This is why the writer to the Hebrews can say in chapter 12 that suffering is a normal Christian experience, one that is for our good and intended to make us holy (12:10).
It is at this very point that serious errors often occur. Some Christians are like Eliphaz, the “friend” of Job. He maintained that hardship and suffering (“discipline”) is always the result of sin in the life of the saint.
“Is it because of your reverence that He reproves you, that He enters into judgment against you? Is not your wickedness great, and your iniquities without end?” (Job 22:4-5)
Eliphaz was wrong. It was both “because of” Job’s reverence for God and “in order to produce” reverence for God that he was allowed to suffer at the hand of Satan. Suffering (“discipline”) is not necessarily due to sin.
While some hold the error of Eliphaz today, most reject such a thought altogether. They do not believe that God disciplines men for sin, let alone that He disciplines His children to produce Christian maturity even though they have not sinned. They are merely mouthing the error first uttered centuries ago by Satan in tempting Eve.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1).
The inference of Satan’s question is obvious. How could a good and gracious God ever withhold something desirable from His children? The answer, Christians know, is that God did not withhold anything good, but prohibited something which would be detrimental to Adam and Eve. In addition, this prohibition (Satan would look on it as a deprivation) was a test of their faith in God and of their desire to obey Him, even when they did not understand the reasons for His command not to eat of that forbidden fruit.
It was the same reasoning which caused Satan to conclude that Job would only serve God when God made it worth his while. Let God bring adversity into Job’s life, he reasoned, and Job would forsake God in a moment. Job’s faith in God in the midst of his trials was something Satan simply could not fathom.
It is no wonder, then, that Satan sought to tempt our Lord by suggesting that He command stones to become bread. After all, Jesus had been in the wilderness for 40 days without nourishment. Surely God did not desire His Son to be deprived of a necessity like bread, did He? The answer of our Lord is a quotation from the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy. Obedience to God is more important than the satisfying of our bodily desires (Matt. 4:4). The reason God led the Israelites into the wilderness for 40 years was the same reason the Spirit of God led our Lord into the wilderness for 40 days: man needs to learn to depend on the Word of God more than anything else, including his daily bread. Just as Israel learned discipline in the wilderness, so did our Lord. Had He followed Satan’s suggestion, might He not also have reasoned that it could not possibly be God’s will for Him to suffer on the cross of Calvary? Discipline teaches God’s children to obey Him even when it hurts.
The process of disciplining children involves much more than just correcting them for wrongs committed. It involves helping them deal with the adversities of life in such a way as to grow in faith and to learn to obey God in those times when He appears to be absent or indifferent to their plight.
This kind of discipline, according to the passages in Deuteronomy, is intended to teach the people of God to fear the Lord and to turn away from evil. The Book of Proverbs, likewise, places a great deal of emphasis on the fear of the Lord (1:7; 9:10; 15:33, etc.). Parents must therefore endeavor to teach their children to respect them, and out of respect to obey, just as we must learn to fear God and turn from evil (Prov. 3:7; 8:13).
It would be going too far to say that parents should strive to make things difficult for their children, but I do believe that we need to be careful not to make life too easy. Many parents who have grown up doing without and having to work hard to get by are inclined to make life too easy for their own children. Life is difficult, and so is the Christian life. It is in the struggles of life that we often learn the most about living by faith, just as a tree sinks its roots deeper in response to drought. Let us strive to help our children come through the hard times by trusting in God and being faithful and obedient, rather than seeking always to keep them from the struggles of life.
The discipline which we find described in Deuteronomy 4, 8, and 11 is foundational to every other form of discipline. By revealing His power and might, God established His authority over Israel. No one need ask the question, “Why should I obey God?” The answer to that question was given long before the law was given through Moses. God has authority over men because He is the Creator of men (Gen. 1-2). In addition, God has authority over the Israelites because He brought them out of slavery in order to be His servants (Lev. 25:55). God has authority because of His great power and glory, as was demonstrated at the time of the giving of the law (cf. Exod. 20:18-26).
I like the question Dr. James Dobson asks, “Who is in charge here?” That is something which needs to be established very early in the life of a child. God began to discipline His people by clearly establishing His authority, His right to rule over them. He gave the nation Israel a constitution, but one that He alone composed. Just so, parents need to clearly establish their right to rule in the home. It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that children are small and parents big. That is one of the ways God demonstrates to the child that the parent has the right to rule. If for no other reason, the parent is bigger and stronger than the child, just as God is infinitely more powerful than us.
I find modern child-raising theories in a great deal of trouble if this is true, for we are told to deal with children on their level. We should talk to them as equals. We should come to an agreement as to what should be done in a democratic way. I think not. While a child must eventually come to make his own choices, that is not the way the child-raising process is to begin. Parents must very early establish the right to rule; then, by corrective discipline, they must reinforce this right every time it is challenged. “Who is in charge here?” The Bible tells us that we, as parents, are. Let us make this clear to our children. Might does not always make right, but it does establish the right to rule. Let us take up the reigns. Let us take charge in our families.
We find much instruction for parents in the way God dealt with the nation Israel. Not only did God firmly establish His right to rule, He also made the rules clear as to how His people were to conduct themselves. God, by means of the law, informed the Israelites of what was expected of them and the consequences of either obedience or disobedience.
“If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out, then I shall give you rains in their season, so that the land will yield its produce and the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Indeed, your threshing will last for you until grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land” (Lev. 26:3-5).
“But if you do not obey Me and do not carry out all these commandments, if, instead, you reject PI statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant, I, in turn, will do this to you: I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that shall waste away the eyes and cause the soul to pine away; also, you shall sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies shall eat it up. And I will set My face against you so that you shall be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when no one is pursuing you. If also after these things, you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins” (Lev. 26:14-18).
Here in the Book of Leviticus and elsewhere (e.g., Deut. 28) God made it clear that disobedience to His law would result in divine discipline. In the days of the judges, men did not live in-accordance with God’s law, but “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Nehemiah, in his prayer of confession for the sins of his people, acknowledged that God had justly chastised His people for their neglect of His law (Neh. 9:29).It is clear that God’s corrective discipline falls upon those who are wicked--those who detest God’s words and refuse to obey them (of. Ps. 50:17).
While parents were given the responsibility of teaching their children the law of God (Deut. 6), God also raised up prophets who taught the law and warned the Israelites of the consequences of disobedience, but they nevertheless failed to hear or to obey (of. Jer. 2:30-31; 5:3-6; 7:28; 11:1-8; Ezek. 5:5-8). When God disciplined Israel by using other nations as His “rod” there was no doubt as to why He dealt with His people as He did.
There is a very important principle here for us as parents. While God has commanded us in Proverbs to use the “rod,” we should only correct children with the “rod” when they have willfully violated rules which have been clearly established and when the consequences of disobeying them have been carefully spelled out. Nothing will frustrate a child more quickly than being punished for doing something he did not know was wrong, or having the rules be in a continual state of flux. Let us be Godlike in our discipline by making the standards clear and simple, and let us enforce them consistently so that our children know what is required of them and the results of failing to obey.
There is yet another important principle to be seen here as well. God’s law contained not only precepts, but also principles. A very young child is capable of understanding and obeying a few simple rules, even when he does not yet grasp the reasons (e.g., “Don’t play with the electrical outlets”). Sooner or later, however, it is important for the parent to teach the child the reasons behind the rules. If there are no such reasons, the rule should be set aside. If there are valid reasons for the rules, the child should know them.
The Old Testament law contained far more than just a set of legalistic rules. Behind the specific commandments and prohibitions (precepts), there were principles. It was these principles on which the psalmist sought to meditate (cf. Ps. 119). Paul could thus refer to a text which commanded the farmer not to muzzle his ox and see its application to a preacher of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:8-9). It was the principles which the prophets sought to underscore (e.g., Hos. 6:6).In contrast, much of Judaism became preoccupied with the precepts, so much so that Jesus rightly accused the religious leaders with “straining gnats (the meticulous precepts of Pharisaism) and swallowing camels (the principles contained in the Old Testament law) (Matt. 23:24). The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5--7) was our Lord’s interpretation of the law as opposed to that of the Pharisees. Like our Lord, the Old Testament prophets spoke of the primary matters of justice, mercy, and an obedient spirit more than of the petty violations of man-made rules.
While parental discipline is necessary, individual self-discipline is the goal. This is why Proverbs does not focus our attention on the precepts as much as on the principles which should govern life. The child who is addressed in the early chapters of Proverbs is viewed as the lad who is at the age where he must make his own decisions, where the parents cannot and will not continue to think for him. If a child is to grow up to be wise and godly He must do so out of his own desire for godliness--and his own discipline to deny himself of harmful pleasures and dangerous associations.
One of the great failures of Christian parents is that they tend to focus more on the rules than on the reasons, more on the precepts of life than the principles. If we would discipline our children as God dealt with Israel (and now deals with us), we will begin with the rules but soon direct the attention of our children to the reasons. That is how maturity is developed. We often send our children to college before they have learned to think. The reason is that we still demand unquestioning obedience from them, as though they were still little children. External discipline is necessary for the immature, but it (legalism) is devastating to the process of developing self-discipline. Let us be men and women of principle, and let us teach our children to be likewise.
When the term “rod” is encountered in Proverbs we almost automatically assume the reference is to a switch or a stick. Generally I would agree with this literal understanding of the “rod” in Proverbs. It must be pointed out, however, that the term “rod” is not so literally employed in other biblical passages (e.g., 2 Sam. 7:14; Job 9:34; Isa. 9:4; 10:5; Lam. 3:1; 1 Cor. 4:21), where it is used more broadly in reference to discipline or correction. I fear that some Christians have overlooked the many forms which discipline may take, resorting only to the switch, the belt, or the paddle. For those to whom the “rod” means only a spanking, let me draw your attention to the variety of forms divine discipline takes in Scripture.
In Leviticus 26:14-39 a wide range of possible consequences is described as the result of forsaking the law. When divine discipline takes place and is still rejected, even worse consequences may occur (26:18ff.). Deuteronomy 28 is another description of the results of disobedience to God’s law.
Often in Scripture men are disciplined by suffering the natural consequences of their sins.
“Have you not done this to yourself, by your forsaking the Lord your God, when He led you in the way? But now what are you doing on the road to Egypt, to drink the waters of the Nile? Or what ‘are you doing on the road to Assyria, to drink the waters of the Euphrates? Your own wickedness will correct you, and your apostasies will reprove you; Know therefore and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God, and the dread of Me is not in you,” declares the Lord God of hosts (Jer. 2:17-19).
David sinned by taking the wife of Uriah and by putting him to death. The consequences of his sin were directly related to his sin.
“Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be, your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” Thus says the Lord, “Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your companion, and he shall lie with your wives in broad daylight” (2 Sam. 12: 9-11).
Just as David took the wife of Uriah, his wives would be taken. Just as David used the sword against Uriah, his house would suffer from the sword.
In the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the father is likened to God, just as the prodigal is likened to the publicans and sinners whom Jesus came to save, and the “unprodigal” son represents the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who were sinners and didn’t admit it, and who resented the grace God had shown to the undeserving. While the father could have found some other way of punishing his son, he chose to let him take his inheritance and squander it. It was there in that pig pen among the pods that the young man came to his senses and determined to go to his father and seek his forgiveness. Discipline which would bring about repentance and restoration was better served by the rather allowing the son to fail than by using the literal rod.
There are a number of reasons why I believe variety is essential to effective parental discipline. Each of these can be seen by looking at the broader subject of divine discipline.
1. DIVINE DISCIPLINE USES ONLY THE AMOUNT OF FORCE/PAIN REQUIRED TO PRODUCE REPENTANCE. God’s purpose in disciplining His children is to correct them; there is no need to inflict any more pain than is required to bring about their repentance. In Proverbs we are taught that a wise man is corrected merely by a rebuke, while a fool is barely impressed by a beating (9:7-9; 17:10). A “rod” is required only for those who are unable or unwilling to listen to reason, for it is only pain which will get their attention (19:29; 26:3; 29:19). If a child is wise enough to be corrected by a word, why beat him once genuine repentance is achieved? (There are several other factors involved here, but we shall discuss them later.)
2. DIVINE DISCIPLINE IS TAILORED TO THE INDIVIDUAL WHO IS BEING DISCIPLINED. In the Scriptures God punishes unbelievers and chastens His sons as individuals. For example, in Luke 12:47-48 the slave who knew his master’s will and disobeyed received many lashes, while the slave who did not know it received but few. God deals with us according to the maturity consonant with our spiritual age. In the early days the Corinthian Christians were not rebuked for being “fleshy” or immature, but after considerable time had passed, they were carnal (I Cor. 3:1-3). Also, because of the influence we have over others, leaders are dealt with more severely than followers (cf. Jer. 23; Ezek. 34; Matt. 23; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:1-2; James 3:1). Furthermore, God not only deals with us according to our actions, but also our attitudes and motives (Matt. 5:21-37; 1 Cor. 4:5).
Divine discipline takes into account the fact that a problem in performance may be the result of any number of difficulties, some of which are sinful and others of which are not.
And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thess. 5:14).
Sometimes we are inclined to deal with everyone alike. Some are so zealous to rebuke and reform that they rebuke everyone who fails without regard to the reason for their failure. For example, suppose that my child failed to wash the windows as I had instructed. If the child is small and cannot reach the windows, her failure is not her fault. She is unable to do what I have instructed. If I have provided her with a ladder but she is afraid of heights, I need to encourage and reassure her, perhaps to support her on the ladder, but not to spank her. If she has disobeyed out of willfulness, a rebuke or the rod is in order. Divine discipline deals with individuals in the light of who and what they are. Our discipline must likewise be individualized.
3. DIVINE DISCIPLINE BRINGS ABOUT REPENTANCE IN THE MOST APPROPRIATE AND EFFECTIVE WAY. We have already seen how God disciplined David in a way that was fitting for the sins he committed. When we use the paddle for virtually every corrective problem we may often be using a method of discipline which is not appropriate and is therefore less effective. For example, if your 17 year-old son stays out past your parental curfew, he would much rather receive a spanking than be grounded for a period of time. But losing his social privileges is more appropriate and more instructive than a licking, in my opinion. Just so, the pig pen and the pea pods were more effective in correcting the prodigal son than a spanking would have been. Let us choose the kind of “rod” we employ as carefully as God does.
Let me briefly summarize the principles of divine discipline which I have sought to teach in this lesson. First, we must not only discipline our children because God disciplines His, but we must discipline our children like God disciplines His. Divine discipline is therefore the pattern for parental discipline.
Second, discipline involves much more than just dealing with our children when they sin. Discipline begins by establishing our right to rule in the family. Discipline teaches our children that we, as parents, have been given both the wisdom and the strength to be in charge in the family. We are not pals or peers to our children, but parents--a very important distinction.
Third, we have an obligation to make the rules clear to our children so that discipline is the predictable and promised result of the violation of carefully defined standards of conduct. Children need to know what we expect of them and what will happen when they choose to violate these standards. We also need to be diligent in explaining the reasons behind the rules and the principles behind the precepts.
Finally, the paddle is not a panacea--the solution to all evils. The literal “rod” should be employed when children cannot or will not listen to reason. As children develop the ability to reason, means other than spanking should be utilized, always being determined in accordance to which “rod” will be most effective in bringing about repentance.
As you can already see, spanking is not nearly as simple a matter as it may at one time have seemed. Discipline, like every other area of the Christian life, is a matter that requires wisdom from above. Let us seek that wisdom as we endeavor to use the “rod” righteously.
55 J. I. Packer has said on this matter: “You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of the New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), P. 182. I strongly recommend reading the chapter entitled, “Sons of God.” Indeed, the entire book is a spiritual feast.