Discipline is an ambiguous word, easily misunderstood because its two major applications are so at variance with one another.

In a good sense, discipline is what athletes do — training their bodies to achieve top performance through practice, hard work, persistence, attention to diet and daily living habits — in short, they demand much of themselves without approaching punishment. Anyone who chooses to do something well — fine art painting, knitting, gardening, cooking — disciplines themselves in such a way to achieve top performance.

Discipline is a lifestyle, on a daily basis pushing ourselves to be better, stronger, wiser, more perseverant. Photo credit Steve Henderson Fine Art
Discipline is a lifestyle, on a daily basis pushing ourselves to be better, stronger, wiser, more perseverant. Photo credit Steve Henderson Fine Art

In a bad sense, discipline involves hitting, striking, slapping, whipping, beating — something we associate wicked masters doing to slaves, or creepy reprobates inflicting upon dogs — and the ultimate goal is punishment as opposed to growth. This is not a diatribe upon spanking versus not spanking, so much as it is an observance that discipline — when its primary goal is punishment and/or humiliation — doesn’t work. The bad behavior may be arrested, but the person hit by the same hand that caresses experiences — logically — a sense of confusion, and fear. Is that hand good? Or is it bad?

Spare the Rod . . .

Like any Christian who has spent time in a fundamentalist establishment setting, I’m well aware of verses like Proverbs 13:24 —

“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him,” and I have overheard more information than I would like about leather strops versus wooden spoons. Verses like these, however — which seem to contradict the loving, merciful, and wise judging nature of God — may be interpreted in various ways. There is enough evidence that the “rod” — which in the beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) isn’t used to beat the sheep — is figurative, and that’s fine by me.

Proverbs 3:11 tells us,

“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”

A Different Kind of Fear of God

For many Christians, the word “despise” in the above verse could be replaced with “abjectly fear,” and when one’s idea of discipline involves the energetic application of a belt or a switch, it’s understandable that one would be afraid, very afraid, of being beaten by God.

Child of Eden inspirational original oil painting of little girl with green hat in garden with radishes by Steve Henderson
Children are fragile, and correcting them must be done wisely. So it is with God, toward His children. Child of Eden, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed print at Framed Canvas Art, iCanvasART, and Vision Art Galleries.

When one looks at discipline in the light of definition A, above, however, one can deal with this: no father needs or wants lazy, complacent, disobedient, careless children, and the best solution when one experiences behavior like this is not to immediately pull out a stick. A wise father can find a more creative — and effective — means of disciplining a child to be a better person, in the same way that a good athlete pushes himself, hard, but not to the point of injury.

Because many Christians are focused on the concept of sin, sin, and more sin, any time they falter or fail, they automatically consider themselves wicked and evil, fully deserving of the very worst that God could inflict. But let’s look at a definition of evil, again from Proverbs, which describes wicked men,

Real Evil 

“whose words are perverse, who leave the straight paths to walk in dark ways, who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil, whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.” (Proverbs 2:12-14)

This is evil in its top form — men, and women, working behind the scenes, using their money and influence to ruin the lives of others while they stay quietly in the background, amassing more wealth and power. They. Hurt. Innocents.

And yet, when we pursue a line of thought that is envious and bitter, or we take a sip of wine when we think we shouldn’t, or we honestly hurt another person by a careless word — we are not at such a level of evil that we deserve the wrath awaiting those who traffic in pure, unadulterated hate, their lives ruled by their worship of the prince of darkness, as opposed to the Prince of Peace.

But we think that’s what we’re going to get.

Retracting the Claws

Is it any wonder that people — Christians and non-Christians — have difficulty understanding, and embracing, the deep, holy, pure, beautiful, unconditional love of God when, at any time, they are afraid of being kicked by Him?

Last night we watched a nature show about polar bears, and it showed a 600-pound mother bear cradling — with those massive, scary paws — her 20-ounce (that’s the size of a bottle of soda) newborn. I was in awe at how gently this powerful giant nurtured the fragility of innocence.

Later, when the cubs were older, one received a cuff from mom, enough to knock it over and get the message across, but decidedly and definitely not the full force of what mom’s mitts could do. The full force would kill.

The reason we do not have to be afraid of the Lord’s discipline is because, like a truly wise and loving Father, He uses the best means of getting our attention, and teaching us in the way we should go. Discipline is not always pleasant — ask any knitter if they enjoy pulling out rows and rows of stitches because they made a mistake five inches back and tried to ignore it — but its result is a stronger, wiser person.

God does not give us cancer. He does not send tornadoes on top of our house. He does not make us lose our job. He does not inflict random, appalling pain upon us that mirrors what men do to one another — but within our circumstances of pain, He speaks, corrects, leads, urges, encourages, and gives us a firm push in the direction we should go.

We do not have to be afraid of Him.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage Christians to ask questions — of each other, of the evening news, of God — and not accept answers that don’t satisfy. Too easily, we shrug our shoulders and say, “That doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t seem fair or right, but, oh well, ‘God’s ways are not our ways.'”

No, they’re not. They’re better. When they seem worse, then maybe they’re not God’s ways.

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