Discipline or punishment

In my last post I touched on my recent look at discipline in Hebrews 12, but I really wanted to talk about something else in that post so I glossed over the topic of discipline and went on to my main point. However, I have been thinking lately about this topic of discipline in the Christian life, and I felt somewhat compelled to swing back and pick up this point .

One of the challenges of parenting is finding the balance between on one hand forgiving and forbearing with our children and on the other hand our obligation to teach them to act rightly. I need to forgive, and extend grace, and yet I need to guide and train my children to do the things they should do and avoid the things they should not. Many parents miss this balance. On one side some parents treat their children punitively and harshly. Grace and forgiveness is missing, and the children do not learn how to extend grace either to themselves or to others. On the other side are parents who wish to build up their children’s spirits and only show forgiveness. Their children never learn that there are consequences to the choices that they make, that there is right and wrong and that they are responsible for choosing. They never learn to struggle through hard situations to positive outcomes.

The problem for both of these parenting mistakes is confusing punishment with discipline. The discipline we are responsible for as parents is not to treat children as they deserve, any more than we hope that our heavenly Father will treat us as we deserve. I don’t deserve God’s grace, but I am so grateful for it. Similarly, my job as my children’s father when it comes to discipline is not justice, but training. I am not responsible to punish my kids so there is justice in the world. I am responsible for teaching my kids to live responsible lives with integrity and character.

Our heavenly Father does this with us as well. If we belong to him and have been adopted as his children, the punishment for our sins has been paid in full by Christ, and justice has been fully served. We are no longer subject to paying the price for our sins. We are free of all condemnation. However, this does not mean that we are no longer going to undergo discipline and training. Discipline and training are necessary parts of the transformation process that God brings about in our lives and in our hearts in order to make us like Christ. That process can be painful.

There is a big difference between having the potential to love or obey or be faithful in adversity, and the reality of having done so. Actually doing it builds us into a different person than we otherwise can be. Before we are called upon to love in difficult circumstances, to forgive someone who so obviously doesn’t deserve forgiveness, to be faithful when it would be easier to give in, we are just people who maybe could do those things. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Note that this doesn’t say “that one be willing to lay down his life if there were ever a situation that really called for it.” One cannot love or obey or be faithful in the abstract. These qualities require situations to prove them.

Hebrews 5:8 says this quite clearly, when it says of Jesus that “although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered.” Christ was not one who had obeyed to the end in the most difficult circumstances until he had actually done it. He was not one who had shown the greatest love until he had laid down his life for us. God had not actually demonstrated the incomparable riches of his grace expressed in his kindness to us until he extended that grace and kindness to us even though we had made ourselves his enemies. Similarly, what we get from God is not punishment, but training and opportunities to learn and put what we learn into actual practice in our lives.

If you are not his child, you face his justice because it has not been paid for yet. The price is too high, and we cannot pay it ourselves. But once we accept his invitation to become his children the penalty is already paid. From then on we are disciplined because God loves us as his children, and as our loving Father he teaches us and trains us and forms us so that we can actually live up to the potential that he has given us and is giving us. The difference is the same as the difference between an earthly parent who punishes his child because he is angry and wants to share his pain, and a parent who shows grace but at the same time lovingly trains the child to act rightly. As a parent, I have to remember that my job is not to bring punitive justice to my children, but to train them in the way they should go. Sometimes that training is uncomfortable for them and for me. It is necessary, and in the end the result is for their good because I love them.

I am an imperfect father, but our heavenly Father always gets this right. In all circumstances, no matter what situations he brings us into, we can trust him to be in control and to bring all things together for our good.

Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. Hebrews 12:11

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