Do Not Despise Discipline
Perhaps one of the greatest dangers for Christians is thinking they know better than God. Of course we don’t say that or consciously think that (usually), but that is precisely how we often live. And we justify it by claiming that we get the same results. This happens liturgically when Christians allow traditions to displace duties (e.g. Gen. 3:3). This happens in our homes when we substitute what we think is “niceness” for obedience in disciplining our children and requiring obedience of them.
Do Not Despise
Hebrews says that people are tempted to grow weary and fainthearted in struggling against sin (Heb. 12:3-4). Why? It’s difficult! Struggling against sin is a long race of endurance (Heb. 12:1ff). And one of the places parents are tempted to grow weary is in the struggle against sin in their children, and this is because obedience to God in this area reveals our own sin. Some openly reject God and His Word in order to try to flee this responsibility, but others (frequently in the Church) rename their rebellion with sophisticated and virtuous sounding objections, which may include academic articles in psychology journals, sentimental stories about discipline gone wrong, abuse scare-mongering, excuses about their own poor upbringing, or fear of CPS or what family, neighbors, or friends might think. But Hebrews quotes Proverbs reminding God’s people not to “regard lightly the discipline of the Lord” (Heb. 12:5). The sense of the command not to “regard lightly” includes (reaching back into the Hebrew in Proverbs) not despising, refusing, rejecting, or even feeling disgust for. On one end of the lexical spectrum, Hebrews warns us not to trifle with God’s discipline, and on the other end, God requires us not to be disgusted by it. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24). There is of course a sense in which discipline is not pleasant but painful (Heb. 12:11), and yet there is another sense in which we really must love the gift of spanking. Parents sometimes slip into the misconception that they must choose between grace and the rod, but God says that the rod is grace. And the rod is grace precisely because it is not punishment. Jesus was punished for our sins so we might learn to walk in newness of life. Discipline is paideia: practicing life.
A Brief Primer on Spanking
A wise father remembers the frame of his children (Ps. 103:13-14), and this means that he understands that as soon as God gives his child the ability to exercise his will, emotions, and bodily movement – those abilities must be ruled. This also means that the younger the child, discipline must be swift (quick flicks on the offending member – e.g. thigh, cheek). In the early years, you are teaching your children what words and actions mean and how to feel; discussions and emotional reactions are cruel. Pain is inescapable in life, but a little pain now is far more gracious than greater pain later on. A quick flick with a firm but calm “no” and a smile or hug is all that is necessary early on.
Imitate God’s fatherly goodness going back to creation: there was only one “no” in the Garden of Eden. Early on, pick one or two strategic battles (flipping over on the changing table, tossing food off the high chair, uncontrolled shrieking, crossing a boundary in the home). The point isn’t high-handed sin (yet); the point is to teach the concepts of obedience and authority. There is also a very practical safety issue in this. If you have taught your crawling child to listen to your voice, when he starts walking toward the street or putting a quarter in his mouth, you are that much further to saving his life (Ex. 20:12).
In the toddler years, the primary aim is self-control and obedience. Remember that we are required by God to require obedience (Eph. 6:1, Prov. 30:17). Obedience means doing what is asked immediately, completely, and cheerfully. If you have to say it multiple times, it is not obedience. If the task is begun but not finished, it is not obedience. If the command is obeyed with whining, stomping feet, or back chatting, it is not obedience. But Paul says: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). The word to “bring up” literally means to feed or nourish your children. When fathers fail to teach their children how to obey, they are provoking them (like Pharaoh). This means lots of preparing and practicing obedience before it is required.
In general, the goal should be to discipline children as privately as possible – though it is more important to obey God and discipline your child than it is to fear what anyone thinks. As the child grows in physical and mental maturity and awareness, it’s helpful to have a liturgy to your discipline: take the child somewhere private, explain the disobedience quickly, deliver the verdict, carry out the discipline, hug, pray asking God’s forgiveness and strength to obey, and have the child seek (and receive) forgiveness. Remember, the goal is the “peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11), which means that if there is still a bad attitude or disobedience, you’re not done yet. Do not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb. 12:3-4)! Fathers, it is your responsibility to make sure that your wife knows how to carry out effective discipline (it must be painful). Sometimes your wife (or mother in-law) will wonder if you are being too hard; when she is right you must listen and when she is wrong you must not.
The Discipline of the Lord
One of the striking things about the way Hebrews quotes Proverbs on discipline is the fact that it applies that specific instruction that Solomon gave to his son about discipline to the entire people of God in general. Thus, we can read backwards from Hebrews to Proverbs and understand that one of the ways the Lord disciplines parents is by requiring them to discipline their children. When children are young, God requires their parents to discipline them with swift, measured, physical pain consistently. As children grow older, discipline is admonition, advice, coaching. When children are grown and have their own children, God disciplines them by giving them children who need to be disciplined. Therefore, a father who refuses to discipline his son is refusing the discipline of the Lord. In other words, a father who insists on obedience to God’s word is insisting on the authority of God in his home. A father who does not require obedience is defying God’s authority in his home. Discipline is not about your parental feelings or preferences; it is about submission to God’s word. That’s where the consistency comes from. Therefore parents must repent when they fail to obey God. This is how Christian discipline is grounded in God’s love (Heb. 12:6-10).
The fundamental question is whether we trust God or not. Do we believe God or not? Those parents who have trusted and obeyed God in this matter can testify that God has blessed their faithful efforts (however clumsy!). There is a glorious and wonderful peace that descends on a home when a mother/father lovingly disciplines. This is the whole point of the “cloud of witnesses” that surround us (Heb. 12:1). All of those saints lived by faith in the promises of God and obeyed Him (Heb. 11:1ff). And we have even better promises in Jesus (Heb. 8:6). Therefore, fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Remember the goal, the prize, the joy set before us, the peace set before us, the good set before us and our children, and keep running toward Him by faith with obedience.