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Early in our married life, my wife, Donna, spent two years working as a pediatric nurse at a large children’s hospital. Her unit regularly saw young patients who were in desperate need of medical care, sometimes extreme medical care. One of the greatest challenges of her job, exceeding even the emotional toll of caring for children who never did recover, was dealing with well-intentioned but misguided relatives of her patients.
Occasionally, parents or other concerned family members would complain and even interfere with the treatment prescribed for sick and injured children. They could not stand seeing their child endure the pain of an injection or be forced to swallow medication. Donna and her colleagues were even accused of being “cruel” and “uncaring” at times.
“I could never be a pediatric nurse because I just love children too much,” was a statement she heard more than a few times. Though she never said it in response, the thought that always came to her mind was this: “Do you really think that the reason I am doing this is because I do not love children? It is precisely the opposite! Because I do love your child I am willing to inflict pain if necessary to administer the medicine that can restore his health. I don’t enjoy seeing him cry, but I know that the long-term benefit is worth the short-term pain.”
That is the way that God wants us to think about discipline—all discipline, including the kind that parents are responsible to administer in the home. In fact, the basic Hebrew word that the Old Testament uses and the basic Greek word that the New Testament uses for “discipline” convey the idea of correction that results in education. It is a positive and highly valued endeavor.
For many people today, however, discipline is a dirty word. They view the whole idea in a negative, restrictive light that is associated with thoughts of punishment, pain, hardship, and deprivation. While these realities may in some ways be involved, all true discipline is never an end in itself. It is always a means to a desirable end. As Hebrews 12:11 explains, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Discipline is activity that takes place in the “moment” but always for the sake of “later.” The farmer undertakes the discipline of plowing, planting and tending the soil not for the sake of those activities in themselves, but for the sake of the harvest that will result.
It is precisely because of the positive results that God does not withhold discipline from the people whom He loves. This is a vitally important truth for Christians to remember when undergoing trials and hardships. The author of Hebrews underscores this point by quoting Proverbs 3:11–12 in order to encourage his readers not to grow weary or fainthearted in the midst of their suffering. He reminds them (and us) to remember that God addresses us as sons in that passage when he says, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:5–6).
In the same way, God calls parents to be like Him in loving their children enough to discipline them properly. He does this by holding out the positive benefits that accrue when children are disciplined. “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart” (Prov. 29:17). Not only will the parents benefit but the child will, too. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (22:15). A well-disciplined child will have his foolishness exposed and corrected so regularly and consistently that the beauty and goodness of wisdom will become increasingly attractive to him.
Scripture places the responsibility of disciplining children squarely on the shoulders of parents, especially fathers. The plainest, most succinct statement of this is made by Paul in Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This verse covers the whole range of parental duties.
After warning them not to exasperate their children, Paul fundamentally admonishes parents—specifically fathers—to raise their own children. This plain, simple command is so profound that were it grasped and obeyed by every parent, most of the social ills associated with juvenile behavior would be eliminated.
The job of raising children does not belong directly to the school, society, church or the youth group. It belongs to parents. According to the Apostle Paul, it doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It takes a dad.
If we were to think of Ephesians 6:4 as a parental tool kit, we would need to recognize that the two main tools that God intends for parents to use in raising children are “discipline” of the Lord and the “instruction” of the Lord. These words convey two vital parental activities. The former is physical and the latter is verbal. The discipline of the Lord is that which is done to a child while the instruction of the Lord is that which is said to a child. They must be used together for children to be properly trained for living well in the world.
The discipline that this verse has in mind is that which includes the correction of a child who has willfully disobeyed the proper instruction of God-given authorities (6:1–3). That correction can involve physical punishment (thus the reference to the “rod of discipline” in Prov. 22:15).
Corporal punishment seems barbaric and unavoidably abusive to many modern sensibilities. The Bible, however, is not squeamish about commending it as part of the discipline that should be administered in the home. “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die” (23:13). The kind of discipline envisioned is that which intentionally causes a measure of pain through use of a rod.
The use of such discipline is not child abuse. It has nothing to do with anger induced violence. Such mistreatment of children is abhorrent and should be repudiated by everyone who has even a modicum of common sense and decency. Biblical discipline and child abuse are two completely different species. The latter, if carried to its logical extreme, results in death, yet biblical discipline that employs a rod (or paddle) to administer a measure of discomfort is nowhere on that continuum. The child who experiences the kind of discipline the Bible promotes “will not die” as a result.
God has given a significant safeguard to prevent the discipline he commends from ever degenerating into abuse, namely, the use of the second tool—instruction. Parents are teachers and the instruction that they are to give their children requires talking. Lots of talking. The whole book of Proverbs is an example of how parents ought to regularly be teaching their children the wisdom of God through the various experiences and situations—both good and bad—that life offers.
This certainly includes times of correction. It is not enough for a parent to employ the rod, he must also employ words. He must give the instruction of the Lord as well as the discipline of the Lord. When the rod must be employed, the child must be taught to see the situation in the light of biblical truth.
When your daughter sins, explain to her what she did in simple terms. Make clear what she should have done. Bring to bear the authority of God by telling her what God says about the situation, either directly (as in “Do not bear false witness”) or indirectly (“Children obey your parents in the Lord”). Teach her that you are administering the rod for her sin because you love her too much not to correct her (13:24) and you love the Lord too much not to obey Him (John 14:15).
Then, simply explain that Jesus died on the cross to pay for these kinds of sins. Remembering this helps parents turn every occasion of serious discipline into an occasion for gospel conversation. “You and daddy are sinners. But Jesus died for sinners like us, so that we can be forgiven of our sins. God forgives everyone who trusts Jesus. I am going to pray now for God to give you a new heart that will hate sin and trust Jesus for forgiveness.”
Then do it. Repeat as often as possible.
When parents see these issues clearly and work to train their child consistently in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, they have reason to pray with hope that the Lord who entrusted that child to them and who is empowering them to bring him up with biblical wisdom, will graciously save him and establish His kingdom firmly in your child’s heart.