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The Father's Discipline

Father disciplines daughter

by Dennis Pollock

In considering God's many ways in which He interacts with His children, we must give attention to His discipline. In both the Old and New Testaments God reveals Himself as One who disciplines His people. In Deuteronomy, as God is reminding Israel of their wilderness experiences just before they are to enter the promise land, He tells them, "Thus you are to know in your heart that the LORD your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son." Discipline is part and parcel of relating to God.

God reveals that His discipline is not all that different from the way we parents discipline our children. From this we learn a great deal about the divine disciplining process. So how do we discipline our children? The most obvious point is that we discipline them after inappropriate behavior. The perfect child would require no discipline. But alas, our children do not come into this world perfect, nor will they ever attain perfection in the years to come. Secondly, discipline is meaningless unless it has some sting to it. To tell a rebellious child, "Now Johnny, it wasn't very nice for you to bash your sister in the head with that large rock!" is not going to get the point across. Johnny needs to feel a little more of his sister's pain, and it is your job to see to it that he gets it. Effective discipline works by association. Johnny misbehaves, Momma applies pain, and Johnny begins to associate pain with misbehavior. The more misbehavior, the more pain – less misbehavior, less pain. The pain doesn't have to be physical pain, of course. Physical pain works best in the child's early years. After all, grounding a two year old doesn't really mean too much to him. But as the child gets older there are all kinds of punishments and denying of privileges that can create the necessary sting.

As we consider God's discipline we must remember that He works on essentially the same principle. He is more than able and quite willing to help us grow to responsible spiritual adulthood by applying some painful experiences to our lives when we rebel against His will and His laws. In Proverbs we read, "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly." Because God loves us He will not spare the rod. This concept reveals a God who is most active in our lives. He is not the God of deism, who has wound the world up, set various laws in motion, and then sits back to see how well we all do. He is the Holy One of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who intervenes in the lives of men and women, and watches over His children with loving care. And He is not afraid to discipline His errant kids!

Classic Passage

In Hebrews 12 we have the lengthiest and most detailed overview of the discipline of the Lord. We read the following admonition: "And you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, 'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him…'" We are told two wrong attitudes we must avoid concerning God's discipline: to take it too lightly or to faint and become discouraged. When God allows painful experiences into our lives as discipline we must pay attention. As His children our circumstances are never merely bad luck or good luck. There is a wise and loving Father who watches over our lives, and when He chooses to allow us to go through painful and difficult seasons, we need to be sensitive to what He is attempting to accomplish. To brush it off as bad luck is to miss the point. The other error is to allow ourselves to become discouraged. Various Bible versions translate this word different ways. One says, "Don't give up." Another says, "Don't be weary." The NASB says, "Don't faint." The idea is that we must not become so disheartened over the fact that we are suffering, and that God may well have something to do with it all, that we draw back from our walk with the Lord.

The writer goes on to say, "For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives." Discipline doesn't always seem like a loving act. But in God's mind discipline is an expression of love. In Revelation Jesus declares, "Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline." Here in Hebrews we are told that God scourges every child He receives. Not some children, not the headstrong ones, but all the children. If you have born again through faith in Jesus Christ, you will receive eternal life, you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, you will be adopted into the family of God, you will be provided for, and yes, you will be disciplined. Sometimes we see godly people who have such gentle personalities, such mild ways, such a pleasant attitude, and such a genuine devotion to Christ that we couldn't imagine them ever needing discipline. But regardless of how far they have progressed, how meek their temperament, and how sincere their faith, they are still human, possessing a selfish, unruly nature the Bible calls the flesh, and in need of God's discipline from time to time.

Discipline is very much a part of normal family life. Along with laughter and meals and outings to the ball game and griping about someone taking too long in the bathroom and watching television and going out for pizza and smelly socks and buying school supplies in August are also things like spankings, groundings, suspension of phone privileges and the taking away of video games. At least these thing should be present, certainly not constantly but from time to time as needed. Remove discipline from the family and you have created a breeding ground for selfish little dictators who mock authority, create misery, and will never stand a chance when they go to create a family of their own. In God's own family, our Heavenly Father loves us far too much to allow us to go unchallenged and unrebuked when we stray from His ways and begin to act out. He will be faithful to see to it that we start to associate pain with rebellion.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to say, "Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness." Now we get to the point of it all! God's discipline has one primary goal: that we might share His holiness. Our earthly fathers did the best they could with discipline, and we accepted it, but it was never perfect. Sometimes they lost their temper, sometimes they were too harsh, other times they overlooked things that should have been dealt with. As the Bible says "they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them." But with God the discipline is perfect. It never exceeds the proper degree; it is never too harsh and never too light. When we trusted in Jesus Christ and looked to His cross and resurrection for salvation, we received a Heavenly Father who will always respond to us and our needs in perfect wisdom. He will carefully filter all the circumstances and pain trying to invade our lives and make sure that the only ones we see are the ones that have His stamp of approval on them; the circumstances that He will use to produce His holiness in us.

So how does He do it?

SpankedWe have seen that God tells us He disciplines us the way an earthly father does his children. Yet there are some obvious differences. Probably the biggest difference is that when a child is spanked or grounded, or has his phone taken away, the father will always tell his son or daughter why he is doing it. He would have to be the worst father in the world to suddenly spank his little child and leave him guessing as to why he got spanked. Yet with God's discipline it isn't so simple. Most of us don't hear God the way Moses did. And then we know from the book of Job that just because something painful happens to us, it may have nothing to do with discipline or our own sin. Life is filled with unexplainable events and for us to mark down every pain, every broken relationship, every car accident, every case of the flu, every job loss, every flat tire, every financial reversal, and every disappointment as a punishment from God for some specific sin in our lives would drive us crazy and put us in a constant state of condemnation.

It is enlightening to see what prompted the writer of Hebrews to go into such a lengthy dissertation about discipline. His opening words give us a clue: "For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin." He was writing to believers that were being persecuted for their faith. Some of them were becoming discouraged and starting to draw back from their vibrant witness of Christ. And toward the end of the book he likens their suffering to a father disciplining his children. He is not suggesting that they have committed some terrible sin and now they are paying for it. Rather he is telling them that suffering is a necessary part of the life of believers. A wise and loving Heavenly Father is allowing suffering and persecution in their lives to work out issues, subdue fleshly passions, and produce holiness within. This is not a case of, "Now Johnny, you just smacked your sister and now you're going to really pay for it." This is more like a father who sees that his teenaged son has an issue with laziness and irresponsibility, and requires him to work in a dull and tedious job to teach him the importance of industry and hard work.

Of course there are times when God allows specific painful circumstances to quickly follow our rebellious actions. When I was a young pastor I had an accountant do my income taxes, and he was determined to get me every break the law would allow. But in his zeal to save me money he went too far and took allowances that were at best very questionable. But since he was the professional I didn't question him, and went ahead and sent in my income tax return. I was to receive over a thousand dollars back, something that was a really big deal in those days. But no sooner had I mailed the return than I began having all kinds of little issues and accidents befall me. My conscience immediately smote me, but I tried to convince myself that it would be silly for me to try to do anything about it now. As the days passed it seemed like the blessing had just lifted off my life. My conscience  constantly troubled me. I tried to think of all kinds of creative ways to justify what I had done, but nothing changed. I got to the point that I was almost expecting some new problem every day. These accidents and issues were not major things, but they sure got my attention! After fighting it for a few weeks, I finally gave in and redid my tax return. Now instead of getting money back I would have to pay. But my conscience was clear, and the accidents stopped happening. I had been to the woodshed.

Our God loves His children intensely, but He is not nearly as wimpy as some have made Him out to be. Though at the time discipline may seem pretty miserable, compare the child raised in a loving home with that orphan child living with the rats in a cardboard box. He has no parents. There is no one to discipline him, no one to rebuke him, no one to correct him. But what a sad, lonely life he lives. Such is the case of all who are outside of Jesus Christ. How much better to receive Christ and be adopted into the greatest family in the universe – the family of God. Yes, there will be some discipline, but there will also be laughter, and parties, and outings, and whispers of love, and sweet relationships. And in the age to come – eternal life!

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