Discipline

It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? (Hebrews 12:7).

Discipline; chastisement: we do not like the sound of these words. They may bring back unpleasant memories from childhood. Even the Bible makes it clear that no one really enjoys discipline when it happens (cf. Hebrews 12:11). How many times have we schemed in life in attempts to avoid discipline and/or chastisement? And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we understand the need for and value of discipline.

The word translated as chastening (or, in other versions, discipline) is the Greek paideia, which can refer to the whole training and education of children, and for adults, that which leads to correcting errors, limiting the exercise of passions, and actual chastisement for bad behavior. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul describes Scripture as providing “instruction” (paideia) in righteousness; in Ephesians 6:4, he encourages parents to raise their children in the “nurture” (or “discipline”; paideia) and admonition of the Lord.

We do well to keep the breadth of meaning of paideia in mind when we consider discipline, since it is very easy for us to focus on the negative. “Discipline” or “chastisement” tends to be associated only with some kind of penalty or punishment for misbehavior; that automatic association is unfortunate and a distortion. Just providing (or suffering) a penalty or punishment is not discipline: punitive acts alone do not change or alter behaviors. Instead, the aim of any kind of discipline ought to be corrective; any punishment or penalty should be designed with correction of improper behavior in mind.

We normally associate discipline and chastisement, as seen above, with raising children. This remains a most critical aspect to discipline, for children will grow up and have to learn about the boundaries of proper behavior somehow or another. The only question involves the quality of that instruction and from whom it is received: will instruction and discipline be based in the message of the Lord Jesus or not? Will the child ever learn truly proper behavior, or will they just learn to go along with the boundaries society or the law imposes upon them? How much will they be taught by their parents, and how many lessons will they have to learn through their own mistakes?

It is easy to imagine discipline only in terms of growing up from childhood into adulthood, but discipline does not end because we have left home and are now “grown up.” We must maintain discipline within our own lives, whether through learned behavior or by external restraints. We have to live within our means; we have to conduct ourselves within the boundary of certain standards. We will be punished in various ways by not abiding within these boundaries.

If we believe in God, trust in Him, and seek to do His will, we will receive discipline and chastisement from His hand (Hebrews 12:3-11). Such a view seems sharp and harsh; too many already have a view of God as an authoritarian disciplinarian, and passages like this do not seem to help that perspective. People want to envision that God provides all the good things in their lives, but then will blame God for abandoning them when bad things happen. But let us hear out what the Hebrew author is telling us.

The Hebrew author makes it clear that the problem is with our views and expectations, not God Himself. After all, we have all seen overly permissive parents and the royal terrors and spoiled brats coming out of that relationship. Most of us can look back in our own lives and understand the value and benefit received from proper discipline and chastisement that we received from a figure of some authority. We all need to learn boundaries and understand that there are negative consequences for transgressing boundaries; there is not one of us who can live among other people and not learn this lesson. And since, as human beings, we are all fairly hard-headed, we must pay a penalty or suffer a consequence if we will ever really learn to respect certain boundaries. We did not like discipline at the time: we did not enjoy punishments, we did not enjoy homework, we did not enjoy having to put in a lot of work in order to gain some reward or benefit, but through it all we were supposed to learn to respect boundaries, that we are not entitled to receive anything without working for it, that in order to accomplish anything of value we must devote our time and energy to them, and so on and so forth.

This is exactly what the Hebrew author is saying about discipline (Hebrews 12:3-11); he shows how the example of earthly fathers and the discipline they impose upon their children is a (albeit imperfect) type of the reality of our relationship with God. Just because we have reached the age of 18 (or 28, 38, 58, 78…) does not mean that we no longer need discipline; if anything, as we reach mature adulthood, the necessity of discipline is more evident. God provides discipline and chastisement to His children precisely because He loves them and wants them to live well! Without that discipline, God would be a permissive parent– in the words of the Hebrew author, if God did not discipline us, He would be treating us like illegitimate children! If we are illegitimate, we have no share in Him! How tragic that would be!

As in childhood, so in life: we have lessons to learn in every situation. There are wholesome lessons to be learned through hard effort and success; there are wholesome lessons to be learned when things go wrong and/or when we suffer. Sometimes we might experience pain, misery, suffering, or other such difficulties so that we might learn to stay within the proper boundaries of God’s will and to develop peace and righteousness. It is rarely enough to just intellectually grasp such things; we need to experience them if we will learn from them.

Therefore, in times of difficulty, let us not assume that God has abandoned us. We might be experiencing a moment of chastisement. Even if it is not some kind of punishment or penalty for our excess or transgression, we can still learn discipline through the experience, having our faith refined and developing the characteristics of self-control, peace, patience, and faithfulness, which seem to only develop through suffering. Even if it is unpleasant, let us be willing to endure discipline; without it, we cannot be children of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Reproof

Whoso loveth correction loveth knowledge; but he that hateth reproof is brutish (Proverbs 12:1).

A wise son heareth his father’s instruction; but a scoffer heareth not rebuke (Proverbs 13:1).

A fool despiseth his father’s correction; but he that regardeth reproof getteth prudence (Proverbs 15:5).

One of the things that unites all mankind is our distaste at being wrong and our extreme discomfort when our words or behavior are challenged or rebuked. We do not like such circumstances. We do not look forward to them. We do not feel good after they happen, generally.

Much of this is due to our internal pride and self-image. If we are proven to be wrong, or if our conduct is unseemly, then we feel lowered in the eyes of others. If nothing else, we feel internally humiliated. Humiliation is hard enough when we try to be humble ourselves (cf. 1 Peter 5:6)– it is that much more difficult when it is being imposed on us. Our pride is wounded, and our fight or flight impulse is often aroused. For some reason the idea that we are debased in the eyes of others because of our words or our conduct do not seem to bother us as much as the feelings that come when we are called out regarding them. Yet the sting remains.

The type of person we are, however, is proven not by whether or not we will be rebuked or chastened, but in how we respond to such rebuke and chastisement. None of us are perfect; there are all times when we find ourselves in the wrong (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). All of us deserve rebuke and reproof at times.

The easy thing to do is to get defensive and refuse to listen to the criticism. Some may get violent; others might unleash a torrent of criticism themselves. We can all easily try to find reasons why we should not listen to the rebuke so that we may find a way to preserve our pride. We may attempt to make the one rebuking look like a hypocrite, or we might wrap our words in sanctimony and denounce them for “judging” us or for imposing their standards upon us. We might construct elaborate arguments to justify a losing cause, no matter how weak or easily dismissed those arguments might be. What is important in the end is to remain justified and right.

It is also easy to just ignore the criticism and pretend it does not mean anything. Some people create very elaborate worldviews that seek to invalidate various forms of criticism. After all, if you can figure out a way to render the basis for the rebuke irrelevant, then the rebuke itself will be irrelevant, right?

Yet, as Solomon (among others) has made clear, this response is not the response of wisdom. It is the way of folly– the way of the fool, the scoffer, and the brute. In fact, such a person is double the fool– he has been carried away in some wrong thinking or action, and when others make effort to correct him, he rejects that correction and continues in the error. In such circumstances it is easy for people to begin writing off the fool– why bother rebuking someone who will not hear and will not change? It is tragic to think about how many people have fallen into such misery and distress, presently and for the future, because they rejected reproof and would rather be wrong and proud than to live according to wisdom and to live.

The wise person who loves knowledge and is prudent will accept criticism. No one ever promises that accepting criticism will be easy– it is not. Yet we must appreciate it when people care enough, for whatever reason, to show us the proper way.

Some may fear that they will look weak or pathetic if they accept criticism. While that may be the response of some, such a response is itself a form of folly. Instead, most people have a higher respect for those who are willing to be chastened and who will accept reproof and rebuke. It is the way of humility and the way of wisdom, and it deserves to be honored. Better to swallow pride, accept that we are wrong, and perhaps look like a fool for a moment than to stubbornly insist on our own way and be the fool perpetually!

As in all things, chastisement requires discretion. Not all reproof and rebuke will necessarily be legitimate, but it is better to be open to possibilities of error than to delude oneself into thinking that he or she is always right. Those who would rebuke others must also make sure that their motivations are pure and that they are conducting themselves in the best way so as to obtain the desired repentance, always watching for themselves (cf. Matthew 7:1-5, 18:15-18, Galatians 6:1).

Being wrong is never fun, and correcting error should not be relished. Yet it is necessary for our physical and spiritual health to be rebuked and reproved when we are wrong. Let us be wise and accept reproof and live!

Ethan R. Longhenry