Discipline ≠ Punishment

(A Tuesday night Bible study meditation that I did not get a chance to present while I was in prison)

For the majority of my life I failed to distinguish between discipline and punishment.  This may in part have been due to my upbringing.  Not that I suffered from abusive treatment, but rather the lack of guidance from parents more focused on careers than their children’s lives.  Not long ago I was out jogging on a track and noticed the dedicated athletes exercising around me.  In my Bible reading that morning I had read Proverbs 3:11. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”

As I was moving around the track and meditating on this verse God spoke to my heart.  He said, “You see all these people around you exercising?  Are they being punished or are they training their bodies?”  Discipline is training.  While you are out on the track, huffing and puffing, sweating and straining, it is not pleasant.  However, later after you have recovered, you are stronger and feel so much better.

Athletes understand discipline.  Football players study the playbook, eat at the training table and the coach has them run drills until their technique is perfect.  Sports physiologists speak of muscle memory, training the body until the response becomes automatic not requiring conscious control by the mind.  When a player fails to execute a play properly the coach may have the player out running wind sprints after practice, or during the game may bench him.  Odds are the player will not make the same mistake again.  The coach has his undivided attention and in the future the player will perform as he was trained to do.

Dieters understand discipline too, when they choose the apple for desert instead of the giant piece of chocolate fudge triple layer cake.  The reward is a swimsuit body.

Parents usually do not require their children to make their beds or pick up their clothes as a form of punishment.  They are seeking to instill discipline.  Punishment is reserved for willful disobedience- when you know the right thing to do and do not do it and choose to do the thing you know is wrong instead.

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not turn from it.”  Discipline instructs, while punishment corrects.  Both are necessary however they serve very different functions.

For the Christian, God’s discipline brings the body, mind, emotions and spirit under the control of the Lord Jesus Christ.  When we are born again, we are infants in Christ and must grow in our faith.  As children we must be educated and trained.  In Hebrews 12:11 it says that, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

Discipline results in wisdom.  Our Heavenly Father loves us and like a concerned parent wants the best for us.  He loves us too much to leave us the way we are.  He knows that in our fallen nature when left to our own devices, nothing good happens.  As willful creatures we often think, in our limited understanding, that we know best.  But God in his infinite love and wisdom patiently instructs us.

Punishment is the result of foolishness, which is defined as moral corruption in the Old Testament.  Proverbs 22:15 says, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, the rod of correction will drive it from him.”  You do not punish a baby because it has never been trained to know right from wrong.  However, after a child has been trained it is appropriate to punish them for disobedience.  Punishment servers as a reminder of the consequences for misbehavior and is intended to reinforce training.

When punishment is not timely or linked to a specific deed then it does not have the intended effect.  Proverbs 13:24 says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.”  Good parent know that you should not punish your children in anger and that it must be appropriate and proportional to the offense.  A parent takes no pleasure in meeting out punishment.  It should be a true statement when they say, ‘this hurts me more than it does you.’ 

Parents punish out of love because they care about us and our behavior.  Proverbs 23:13-14 says, “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.  You shall beat him with a rod and deliver his soul from hell.”  Corporal punishment is not intended to inflict damage to the body, rather is uses pain as a tool that will serve as a reminder to discourage future bad behavior.

It is important that the child understand the reason for the punishment and that while the parent loves the child, it is the behavior that is unacceptable.  It is no different with our Heavenly Father.  Hebrews 12:7-11 goes straight to the heart of the matter.

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.  For what son is not disciplined by his father?  If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us, and we respect them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!  Or fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”

Discipline and punishment are like the two sides of a coin.  You cannot have one without the other.  Discipline provides the context within which punishment may be used.

And finally, discipline and punishment must be consistent.  Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”  Nothing is more frustrating than failing to grasp the rhyme and reason for what you are going through.  As human beings we have a strong desire to know the answers to the question: Who? What? Where? When? How? and Why?  For older children it is possible to reason with them.  Answering their question will help, but there is also an element of trust.  Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”  God has a plan for our lives, and we must be obedient and trust Him.  Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.”

The Lord spoke to me a second time and gave me the key to understanding discipline.

“You exercise to discipline your body. You study the Word of God to discipline your soul (mind and emotions). You pray to discipline your spirit. You meditate to unite the three.”

Spiritual discipline is the key to the Christian life.  In John 10:10 Jesus said that the reason that he came was so that we could experience a more abundant life.  The way we experience this abundant life is through Prayer, Fasting, Reading and Studying the Word, and Meditating on it.

The Apostle Paul compared spiritual discipline to a race in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown that will not last, be we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly, I do not fight like a man beating the air.  No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Which brings me back full circle to my jogging on a track.  I choose to exercise because I know it is good for me.  It burns calories, helps me control my blood sugar, lowers my blood pressure, strengthens my heart and reduces stress, all of which improves my quality of life.  Likewise, I chose spiritual discipline because I want the abundant life that Jesus promised.  To  accomplish this I must live intentionally every day, submitting myself in obedience, accepting the Lord’s discipline and His punishment for my disobedience.

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