Discipline v. Punishment or Parenting Our Children the Way God Parents His

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.
Proverbs 3:11-12

Years ago, I read an article online (that I can’t find now) by John Piper on how Christ took the full punishment for our sins and now everything God does toward us is out of His grace. That thought prompted me to study the difference in punishment and discipline and changed how I thought about discipleship in general. One of the great benefits of being adopted into God’s family is that we receive His discipline. Most likely, you do not think of that as a benefit, but that’s because many of us have warped views of discipline and its purpose. What is discipline? According to The American Heritage Dictionary discipline is “training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.” The problem is that the vast majority of us have experienced a warped form of discipline from those in authority over us. Many times, authority figures said they were disciplining us, but what they really were doing was reactively punishing us—not to train us in right responses but taking their anger out on us for our wrong ones. In light of these practical experiences, we tend to confuse discipline and punishment theologically as well as practically.

God has worked in my heart first to understand the difference theologically. According to Romans 8:1, Christ bore the full weight of our punishment for sin on the cross, and we are no longer condemned for our sin. This is the very good news of the gospel! Then in verse 29, we learn that God’s plan before time began is to transform us into the likeness of His Son. This is why we need discipline (i.e.- training in righteousness).

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death….

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son….

Instead of punishing us for our sins, God the Father poured out His full wrath for our sins on Jesus at the cross. Now, God disciplines us to mold us into the image of His Son, purifying us by rooting out the sin in our lives and replacing it with behavior and attitudes that reflect Christ. I love that the English words discipline and disciple are so similar. That’s because they reflect very similar concepts.

Now I am a parent. And I realize as I pour through Scripture and Christian books on disciplining my children that I really need to go no further than Jesus’ own example. I believe God’s calling is for me to parent my children the way God parents His. But I’ve wrestled long and hard over what this looks like practically for me with a 2 and 4 year old. I do not want to reactively punish them. “Oh you hit him? Then I hit you (or put you in time out or take away your candy or whatever). End of story.” By the way, please don’t get distracted by the ideas of spanking and timeout. This post isn’t about that per se. It’s about quick retribution, guilt, and shame. It’s about punishing in reprisal instead of discipling in righteousness—all things we easily choose but are the exact opposite of how God parents us.

I want to train my children in righteousness using the grace, love, and kindness that God shows us. But it has been hard to figure out what that looks like in practical terms. I am thankful for what may seem an unusual resource on this Christian journey—my secular community preschool. They have a strong philosophy of discipline instead of punishment, and it has been fascinating to watch it in action. My son has been one of the more physical children there. I have learned much watching the working adults intercept him as he’s acting out, show him the harm he’s causing, and work with him to repair it with the other child. He doesn’t have to go sit in a corner—he has to make it right! He has to deal with the consequences. And the working grownups are trained to not take no for an answer. And you know what? It is DRAINING. Sticking with a situation until it has been correctly resolved can be a long process. Punishing a kid reactively is a lot easier than staying in a conflict until it has been reconciled correctly and until the kids have learned the lesson. Training in righteousness is work. Maybe that’s why so many of us default to mere punishment so easily. “I don’t care what’s going on in your heart. I just want you to STOP this behavior right now.”

I am by no means an expert on this. I have only just begun the journey of parenting my boys. I have made many mistakes and expect to make many more. But what I am excited about is how walking this journey with my boys is correcting weaknesses in my understanding of the gospel and my suspicions with the concept of grace. I love that disciplining them has forced me to take a hard look at my views of God (and vice versa). And I am hopeful for the future as I rest in the simple idea that my calling is no greater and no less than to be like Christ—to parent my children the way God parents His. He is both the way I am empowered to do this and the example to which I look for guidance. He is the means and the end. By His grace.

8 Responses to Discipline v. Punishment or Parenting Our Children the Way God Parents His

  1. RJ May 18, 2009 at 3:51 pm #

    Do you think perhaps that the either/or with children is the problem? We’ve raised our children with both punishment (consequences) for the offense as well as discipline to help them grow in righteousness. 2 Tim 3:16comes to mind…God, through His Word teaches us what is right, what is wrong, how to get it right, and how to keep it right. That being said, God allows the consequences of our sinful actions in our lives. He doesn’t remove consequences simply because we are His children.
    If we neglect punishment, our children will not learn to respect authority, or the fear of the Lord. If we neglect discipline, our children learn by default to please people rather than make decisions based on convictions of right and wrong. Either extreme will cripple a child’s ability to function as a faithful servant of Christ once he/she becomes an adult. As always, the truth lies in the balance between the two extremes. Our challenge, as parents, is not to react to our own upbringing which was probably heavy on one side or the other, and overcompensate in rearing our own children.

  2. Wendy May 18, 2009 at 7:40 pm #

    I think the difference in what we are saying is how you distinguish between those terms. I don’t identify punishment as consequences. In fact, I think consequences are an important part of involved, proactive discipline.

    I am using punishment in the purest sense of the term. The American Heritage Dictionary defines punish this way–“to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense, transgression, or fault.” In Christ, all penalty for our faults have been paid. We teach our children the opposite of the gospel when we punish them as retribution or payback.

    Discipline is discipling in Christlikeness. When God disciplines us, there are consequences for our actions and sometimes the discipline is painful. But it is never to make us pay for our sins. It is to train us in a different way of living altogether. I hope that clarification is helpful.

  3. KKrombein May 23, 2009 at 5:00 am #

    Hey Wendy,
    I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot over the last year too…can you give some more practical examples of what you consider discipline then? How would you consider it different from instruction?

  4. Wendy May 23, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    Katie, your comment provoked some thought and study this morning. Right now, what I’m getting as I look at how the 2 words are used in Scripture is this. Instruction seems to be something that is done not necessarily in the middle of sin or conflict. Reading Bible stories together. Teaching Bible principles. Discipline seems to reflect moments of actual engagement–training in righteousness on the job. However, I think the concepts of discipline and instruction (and chasten, rebuke, and reproof) overlap in many ways. There is a close parallel between the different jobs given to parents and what God says His Word does.

    2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

    Training in righteousness here is the same word as discipline in Ephesians 6.

    I will try to give an example of the difference as I see it, but I am not studied enough yet to be dogmatic.

    Riding in our car, I talk with our boys about the greatest command (instruction). “What does God say is the most important thing?” Answer–to love God and love others. “What does the Bible say is love?” Answer–love is kind, patient, not rude, not resentful, etc.

    Then when our boys have a conflict, my hope is to be engaged enough to walk alongside them before it becomes a full blown conflict and walk them through how to love each other practically in the choices they make (discipline–training in righteousness). If I’m not proactive enough, then I have to break it up and show the offender how his actions hurt the other (training in compassion) and that he needs to make it right (training in restoration). Often, I put an offender in timeout with the instruction to think about why kicking his brother in the stomach or taking his toy or whatever wasn’t loving him as God commands. That buys me time to help whomever got hurt. Then my goal is to train the offender in how to make it right with the offended.

    Now, let me say that I am not consistent with my methods, but this is where I’m at now in my study and efforts to put it in practice.

  5. danica May 27, 2009 at 8:30 pm #

    I just stumbled here via a friend’s link. Your thoughts on instruction reminded me of a post on discipline that my mom wrote last year — and how absolutely important it is to teach, teach, teach and practice, practice, practice. To simply swoop in with consequences is just…wrong! 🙂

    fwiw — http://momandus.com/2008/04/22/childtraining-basics-pt-1/

    I have 2 boys (2 and 7 months) and this stuff is rolling around in y head all day as I enter the thick of training with my oldest. I want his little heart to be drawn to the Jesus he sees in me!

  6. Jessica October 28, 2010 at 1:42 am #

    glad I found this post, just the thing I am trying to understand with my 5, 3, and 7 month old. It is still confusing, but this has given some more clarity. thanks.

  7. Heather Burdette November 9, 2010 at 3:21 am #

    Hi Wendy,
    I'm always interested in what people have to say about discipline-especially when I know they have wisdom. Love following your blog!

    I read this one and the other one on “The Rod.” I see what you mean by disciplining and using the discipline the way God would with his people you said, “Instead of punishing us for our sins, God the Father poured out His full wrath for our sins on Jesus at the cross. Now, God disciplines us to mold us into the image of His Son, purifying us by rooting out the sin in our lives and replacing it with behavior and attitudes that reflect Christ.”

    Maybe I am not trackin' correctly, but God's people didn't make their sin own sin right with God. It was Jesus that made things right for us. We believe upon the one who made things right for us. So I guess it just gets confusing if I were to have a child “make it right” Because it seems that God does not make his children deal with their sin directly. Do you get what I am trying to say?

  8. Wendy November 9, 2010 at 5:06 am #

    Heather, yes, I think I understand your point. If by “make it right,” we are thinking of justification, then, yes, Jesus alone is the one who makes us right before God. When I use that term with my children, I am thinking of repairing what they harmed. If they destroyed someone's project, we work together to repair it. If they hit a kid, we go get an icepack or figure out what we can get them to help them feel better. Correction/restitution. But it's distinctly different than being made right as only Christ can do for us on the cross. I need to be more precise in my wording.