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.