One of the hardest things for children to understand is that it’s good for Mom and Dad to discipline them. One of my daughters used to use the phrase, “You got me in trouble,” every time she referred to a time of discipline, as if we were just being mean to her. Finally, we pointed out that we didn't just randomly and unjustly choose to get her in trouble. Her actions were disobedient and needed consequences.
One day, my husband wanted to give her a taste of what God has done for us through Christ. She had disobeyed, and he sat her down to talk about it. Then instead of the consequences she was expecting, he said, “I’m going to teach you what mercy is.”
As he told her that mercy meant withholding the punishment she deserved, she was elated to escape her consequences and hugged him tightly. Fast forward to the next day, when she disobeyed again. She saw that consequences were coming and cried, “No, Daddy, no! Give me mercy! Please give me mercy!” She failed to see that the discipline and the mercy flowed from the same love.
Our youngest daughter went through a phase of having trouble with bedtime. She went through all the tricks: getting up out of bed, calling for us, getting toys to play with. We would go in over and over and correct her, and one night, after I had given her several warnings and finally spanked her, she said in her tiny little voice, “Mom, please don’t be mean to me anymore, okay?”
Well, of course that pierced my mommy-heart. She could not comprehend that I had disciplined her out of love. She just thought I was being mean. I knew I had really done the right thing, but she totally misunderstood.
False Assumptions About Discipline
Discipline, in whatever form it comes, involves some degree of pain. We have been conditioned to believe that all pain is bad. Therefore, according to our faulty reasoning, discipline must be bad. So children have an extremely hard time making the connection between a parent’s love and discipline.
And children aren't the only ones, are they? I would guess that most if not all Christians also struggle with understanding how God can discipline them if He claims to love them as sons and daughters. We love to think about His mercy, about how Christ has rescued us from the eternal punishment we deserve and took the punishment in our stead. Discipline, however, is not one of our favorite topics.
I went years believing in practice if not actually mentally affirming that every time something bad or hard happened in my life, it must mean God was mad at me. I never would have spoken that out loud, of course. I knew theologically that this was the opposite of the truth.
But like my children, I just couldn't connect the dots between a God who would show me mercy yet still discipline me. I would parent my children all day long, disciplining them because I loved them so much, and still fail to realize that the discipline of the Lord in my own life was infinitely more full of love than my discipline of my children.
The Truth from Scripture
Finally, after years of being in the role of one who disciplines out of love, the Holy Spirit finally got through to my slow-to-catch-on heart. First of all, not every hard or painful thing in my life is actually discipline. Some of it is just the result of living in a fallen world, and sometimes it’s the result of someone else sinning against me. The pain that is the result of discipline, however, is no less filled with love than the mercy offered me at the cross of Christ.
I love the picture God gives us in Hebrews of discipline and what it means:
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives."
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them.
Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed (12:5–13).
Do you see that? God Himself uses the picture of a parent disciplining a child to show that when He does discipline His children, it comes from love, precisely because we are indeed His children, and it leads to the fruit of righteousness! Sometimes I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall because my little one can't see that I’m allowing her to experience the consequences of her actions because I love her so much. When the Spirit opens my eyes, I see that God loves me, His daughter, so much that He cannot allow me to continue in disobedience either.
Discipline Is a Mercy
When I look even deeper, I realize that the Lord’s discipline is, actually, a mercy itself. His discipline and His mercy are not at odds with each other. He doesn't choose like my husband and I did with our daughter, because discipline and mercy are not either/or choices. His fatherly discipline is a great, great mercy.
I don't deserve His loving discipline. He is merciful to give me a wake-up call, a warning that the road I’m following ends in destruction. How grateful I am to be granted the privilege of calling Him Father, of receiving His discipline, of not being left alone on the path to destruction. How grateful I am to be granted the privilege of loving and disciplining these little ones, who teach me so much about my heavenly Father.