Jehovah's Perfect Parental Discipline
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.Psalm 23:4b
Using His rod much the same as a plowman uses his goad, Jehovah, like a wise shepherd, not only defends His flock from attacking enemies, but also from itself, pricking wandering sheep sufficiently hard to flush them back into obedience and right paths, though not harder then they need or are able to bear. Setting wise paternal principles and guidelines through His relationship with His children, Jehovah disciplines with His rod as a parent is called to discipline in child-rearing. To make our subject more understandable and because the parallels are so great, I trust it will be both edifying and advantageous to pursue this correlative Jehovah-sheep/parent-child truth somewhat deeper. To that end, I propose to set before you nine guidelines which the Lord follows in spiritually rod-disciplining His child, and consequently, which parents are also called to follow as a Biblical pattern in the disciplining of their children.
First: Operating as a faithful shepherd, Jehovah disciplines His children broadly. As wide in scope as scripture and life itself is, His discipline fundamentally concerns itself with spiritual training, i.e., with activating true spiritual obedience as well as chastising disobedience. Leaving no stone unturned, God disciplines His flock's actions, words, thoughts, attitudes, and motives.
Such is also the high calling of parental discipline: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6). Thus, parental discipline in child-training is also immensely broad in scope – as broad as spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical life is and can be. Too often the concept of discipline carries with it a negative and limited connotation in the minds of both parents and children, who often view it synonymous with punishment. Punishment, however, is only one aspect of discipline. Discipline defined involves far more than treating misbehavior, for its even greater task is to promote positive behavior. Discipline, therefore, necessarily includes all lawful means that assist parents in training their children in the true Christian faith, in moral values, and in biblically acceptable intellectual pursuits. Too often we think discipline must only respond to the behavior of children, i.e., their overt actions; however, we need to keep in mind that when children's behaviors are disciplined, their attitudes are being shaped as well. It is not always true that attitudes precede and determine how children act. In reality, the converse is just as true: behaviors determine and shape attitudes. In fact, parents frequently have to deal with children's behaviors before their attitudes will change.
Second: Above all, God disciplines His flock scripturally and religiously. His discipline is always Word-centered, often in the form of texts and/or instructions taken directly from Scripture. The rod of His Word closes the mouths of His people, causes them to bow in dust and ashes, turns them back into godly ways, and comforts them beyond the words of any man.
Parental discipline must be Word-centered as well. Children must be constantly instructed in the great truths of saving religion; be continually taught that God is a good, righteous, sin-hating and mercy-loving Judge, whose eye is continually upon every boy and girl; and be often shown and reminded from the Bible what kind of behaviors, words, and thoughts God has commanded them in specific situations. "It is not enough that in baptism your child is dedicated to God," Thomas Watson wrote, "but is must be educated for Him." Though forced parental conversion is utterly impossible, parents are called to make sure that their children grow up looking at life through the glasses of God's Holy Word at least outwardly. To that end, daily family and private worship is essential for both parent and child. Children must be able to feel that their parents' primary concern is for their soul. Highly blessed are those children who can confess in later life with Augustine, "My mother, Monica, travailed more for my spiritual birth than my natural"; for, of her travails it was testified, "It is impossible that a son of so many prayers and tears should perish." Parents, if you lack discipline to pray for your children, how can you expect them to take to heart the remainder of your scriptural disciplining when they see in you no more than the shell of an empty religion? Pray much for your children; pray that they may be converted, may be spared from the evil of our times, may be instruments and vessels of glory, and may be led in the experiential pathways of Jehovah's flock. And if all prayer seems to be fruitless, pray on, comforting yourself with the thought that one fruit of prayer may be that the child will honor a praying parent, for children are quick to detect if parental intercessions are prayerless forms or prayerful prayers.
Third: Jehovah disciplines His flock lovingly. Only when all non-physical means of action, both verbal and deprivational, are exhausted, will the faithful Shepherd use physical correction as a last resort, lightly striking His wandering sheep with the staff of tenderness, or, if this proves insufficient, His rod of iron will be drawn into play. In no case, however, does the Lord spank His children beyond what is necessary and expedient. On occasion the nail-studded rod may draw a few drops of blood from a sheep's side, sufficient perhaps to induce a stranger to judge the Shepherd mean and indifferent; nevertheless, every blood-drop drawn is motivated by consuming shepherding-love, performed with parental shepherding-pain, and limited to the degree of chastisement essential to rectify the misbehavior of the Shepherd's charges. The purpose of all Christ's disciplinary authority is His glory and the welfare of His flock, but its rule is tender love.
Correspondingly, parental discipline must be rooted in love, and no more severe than the degree of offense involved. The degree of offense, and not the degree of inconvenience must be the rule of thumb, for children must be able to read love in all parental counsels, commands and chastisements. "Now the end of the commandment," Paul wrote to Timothy, "must be charity out of a pure heart" (1 Tim. 1:5). Ideally, true spiritual love is the main rule, great standard, and most important principle of all authority, i.e., a God-given, Christ-merited, and Spirit-applied love. In His common grace God has supplied a natural love to fallen man as a partial substitute for exercising authority rooted in "pure-hearted" love, but even though this natural love must be inculcated to its fullest extent, no parent has a right to rest short of that true spiritual love in disciplining children which is dependent upon true conversion and inseparably intertwined with the gracious influences of the Holy Spirit.
In concrete terms, be it spiritual or natural love, a good parent learns to resort to physical enforcement as a final option, first pursuing other verbal forms or actions, e.g., sending their children to their rooms or depriving them of something they enjoy, patterning their dealings with their children after God's dealings with His. Thus it goes without saying that a child should never be beaten or hit around the head as a way of venting parental anger.
Fourth: As an outgrowth of shepherding love, God disciplines understandingly and reasonably, not rashly. Indeed, no Shepherd is so understanding as Christ, having once been a sheep Himself, tempted in all points as His flock is, and innocently condemned to death. So reasonable is Christ that He rarely disciplines His children without explaining the disciplinary measures to them, or without providing them ample opportunity to pour out their case, cause, infirmities, and sin. How quickly, too, are His chastisements abated when the offending sheep enters a guilty plea at His footstool, for is not true confession discipline's primary goal? Merited by Christ who was once led speechless as a substitute Lamb to the slaughter, who consequently never punishes but only chastises His people for their profit, the purpose and moderation of God's discipline steers a middle course between harsh oppression and unstructured permissiveness, neither minimizing His children's evil-prone nature nor provoking them unnecessarily to wrath.
God's handling of His children teaches us that children need firm and consistent guidance from their parents, but not to the extent of unbiblical and unreasonable overstrictness, which only serves to "provoke them to wrath" (Eph. 6:1). On the other hand, it is a harsh parental view of both children and human nature to believe that if parents leave them alone and let them decide everything for themselves, they will turn into God-fearing, responsible adults.
Framed after the Lord's norms, parents should allow their children ample opportunity to explain themselves in any given situation without implications of parental pre-judgment, gauging punitive discipline for the offense according to each child's temperament and awareness level of the offense, as well as his or her willingness to confess the wrongdoing performed. Generally speaking, children should have explained to them Biblically and practically the "whys" of disciplinary measures decided upon, depending, of course, upon prevailing circumstances and the child's maturity level. Such understanding discipline reaps untold benefits in terms of parent-child relations.
Fifth: Shepherd-like, God disciplines His children constructively. A shepherd always "rods" his wandering sheep on the opposite side of its body from the majority of the pasturing flock, in order to constructively discipline back to right paths; he disciplines with shearing to constructively correct the problem of excess wool; and he disciplines with strict diet and exercise to constructively remove excess weight.
Parentally also, the more constructive a disciplinary measure is, the more effective and beneficial its outcome will generally prove to be. Wise is the parent whose punishments are both constructive and correlative to the offense committed, thereby making the offense include its own disciplinary chastisement.
Sixth: Jehovah disciplines consistently and authoritatively. God does not arbitrarily hand out His chastisements, for though He is merciful, yet, because of His nature and in the best interest of His children, He cannot overlook sin. Never does God think lightly of sin or consider it trivial; nor will He have His people esteem it so. For both God and His children, sin remains sin; to be sure, received grace makes sin all the more heinous, instead of minimal or ignorable. In Amos 3:2 we read that God disciplines the sins of His children more than those committed by the heathen; in fact, the more spiritual a child of God's walk is, the more discipline will be found within him to uprightly desire to choose death before sin while faith is in exercise.
In His common grace the Lord allows parents to borrow children from Him, and through their parenthood places them as royal spokesmen and administrators in His stead to discipline His living gifts consistently and authoritatively, in conjunction with His nature and Word. Consequently, this high, Biblical view of parenthood inevitably and solemnly implies that the guilt of children’s sins purposely left undisciplined by parents falls also upon them, as is clearly evidenced in the tragic example of Eli. Whether it be empty threats, moody reactions, or showing favoritism among their children, parents can and often do cause irreparable damage when their discipline lacks clear-cut consistency and Biblical authority. Rather than innumerable vague and petty rules with sporadic enforcement, children should grow up with a reasonable number of specific rules accompanied by loving but firm enforcement.
Seventh: God usually disciplines privately. Seldom will a shepherd break a sheen's leg in front of the flock, having no desire to terrify obedient sheep, nor to arouse unproductive anger and false humiliation within the disciplined sheep. Beautifully this shepherding example reflects God's normal dealings with his children taking them apart privately and personally to uncover and discipline their abominations. Human nature, of course, mercilessly attempts to make God's disciplinary measures public. Tragedy in family life often tempts us to judge the stricken ones as greater sinners than we; but God has His own wise reasons for public afflictions – reasons that we have no right to probe or judge. Was not such judgment precisely the sin of Job's miserable comforters (Job 16); and did not Jesus preach in Luke 13 concerning the tragic falling of Siloam's tower: "Those eighteen, upon whom the tower of Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (vv. 4-5)?
Thus, it goes almost without saying that parents should strive to carry out child-discipline privately whenever possible, especially avoiding disciplining a growing child in front of his peers, which can only yield unhealthy hostility and hidden anger.
Eighth: Also shepherd-like the Lord disciplines His children defensively. Sheep have no greater enemy than themselves, as evidenced in their proneness to wander, drinking muddied water or fighting to become top-sheep. In a word, the Lord defends them from themselves with His rod of discipline.
Parents, too, must take into account the self-destructive nature of their children. Therefore they must be aware of their activities and friends, for they are responsible for where they are going and what they are doing. With the rod of discipline they must defend their children from the forbidden fruit of sin and their sinful natures as far as is humanly possible and edifying without being over-protective, for children also need increasing freedom to make responsible decisions for themselves, particularly as they grow into adolescence.
Ninth: Jehovah disciplines exemplarily, for who can more fully embody the concept of self-discipline than the Great Shepherd of His sheep, who was oppressed and afflicted, and was "brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth" (Is. 53:7)? Blood-drop by blood-drop He disciplined Himself throughout Calvary's six long, accursed hours, enduring to the end despite soul agony, physical torture, hellish forces, and tempting mockers. Christ is discipline par excellence. Moreover, when applied by the Spirit, Christ's self-discipline on behalf of His flock teaches His sheep many lessons, grants them strength to endure many afflictions, quiets many complaints when their trials may be compared to His, and keeps them from many sins when they view the price of sin in the red glass of His sufferings.
Comparatively speaking, nothing is more powerful in a child's learning process than the observation of parental behavior, attitude, and self-discipline. Is it surprising that the parent who bids his children fear God, but walks loosely himself, will inevitably be despised by his own offspring? "As a slowly moving finger will draw water after it across a table," wrote Chrysostom, "so a child will instinctively follow the example of its parents, no matter how many instructions have been given to the contrary." "The daughter is the mother in the second edition," wrote Thomas Watson, "and a father is the mirror by which a son dresses himself by for life; make certain the glass be clear and unspotted."
Broadly, scripturally, religiously, lovingly, understandingly, reasonably, constructively, consistently, authoritatively, privately, and exemplarily – such must be the marks of spiritual discipline, and the patterned marks which also ecclesiastical discipline must follow. Children of God, are you growing by grace in the exercise of spiritual discipline, and in its comfort? Parents, are you executing discipline over your children after Christ's principles? Brother office-bearers, does the fear of God, love for the truth, and concern for the souls of men excite within you the desire to exemplify these marks both in self-discipline and in disciplining church members?
Spiritual, parental, and ecclesiastical discipline should differ radically from governmental discipline. The latter must be punitive, penal, and retributive; the former must be medicinal, corrective, and purificatory. It must be cleansing chastisement rather than vindictive punishment.
May God make us jealous of those who can confess at times: "Lord, I praise Thy Name for disciplinary chastisement, for whom Thou lovest Thou chastenest and scourgest every son Thou receivest. Sweet is the pain that seals the Father's love! Blessed is the anguish caused by my Shepherd; tenderly must He love me, or He would never treat me thus! Oh, dreadful pleasure that would arise out of God's letting me alone – let me never taste it; but sanctified is that grief which assures me that God has not forgotten me. O Lord, when it disciplines me, Thy rod doth comfort me."
Child of God, may God grant you to pray with Jeremiah, "O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in Thine anger, lest Thou bring me to nothing" (Jer. 10:23-24).
And may He confirm within your family circle what He promised the author of our text concerning his son in 2 Samuel 7: "I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: but my mercy shall not depart away from him" (vv. 14-15a).
No office-bearer, no parent, no believer is sufficient for these things. Rather, may we learn by grace to flee to the Lord Jesus Christ to learn the holy art of divine discipline. Then we shall experience: "Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me."