“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.” -Hebrews 12:11
Discipline. The word has so many loaded connotations. When we use the word as follows, we think of discipline as training: “The coach attempted to instill discipline in his athletes.” Here the connotation is positive.
However, when the context shifts to behavioral issues, our understanding of the word is altered. Consider the following: “The student was disciplined by his teacher.” Why is it that the first sentence entails something positive (training) and the second something negative (punishment)? I would suggest that this is because we have abandoned the picture of life presented so clearly in Hebrews 12. Discipline, even in a strictly punitive context, is training.
Hebrews 12 views discipline in the following ways, which I would submit are quite counter-cultural:
- Discipline is a sign of encouragement (Hebrews 12:5-6)
- Discipline is a sign of sonship and covenantal belonging (Hebrews 12:7-8)
- Discipline is for our good (Hebrews 12:10)
- Discipline is essential to holiness (Hebrews 12:10-11)
I’ll share one anecdote briefly to illustrate how this works at Veritas as we endeavor to relate to students in a thoroughly Biblical manner. When a student comes to see me in a disciplinary event, he or she is often in defensive mode. The desire can be, at times, wanting to get out of trouble, or to minimize the consequences.
My interaction with students aims to do the following things: (a) orient the student to the truth (b) orient the student to the good (How would God, your parents, and your teachers like you to have acted?) and (c) orient the student not only to God’s standard for righteousness, but also to God’s standard for mercy and restoration. This involves a very simple process: confessing one’s transgression, recognizing that the action falls short of God’s expectation for righteousness, and apologizing to the relevant teacher(s).
One young man came into my office immediately trying to get out of the situation by blaming his peers, the state of his digestion, the phase of the moon, anything! I walked him through the process. We started by getting to the truth. He acknowledged his wrongdoing. He recognized how his actions had affected the class and his teacher. His conscience was stricken.
And then, I prayed with him. When I got up from behind my desk to pray I saw a look of “what’s next?” on his face. When I sat down to pray with him he was so relieved - and thankful - that he burst out, spontaneously, in a prayer of his own. With a somewhat heavy, but also relieved heart he apologized to his teacher, who hugged him and with a sigh of relief and a smile of thankfulness he returned to class.
It was probably not the easiest experience for the little guy (it was his first time coming to my office), but the Biblical process turned out to be a blessing to him. It helped him clear his conscience, restore his relationship with his teacher, and discover that the Dean of Students cared about him enough to pray with him. It is in these moments that students can see, hopefully, the Father heart of God in and through us.
If we return to the coach versus teacher analogy we’ll see the basic problem. Coaching is thought of as training. The educational aspect of teaching is thought of that way as well. However, the disciplinary component is thought of in a punitive fashion. To be a “disciplined person” connotes something quite different than “receiving discipline.” However, what if we simply shifted our understanding so that it is in line with Hebrews 12? If we did, we’d see that “being a disciplined person” essentially means “receiving discipline.”
Let’s look more in depth at each of the four points outlined above.
Four Biblical Ways to View Discipline
1. Discipline is a sign of encouragement and love (Hebrews 12:5-6)
Here the author of Hebrews quotes Proverbs 3:11-12. In the context of Proverbs, Solomon is providing instruction, from a father to a son. He is exhorting his son (and all children) to receive discipline not in a crestfallen, disconsolate way, but as a sign of love.
There is also a fascinating proof embedded in this passage. It goes as follows: all fathers discipline their children; thus, when we are disciplined it is a sign that we are beloved children. The opposite is even more interesting: those who do not receive discipline are not legitimate children. The idea here is being cast off, being outside of the covenant of the law and loving fellowship with the Father. It is becoming Cain—an undisciplined vagabond, outside of the covenant fellowship of loving instruction.
2. Discipline is a sign of sonship and covenantal belonging (Hebrews 12:7-8)
From our last point we segue immediately into this point. To receive discipline is a sign that we are beloved children of a Holy God. The logic goes something like this: God’s law is for our good, and our holiness; being trained (disciplined) by his law is training us to grow into covenant fellowship with Him.
When David expresses love for God’s law (e.g., Psalm 119), he is expressing love for the way that God’s law molds and shapes him into the likeness of God. This is because God’s law is an expression of his character. Learning to love and submit to God’s law, then, is an essential part of growing into holiness. Being disciplined is a vital sign that we are growing up in God’s house as sons and daughters of the covenant.
3. Discipline is for our good (Hebrews 12:10)
The punitive cultural understanding of discipline, then, fails to conceive of discipline positively. Discipline is something to be avoided because it is viewed negatively. However, Christians are on the way to holiness, and discipline is a necessary and essential part of our training.
In the larger context of Hebrews 12, the author is exhorting his audience not to be dismayed by hardship and suffering. Essentially, he is arguing that hardship and discipline are ordinary elements in our maturation: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?” (12:7)
If you’ll indulge me a little Greek exposition for a moment, I think we’ll see something fascinating in the New Testament word for ‘discipline’ used in this passage. The Greek word is paideian, from paideia. Consider how it is used in the following passage from 2 Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (2 Tim. 3:16). Which word do you think is translating paideian? It is ‘training.’ The word of God is useful for training in righteousness.
The root word is also used in Ephesians (paideia) in the following well-known passage: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). The KJV is translating the word paideia as ‘nurture.’ So discipline is training and nurture. And of course, training and nurturing are done for our good. Paideia is also one of the chief Greek words for education. Discipline, then, should be understood as ‘training,’ ‘nurture,’ and ‘education.’
4. Discipline is essential to holiness (Hebrews 12:10-11)
This is where our culture is most wayward and lost. Without a Judeo-Christian understanding of the law, it is impossible to understand the relationship between the law and holiness.
If the law reflects God’s character, conforming to the law would make us conform to God’s image. Jesus obeyed the law, becoming our righteousness by his obedience. His Grace enables us to become conformed to the image of God—by becoming partakers of his image, restored in us by his death and resurrection (2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 6:1-4). Discipline, then, is part of the process of us being conformed to the image and likeness of Jesus.
Consider Hebrews 12:10b: “but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.” Discipline is one of the chief forms of sanctification. We can see this in Paul’s famous imagery in 1 Corinthians 9: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” The imagery here is training the body to receive orders. He refers to his body as his doulos (servant/slave). He trains it (like an athlete trains his body) to serve God. Of course, he’s not running for an earthly crown, but a heavenly one. Discipline, then, is training for our eternal life as sons and daughters of the great King.
Applying the heart of discipline in our parenting
What to do? Make every effort in your interaction with your children to convey this understanding of discipline. Make sure that it is personal (they understand they are legitimate children); make sure that they understand it is for their good; make sure that they understand it is normal and an essential element in life; and make sure they understand that we are all learning to grow up into sons and daughters of the King. The larger and more serious the disciplinary event, the more important this message becomes. Make sure that your children understand that discipline is part of belonging—not only to your family, but ultimately to the family of the Great King.
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