Note: Since this series was originally my teaching notes, they contain Hebrew and Greek words in many of the texts cited. I do this for my own benefit, so that I can see linguistic connections in the text, and Jeff liked it, so I decided to keep the words with transliterations following each one. I hope this will not be too distracting, especially for those who have no familiarity with the languages.
In the introduction to this series, I indicated that our focus would be upon four principles which relate in one way or another back to God as our heavenly Father and our supreme example for parenting. In the last post, I discussed the first principle, and in this post I want to consider the second principle.
Principle #2: Our heavenly Father teaches us the importance of the loving discipline of our children.
This is a principle that the author of Hebrews stresses emphatically in his instruction of believers who are enduring trials and sufferings:
NKJ Hebrews 12:1-11 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. 4 You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening [παιδεία, paideía] of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked [ἐλέγχω, elégchō] by Him; 6 for whom the LORD loves He chastens [παιδεύω, paideúō] and scourges [μαστιγόω, mastigóō] every son whom He receives.” [LXX text of Prov. 3:11-12] 7 If you endure chastening [παιδεία, paideía] God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8 But if you are without chastening [παιδεία, paideía] of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected [Masc. Acc. Pl. > παιδευτής, paideutḗs] us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. 11 Now no chastening [παιδεία, paideía] seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
This passage should drive out of our minds the silly notion current today that discipline is necessarily unloving or cruel. The exact opposite is true. Only a father who truly loves his children will discipline them for their good, just as the Lord lovingly disciplines us for our own good. This is why Solomon, who is quoted by the author of Hebrews in the above cited passage, taught his own son not to despise the discipline of the LORD because such discipline is actually a sign that we are truly His children and that He truly does love us (see Prov. 3:11-12). This same principle is then applied to earthly parents a number of times in the Book of Proverbs. For example:
NKJ Proverbs 13:24 He who spares his rod [שֵׁ֫בֶט, shēḇeṭ, or staff] hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines [noun מוּסָר, mûsār; the LXX has Greek verb παιδεύω, paideúō] him promptly [שָׁחַר, shāḥar, literally to seek early].
Here the author uses a Hebrew construction that may literally be rendered “seek him early for discipline.” So we can see why there are a couple of different approaches to translating it. For example, the NKJV has “he who loves him disciplines him promptly,” but the NASB has “he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (italics mine). The NET Bible notes offer this brief discussion of the Hebrew word:
tn Heb “seeks him.” The verb שָׁחַר (shahar, “to be diligent; to do something early”; BDB 1007 s.v.) could mean “to be diligent to discipline,” or “to be early or prompt in disciplining.” See G. R. Driver, “Hebrew Notes on Prophets and Proverbs,” JTS 41 (1940): 170. (BibleWorks)
However we understand the Hebrew text here, one thing is certain: We do not really show love to our children if we either refuse or consistently fail to discipline them promptly and diligently. If we love our children, we will want to discipline them in order to deliver them from their foolishness, to teach them wisdom, and to lead them to trust in the LORD. Consider in this regard the following proverbs:
NKJ Proverbs 22:15 Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child [נַ֫עַר, na‛ar]; the rod [שֵׁ֫בֶט, shēḇeṭ] of correction [מוּסָר, mûsār; LXX has the Greek noun παιδεία, paideía] will drive it far from him.
The Hebrew word translated child here has a wide range of meanings and can refer to a child as young as an infant (e.g. Exod. 2:6), or to a small child (e.g. Judges 13:24; Hos. 11:1[-3]), on up to a young man or woman, such as a teenager (e.g. Gen. 14:24; Eccl. 10:16). Here Solomon probably has younger children in mind, who are old enough to understand and thus benefit from such correction, but who are not so old that it would prove either impossible or impractical. The fact that Solomon speaks of the way in which “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” also indicates that younger children are in view, in whom such foolishness might most typically be expected. The NET Bible notes are again helpful in assessing the meaning here:
tn The “heart of a child” (לֶב־נָעַר, lev-na'ar) refers here to the natural inclination of a child to foolishness. The younger child is meant in this context, but the word can include youth. R. N. Whybray suggests that this idea might be described as a doctrine of “original folly” (Proverbs [CBC], 125). Cf. TEV “Children just naturally do silly, careless things.” (BibleWorks)
Before we move on, however, we must address a problem that many people today have with this proverb and others like it. For there are many who would argue that the Hebrew term for rod in this verse is only intended to be taken metaphorically and not as a literal reference to the infliction of physical pain. The problem with this view is that it doesn't fit the way the word is used elsewhere in the Book of Proverbs. Consider, for example, the way the rod is employed with regard to the foolish in the following proverbs:
NKJ Proverbs 10:13 Wisdom is found on the lips of him who has understanding, but a rod [שֵׁ֫בֶט, shēḇeṭ] is for the back of him who is devoid of understanding.
NKJ Proverbs 26:3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod [שֵׁ֫בֶט, shēḇeṭ] for the fool's back.
There is also the way Solomon speaks again of the application of the rod in the discipline of children:
NKJ Proverbs 23:13-14 Do not withhold correction [מוּסָר, mûsār] from a child [נַ֫עַר, na‛ar] for if you beat [נָכָה, nāḵāh, strike] him with a rod [שֵׁ֫בֶט, shēḇeṭ], he will not die. 14 You shall beat [נָכָה, nāḵāh] him with a rod [שֵׁ֫בֶט, shēḇeṭ], and deliver his soul from hell.
Here we might want to pause to consider whether we actually have a Biblical command to spank our children. For it must be remembered that the majority of the proverbs are brief sayings which are intended to be memorable and which summarize what has been gained through empirical observation of the general consequences of particular actions. In this regard many of the Biblical proverbs are no different than modern ones, such as “A fool and his money are soon parted” or “Many hands make light work.” Many of the proverbs are thus “generalizations, not iron-clad promises” (Jack Collins, Covenant Theological Seminary class notes on Psalms & Wisdom Literature). As Derek Kidner aptly points out:
Proverbs gets us to compare the 'now' of an act with its 'afterwards.' We watch the wine sparkling in the cup, but face what follows when it is loved too much (23:29-35). We look easily at money, but notice that what lightly comes, lightly goes (13:11). Or at illicit sex in the light of what awaits it 'in the end' (5:4). More cheerfully, we compare the irksomeness of accepting good advice with the blessings it will bring one day (19:20). And when it seems too costly to be godly, we are helped to see the picture as a whole:
Surely there is a future, And your hope will not be cut off. (23:18)
(The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, p. 29)
Walter Kaiser concurs when he writes:
By their nature and form, proverbs are generalized statements that cover the widest number of instances, but in no case are they to be taken as a set of unbending rules that must be applied in every case without exception (An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, pp. 99-100).
A good example of such a proverb would be one of the most frequently quoted proverbs with regard to parenting:
NKJ Proverbs 22:6 Train up [חֲנֹךְ, ḥānaḵ] a child [נַ֫עַר, na‛ar] in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
Although many believing parents are tempted to see this as an iron-clad promise, they really should be cautioned not to do so, given the nature of most proverbs. Thus we have stated here what parents may commonly expect to happen given a faithful application of the principle enjoined, but we are not given a guarantee that this will always be the outcome.
So what about the proverbs that speak of discipline with the rod of correction – or what we would call spanking? Do these proverbs demand that parents always spank their children? Are there no exceptions? Well, we certainly have no clear command to use the rod in any of these passages. Even Proverbs 23:14, which the NKJV translates as a command – “You shall beat him with a rod” – is capable of an alternate translation. For example:
ESV Proverbs 23:14 If you strike him with the rod [שֵׁ֫בֶט, shēḇeṭ], you will save his soul from Sheol.
However, we must also consider the way that each of these proverbs is presented to us. So, for example, as we have seen in our study thus far, when the author of Hebrews cited the LXX translation of Proverbs 3:11-12, he assumed that the Lord Himself is an example of a Father who spanks every child whom He receives and that He does so because He loves His children. We have also found Solomon asserting that we will discipline our children if we love them, that such discipline includes the use of the rod of correction, and that withholding the rod means we don't really love them (Prov. 13:24). He certainly doesn't appear to consider the possibility that there will be any children who will not need such discipline at some point in their lives, although he does consider the possibility that there will be parents who will want to deny or avoid such discipline even when it is necessary. In this regard he anticipates the objections of many modern parents who try to explain away the Biblical teaching on this subject.
Christopher Cone, president of Tyndale Theological Seminary & Biblical Institute, offers the following response to those who would argue that “the rod” is to be understood strictly as a metaphor in such passages:
Christopher Cone, president of Tyndale Theological Seminary & Biblical Institute, offers the following response to those who would argue that “the rod” is to be understood strictly as a metaphor in such passages:
Here is the question: What specifically in the contexts of these passages gives indication that the language is intended as non-literal?
How does one “strike” a person with a metaphorical rod? Why would a person be afraid of “striking” a person with a metaphorical rod for fear of killing him? (“Oh my goodness! I am afraid that if I give general parental structure and guidance—nonphysical, of course—that my child might just fall down dead. Oh My! I am not so sure I want to parent with a metaphorical rod…”) I don’t mean to be glib—of course this is a serious topic, and certainly no laughing matter. Especially in recent months attention has been drawn to child abuse cases in which parents who were claiming to discipline their children actually harmed them to the point of death. That is despicable child abuse. This is something that does not result in death. This is something that never harms a child. This is something that offers the child freedom from foolishness.
Especially in light of [Proverbs] 23:13-14 … there is no textual basis to understand the meaning as non-literal. And if there is nothing in the text itself to suggest a non-literal meaning, then how would we justify a figurative interpretation? (A Biblical Perspective on Spanking, Part 2)
I agree with this assessment concerning the rod as an implement of physical discipline. I also agree that such discipline should never be done in such a way as to harm the child but rather to help free the child from foolishness through correcting foolish behavior. But foolish behavior must not be understood here simply as immature or childish behavior. We must understand that terms like “wise” and “foolish” are primarily moral rather than intellectual terms and that the fool is not necessarily intellectually challenged, but rather is spiritually stupid. In this context, we are dealing with the foolishness of disobedience and hence the need for corrective discipline. However, we must not see our role as simply correcting foolish and sinful behavior, but rather as teaching wisdom, and this is made clear in yet another proverb:
NKJ Proverbs 29:15 The rod [שֵׁ֫בֶט, shēḇeṭ] and rebuke give wisdom, but a child [נַ֫עַר, na‛ar] left [Pual > שָׁלַח, shālaḥ, sent off or set loose, here meaning unrestrained] to himself brings shame to his mother.
Thus the rod of discipline, combined with rebuke for wrong behavior, is employed with the goal of teaching the child wisdom. This means that we must look to the Scriptures as our guide in correcting our children so that we will know what wisdom is and learn how our children may come to know it. For example, we will take these other proverbs to heart:
NKJ Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
NKJ Proverbs 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
So we are always focused on leading our children to know the Lord, and, in training our children to obey us, we are ultimately training them to obey the Lord as well. J.C. Ryle drives home this same point very well when he writes:
Parents, do you wish to see your children happy? Take care, then, that you train them to obey when they are spoken to – to do as they are bid. Believe me, we are not made for entire independence – we are not fit for it. Even Christ's freemen have a yoke to wear, they “serve the Lord Christ” (Col. iii. 24). Children cannot learn too soon that this is a world in which we are not all intended to rule, and that we are never in our right place until we know how to obey our betters. Teach them to obey while young, or else they will be fretting against God all their lives long, and wear themselves out with the vain idea of being independent of His control.
Reader, this hint is only too much needed. You will see many in this day who allow their children to choose and think for themselves long before they are able, and even make excuses for their disobedience, as if it were a thing not to be blamed. To my eyes, a parent always yielding, and a child always having its own way, are a most painful sight; painful, because I see God's appointed order of things inverted and turned upside down; painful, because I feel sure the consequence to that child's character in the end will be self-will, pride, and self-conceit. You must not wonder that men refuse to obey their Father which is in heaven, if you allow them, when children, to disobey their father who is upon earth.
Parents, if you love your children, let obedience be a motto and a watchword continually before their eyes. (The Duties of Parents)
This assessment is correct. When we train our children to obey us, we are training them to obey the Lord. But this is why it is all the more important to bring them up in the training of the Lord. That is, we must train them in accordance with the principles of the Lord and in a way that follows the example of our heavenly Father. This is what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he wrote to the Ephesians:
NKJ Ephesians 6:4 “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath [παροργίζω, parorgízō] but bring them up in the training [παιδεία, paideía] and admonition [νουθεσία, nouthesía] of the Lord.”
Notice what Paul tells fathers not to do. He tells us not to provoke our children to wrath (or anger). And by this he refers to ways in which parents can sinfully provoke their children to anger. He does not mean that, whenever our child demonstrates anger, we must have sinned as parents. Children can become sinfully angry with no help from us. So, if one of your children throws a fit just because he didn't get what he wanted, you certainly aren't guilty of having exasperated him. In that case, he was self-exasperated, you might say. However, if your child seems to be angry often, it behooves you to at least consider the possibility that you may be sinfully provoking this anger in some way. And, if you are, then after confessing it to God, you need to confess it to your child as sin and seek his forgiveness.
Before I offer some examples as to how we might exasperate our children, it would be helpful to examine the parallel passage to get a fuller understanding of what is in Paul's mind here. Paul gave a similar instruction to the Colossians:
NKJ Colossians 3:21 “Fathers, do not provoke [ἐρεθίζω, erethízō, cause to become resentful or bitter] your children, lest they become discouraged [ἀθυμέω, athumeō].”
Or, as the NASB translates it:
NAU Colossians 3:21 Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart.
Paul has in mind the ways in which parents can anger or exasperate their children to the point that they become discouraged. This describes a situation in which children feel that, no matter what they do, they will never be able to please their parents, so they just give up trying. So, a tell-tale sign that a parent has sinfully provoked his or her child to anger is that the child is also very discouraged in this way.
Art Alexakis of the band Everclear wrote a song called “Wonderful,” in which he described the exasperation and discouragement of his own childhood after experiencing the trauma of divorce and a broken home, and I think he did a good job of describing the exasperation of far too many children today. Since it provides a window into the experience of so many exasperated children today, I think the song is worth citing in full:
I close my eyes when I get too sadI think thoughts that I know are badClose my eyes and I count to tenHope it's over when I open them
I want the things that I had beforeLike a Star Wars poster on my bedroom doorI wish I could count to tenMake everything be wonderful again
Hope my mom and I hope my dadWill figure out why they get so madHear them scream, I hear them fightSay bad words that make me wanna cry
Close my eyes when I go to bedAnd I dream of angels that make me smileI feel better when I hear them sayEverything will be wonderful someday
Promises mean everything when you're littleAnd the world's so bigI just don't understand howYou can smile with all those tears in your eyesAnd tell me everything is wonderful nowPlease don't tell me everything is wonderful now
I go to school and I run and playI tell the kids that it's all okayI like to laugh so my friends won't knowWhen the bell rings I just don't wanna go home
Go to my room and I close my eyesI make believe that I have a new lifeI don't believe you when you sayEverything will be wonderful someday
Promises mean everything when you're littleAnd the world is so bigI just don't understand howYou can smile with all those tears in your eyesWhen you tell me everything is wonderful nowI don't wanna hear you tell me everything is wonderful now
I don't wanna hear you sayThat I will understand someday …I don't wanna hear you sayWe both have grown in a different way …
I don't wanna meet your friendsAnd I don't wanna start over againI just want my life to be the sameJust like it used to beSome days I hate everythingI hate everythingEveryone and everythingPlease don't tell me everything is wonderful nowI don't wanna hear you tell me everything is wonderful now (From An American Movie Vol. 1)
This song – written from the standpoint of an exasperated child – demonstrates quite pointedly some of the things parents can do to provoke their children to anger and to the point of complete discouragement. In particular, it describes the exasperation of a child whose parents have fought and then divorced. We all know that there is a multitude of such children in our country today. But there are many ways in which we can exasperate and discourage our children short of ripping the family apart through divorce. Here I will just suggest some possible ways in which we could sinfully provoke our children:
1) Making promises to them that we don't keep.
2) Lying to them, trying to make them think things are other or better than they really are (as in the aforementioned song).
3) Being hyper-critical and giving them the impression that no matter what they do, it will never be good enough.
4) Being hypocritical and expecting one standard in public (or at church) and another at home.
5) Expecting things of them that they cannot possibly achieve.
e.g. We must not expect little children to show maturity beyond their years.
6) Refusing to let our children grow up and take on more responsibility.
7) Showing favoritism to one child over another.
8) Treating them unfairly.
Remember, though, that children will often feel that they have been treated unfairly even though they haven't been. But a child doesn't know what really is fair in every situation, so you cannot allow your child to determine this. The important thing is that you be fair and know that – as your child grows up – he or she will come to understand that you have been fair. Also remember that treating your children fairly does not necessarily mean treating them all the same way. Children are different, and it is very often unfair to treat them the same way. For example, when my daughter, Sarah, got her driver's license, she already knew that she would not get the same driving privileges that my son, Joshua, had when he first got his driver's license. This was not because I thought she would be a less responsible or a less capable driver, but simply because she is a girl and he is a guy, and I would not let my 16 or 17 year old daughter drive places at night the way I allowed my 16 or 17 year old son to do. It simply isn't as safe for a girl that age to be driving at night as it is for a guy. It would have been unfair, though, to Joshua if I had curtailed his driving privileges in order to treat him the same way as his sister. And it would have been unfair to Sarah if I took greater risks with her safety in order to treat her the same way as Joshua.
9) Neglecting our children and making them feel as though we don't love them.
Withdrawing our love from our children is cruel, and if we don't pay attention to our children or show concern for their welfare, we are sending a message that we really don't care about them at all. This reminds me of an old anecdote: “A mother made an appointment with her young child's pediatrician. She said she had noticed that he had eaten dirt on several occasions. To the doctor, she said, 'I've always heard that if a child eats dirt, there is some deficiency. Do you think his dirt-eating indicates a lack of something?' The doctor replied, 'Yes-very definitely. A lack of supervision!'” (2000+ Bible Illustrations, e-Sword)
10) Failing to offer them the encouragement they need.
e.g. A parent may work hard to avoid being hyper-critical of their children, but may still provoke them by holding back encouragement or praise when warranted. Both approaches can end up in the same place – with an exasperated child who is discouraged and thinks he will never measure up to his parents expectations or demands.
11) Punishing them too harshly out of anger.
As D. Martin Lloyd-Jones once observed, “When you are disciplining a child, you should have first controlled yourself … What right have you to say to your child that he needs discipline when you obviously need it yourself? Self-control, the control of temper, is an essential prerequisite in the control of others” (As cited by John Stott, The Message of Ephesians, p.249).
These are just some possible examples of ways in which we may exasperate our children by disciplining them – or by failing to discipline them, as the case may be – in a way that does not look to the example of our heavenly Father. But at this point we must also remember that when God disciplines us it is never an expression of His wrath, for we are promised that we shall never have to face His wrath because have been redeemed through the blood of Christ. For example:
NKJ Romans 5:8-9 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.
NKJ 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10 For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. 9 For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
NKJ 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9 But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ ….
Thus God's discipline of His adopted children in Christ is not an expression of wrath toward them but rather of love that seeks their good. Indeed, even the Lord Jesus Himself – who is God's only unique Son by nature rather than by adoption – “learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8), and such suffering was most definitely not an expression of the Father's wrath toward Him, for Jesus never sinned and thus never incurred the Father's wrath in any sense (see Heb. 2:17-18 and 4:15-16 and recall that as our propitiation Jesus took upon Himself the wrath due our sins).
Thus we must seek to emulate our heavenly Father in this respect as well, and our discipline must not be seen by our children as an exhibition of wrath. Rather we must avoid disciplining them in anger and instead seek to show them that we are disciplining them out of love and for their good. For some parents, this means that they must take some time to cool down before they administer discipline to their children. For, even though discipline should be prompt, it should also be an expression of loving concern rather than the venting of a parent’s anger. Indeed, I would say, for example, that spanking done in anger is actually violence rather than discipline.
For what it's worth, when I had to discipline my children by spanking them when they were little, I tried never to do so when I was angry. I tried always to do so in a calm and loving way that tempered the punishment with mercy. So, for example, I would commonly explain to them that I had to spank them because I loved them and wanted them to learn obedience to the Lord. And frequently I would take part of the punishment on myself. So, for example, if Joshua had to be spanked, I would explain that I felt that he deserved a certain number of swats for what he had done – say, e.g., four – but when it came time to administer the final swat I would often then exclaim, “You know what, I think I'll take the last one for you.” And then I would swat my own behind as hard as I could. This would typically start Joshua laughing, but it also showed him mercy, as well as the concept of substitution that is so central to our idea of the atonement. I did this so that, as he got older, I could also explain substitutionary atonement more easily. It also turned these times into something we shared in an even deeper way and helped to reinforce that what was happening was a good thing.
At any rate, to bring up our children “in the training and admonition of the Lord” certainly means that we will follow the example of our heavenly Father in these ways, but it also means that we will bring them up in accordance with His Word. After all, it is in His Word that we find our Lord's instruction both for us and for our children. This, then, will be the focus of our next principle.
Stay tuned for the next post in the series, in which I shall discuss Principle #3.