Appreciating the Purpose of Discipline
WHAT comes to mind when you hear the word “discipline”? One dictionary defines discipline as “the practice of making people obey rules or standards of behaviour, and punishing them when they do not.” Although this is by no means the only accepted definition, many people today ascribe a similarly negative connotation to anything that has to do with discipline.
The Bible, however, presents discipline in a different light. “The discipline of Jehovah, O my son, do not reject,” wrote wise King Solomon. (Proverbs 3:11) These words refer, not to discipline in general, but to “the discipline of Jehovah,” that is, discipline based on God’s lofty principles. Only such discipline is spiritually productive and beneficial—even desirable. In contrast, discipline that is based on human thinking that is in conflict with Jehovah’s lofty principles is often abusive and hurtful. That explains why many have a negative attitude toward discipline.
Why are we urged to accept Jehovah’s discipline? In the Scriptures, divine discipline is described as an expression of God’s love for his human creatures. Thus, Solomon went on to say: “The one whom Jehovah loves he reproves, even as a father does a son in whom he finds pleasure.”—Proverbs 3:12.
Discipline or Punishment—Which?
Discipline as expressed in the Bible has many aspects—guidance, instruction, training, reproof, correction, and even punishment. However, in each case, Jehovah’s discipline is motivated by love, and its goal is to benefit the recipient. Jehovah’s corrective discipline is never for the sole purpose of punishment.
Conversely, God’s acts of punishment are not always aimed at correcting or educating the recipient. For example, from the very day Adam and Eve sinned, they began to suffer the consequences of their disobedience. Jehovah expelled them from the paradisaic garden of Eden, and they succumbed to the effects of imperfection, sickness, and old age. After hundreds of years of painful existence, they perished forever. All of this was indeed divine punishment, but it was not corrective discipline. Willful and unrepentant, Adam and Eve were beyond correction.
Other accounts of Jehovah’s acts of punishment include the Flood in Noah’s day, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the elimination of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. These actions by Jehovah were not intended to provide guidance, instruction, or training for the recipients. Regarding such acts of punishment by God, the apostle Peter wrote: “He did not hold back from punishing an ancient world, but kept Noah, a preacher of righteousness, safe with seven others when he brought a deluge upon a world of ungodly people; and by reducing the cities Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them, setting a pattern for ungodly persons of things to come.”—2 Peter 2:5, 6.
In what sense were these acts of punishment “setting a pattern for ungodly persons of things to come”? In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he points to our day as the time when God, through his Son, Jesus Christ, will bring “vengeance upon those who do not know God and those who do not obey the good news.” Paul adds: “These very ones will undergo the judicial punishment of everlasting destruction.” (2 Thessalonians 1:8, 9) Obviously, such punishment is not designed to teach or refine those receiving it. However, when Jehovah invites his worshipers to accept his discipline, he is not referring to the punishment of unrepentant sinners.
It is significant that the Bible does not describe Jehovah primarily as a punisher. Rather, he is most often described as a loving teacher and a patient trainer. (Job 36:22; Psalm 71:17; Isaiah 54:13) Yes, godly discipline that is administered as a corrective measure is always accompanied by love and patience. By understanding the purpose of discipline, Christians are in a better position to accept and to administer discipline with the right attitude.
The Discipline of Loving Parents
Within the family circle and within the Christian congregation, there is a need for all to understand the purpose of discipline. This is especially true of those who are in positions of authority, such as parents. Proverbs 13:24 states: “The one holding back his rod is hating his son, but the one loving him is he that does look for him with discipline.”
How are parents to administer discipline? The Bible explains: “You, fathers, do not be irritating your children, but go on bringing them up in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.” (Ephesians 6:4) This admonition is reiterated in these words: “You fathers, do not be exasperating your children, so that they do not become downhearted.”—Colossians 3:21.
Christian parents who understand the purpose of discipline will not act harshly. The principle stated at 2 Timothy 2:24 can be applied to the manner in which parents administer discipline. Paul wrote: “A slave of the Lord does not need to fight, but needs to be gentle toward all, qualified to teach.” Hysterical bursts of anger, screaming, and insulting or derogatory statements hardly qualify as loving discipline and have no place in a Christian’s life.—Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8.
Parental correction involves far more than an act of punishment administered quickly and decisively. Most children need repeated admonition before they correct their thinking. Thus, parents must spend time, exercise patience, and give much thought to the manner in which they administer discipline. They must keep in mind that children are to be brought up in the “discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.” This means a course of training that lasts for years.
Christian Shepherds Discipline With Mildness
The same principles apply to Christian elders. As loving shepherds, they endeavor to build up the flock by providing instruction, direction, and reproof when needed. In so doing, they bear in mind the real purpose of discipline. (Ephesians 4:11, 12) If they focused only on administering punishment, they would simply penalize the erring one and leave it at that. Divine discipline involves much more. Motivated by love, elders follow up and follow through on their counsel. Because they are genuinely concerned, they often schedule several sessions of encouragement and training.
According to the admonition found at 2 Timothy 2:25, 26, even when dealing with those who do not readily accept discipline, elders are to instruct “with mildness.” The scripture then states the purpose of discipline: “Perhaps God may give them repentance leading to an accurate knowledge of truth, and they may come back to their proper senses out from the snare of the Devil.”
At times, it is necessary to disfellowship unrepentant wrongdoers from the congregation. (1 Timothy 1:18-20) Even such drastic action should be considered discipline, not merely punishment. From time to time, elders endeavor to visit disfellowshipped individuals who are not actively engaged in wrongdoing. During such visits, elders act in harmony with the real purpose of discipline by outlining the steps needed for a person to return to the Christian congregation.
Jehovah Is the Perfect Judge
Parents, Christian shepherds, and others who have the Scriptural authority to administer discipline should take such a responsibility seriously. They must not presume to judge others as permanently incorrigible. Hence, their discipline should never take the form of vengeful or hostile punishment.
True, the Bible refers to Jehovah as one who will administer severe and final punishment. In fact, the Scriptures say that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31) But no human should ever try to compare himself to Jehovah in this or any other regard. And no one should have reason to feel that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a parent or a certain elder in the congregation.
Jehovah has the ability to achieve perfect balance when administering discipline. Humans do not. God can read the heart and determine when someone is beyond correction and thus is in line for decisive and final punishment. Humans, on the other hand, are unable to render such a judgment. For that reason, when there is a need to administer discipline, those in a position of authority should always do it with the purpose of correcting.
Accepting Jehovah’s Discipline
We all need Jehovah’s discipline. (Proverbs 8:33) In fact, we should long for discipline that is based on God’s Word. As we study God’s Word, we can accept the discipline that comes directly from Jehovah through the Scriptures. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17) At times, however, we will receive discipline from fellow Christians. Realizing the spirit in which such discipline is administered will help us to accept it willingly.
The apostle Paul acknowledged: “True, no discipline seems for the present to be joyous, but grievous.” Then he added: “Yet afterward to those who have been trained by it it yields peaceable fruit, namely, righteousness.” (Hebrews 12:11) Jehovah’s discipline is a manifestation of his deep love for us. Whether we receive or administer discipline, let us keep in mind the purpose of divine discipline and heed the Bible’s wise counsel: “Take hold on discipline; do not let go. Safeguard it, for it itself is your life.”—Proverbs 4:13.
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Unrepentant sinners receive God’s judicial punishment, not his corrective discipline
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Motivated by love, elders spend time doing research and helping erring ones
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Parents patiently and lovingly administer “the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah”