“But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you again sevenfold for your sins, and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. . . . But if in spite of this you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins.
“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, . . . then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 27)
My dear child in the Lord,
There is a lot of pain and suffering in this world. The older you get, the more of it you will see. You have probably experienced a lot of pain already in your life at different times already.
Your parents don’t want you to be in pain. They love you, and want you to be happy and healthy. But because they love you, they also know that what’s best for you in the long term sometimes involves pain in the short term. Sometimes they discipline you. “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. . . . Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13).
It is painful when your parents discipline you. Why do they do that? How does that save you from even worse pain later? How is that love?
Pain is a symptom of death, and death a symptom of evil. Is discipline a symptom of death too? But isn’t discipline good?
People are sinful. We are naturally selfish. I’m selfish, and so are you. One time, when I was very small, I hit my sister on the head with a toy hammer. Do not do this. That is not how brothers and sisters should love each other. At the time, I thought I wasn’t hitting her very hard. And I thought that, since it was just a plastic toy hammer, it wouldn’t actually hurt. I was pretending to be like the characters in cartoons that pull out giant wooden hammers and squish people with them and make birds fly around their heads. And birds are nice, right? Anyway, my own head is hard. I knew it wouldn’t feel that bad to me if I was hit on the head with that toy hammer as lightly as I thought I was hitting my sister. But to my surprise, she cried out in pain! Our mom disciplined me for that. I was put in time-out, and the hammer was taken away for a while. I didn’t think that was fair. I thought my sister was overreacting and trying to get attention. But still, I was being selfish. I wanted to hit my sister on the head because I thought it was funny and because I wanted to see birds. I wanted to please myself, and I didn’t really think that much about how it might hurt my sister. So my mom disciplined me. I’m glad she did. Even if I didn’t agree with it at the time, it helped teach me that people aren’t supposed to hit each other with hammers. My mom’s discipline helped to bridle my selfishness so that I would get along better with other people in the long term. Imagine if no one ever disciplined me for hitting people with toy hammers when I was small. What would happen if, when I was a grown-up, I hit someone on the head with a real hammer? I’m very glad my mom disciplined me when I was growing up.
What if my parents didn’t discipline me when I was growing up? Not just about hammers, but with my natural selfishness in general? What if all my little selfish desires were never bridled? What if I always stuffed myself with candy, shoved ahead of people to be first in line, yelled at people when I didn’t get my way, or bossed and pushed other kids around to make them do what I want instead of trying to serve them and love them like I should? Then my selfishness would truly be unbridled.
Can you imagine a wild, unbridled horse charging through a cafeteria? Maybe the horse wants the food, or maybe it just wants to romp around and explore. Either way, the horse doesn’t really care about the mess it is making or about the people it might be hurting. The horse hurts the people in the cafeteria when it pushes them over trying to get to the food. The horse destroys good plates and machines and food when it tramples on them to try to explore the supply closet in the back. And it hurts itself too when it bumps and scrapes itself on things as it wildly charges through the complicated space. People in the cafeteria might cry out to the horse or try to restrain it, but it doesn’t care that it’s hurting them. It probably doesn’t even notice. Or it might even be afraid of the people, afraid of their hands that reach toward it and try to restrain it and its wild dancing upon the tables. That wild, unbridled horse is very selfish.
Selfish people don’t get along well with other people. By definition, to be selfish is to be focused on serving yourself. And to be focused on serving yourself means you don’t pay much attention to what might be best for other people. You probably have met some selfish, spoiled kids who don’t listen to their parents and don’t often share with other kids. They might charge through someone else’s house, knocking over furniture and breaking things. Or they might grab another kid’s toy and run off with it, not noticing how they made that kid very sad. They just don’t think about how their actions might hurt other people, like the way I didn’t think about how my plastic hammer would hurt my sister. These kids might not always act totally selfish. They might have good moments where they do share with other kids and where they are loving toward their parents. But often, they still let their selfishness run wild. Whenever a person’s inner selfish cafeteria horse gets his speed up, no one else gets to play along.
Everyone has a bit of the selfish cafeteria horse in them. I do. You do too.
And being selfish is lonely. When you are focused on yourself, you push other people away. You want to push other people away. They might try to reach out to you as loving friends, but you won’t want to reach back to them. And that makes them sad.
The cafeteria horse is a very active kind of selfishness. It’s a selfishness that actively pushes down other people. There’s another kind of selfishness that we all have too, though, a passive kind that might not actively hurt other people, but which doesn’t care about helping them either. Even if you don’t trample over your friends like a cafeteria horse when they reach out to you, but you just sit there selfishly receiving their attention without wanting to reach back, that is selfish. And that is lonely too. It pushes them away, unless they’re very stubborn in being friends with you.
Think of a small boy who just sits in a chair in a corner staring at the wall all day. Maybe you try to talk to him. You ask him, “How are you?” And he says, “Good.” He doesn’t say anything more or ask how you’re doing. You try to hug him, and you think he’s glad for the hug, but he doesn’t say anything or hug you back. You might ask him to play a game with you, but he doesn’t respond to that either. You might invite him to a party, but he says he’s too busy and continues to sit in his chair. Unless you’re very stubborn, you’re probably going to give up trying to do anything with him after a while. He actually probably really appreciates that you were doing all these things for him and doesn’t want you to stop. He knows he’s lonely. (And his selfishness is also happy to receive attention.) But he doesn’t really care enough to get himself out of his chair either. This isn’t just a boy who needs to rest. Jesus would often go to a secluded spot to rest and pray. This is a sad boy who never leaves his corner enough to even need that kind of rest.
It’s hard to imagine an unbridled cafeteria horse and the small, sad boy in the corner chair as being the same person. You usually won’t see one single person who acts like both of those together. But those behaviors are just different outsides for the same inside. The cafeteria horse runs wild because it selfishly wants to charge through things and doesn’t care about doing bad things to other people. The sad boy in the corner chair sits still like a chunky potato because he selfishly doesn’t care about doing good things with or for other people. Both of them don’t care about other people. Both of them are selfish.
Without discipline, we like to be selfish. We choose to be lonely. And once we’ve pushed everyone else away and gotten the loneliness we wanted, doing things our own way, then we also find ourselves very sad. We don’t like being lonely. God even said right in the start of creation, “It is not good that man should be alone.” (Genesis 2) He was talking about marriage, but also about people in general. We need support from other people. We don’t like to be alone. And our selfishness likes to receive attention from other people too. But our selfishness also doesn’t like to play with other people. When we’re selfish, we feel like other people are a burden or obstacle instead of a blessing. So our selfishness wants us to be alone too. It’s a contradiction. We can’t both be alone and not alone. And that means that selfish people are very unhappy no matter what they do.
Your parents stubbornly love you, and want to save you from the unhappiness that follows selfishness. So they discipline you when you act selfishly. They want you to grow up to be someone who isn’t ruled by selfishness.
And they discipline you in two kinds of ways. The kind we usually think about is the negative kind, where they put you in a time-out or spank you or don’t let you do the things you want to do. That’s the kind of discipline you give to bridle a wild cafeteria horse (or a boy with a plastic hammer). But they also give you a positive kind of discipline to train you to do nice things for other people and pull you out of your corner chair. They have you do chores around the house. They teach you to say please and thank you. They take you to activities and parties so you learn new skills and get better at interacting with people there. (And also because activities and parties are great!) And they try to give you good examples to follow by acting lovingly themselves as best they can. It’s like how a coach trains an athlete to be faster and stronger at playing his sport. We say an athlete who regularly exercises and keeps himself fit and strong has “discipline.” Your parents coach you to be better at helping other people, and give you that kind of discipline too. Your parents aren’t perfect, but God gave them to you to teach you as best as they can.
So is discipline good or bad? Is pain from discipline good or bad?
You see, discipline is like a law. One of its uses is to act as a barrier, a curb, to keep you from death. It can keep you from misusing hammers. It can keep you from stepping on carpet staples. But when you break the law, discipline hurts you. You feel the pain.
So the discipline is good, but you are a sinner, and that’s not good. When you are presented with the positive kind of discipline, the kind where your parents show you how you ought to live to be free from pain and have joy in the love of God, your sin doesn’t like that. Your parents tell you, “Love your sister and take care of her.” Your sin wakes up and says, “No! I won’t!” And so you fight the good discipline, and you hit your sister on the head with a hammer. And so you then feel the painful, negative kind of discipline.
“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7)
Discipline is good. Like a law, it acts as a curb to keep you from sin. Like a law, its presence reminds you that you do fail and need forgiveness. And also like a law, it acts as a guide to show you the positive way your Father wants you to live.
God disciplines us too. He doesn’t want us to selfishly separate ourselves from Him, and He doesn’t want us to selfishly separate ourselves from each other either. He gives us His law to show us how to live as His children so that we are saved from pain in the long run. He shows us how to live, not only to show us that we are sinful and need Him to save us but also to show us what we should strive for in this life.
Your parents discipline you in both the positive and negative ways because you are their child and they love you. Does your ability to do well at the positive disciplines they set before you change whether or not you are their child? Do you earn the right to be their child by doing your chores? Of course not! That would be silly. It’s the other way around: you do your chores because you are their child. You follow their discipline because you are their child. They will still be your parents even if you mess up in that, but they do want you to always get better and to succeed.
We also cannot earn our way into God’s family by keeping His law or by following His discipline. That would be silly! It’s also the other way around. We try to follow God and His ways because He is our God and Father and we are His children by baptism into Christ Jesus.
Some Christians will say that, since we cannot earn our way into God’s family by keeping the law, the only point of God’s law is to show us that we can’t keep it perfectly and need Jesus. And then they will say that this means we don’t need to worry too much about listening to God’s commands, since all the benefits we get from God are a gift by grace through faith. But God does discipline us. He disciplines us because He loves us, and because we are His children. He gives you Christ Jesus not only to pay the price of your sins and earn your way into His family for you, but also for Him to be your example for positive discipline as a son of God. Because you have faith in Christ and are God’s child through Him you do listen to His commands.
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 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.” (Hebrews 12)
If you weren’t grafted into Jesus by baptism into His death, God’s law would just mean real death for you. God’s discipline against evil would just mean pain and suffering for you. Without Jesus paying the price of sin for you, you would still be separated from God’s family.
But you are grafted into Jesus. And that means God’s judgment towards you changes. Now His law isn’t a source of pain and death for you. God doesn’t look at you and see evil that needs to be destroyed. God looks at you and sees His Son Jesus. That frees you to live in love without fear.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . . Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3)
God’s law is a good discipline that trains you to live well with the life He gives you. You are alive now because of Jesus. Even if you fail to keep God’s law perfectly, you are still bound to Christ and saved in Him. So don’t act like you are still dead. Don’t act like someone who is still evil and opposing God and separated from His life. Act like someone who has life.
Act like someone who listens to Christ.
“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’
“So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’ Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13)