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  • Lindsay Esterline

Discipline, Self-Control, and Punishment in the Bible (Part 1)

We might be disciplined in the way we eat, exercise, study, practice a skill, or refine a talent. Discipline helps us reach our goals. 

Collins Dictionary defines discipline as, “the quality of being able to behave and work in a controlled way which involves obeying particular rules or standards.” I think this is the best definition of the word. The practice of this kind of discipline leads to self-control.

Unfortunately, discipline is often synonymous with punishment. The first entry in the same dictionary says, “the practice of making people obey rules or standards of behavior, and punishing them when they do not.” This sounds harsh. Here we are “making people obey” rather than training them or encouraging them to obey. Here we are punishing rather than allowing natural consequences to do the job. 

As a parent, I know there are times when the use of punishment is necessary. When the natural consequences are not swift, or obvious enough, to correlate to the negative behavior a loving parent will step in. But, proper guidance, praise and rewards also play a role in disciplining a child. We are God’s children. 

What does the Bible say about discipline?

Runners on a track; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 quoted

I have always struggled with discipline. If it doesn’t come easily I often “slack off.” I must have set an unattainable goal, right? Or maybe it's not worth the effort - I don’t want it that bad. But, I can still relate to Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. He is talking about athletes, runners in specific. I have dabbled in athletics as a teen and young adult, so when Paul basically tells us to “keep your eyes on the prize” I get it. 

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave [beat my body into submission], so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (NASB).

Even if you don’t have firsthand knowledge based on being an athlete, I am sure you understand. Athletes have to be disciplined in their diet and training or risk losing the progress they worked hard to gain. They have to keep up with the program whether they feel like it or not. They have to decide that the progress, or goal, is worth it. Do you see what Paul is getting at here?

Paul says it again in 1 Timothy 4:8-10, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe” (NIV).

We work on ourselves. We “labor and strive” through the power of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Romans 6:6; 2 Timothy 1:7) to develop and reflect the character of Jesus because it's worth it! We don’t need a wreath, or metal. Jesus is our prize! So, “keep your eyes on the prize!”

Being Disciplined Isn’t Always Fun

“No discipline [paideia - training] 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 NIV).

I like learning. I like improving my skills. Training can be fun, but it can also get boring and tiresome. If you are training your body, it can physically hurt! I also like growing more like Jesus, but the kind of training that “cultivates the soul, especially by correcting mistakes and curbing passions” can be harsh. 

In John 15:1-2 Jesus puts it this way, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (NIV).

Gardening tools on wooden table; John 15:2

Jesus is saying that even when we are attached to him, the true vine, we should still expect to be pruned by the Heavenly Gardener. The Father is still going to take out his tools in order to ensure our growth. Sometimes that means things are going to get “snipped” from our lives. Sometimes that is not going to feel good. 

So, why does he put us through this painful process? 

The answer is in verse 2 - so that we will be more fruitful! Only a healthy branch can bear the fruits of the Spirit: 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV).

When we are “grafted into the vine” or “adopted into the family of God” (Romans 8:15) we are accepting a gift of love and salvation (justification). AND we are accepting the process of sanctification. Discipline in the Bible is the process of sanctification.

Just as earthly parents train a toddler to control impulses, our Heavenly Father helps us develop the fruit of self-control. Just as our parents guided us into adulthood, God is guiding us into the fulness of our relationship with him through the Holy Spirit!

“Fathers [parents], do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction [discipline, paideia] of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

Paideia - 

  • the whole training and education of children (which relates to the cultivation of mind and morals, and employs for this purpose now commands and admonitions, now reproof and punishment) It also includes the training and care of the body

  • whatever in adults also cultivates the soul, esp. by correcting mistakes and curbing passions.

  • instruction which aims at increasing virtue

  • chastisement, chastening, (of the evils with which God visits men for their amendment)

Based on this interpretation, discipline does include correction, but it doesn’t have to include punishment. We can see from the many stories included in the Old Testament that God calls for repentance and warns people of the consequences if they do not heed his word. He is incredibly long-suffering (2 Peter 3:9), allowing many warnings through prophets, before there is a punishment.

For example, Israel was warned that if they did not repent of their evil ways that Babylon would be allowed to take them captive. One of the first prophecies was through Isaiah after King Hezekiah proudly showed the visiting Babylonians all his wealth (Isaiah 39:5-8). Hezekiah’s reign was from about 715 to about 686 BC. So if we do the math based on the last year of King Hezekiah’s reign to the year that Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC that is 89 years!

And God didn’t warn them just once through Isaiah. He sent other prophets in those 89 years, most notably Jeremiah. Jeremiah warned the people of Israel for 23 years leading up to their captivity! Instead of heeding God’s warning through his prophet, they abused Jeremiah. 

If you want an example of people listening to God’s prophet and avoiding punishment, read Jonah. The Ninevites repented because of Jonah’s message to them, and avoided destruction.

Solomon sums things up in Proverbs, “One who is on the path of life follows instruction [mûsār], But one who ignores a rebuke goes astray” (Proverbs 10:17 NASB). Or in Proverbs 12:1, “One who loves discipline [mûsār] loves knowledge, But one who hates rebuke is stupid.”

  • discipline, chastening, correction

  • discipline, correction

  • chastening

God corrects those he loves, just as earthly parents correct their children.

The goal is the same - to develop a quality character in the child. He loves us and wants what is best for us. What could be better than a world that reflects God’s loving character?

Proverbs 13:24 NIV

Shepherd watching sheep in a rugged, dry, mountainous area.

Whoever spares the rod* hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline [mûsār] them.

*some translate to mean “instruction” but the word šēḇeṭ does mean staff or branch. This does not mean that we should beat our children into submission, however. In Psalms 23 David says, “your rod and staff comfort me.” A staff was used by a shepherd to guide and protect sheep, not to punish them. 

Other verses to consider: 

Revelation 3:19 NIV

Those whom I love I rebuke [convict] and discipline [train/chastise]. So be earnest and repent.

Deuteronomy 8:5-6 ESV

Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him.

Does all this mean that God is punishing us whenever something bad happens? No. Remember, discipline does not always have to equal punishment. We can choose to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit and avoid certain consequences. Plus, we live in a sinful world where the free-will choices of others affect us. However, God uses “all things” (Romans 8:28) to train us to rely on him, and be more like him. But, that is a discussion for another time.

God gives us the power we need to stay disciplined and cultivate self-control.

The good news is that God gives us the power to stay disciplined, obey, and therefore cultivate the fruit of self-control. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (self-control or sound judgment).

Self-control meaning “the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions…” And we will discuss self-control in more detail in Part 2.

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