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  • Lindsay Esterline

Discipline, Self-Control, and Punishment in the Bible (Part 3)

In the previous parts of this series we concluded that discipline is the guidance and training that leads to obedience.  Self-control is the resulting character trait that makes obedience possible. We also pointed out that the words ‘discipline’ and ‘self-control’ are often associated with the word ‘punishment.’ So, let’s take a look at why that may be the case. Then we will take a look at what the Bible has to say about punishment. 


What is Punishment?

We tend to think of punishment as “any negative consequences of our thoughts and actions.” This is a bit different than the dictionary definition of “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.” There is room for the dictionary definition in the general understanding. For example, if I commit a crime there are negative consequences that can include an inflicted penalty for my offense (if I get caught) in addition to any psychological, social, or health issues that may naturally arise depending on the type of crime. 


Close up of a gavel in a courtroom

Why make the distinction? I believe it is important to include natural consequences as part of this dialogue. There may not be an “other” imposing a penalty for our poor choices. We punish ourselves with the natural consequences of stepping outside of God’s plan for our lives, but I don’t believe that all negative circumstances are God’s punishment (see Job). 


Let’s continue to use the athletic training analogy from Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. If an athlete decides not to stay on the training program provided by the coach, the coach may call for a “punishment” of extra laps, or sets of exercise, or a stricter diet, in order to make up for the losses caused by the athlete's choices. But, is the coach really punishing the athlete, or is he realigning the program to ensure that the athlete meets the goal? Alternatively, the coach could do nothing and allow the natural consequence of not reaching goals to happen. So, whether there is an “other” demanding retribution or not, ultimately the athlete is responsible for the negative outcome. 


Because of our sinful nature, humanity struggles with discipline and self-control. The result is that we are often experiencing the negative consequences of that struggle. We then associate these positive traits (discipline and self-control) with our failures to achieve them. The resulting negative consequences we consider our “punishment.” This, I believe, is how discipline and self-control become associated with punishment.  


Why is this conversation so important?

God is not pacing in heaven, waiting for us to mess up. Pain and negative consequences were never a part of his plan (2 Peter 3:9). Lucifer allowed sin to enter the universe (Ezekiel 28:16-17), and humanity allowed sin to enter our world (Genesis 3:1-6). The consequences have been devastating. The consequences are not a result of God actively inflicting a punishment, but a result of him allowing us to see the results of choosing to step outside of his plan for us. 


Now our choice is the “extra workouts and stricter diet,” or to fall short of our goal. We can choose the rehabilitation plan, or the negative outcome. Salvation and restoration, or judgment and punishment. The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “Wages” are not “inflicted.” They are earned. We choose death or life with our decisions. 


Is God actively inflicting pain or is he allowing the consequences to be felt in the name of discipline? 


Adam and Eve

Let’s consider the results of Adam and Eve choosing to trust the serpent instead of God, the first sinful choice. Note that when God pronounced judgment he cursed the serpent and the ground, but not Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:14-19). God did not inflict pain upon the serpent. He just removed the serpent’s wings and/or legs (the curse implies the serpent had appendages that prevented it from being on its belly). God also stated the obvious - that there would be “enmity” or hostility between the woman and the serpent moving forward. It makes sense that humans would be hostile toward the animal that was used as a vessel by their tempter. 


The pronouncement at the end of verse 15, “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” is not for the animal, but for Satan who used the animal. God is sharing the plan of salvation here (Ephesians 1:4-6). The enemy of God, and now the enemy of humanity, was put on notice!


The words “I will” in Genesis 3:14-19 seem problematic for my position that God does not inflict pain. I believe that these words are not active, but passive. God is not inflicting the pain; he is allowing the negative consequences of the sinful choices. God is essentially warning Adam and Eve that because they chose to align themselves with the kingdom of Satan, they can expect pain - physically, emotionally, relationally. The alternative would have been immediate, eternal death (Romans 6:23).


Job

In the story of Job we find another example of God allowing pain to be inflicted on humanity. The story begins with a meeting of the “sons of God” (Job 1:6-7). This implies that earth isn’t the only world God has created, and that representatives of these worlds are invited to meet with God in heaven. Satan shows up as a representative of earth (Adam gave his dominion over to Satan when he sinned - 2 Corinthians 4:4; John 12:31).


In the course of Satan crashing this heavenly meeting, God points out the loyalty of Job. Satan accuses God of protecting and prospering Job to keep that loyalty. “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11). Satan tells God to inflict pain to test Job. God responds by saying I will allow you to test him (1:12). This escalated to Job losing everything including his health.


The understanding at that time was that if bad things were happening to you it was because you sinned, and God was punishing you. This is exactly what Job’s friends say chapter after chapter, “You must deserve this, so repent.” But, because this “punishment” was unprovoked by Job, he maintains his innocence chapter after chapter. He tries to point out the flaw in his friends’ understanding of the awful situation he is in. He tells his friends that there is plenty of evidence that evil flourishes in this world (goes unpunished). Job defends God’s character, but at the same time accuses God of acting unjustly (the sin he repents of in 42:3-6).


Job endured these trials not as a punishment for sin (Job 1:8), but as training in righteousness (Job 42:3, 6). The ordeal showed Job that he was capable of following Satan’s lead in accusing God of wrong. Thankfully Job’s encounter with God opened his eyes, and he emerged from his trial a better man.


Hebrews 12:7 says, “Endure hardship as discipline…” Like Job, we are not privy to the behind the scenes workings of God and Satan. All we need to know is that God is for us (Jeremiah 29:11), and Satan is against us (Ephesians 6:12)! Struggles are not God’s punishment, but they are used by him for the refinement of our character. He allows us to endure trials to confront us with our need. 


Pharaoh and the Exodus

This story is always a tough one. In Exodus 4:21 says that God will “harden” pharaoh’s heart against following God’s command to let the Israelites go. Plus, there are 10 plagues that end with the first born in many families being killed. So, I can understand if a surface reading of this story leads you to believe that God is a violator of free will, and vengeful. 


Pharaoh’s free will was not violated. He did have a choice. God presented him with a choice ten times! “Let my people go, or suffer the consequences,” was what it boiled down to. Because God was acting on the Israelites’ behalf, he was taking responsibility for the choice that Pharaoh would make. God knows us all better than we know ourselves (1 Samuel 16:7; Psalm 139:1-6), so he knew what choice Pharaoh would make in the scenario. 


Moses parting the Red Sea

The word “hardened” is an interesting translation of the the Hebrew חָזַק (ḥāzaq) which is also translated as “strengthened” or “encouraged” among other things. For example in 2 Samuel 11:25 David is sending a messenger to “encourage” Joab so that he will “strengthen” the battle. David also “encouraged [ḥāzaq] himself in the Lord” in 1 Samuel 30:6.


I am not a Hebrew scholar, so I am not sure if there is a better translation of the word in Pharaoh’s context. But, I feel there must be a better word than “harden” given the other translations of the word. Some versions use the word “stubborn”. The Literal Standard Version does say “strengthen his heart”. My understanding of what is being communicated is that God knows that with every command, and accompanying sign/plague when Pharaoh says no, that Pharaoh will choose to become more and more firm in his opposition to God (aka stubborn). So, God is saying in Exodus 4:21, “I know that when given the choice, Pharaoh will refuse to let the people go.”


This leads to my next point. The “plagues” were signs against the gods of Egypt. God was showing Pharaoh and the Egyptian people that he was the only true God. For example, Hapi was the Egyptian god of the Nile. This god was a water bearer, so turning water to blood (Exodus 7) for seven days demonstrated God’s superiority over this Egyptian god. Each plague showed God’s power over a corresponding Egyptian god. This included the son of Ra, Pharaoh himself (death of the first born).


If you reread the Exodus account, you will find that as the plagues intensified some of the Egyptians heeded the warnings and avoided the consequences. For example, the Egyptians that brought their livestock and servants in when they were warned avoided the loss of life during the hailstorm (Exodus 9:20). We also find in this account that Pharaoh knew he had sinned (Exodus 9:27), and yet after Moses stopped the storm Pharaoh is said to have hardened his heart again in verse 34. 


God mercifully gave any Egyptian who would listen the opportunity to avoid the consequences of the next plague. This extended through to the last plague, the death of the first born. At the point of the final plague the Egyptian people had seen nine other miraculous signs of the Hebrew God’s superiority. If they chose not to paint their doorposts with the blood of the Passover lamb, then they sentenced their child to death. The Bible is clear that choosing to ignore the commands of God, and choosing a path outside of his plan, leads to death (Romans 6:23).


As a result of God’s ten signs against the Egyptian gods, many Egyptians joined the Hebrew exodus (Exodus 12:38). 


King David

In the case of King David, many of the trials he faced were the result of his sin. God intended the consequences of his actions, and the intervention via the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:7-14), to show him the error of his ways. 


In Psalm 38:1-4 David admits his guilt, but is asking God to mitigate his consequences:


“Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger

or discipline me in your wrath.

Your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down on me.

Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;

there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.

My guilt has overwhelmed me

like a burden too heavy to bear.”


God mercifully reducing the severity of our consequences is supported by scripture. The Bible tells us that in spite of what we see, God is holding back some of the consequences we would face without his intervention (Revelation 7:1). And after all, that is what Christ ultimately did for us at the cross! Jesus took the punishment of death that we deserved, so that we can have the reward of life that he deserves! However, we must also recognize the result of giving our dominion of this world over to Satan. This means that bad things will happen to good people, good things will happen to bad people. Thankfully, we have a loving God that can “work all things together” for our good (Romans 8:28)! 


We have discussed so far that God allows us to experience the consequences of sin, whether it be our own sin (David) or the sin of another (Job) as part of a disciplined plan of character development. So, where does “punishment” come in?


God’s Judgment and Punishment in the Bible

God “imposes a penalty for an offense, ” or punishment, after he makes his judgment. No one seems to have issue with the wicked being destroyed by God at the final judgment, yet many have issue with his judgements in the Old Testament stories. 


So, let’s do a quick review of the example stories below. I believe this will show that God has always been clear about his expectations (laws), and longsuffering - giving ample warnings and opportunities for repentance. We have already seen how Pharaoh and the Egyptians had ignored God’s word, and warning ten times!


The Flood

The story of Noah and the flood begins in Genesis 6. In verse five we see, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” A commonly held understanding based on Genesis 6:3 is that Noah preached repentance during the 120 years that it took to build the ark (2 Peter 2:5). The Bible is not explicit about how long it took to build the ark, but you can imagine that the task was quite an undertaking and would therefore take a significant amount of time. 


Over the span of this time the people watched as Noah gathered materials and faithfully built the ark. They watched supplies being loaded. They watched God guide animals into the ark (Genesis 7:8-9). They saw God shut the huge door (Genesis 7:16). Then God waited for seven days before the waters came (Genesis 7:10).


God gave the people years of warning, and signs, to accept salvation. 


Joshua and Jericho

For our purposes, the title should really be “Rahab and Jericho.” This story is about the total destruction of a key stronghold of the Canaanites. Joshua sent spies across the river to scout the city. These scouts had a very telling conversation with a prostitute that lived in the wall of the city. 


Not only did Rahab risk her life to hide the scouts from Jericho guards, and tell them how to escape capture, but she also told them that word of the Hebrew God had made it to the region. In Joshua 2 starting in verse 9 she says, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us…We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan…for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”


What does this tell us? The people of Jericho have known about the God of Heaven for 40 years (since the parting of the Red Sea), and have not changed their evil ways. God has been patient and longsuffering with the people of Jericho for at least that long. 


What else does the story of Rahab tell us? Rahab’s story tells us that acknowledging the God of Heaven, and choosing to side with him, will save you. Had all the people of Jericho done the same, the story would have been much different. God showed mercy to Rahab and her family, and her home was the only safe place in the city. In faith, she rejected the culture that surrounded her in favor of the Lord. She went from a prostitute on the fringes of an evil city to a member of the family of God and in the ancestral line of Jesus(Joshua 6:25).


Babylonian Captivity

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, 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.


There are many more stories that demonstrate God’s patience, and warning before punishment. God always offers mercy with repentance. And while many of these punishments seem dramatic, remember that the effects of sin have been more dramatic! Remember the dramatic, loving lengths God took for our salvation through Jesus Christ!


How will sin come to an end if God doesn’t intervene? 

The Bible says we are at war (Ephesians 6:10-12). In the same way you would be justified in using lethal force to protect your family from home invasion, God is justified in punishing the evil that has invaded his space and threatens his children.


If you are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of evil in the world, it is because God is allowing us to see the consequences of sin. He is exposing sin for what it is. God permits evil to be exposed so that all can see the justice of his impending judgment. He wants ALL to see the fairness and justice of his ways. 


The Final Judgement and Ultimate Punishment

In Romans 1 Paul tells us that God’s anger, or wrath, is not like ours. God’s wrath is not against men, but against ungodliness or unrighteousness (v18). Sin is destructive and that is why it angers him. Later, in Galatians Paul explains what the smallest amount of sin can do, “A little leaven [a slight inclination to error, or a few false teachers] leavens the whole batch [it perverts the concept of faith and misleads the church]” (Galatians 5:9 AMP).


In Romans 1 God is saying, “I am angry about this sin, and this is attached to you. You know better (v19-20).” Because God makes himself known-as we have seen in the examples above- there is no excuse for sin at the judgment. In verse 24 there are those that make a choice to abandon God, so God honors that choice. “I won’t force myself on you, but understand you will bear the consequences.”


Paul writes in Romans 2 that God’s judgment is not like ours. Our judgment is partial. God’s judgment “is based on truth.” We have seen that his judgements have been more than fair; they have been merciful to those that will accept the gift of grace and turn from their sinful ways (2 Chronicles 7:14; Acts 3:19; Ephesians 2:8). 


Ultimately, God reveals the darkness you are choosing when you experience the consequences of your sinful choices and actions. God wants to save us from sin. He says, “Repent now, so that you can avoid punishment at the judgment” (Romans 2:5). We are saved by grace through faith, not works, and yet our choices have consequences - good or bad. Is your development of character, the trajectory of your life, revealing a commitment to God or to sin?


It is God’s mercy and grace that sustains our lives here on a sinful earth. He is giving us an opportunity to choose the gift of life and salvation (1 Timothy 2:3-4). However, God’s longsuffering must eventually give way to justice (Revelation 18-19). It is in his mercy that he waits for us to choose salvation, and it will be in mercy for those that choose him that he will end sin once and for all. 


The ultimate punishment for sin will be eternal separation from God, known as the second death (Revelation 20:14). 


One day Jesus will stand up in heaven and declare that probation is over (Revelation 22:11). He will come in glory to gather the righteous (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Those that have not accepted the free gift of salvation will die (2 Thessalonians 2:8); this is the first death, the death we currently experience (not an eternal death). 


After the Millennium in heaven, God will move with us back to Earth (Revelation 21:3,4, 22). The unrighteous, who already experience the first death, will be resurrected to face the final judgment along with Satan and his demons (Revelation 20:10,12,15). 


God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:28-29). He will no longer shield those that harbor sin from this consequence. Sin and those that cling to it will be consumed. They will not burn eternally, but their destruction will be eternal–there is no coming back from the second death. (I will have more on death and hell soon.)


With sin gone forever, God will comfort his people (Revelation 21:4). We will live in harmony with our God for eternity! Hallelujah! 



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