Punishment vs. Discipline

Even if you have found a good “home church” to belong to, it helps to visit other ministries from time to time, if just to get another perspective on the Word and connect with fellow believers. Last week, I attended the Chinese Christian Church and Center in Philly’s Chinatown district and heard a great sermon delivered by Wayne Lee.

In Wayne’s sermon, he covered Hebrews 12, one of my favorite chapters speaking to the discipline God exhibits in those He loves. There will be times when a believer is subject to difficult circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. There are clear distinctions between punishment and discipline that we often overlook when faced with a crisis scenario.

How often do we go to God just to deliver us from our difficult situations?

It’s easy to think that God keeps watch over us by keeping us shielded from peril, yet, sometimes that peril is actually part of His doing. Think back to the book of Job for instance. God loved Job dearly, yet God also allowed the devil to wreak havoc upon Job’s life. Why? In order to discipline Job and strengthen him in the process towards his eventual sanctification. Job didn’t do anything wrong to deserve the unfortunate circumstances that fell upon him. Unbeknownst at the time, there was a spiritual battle being fought for his soul. So this kind of lousy situation Job faced was definitely not a punishment.

According to Wayne Lee, punishment tends to only give the level of the appropriate penalty for the sin that was committed. Discipline is different because it is done in the hope of changing future behavior. Through discipline, we are taught a lesson that we can apply to the future.

So does God ever punish His children or discipline them? When we are suffering, it’s easy to think that maybe we actually deserve it, because of some recent offense against God. In these moments, we might dwell upon a particular sin from the past that perhaps we have not asked forgiveness for.

Yet, if you are a Christian, you are definitely not being punished.

If believers were truly being punished, the punishment would be complete separation from God. Romans 6:23 says the punishment for sin is death. So if we were to get the appropriate punishment for our offenses—it would no doubt be death.

So instead of getting what we really deserve, we get what we don’t deserve—God’s grace. That is why Jesus came to this earth in the first place. To endure the wrath of God so we could enjoy what we clearly do not deserve. On the flip side of the coin, non-believers in Christ will be punished on the day of judgement, according to Scripture.

Yet, the question remains—why does God discipline us? Why can’t He just give us a pain-free life to enjoy if Christ has already paid the price for our sins in advance? There are two points, Wayne presents…

1) Because He loves us.

Hebrews 12:5-8

And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.

Take this scenario as an example. Two little boys get in trouble by one of the boys’ mom. Yet only one of the boys (the actual son) gets reprimanded or disciplined severely by his mother, while the others escapes with nothing more than a brief, painless scolding. The son wonders why his friend got to escape his mother’s wrath while he did not. The mother responds with, “I discipline you because you are my son. And I discipline you, because I love you.”

This could answer why oftentimes we see others, specifically non-believers in our social circles, get handed the so-called “easy life” by God, while we believers are left to struggle. It’s a fact that God will let “the other children” do their own thing because He doesn’t love them as much as He loves us. If we are to be considered His children, like Scripture outlines, than we should expect the same kind of parental providence all throughout our lives.

2) So that we might live.

Hebrews 12:9-10
Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.

Hebrews 12:14
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

We might believe that God can turn our suffering for good. But what we really need to realize is that God doesn’t just react to our suffering, He can also allow the suffering for our own good.

Through discipline, it’s almost like God will examine the distractions in our lives (or perhaps even idols) with a fine tooth comb and the intention that certain things have got to go, as they may be preventing us from having a full relationship with Him. Through the hardship of this discipline, God is constantly looking at ways to chisel away at our lives so that we can be holy. Remember, without holiness no one will see the Lord (verse 14). So without this sanctification, we cannot possibly be in the true presence of God.

Wayne goes on to make another distinction between earthly fathers and the Heavenly Father. Earthly fathers train us for adulthood. Our Heavenly Father trains us for holiness. After a while, it is inappropriate for a parent to discipline a child once they grow up to become adults. But God’s parenting never stops. The goal in His parenting is not adulthood, but rather holiness.

If an earthly father fails in his parenting, it results in immaturity. Yet if the Heavenly Father fails in His parenting, the result is death.

So the question is, will you trust that God is in control, even if you are suffering?

The wrong mindset is that a good God only keeps bad things from us. When you are enduring discipline, see it as God’s love for you. Sometimes, He needs to break down our pride, or the earthly things we are leaning on so that we can fully trust in Him.

There are two bits of encouragement for you here.

One, check out the previous chapter (Hebrews 11) to be reminded of the witnesses to God’s glory that endured that discipline forever. In theology, this chapter is also known as the “the hall of fame.”

Two, remember that Jesus endured the cross for the joy that had been set before Him (Hebrews 12:2). He looked forward to the joy of eternity that He would spend with us. When we “bear our crosses,” we can look forward to seeing Jesus in eternity in the same way He looks forward to seeing us. We are not left alone. It is God Himself that is directing our path. And through discipline, He is merely showing us the way to Himself.

So let’s run this race with endurance as we look to the finish line knowing that God is right there with us each step of the way, no matter how difficult that way may seem. Keep the faith, friend. You’re one step closer to what He wants to show you. He’s just preparing you beforehand so you can fully appreciate and discover the true value of it.