Not long ago, a mom was telling me and some other moms about how she taught her young child the Bible verse that says “All punishment is painful,” and how she explained that this is why spanking has to hurt, and that it’s God who says parents have to spank. She described how the teary kid would come to her after an infraction, and repeat the verse, and await the spanking.
Meanwhile, I’ve been conversing with a blogger friend on and off her blog as she blogs through her daily Bible readings — we’ve been largely discussing the punishments and judgments and afflictions occurring in the Old Testament.
These things and my ongoing journey toward a more gentle parenting have had me thinking rather a lot about punishment, parenting, and the Bible — whew!
First, that verse about painful punishment. Hebrews 12:11 reads:
- NASB “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
- NIV “No discipline 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.”
I looked at this verse in every English translation listed at Bible Gateway. “Discipline” and “chastening” occurred most frequently, while “chastisement,” “correction,” “training,” and “punishment” occurred least often.
“Punishment” and “discipline” are not synonyms — “discipline” is the broader word, with connotations of guidance, training, discipleship, teaching, correcting, and so on. It is possible to conceive of “discipline” including punitive methods. It is also possible to conceive of “discipline” as entirely non-punitive. So “punishment” is too narrow a word-choice for this verse.
When the verse states that discipline is painful, it is not a prescription, but a description. In other words, it’s not telling parents that they need to make sure their disciplinary measures hurt — it’s certainly not telling parents that spanking is the necessary tool of discipline. Instead, the author is merely stating that discipline is, in fact, painful — it is unpleasant to not get what we want, unpleasant to be disappointed or frustrated or limited or to have to wait. There are enough unpleasant things in life that we can learn from — there is no need for parents (or teachers or bosses or whoever) to create painful situations in order to discipline children (or employees or spouses or church members or whatever). Discipline IS painful — no one has to MAKE it painful.
Back to punishment. Some say there is such a thing as rehabilitative punishment — punishment that allegedly brings about repentance, restoration, redemption, reconciliation. These folks argue that this kind of punishment has a proper place in discipline. I don’t know if anyone argues that retributive punishment also has a place in parenting, but even if someone does so argue, it’s not part of discipline. Retribution is not discipline.
My impression is that studies of spanking, any kind of corporal punishment, indeed any kind of punishment at all, do not indicate that punishment is very effective for rehabilitation. Instead, the studies indicate that punishment erodes both relationships and moral development. Whatever results it may seem to get are generally surface results that depend on the continued presence and power of the punisher. Or else, if the punishment is especially severe and long-lasting, the results are psychologically crippling. That hardly sounds like a harvest of real peace of the fruit of real righteousness.
And that brings me to the conversation about God’s punishments in the Bible. In multiple books and passages, there are statements like “I punished you, but you didn’t turn back to me!”
Given the studies about punishment, it doesn’t seem to be that surprising that people would not turn toward the person punishing them. So what is God getting at in these passages?
Is it that the biblical authors are interpreting natural afflictions as punishments deliberately sent? That’s problematic for me, because, while I think there is wide room for interpretation and the significance of genre, I am very reluctant to question statements in the Bible that are directly attributed to God. If the Bible says God said something, I want to believe that God said it.
Is it that God really does deliberately send such things as punishments, at least some of the time? There are other cases that make it clear that not all disasters are specific judgments — Jesus talked about the tower that fell on some people, or the guy who was born blind but not because he or his parents sinned. But if some disasters are direct judgments, then the question is, did God really expect that they would be effective instruments for bringing about repentance and reconciliation?
If so, then what does that imply, if anything, for parenting? I am more and more persuaded against punitive parenting, and so I am more and more reluctant to think the Bible calls for it or demonstrates it in any way. My friend points out that a) God is not always painted as a parent, and that b) God bends to speak and act in ways that would be understood at the time and place. True… and yet… I’m not yet persuaded!
What I have started to think about is, what if God is using this ineffective cycle of punishments and falling away to demonstrate that punishment is never going to be the way of salvation? What if it’s pointing the way to Christ as not only the final perfect sacrifice for sin, the atonement, but also as the demonstration of God’s kindness, which Romans says leads us to repentance?
It seems to me that whatever repentance and reconciliation happened in response to a punishment from God, was not a lasting thing — just like results from punitive parenting don’t last. And these instances of repentance and restoration were not deep enough, not reaching the hearts of the people, but more calculated, more fearful, more driven, more attempts to win back God’s favor on people’s own effort?
It seems to me that only Christ’s kindness, along with his work on the Cross, can effect real heart change, invite true repentance, provide authentic reconciliation.
And yet, if this idea is true, why did God speak as he did, as if surprised that the people weren’t repenting every time and forever?