Question: “When, how, and why does the Lord God discipline us when we sin?”
Answer: The Lord’s discipline is an oft-ignored fact of life for believers. The Bible teaches that, as our loving Heavenly Father, God disciplines us. His discipline is not doubtful; it is assured:
“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” (Hebrews 12:5–6, quoting Proverbs 3:11–12).
God’s “discipline” (“chastisement” in the NKJV) and “rebuke” come to “everyone.” His correction is, in fact, a sign of His love for His children, and we are to “not lose heart” when we experience it.
Human fathers have a responsibility to train their children (see Ephesians 6:4), and part of that training is to administer discipline. Just as human fathers wisely discipline their children, so does God: “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” (Hebrews 12:7–8). As we undergo God’s discipline, we can rejoice in at least one fact: God is treating us as true children of His (see Deuteronomy 8:5)!
Discipline is not the same as condemnation. God disciplines His children, but He does not condemn them. Romans 8:1 makes this clear: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (cf. Romans 8:33–34). Discipline has to do with training and growth; condemnation has to do with punishment and guilt.
When does God discipline us? Discipline is training, and that training involves both positive and negative aspects. Part of discipline is simply guiding someone to follow certain rules or to observe certain behaviors. Another part of discipline involves reproof to correct disobedience. Both aspects of discipline can be tough. The trials Job endured were not a punishment for sin (see Job 1:8), but they were training in righteousness (see Job 42:3, 6), and Job emerged from his trial a better man.
God’s discipline begins when we are born again into His family. We immediately begin to learn and understand the Word of God and adjust our lives accordingly. This is a blessing in our lives:
“Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord, the one you teach from your law;
you grant them relief from days of trouble” (Psalm 94:12–13).
This type of discipline is more preventative than corrective. Troubled days are coming, and the Lord would spare us.
God’s discipline also comes when we sin. In such cases, the chastisement is meant to be corrective. David, in one of his penitential psalms, expresses his desire that God moderate the severity of the punishment:
“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” (Psalm 38:1–4).
In this psalm, David admits his guilt and thus acknowledges that God’s punishment is just; at the same time, the sharp and crushing nature of the discipline seems more than he can bear, and he asks for help.
Charles Spurgeon’s note on Psalm 38 includes a paraphrase of David’s appeal: “Rebuked I must be, for I am an erring child and thou a careful Father, but throw not too much anger into the tones of thy voice; deal gently although I have sinned grievously. The anger of others I can bear, but not thine. . . . Chasten me if thou wilt, it is a Father’s prerogative, and to endure it obediently is a child’s duty; but, O turn not the rod into a sword, smite not so as to kill. True, my sins might well inflame thee, but let thy mercy and long-suffering quench the glowing coals of thy wrath. O let me not be treated as an enemy or dealt with as a rebel. Bring to remembrance thy covenant, thy fatherhood, and my feebleness, and spare thy servant” (Treasury of David, Volume II, Funk & Wagnalls, 1885, p. 220).
How does God discipline us? God can and does use various methods of discipline. He may use trouble at work, hardship at home, or travail in the ministry; Paul had many difficulties in life (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). God may allow us to experience loss, as David did (2 Samuel 12:13–18). God may send physical ailments or even death, as the church of Corinth learned (1 Corinthians 11:17–22, 30–32). Often, God will simply allow the natural consequences of our sin to run their course. We are forgiven, but we are corrected “so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32).
Why does God discipline us? He is a good Father who wants what’s best for His children. Humanly speaking, no child will reach his or her full potential without training and discipline. The virtuoso violinist would never have reached the concert hall without discipline. The record-setting athlete would never have excelled in any sport without discipline. Following that principle, here are some reasons that we experience God’s discipline:
- God disciplines His children because He loves them. God disciplines His children to make them more mature. • God disciplines His children to increase their capacity for virtue. • God disciplines His children to keep them on the right path.
• God disciplines His children to grow their faith. • God disciplines His children to purify them from sin.
The result of God’s discipline is holiness and maturity: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4). The Lord continues to work with us, as a potter does the clay, and His discipline is for our good and His glory.