Discipline: Strict or Grace-based? Somewhere in between--Adults & Children


Nathan, Sarah, Joy and Joel, a few years ago--one of my favorite pictures--Yes, they are still pals and love being together.

"You train your children all the time, every time I am with you! I thought if you were "grace-based" that you probably never corrected them!"

On most theological issues, I almost always find myself in the middle of two extremes. I neither adopted lenient discipline, nor adhered to harshness, and adversarial discipline.

Seems our culture is prone to going to extremes. Especially in child-discipline. And can I also add that we adults are God's children, and He is in the process of disciplining us all the time, every day, all seasons. The answer lies in pondering God and His ways of dealing with us.

We read in Hebrews 12:11:

"No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening--it's painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way."

In another version, we read that afterward, "it produces a peaceful fruit of righteousness."

God's ultimate goal for us is to live up to our spiritual potential, to become like Him, like Jesus.

God disciplines us for our good, Hebrews tells us. As I look at my adult life, I can see that God has rarely taken me off the hook. He allows circumstances, trials, tests of every kind in my life to train and prepare me to be more like Jesus. He sees such amazing potential in my life because He knows He gave each of His children the potential to be spiritually strong, emotionally healthy, with an excellent moral character. So He trains and instructs and gives us lots of practice at growing strong inside.

But, he also works through my will. I have to decide to obey, trust, endure the training, have a good attitude, accept difficulties, learn to love as His spirit leads me to maturity. Much like what we do with our children.

But He also lavishes love, favor, pleasure, beauty on all of us and spends His life redeeming us and showing us His amazing love. It is not one or the other--neither strictness alone or grace  without training.

It is both training in righteousness and loving unconditionally and working hard to help build character.

How did you raise your children to be godly? How often did you discipline them? Was it every time?

Always, women want a formula, as it would make life so much easier. But, my answer would be that I studied and pondered God as a Father, His character, His ways, Jesus' life and model of training, loving, serving, correcting His own disciples. But training is a key component in scripture that is often left out of the argument of discipline.

Not too long ago, I was meeting with a sweet mom in a coffee shop and she brought her two children along. They were sweet children, but they were all over her and ran her ragged. I was talking with my older children later about it and asked them what we did differently because I knew I would never have let my children behave this way in public--it would have been too draining for me.

It was humorous to hear how opinionated they were, but it also reminded me how intentionally we taught them to be patient and to wait their turn--because they all remembered it the same way. It is the concept that I call self-government--probably a Victorian character quality that I read about along the way and in a book about the principle approach to life.

The definition of self-government is the idea that a person learns to command himself, his impulses, his work habits, his emotions, His intellect and talents and rule over his will in a productive way. Children can begin this at a very early age, but it is also of utmost importance to adults--as one cannot be a mature believer unless one has mastered self-government and self-control and patience.

The idea behind self-government is that all of us have a power and authority over life that comes from within that can help us to master problems, obstacles, and can use our self-will to achieve great things.

Adults who make excuses for their lives or always blame others for their unhappiness or irresponsibility, find themselves like the little children, unruly, unhappy, and whining always about life.

Becoming spiritually strong is not about gutting out life in the flesh without the power of God, but it is the idea that we have a moral character that can be strengthened and under girded by our will and by practice. He who has cultivated this kind of strong character is useful and productive in almost all areas of life. It is what helps a believer to exercise faith and courage and perseverance in the midst of trials. It is what helps a pianist to practice long hours, an athlete to exercise rigorously in order to become a champion, a missionary to master a language and remain faithful in a foreign country until there is a multiplying ministry; a wife to bear up with grace when married to an immature husband; a mother who continues over and over to practice patience with a sick or rebellious child--governing life by mature, faith-based choices, not by feelings.

An effective way that we taught this to our children was through training. Usually it started out with will-training. The biblical principle for this is found in Deuteronomy 30: 15-20:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

. God tells the Israelites to obey Him, and if they do, they will be blessed. If they don't obey, they will be cursed--there were consequences to their decisions. So He says, "So choose life and obey me so that you may live!" Similarly, in life all choices have consequences. Our children need to understand that "what we sow we will reap."

I used to say to my children over and over again. "Daddy and I cannot make you into great people. You have the power to determine how strong you become by how you exercise your will. We can train you and teach you how to be good and how to be righteous, but you have to decide to obey and you have to decide that you want to become a person of godly character. God made you such a wonderful child, so I hope you will decide to do your best to become all that you can be. It is in your hands. It is yours to decide to respond, but I am praying and hoping that you will."

When we appeal to our children's hearts for excellence and choices of good behavior, then we are giving them the will and desire to be excellent all for themselves. Their desire comes from within and their motivation is from their heart. But if we train them behaviorally by always forcing them to do what we want them to do because they might get a spanking, or another kind of threatened discipline, then their motivation is to avoid spanking or harshness but not to please God or to please their parents, by having a good heart and responding in obedience.

This works itself out practically by helping them to train their wills to develop strength and self control. Our children always remember us saying all the time, "You have a choice to make. If you obey me, then you will be blessed. But if you choose to disobey me, then you are choosing disciplinary consequences that will be unpleasant." for instance, if a toddler was whining, I would say, "Mommy is allergic to a whiny voice. If you can stop whining and use a normal voice, I will listen to you. If you want to keep crying and whining, then you must go to your room and when you can calm down, I will listen to you." At which point, I would take the toddler and place them in their room in their crib.

Even our toddlers learned the self-control of calming down and responding in a normal voice--gaining control of their little spirits. Or, "If you don't get your work finished by lunch time, then you will stay in your room and work alone while the rest of the children go outside for a picnic." Or if you don't get your chores finished, then you will have to clean the whole kitchen again tomorrow night, since you are showing me you need more practice. We wanted our children to find internal motivation to obey us and to learn that there were positive and negative consequences to their choices--just like in scripture. (Now, of course, the key to this is being consistent and following through unless there are mitigating circumstances--a child is ill, exhausted, overstimulated--often because the parent led the child to be overstimulated or exhausted because of a demanding and busy schedule--sometimes the only recourse a child has is to cry or complain if they have become physically or emotionally spent because of too much activity and demands on their young body.) There was always room for grace in our family, depending on the circumstances. But generally speaking, our children learned to expect us to be consistent.

This is the end of Part 1--Part 2 will be on Friday.