When you hear the word “discipline,” what comes to mind?
For people in education, the term might relate to foundational teaching disciplines like English, math and science, perhaps social studies. There are other subjects, of course, but good ole readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic remain the standards – the essential disciplines – for basic learning.
Then there’s the discipline required for high levels of achievement. Even people with great innate talent need great discipline to refine their crafts. I think of virtuoso pianists and violinists who devote countless hours to meticulously repeating the fundamental skills that enable them to perform flawlessly.
I like what leadership consultant Tim Kight has observed: “It’s said that elite performers are gifted, but that can be misleading. The key factor in performance is the mindset and drive to do the work to build skill. Talent is a gift. Doing the work is a choice. Everyone can build next-level skill – if they are willing to do the work.” He’s talking about discipline.
Did you know Michael Jordan, one of the best if not the best basketball player of all time, was cut from his high school basketball team? It helped when he experienced a major growth spurt soon afterward, but it was discipline – spending thousands of hours on a basketball court shooting and dribbling – that propelled him to NBA greatness.
But there’s yet another expression of discipline we should consider, the most unpopular kind. It’s the discipline that seeks to discourage wrong behavior and encourage good behavior. The discipline that we sometimes consider synonymous with “don’t.”
For instance, when people painfully admit their BMI (Body Mass Index) is higher than it should be, or their pants fit a bit tighter these days, we can blame it on the pandemic, right? But discipline is what helps them push away from the table, or avoid the chips aisle at the grocery store. Someone struggling with alcohol can turn to discipline for keeping them out of bars or liquor stores.
Many people seem to find the idea of discipline distasteful for parenting. They equate it with “punishing,” even though the intent and results of discipline and punishment are usually very different. The goal of discipline is to correct or guide, helping someone to find and stay on the right path. Punishment works more along the lines of retribution or “pay back” – you did something bad, so now something bad will be done to you.
This confusion leads some to shun discipline altogether. A parent might reason, “I don’t discipline my child. I want him (or her) to be independent, a free thinker.” But discipline is what keeps that “free thinker” from running in front of a passing car, or setting the house on fire playing with matches.
Discipline is a recurring them in the Scriptures. A well-known verse states, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). We could interpret this in terms of spiritual convictions, but more accurately it’s talking about discipline, teaching children to follow their natural bent and encouraging them in their unique personality, interests and proficiencies.
Proverbs 13:18 states, “He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored.” A verse earlier in the chapter adds to that: “A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, but a mocker does not listen to rebuke” (Proverbs 13:1). Growing into a responsible, mature adult who makes good decisions doesn’t happen by accident. It takes discipline – accepting it and then learning to utilize it.
A number of other Bible passages speak to the importance of discipline. Proverbs 13:24 warns, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” This doesn’t mean beating a child, but using careful, loving correction to mold character and behavior.
Proverbs 3:11-12 tells us discipline is a vital part of spiritual growth, that God uses it for our good and out of His great love for us: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”
We find that message affirmed in Hebrews 12:5-6, which admonishes, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciples those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” To me, this means God isn’t like a kindly but passive grandfather who shakes his head at a grandchild’s wrongdoing and simply says, “Kids do the darnedest things.” The Lord loves us the way we are – but loves us too much to let us stay that way.
So the next time you find God disciplining you, don’t resist. Just pay attention and receive the lesson to be learned. As Jesus said, “I am the vine, and my father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:1-2).
If we could ask a rosebush or some other flowering plant how it felt being pruned, it might respond, “It hurt!” But next growing season, because of that “discipline,” the plant will flourish more than ever. That’s exactly what the Lord has in mind when He engages us to His sometimes difficult disciplinary process.