It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:7-11 ESV).
“Discipline” is a word that often conjures up unpleasant experiences, mostly because discipline is normally seen in terms of chastening and correction. While chastening and correction are important elements of discipline, discipline involves much more. Discipline is a critical element in the life of anyone who seeks to serve and please God; without it, as the Hebrew author indicates, we are as illegitimate children, not sons, and therefore not inheritors of the promise (Hebrews 12:8)! Gaining discipline in one’s life is of the utmost importance.
But what is discipline? The Greek word used for discipline, paideia, is defined by Thayer’s as the following:
1. The whole training and education of children (which relates to the cultivation of mind and morals, and employs for this purpose now commands and admonitions, now reproof and punishment). It also includes the training and care of the body.
2. Whatever in adults also cultivates the soul, especially by correcting mistakes and curbing passions: instruction which aims at increasing virtue; chastisement, chastening, (of the evils with which God visits men for their amendment).
Discipline, therefore, is more than negative correction and reproof. Discipline involves complete training and education and the development of proper attitudes and habits.
Discipline is most easily understood in terms of children. Fathers are commanded to raise their children in the discipline of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). This discipline does involve correction of disobedient and improper behavior (Proverbs 22:15, 23:13, 29:15). But if the father only corrects negative behavior, he is not properly disciplining his child. Discipline involves training the child on every level (cf. Proverbs 22:6). Discipline also requires the father to encourage the child when he or she obeys and exhibits proper behavior. The father must also instruct the child as to what is proper behavior: to respect authority figures, to be kind to all people, to do what God tells them to do, and so on (1 Peter 2:17, Ephesians 4:32, Romans 6:16-18, etc.). If a father is not providing instruction, encouragement, and correction, the father is not truly disciplining his son or daughter according to the Lord’s will!
Yet discipline is like many other aspects of parenting (and life): it is more easily caught than taught. If parents do not show discipline in their lives, how can they teach their children to be disciplined? They can set forth all the rules, encourage their children when they do what is right, provide correction when they do what is wrong, but what will the children really learn if the parents are themselves undisciplined?
All who believe in Jesus Christ must have discipline themselves. In the sense of instruction, God provides this discipline, as the Hebrew author indicates in Hebrews 12:7-11. We have His instruction within the pages of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and the trials and tribulations of life are designed to correct us and guide us in the right path (James 1:2-4). Suffering means that we are truly children of God, and not illegitimate (Hebrews 12:8, Romans 8:17)! If we are obedient, we hope to obtain the approval of our Lord and the promised inheritance of eternal life (Matthew 25:14-30, 1 Peter 1:3-9). Therefore, just as a father disciplines the son whom he loves, so God disciplines us His children whom He loves.
The goal of discipline is to provide the proper boundaries of life and guide us in our decision making: this is as true for adults as it is for children. How can we do what is right and avoid what is wrong if we have never learned what is right or wrong (Romans 12:9, Hebrews 5:14)? How can we establish proper priorities in our lives if we have never learned how to do so (Matthew 6:33)? If we have never seen these things practiced or modeled for us, how will we learn how to live?
The Bible helps us to understand the need for discipline with the imagery of the runner in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and Hebrews 12:1-2. Excellence in sporting competitions only comes after intense devotion and practice. If a person desires to be a champion runner, he or she must run and train constantly. Their schedules, diet, and sleeping patterns, among other things, must revolve around running. The winner of the race is one who unflinchingly focuses on his or her performance, both before and during the race day. This requires great discipline in the extreme.
This is precisely the point that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. Christianity is just like that race. We will only be excellent Christians if we are intensely devoted to Jesus and practice what He says (Galatians 2:20, 1 John 2:6). We must constantly learn about and live the message of Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:13-16, 2 Peter 3:18). How we function in our lives– work, family, recreation, and so forth– revolve around our commitment to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-6:9). The believer who is saved is the one who unflinchingly focuses on Jesus Christ and His will throughout his or her life (Matthew 6:33, Matthew 10:22, 1 John 2:1-6). And this is why, as Paul says, we must discipline our bodies and keep them under control (1 Corinthians 9:27)! This is why we must run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1-2)!
This discipline cannot be forced upon anyone– it must be the free will decision of the believer to accept such discipline and do the best that they can to live disciplined lives. If a believer has a healthy sense of discipline, it will be that much easier for him to raise his children in the discipline of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). A believer that has good discipline will exhibit self-control and sober-mindedness, and temptations for sin will not be as acute (1 Peter 4:10, James 1:14-15). Moderation, and not excess, will characterize their lives, and they will be known for their generosity and kindness (Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 4:32). Their single-minded focus on God and His purposes will be evident to all, and their example and efforts will likely bear fruit for God’s Kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:5-8).
Discipline is not easy to develop, and only Jesus lived in perfect discipline (Hebrews 5:7-8, etc.). Nevertheless, the more focused we are on Jesus Christ, the more we learn about and strive to cling to the good and to abhor the evil, and the more self-control and sober-mindedness we develop, the better our lives will be as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us accept the discipline of the Lord and live within it!