Disciples Should Expect God’s Discipline
Throughout this season of COVID, I have been praying a lot. But I also haven’t always known how to say what I’m thinking or feeling. A lot of times, my prayers turn to asking God, “What are you doing behind the scenes during this time?” I’ve known that this is a historical moment for our corner of the human experience, and it feels like it is significant in some long-lasting way.
Recently, while I listened to his online sermon, David Young said some things that felt like an answer to some of my questions. His message focused on Deuteronomy 8 and the idea that throughout Scripture, God has used disease as a mode of disciplining. “I think the number was 102 times that the Bible talks about a plague or a pandemic. And 100 of those the Bible says God sent.”
And he challenged listeners to think about what God might be disciplining us about through this COVID pandemic.
Whenever I hear the word “discipline,” I cringe. I (along with many others, I think it’s safe to assume) associate it with “punishment” and the idea that something bad happens to us as a result of a mistake we have made. It seems controlling and manipulative. But as I rolled the word in my mind a bit more as I listened, it began to form new meaning.
For me as a first-time mother of a toddler, I am beginning a new role as discipliner, and it has made me shift my understanding of discipline and think twice about God’s discipline, especially in a time like this.
My daughter Beili was an early teether. She started getting her first teeth when she was four months old. She was still exclusively breastfeeding, and nursing went from being a time of deep bonding and unique love with my daughter to a time of dread, pain, and anxiety for both of us.
I knew Beili wasn’t biting me out of anger. But I also knew her habit had to change.
I needed discipline, but I didn’t know where to start. I tried telling her no, but with her limited linguistic capabilities at such a young age, she didn’t understand what I was saying. I tried making a mean face, looking at her directly, and speaking with an authoritative tone. But at her stage of development, she couldn’t really differentiate between facial expressions and thought my loud voice was just like a game of Peek-A-Boo.
Nothing seemed to be working, and the bites kept happening. I thought I would have to give up breastfeeding. I talked to other mothers to get advice and tried everything they suggested: batting her nose or mouth, spanking her, yelling or screaming, stopping the nursing once she bit, etc. Nothing worked.
It was my friend Hilarie who suggested that I pinch Beili’s thigh when she bit me and to not let go until she did too. And it worked–in a matter of days! Nursing returned to a time for us to bond and comfort each other.
Hilarie explained to me that biting was because of a sensation Beili was feeling for the first time. She was biting out of curiosity, to see how it felt to use these new pieces of bone that suddenly were in her mouth.
If she felt a small sense of pain at the same time that she bit, then she would stop doing it. Pinching her thigh discreetly would keep her from seeing that I was the one doing the pinching; to her, it was just some kind of a connection to biting.
We didn’t make a big deal out of it by stopping the feeding, getting loud, or getting in her face. It just helped her brain realize “If I want that pain in my thigh to stop, I need to stop using my teeth.” It made so much sense to me, and it made me feel much more confident in my choice to discipline. And once the biting stopped, there was no more need for the pinching.
My husband and I have sat down a few times to discuss discipline and to see where we draw the line, how we respond, etc. so we can be on the same page. And of course it makes both of us uncomfortable to think about punishing our daughter. But I’m reminded of something I have read in multiple parenting books now:
Discipline is a means of making your child into a well-adapted adult who can appropriately function in the world.
As Jo Frost puts it in her book Confident Toddler Care, “This is important in your family life, his future relationships, and his ability to exist in society in a healthy, functional way. It will affect everything from his ability to learn and create and sustain healthy, happy relationships to his success in life in the future. So, even when he’s young and it seems absurd to load him with information that you don’t think he’ll understand, it’s important to be consistent with discipline, because this will provide the boundaries that form the foundation of the way he operates both now and in the future” (99).
Hebrews 12:11 also reminds us that discipline seems hard in the moment but yields “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
I obviously can’t continue to allow Beili to bite. As she becomes older, biting would be a sign of aggression and disrespect, and this would cause quite a stigma toward her. Not to mention she would be hurting other people! I can help her stop that habit now so it will make her life richer in the future.
So it is with God. God’s discipline is not to punish us for something we have done wrong; it is a way to make us into well-adapted disciples who can appropriately function in the kingdom.
After all, “disciple” and “discipline” are closely related etymologically; they both come from the Latin word discipulus, which means pupil, student, or follower.
Discipline is actually a very natural step in the path of a disciple of Jesus. It is not Him tricking us with a pop quiz to see if we studied hard enough or taking away our favorite video game because we didn’t eat our vegetables; it is Him looking us in the eye, telling us, “Follow me,” and asking us to leave our past behind us (Matthew 4:19, 9:9, 16:24, 19:21, Luke 9:59, John 1:43).
So as you think through this year so far with the onslaught of difficulties it has brought each of us, think back to the question David Young posed:
“What could God possibly have been teaching me?”
How are you being disciplined into a better, stronger follower of Jesus? If you’re like me and are having trouble articulating your prayers through this time, start with asking God that and see what answers you find.