Growing up Hispanic, spanking was a part of normal life. It’s how I was disciplined, it’s how my mother was disciplined, it’s how my mother’s mother was disciplined. And it was how I would discipline… at least until I discovered the truth about Godly discipline.
Amongst my church community, I would often hear the words “spare the rod, spoil the child” as a means to justify striking a child in anger.
At the time, it just made sense to not question it… that is until I had my firstborn.
All of the sudden, the idea of physically punishing my child just didn’t make sense. I could not reconcile the God I had come to know with a command to beat my child into submission (proverbs 23:13).
I decided to take a real good look at the scriptures and this is what I discovered:
“Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child” isn’t even a Bible verse…
This phrase, even though quoted like scripture, is taken from a poem written by Samuel Butler in the 1600s. The poem itself is not even a poem about parenting or children. Although the phrase sounds a lot like Proverbs 13:24, it doesn’t reflect the actual verse or the context of the verse.
Throughout the scriptures, the word “rod” is used time and time again. And each time it is used it can mean a few things, three of which are:
- A Scepter used by Kings
- A Shepherding tool
- A stick used to beat a slave (considered one’s property at that time)
In the context of proverbs 13:24, we can rule out the sceptre example which leaves the shepherding rod or the rod used to beat slaves.
Those who believe in corporal punishment would most likely lean more to the side of using the rod as a punishment tool like with the slaves. But I just can’t reconcile this with the way God interacted with his children in scripture.
The Shepherd’s Rod and the Lord’s Discipline
The Scriptures are filled with imagery, teachings, statements etc. of God being our Shepherd.
One of the most well-known verses would have to be in Psalm 23:1 where it says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. Later in Psalm 23:4, it refers to the shepherd’s rod and staff and how they comfort him.
Shepherds used the rod as a tool to gently redirect a sheep that was going astray. In fact, the shepherd would carefully nudge the sheep back in the right direction. At times and when necessary, a shepherd could also use the rod to protect the sheep from wolves. Under no circumstance was the rod used to physically harm the sheep. That would have been counterintuitive.
The Importance of the Lord’s Discipline
When we consider the Lord’s discipline and how the Bible makes its importance clear, we can see how God’s discipline relates more to that of a shepherd than a Master beating their slave.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know God is merciful, kind, gracious but He is also not a fluffy pushover who just lets us get away with everything. His judgments and discipline, however severe they may look to us, are always done in love and with purpose. What He is NOT, however, is abusive. He is a Shepherd.
Scriptures like Proverbs 3:12 or Hebrews 12:1-12 show us that discipline is proof of God’s love and that Godly discipline is always born out of love. Although many would equate the act of punishing a child for doing something wrong with discipline, there is a clear difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline is always corrective and provides direction and leads by example to produces disciples. Punishment, however, is used in anger and more often than not is used to relieve a parent’s frustration. It provides no instruction and does not address HOW to correct bad behaviour.
Related Article: How to Share Jesus With Your Child
In reality, punishment is also what we all deserve because of sin. But Jesus took our punishment when He died on the cross for us. The only one who would ever be justified in the punishment of another is God but even then He offers us mercy and kindness.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.1 Peter 3:18 (ESV)
Our great Shepherd leads us well with His staff and gently nudges us back in place with his rod when we go astray.
Gentle Parenting and Discipline
Taking what we know to be true of scripture, we can say with confidence that discipline is good and necessary. But scripture gives no license for physical abuse against a child.
A gentle approach to discipline does not exclude consequence but it considers the development of the child and understands that a child is a whole person. It takes into consideration the long-term effects of our actions towards them in childhood and how those actions will ultimately affect how they relate to us as parents, to others and to God in adulthood.
Discipline vs Punishment
Corporal punishment may produce children who behave outwardly at the moment. But this obedience is based on fear and not love. When a child lives in fear of their parents they will do what’s necessary to avoid punishment. But more often than not, this type of relationship between parent and child produces rebellion in the child’s teenage years.
When a child obeys out of trust and love for their parent, it makes a world of difference. Instead of obeying because of fear of punishment, children willingly obey because they want to honour their parents. This is how our relationship with God works. We don’t abstain from things because we don’t want to go to hell. Jesus already paid that price. We obey because He is good and we want to honour Him and love Him with all that we have.
The Bible says that what leads us to repentance is his Kindness (Romans 2:4). In Exodus, when God appeared before Moses, He introduced Himself as “The Lord God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and rich in love”. (Exodus 34:6)
Today, we face many challenges in life. Some are consequences of our own sinful behaviours and some are consequences of living in a fallen world (like Job). But in every circumstance, God’s ultimate goal is redemption, restoration and to make us more like Him. This should also be our approach towards our children. We want to raise kind humans who healthily relate to others and ultimately know how to relate to their Father in heaven. He is a safe place where they can find loving-kindness and mercy even when they fail.
Questions about Proverbs 23:13-14
When doing my research, I came across this verse which says:
13 Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
14 If you strike him with the rod,
you will save his soul from Sheol.Proverbs 23:13-14 (ESV)
Reading this verse threw me for a loop. I’m that type of person who takes the Bible literally. But I also believe that we need to read it in context.
At first glance, the scripture is clear: to beat your child with a rod to save him from death. But upon further inspection and in the context of the entire chapter, you can see that this scripture is purely figurative.
How do I know that?
By reading the entire chapter. If we should take this verse literally, then we should also take verses 1-2 literally where we are instructed to hold a knife to our throats rather than eat with a ruler (Proverbs 23:1-2) or not to look at wine when it is red (Proverbs 23:31-32).
Jesus even used language like this when he instructed us to “take out our eye if we commit adultery in our minds, or cut our hand off so we don’t sin (Matthew 18:9).
These instructions weren’t meant to lead us to literally do these things but to drive the importance of taking observance, repentance and changed behaviour seriously.
In the same way, we shouldn’t neglect to discipline our children and pointing them to Jesus. He is the only one who can save their souls from hell.
Let’s not spare the rod. But let’s use the right one. The one that gently nudges them into confidence in the Father’s love, our love for them and love for themselves and others.