A few nights ago, I told my six-year-old that it was time to get ready for bed and do our story. Bible time. His response was to crawl into my rocking chair, nuzzle up next to me, and lay his head against my chest fully ready to enjoy some stories. We read, talked about the Scripture which we were meditating on, and then closed our books and hung out for a few minutes to reflect on his day.
It occurred to me while he was sitting at my side, my arm wrapped around his little body, his head against my chest that he was experiencing discipline in that moment. Often, when we hear the word discipline, the first images that come to our mind are ones of a child rebelling and a parent correcting: strong words, time-out, and re-direction to get that child back on track. And yet discipline is a word that has multiple meanings. It does not have to mean correction for disobedient actions. Discipline is a word we could also use to describe an athlete training his or her body on a daily basis for greater endurance and enjoyment of the sport. Discipline is also synonymous with instruction, teaching, and forming. Discipline can be used to describe proactive training, not just reactive punishment.
When we think about this in terms of our encounter and experience of God, we often think of discipline as a negative or reactive response to wayward actions. Rebellious, disobedient, prodigal men and women fall short and even willfully engage in actions that break God’s law and He “disciplines those He loves.” And while this is true—God does discipline those He loves—it seems that it is easier to focus on the word discipline and miss the power of the following words: “those He loves.”
God disciplines those He loves as a good father disciplines His child. While good parents discipline through means of responding to negative behavior, it is far more common (so common it is almost subconscious) for parents to proactively discipline through instruction, training, and forming. While parents do respond to negative behavior by intervening in order to protect their child from harm, parents spend far more time inviting their child to their side to learn, enjoy, and experience new things as a means to being formed into loving, kind, and generous people. We do not often assign the word “discipline” to this action, however, because that word has somehow been reduced and reserved for consequence to disobedience.
When my young son chose to sit next to me and enjoy my presence, he was not even consciously aware that he was being obedient. I pulled him in tight, put my hand on his chest, and told him, “Do you know that, right now, you are obeying?”
He raised his one eye-brow really high and said, “Huh?! How am I obeying?”
I went on to explain to him that obedience isn’t really about following a bunch of rules of do’s and don’ts. Obedience is simply enjoying and embracing the way God intended the world to be and resting in who God created us to be. Obedience isn’t just sucking up and doing what someone else wants you to do, it is actually encountering such a deep and profound love that you naturally respond by wanting to be closer and more near to that love.
Since it is common to talk about obedience as obeying or breaking God’s law, the consequence is we often talk about obeying God as though we have two choices: to rebel and reject Him (and suffer consequences), or to suck it up and suffer through the pain of obeying (but experience blessing). But as the time with my son illustrates, obedience is far more beautiful and profound than breaking or obeying some rules.
There is no rule in my house that when it is time to read, you have to snuggle in close to mom and rock with her on her rocking chair. There is a rule that you cannot scream profanities and yell “NO” when asked to do something. When I told Judah that it was time to read, he could have screamed, “NO!” and that would have been “disobeying” but rather he drew near to me not because he wanted to avoid negative consequences, but because he was looking forward to the positive consequences. He wanted to experience communion and fellowship with his mother.
If he had screamed, “NO! I don’t want to stop playing! I don’t want to go to bed,” and had an epic meltdown/tantrum, he would have experienced discipline. His discipline would not just be consequences I would have enacted, but he would have lost the opportunity to sit at my side. That opportunity would have been surrendered the moment he started acting out and would have been a natural consequence.
Likewise, when we disobey, when we reject the very ways God has designed and set up His world, we are not simply breaking a rule that needs a consequence to make amends, but we are missing out on communion and fellowship with our Father. In fact, the very act of disobedience looks like a child turning away from an invitation for communion and turning toward something else. We seek isolation and self-worship instead of communion with Jesus … We cling to idols instead of God ...God does not isolate or pull away because of our disobedience. If anything, the disobedience is us turning away from God and clinging to false gods, it is moving away from our Father and isolating ourselves.
But God is much more powerful than any act of isolation or turning away that we His children can attempt, and the consequences and discipline are enacted because God loves us. The cost of idol worship and isolation is deeply grieving. We were made for communion with our Father, for oneness with Jesus, for fellowship with His Spirit. Anything that disrupts that fellowship will lead to His jealous pursuit in order to draw us back to Him… His discipline is a powerful pursuing force that will allow us to experience the cost of rejecting Him for the sake of restoring and reconciling us to experience communion, intimacy, and fellowship with Him. He does not break this fellowship when we sin. Our sin intentionally moves us away from Him and He responds by pursuing us with lavish love, grace, and mercy through many different means in order to restore the fellowship.
When we reduce discipline to a negative and reactive action to disobedience. Then God seems to be a cold, distant, far off Father: one who only lifts his eyes up from his newspaper when the kid gets too noisy in order to put him in his place. This is not the God who loved the world so much that He sent His only Son to die that they might have life.
The call to obedience is not a list of tasks to be obeyed, but an invitation to commune and fellowship with the Father. The reality of the consequences to sin is not God turning away because He cannot be in the presence of our dirt and filth, but God getting right up into our mess and pursuing us and inviting us into His presence for restoration, reconciliation, and rest.