Everyday Theology: Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

Continuing to look at some of the more common ideas we have about, or relating to in some way, God, we get to this saying:

“Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

The saying, a common one used in arguments surrounding corporal punishment of children, is an adaptation of several of the sayings in the book of Proverbs, notably:

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die (Prov. 23:13)

Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him (Prov. 13:24)

From Reacting to Overreacting

Frequently, this adage is used to advocate for corporal punishment, in the form of spanking. However, there are some that would suggest that it advocates for the abuse of children. To use this saying, or any other, as justification for child abuse goes far beyond the bounds of its original meaning, and is a notion that must be rejected, whether you are for or against spanking as a parent.

It is never acceptable for any parent to shame, berate, or belittle their child.

For the Christian, we are never given permission to punish our children. You will not find an example of this for us to follow anywhere in the Bible.

The example and command we are given is to constantly and consistently discipline our children, just as God disciplines His.

Discipline is an Act of Love

As parents, we are commanded by God to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6), even as God “leads you in the way you should go” (Isa. 48:17). To those of us who are blessed to share the name “father” with God, we are commanded by the Apostle Paul, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

In essence, we’re told, over and over again: Discipline your children. Protect them from doing wrong. Teach them what is right, so that it may go well with them.

The thrust of biblical parenting appears to be this: If we refuse to discipline our child—if we allow them to just do whatever they want and never set boundaries—we do not love them. God, our perfect Father, disciplines us out of His great love for us. Take a look at a few verses that speak to this great truth:

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives (Hebrews 12:6, cf. Prov. 3:12)

Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law (Psalm 94:12)

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word (Psalm 119:67)

I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me (Psalm 119:75)

Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19)

Because God loves His children, those whom He saves by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, He disciplines us. He corrects, reproves and rebukes us when we are in error, submitting ourselves to sin and folly. And as He disciplines us, we grow in holiness. We begin to show more Christ-like character as we are conformed to the image of Jesus. This is a great blessing, to be sure.

As a parent, it’s my duty and my joy to do only what I see the Father doing (John 5:19). I love my daughter dearly, but if I ever choose to be her friend over her father, I’ve failed her.

I cannot do that. And I pray I never will. Instead I’d rather model my parenting after a truly loving Father, who disciplines us because of his great love for us.

How can I, or any of us, do any less?