Some time ago, we read a little bit of worldly philosophy to the effect that one should always remember the goal one has in mind and then conduct oneself in such a way that this goal may be reached. This advice was given in connection with a discussion of the matter of losing one’s temper and of defeating one’s purpose by saying the wrong thing or behaving in a way so that one’s purpose was defeated. If we wish to convince one of a certain thing, and that is our goal, we should not irritate and incite that one to anger. Remembering our goal we should fashion our approach and our conduct in such a way that it serves our goal. Well, that philosophy can stand if our goal is a good one and if it is understood that our conduct to reach this goal is also ethical. Otherwise the advice can just as well be stated in that wicked slogan: The end justifies the means.
Nevertheless when we face the question of punishment or praise we must indeed have our goal in mind, and that goal must be a righteous one. Punishment or praise for evil purposes is evil, even though punishment and praise in themselves are ethically and morally good. God gives the authorities the right to punish the evil doer, and when they do so at His command, they do not sin. But the motive can be wrong, and then the inflicting of that punishment also becomes a sin. Paul realized this also and expresses it when he warns the parents in Colossians 3:21 and inEphesians 6:4 not to provoke their children to wrath lest they become discouraged. That surely does not mean that we should let them get away with some of their sinfulness. The parent punishes in God’s name and because He demands it. Now God does not wink at any sin and does not excuse any sin of any kind. He makes no distinction, and He sent His Son to the cross for all the sins of His people. He did not deem some of them so minor that they could be overlooked and passed over as not needing punishment. But our punishment of our children must always be corrective. Paul is speaking to covenant parents to whom and to whose children God has given the covenant promises, whose sins are blotted out through the blood of the Lamb. We do not, therefore, by our punishment seek to make our children pay for their sins. As we pointed out last time, Solomon declares that we apply the rod because we love our children as children of God. We love God, and we love His children. And, because we love God we punish our children to teach them the fear of the Lord. We desire to see them walk in God’s ways; and to their training belongs discipline upon them for their evil ways. That we do not provoke them to wrath, then, does not mean that we desist from punishing them time and again for the same evil deed in the fear that they will be filled with wrath towards us and towards God. It has to do with the method of punishing, the way in which we go about it rather than in the application of discipline itself. In Colossians 3:21 Paul uses a word that means to rouse to strife; and inEphesians 6:4 a word that means to irritate. These usually come in later childhood and adolescence. A little child is a most forgiving little creature. He holds no grudges. One minute he fights with his playmates, and the next minute he is the best of friends again. One minute you punish him till the tears flow freely down his cheeks. A few minutes later he is on your lap hugging you and acting toward you as though you never hurt him in your life. But let him grow up a little. He does not forget, and he takes careful note of your attitude and demeanor when you punish. He has his own pride also, and he is easily irritated and resents it when you punish him in later life as though he were still a little babe. He sees your personal anger. He sees your inconsistencies and your partiality. Joseph’s brothers saw that too. He soon sees your punishing of him as the venting of your own hot displeasure rather than, as you may perhaps say to him, your God-given duty to correct him and to train him in the fear of the Lord. Indeed, we must keep our goal in mind, but that goal must be a spiritual one when we apply the rod to our children. And when punishing in that narrow sense of the word is no longer advisable as the child becomes a young man or a young woman in our home, our discipline must fit the case and clearly indicate the goal we have in mind. It must still be corrective discipline, and our children should not only understand but be able to see by our behavior and actions that we are seeking their good not only, but that we love God and are ourselves seeking to do His will. The form of discipline for these who have now to a great extent become our own equal physically, mentally and psychically is not always easy to determine. And there is always the difference in the children’s natures. The one child will respond to a few words of rebuke and blush in shame. Another child will of necessity be required to suffer certain deprivations. Certain privileges will have to be denied him for a time. No blanket rule can be given for such things. We do well to remember the words of Paul that we do not irritate and arouse to anger by our wrong behavior and attitude in punishing.
There may be times when praise is advisable. Never can it take the place of punishment. Never can we praise the child (or the adult) for the thing that demands punishment. That is not the idea in our theme. When an individual has done something worthy of punishment, by all means do not praise him for that deed or that part of his deed. That is as wrong as to punish him for that which is praiseworthy. But there are times when the child’s attention may be called to his error without making him suffer either deprivation or punishment with the rod and that he is praised for some of his actions.
Indeed there are times when praise does more harm than good. There are moments when we desire spontaneously to praise a child or an individual. We see a work that is praiseworthy and are convinced that the man deserves a word of praise for it. We know also that the man himself considers himself worthy of such a word of praise. And it is better for us to refrain from expressing it, not because the deed is not praiseworthy but because by expressing it we will encourage pride and with it the performance of such works out of an evil motive. But there are also times when a child or an adult struggles conscientiously, fights against a weakness, exerts himself to do the thing required and fails to reach the desired goal. Such an one needs encouragement. Such must not be provoked to wrath, irritated by a complete dismissal of all his effort and desire as so much hypocrisy and wickedness. The sin into which such an one has again fallen must not be brushed aside and glossed over; but a word of commendation for his effort will not move him to walk in evil. Instead he will be encouraged to fight and to strive with more zeal and earnestness. A child especially is encouraged when his efforts are noticed. And when he makes an honest effort to do what is required of him, we may praise him with little fear of pride. It is the child who gets things easily and with little effort who is inclined towards pride when he is praised. The parent knows his own child â€• due to a great extent to the fact that he knows his own nature which he sees reflected in his child â€• and is in a better position to know whether his child will be spoiled by praise or encouraged to double his efforts upon learning that his efforts are noticed.
When it comes to punishment we cannot, say, Punish if it will do some good, otherwise refrain from it. Punishment is always in order, although the form and the degree must be determined by the case at hand. Blanket rules for this are useless and impossible. We may remember that God always demands punishment. He hates all sin and because He does He opposes it with all His holy being. As a result He punishes every sin regardless of the form, the length of its duration or extenuating circumstances. Sin with Him is always sin. And we have yet to find a man who is stricter than God. Therefore we do well to be careful of our criticism of those who hold to discipline. It is not old-fashioned. It is not antiquated. It is not foolishness. It never goes out of style except for those who hate God. One of the marks of the true church is exactly the proper exercise of discipline. Jesus also rebuked the churches who were lax in their discipline in those letters to the seven churches in Revelation two and three. He praises them for their faith and stand in the midst of wickedness, but He also speaks clearly and forcefully against the failure of the church to deal severely with those who walk in ways of wickedness. Our churches, our consistories, our elders may well take heed to these letters to the seven churches and be warned by what is written therein.
Those walking in evil may resent it. Their flesh always will resent it. That flesh is ready to drink in praise and is all ears to hear it uttered. But rebukes, warnings and exhortations are displeasing to that flesh. This does not alter the fact that it is our duty to punish and discipline as well as to praise. The law teaches us that we must love our neighbor. Surely then we ought to love the brother in the church. And what Solomon says about the parent using the rod upon his child because he loves him is true also of discipline of the adult by the church. The church that is concerned with the spiritual well-being of its members will not ignore sin and have only a word of praise for each member. That church, in love to God first of all, will rebuke and exhort, will warn and discipline the wayward. But also in love to that member it will remind of sin and not behave as though no wickedness is to be seen. That is also the spirit of the “Golden Rule.” Indeed, these walking in sin do not want this done unto them; but the spiritually minded officebearer who desires to be dealt with in true love, wants to be turned from his evil way; and therefore he takes hold of the wayward member over whom God has placed him and demands confession and a breaking away from that sin.
Praise men when it will do good, otherwise refrain from it. But discipline always because it is always good. Encourage by a word of praise when it will encourage one in the way of righteousness. But failure to discipline can only encourage into the way of evil. We need no help to further our way in the paths of evil. We do that readily enough and spontaneously enough. We are bent in that direction, our whole being is inclined in the way of evil. But we can be spurred on even further and encouraged if not even emboldened in that evil, when those in authority over us look the other way and tolerate our wickedness. If, then, we are in doubt as to whether we ought to praise or punish (discipline) and the case is not so clear-cut that we can see that praise will encourage into more striving rather than to pride and carelessness, let us use the corrective means God has given us. Let us be found faithful to Him, even if men are to call us unappreciative and “big stick” men.