Does God “Spank” His Children?

In his book, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, D.A. Carson offers the classic Calvinist viewpoint on the subject. It is an excellent book, well worth the read. Carson’s skill is in his ability to exegete the Scriptures, albeit from his specific theological vantage point.

In the fifth chapter, he dives into the peculiar ways that the People of God suffer, the first being “discipline.” The text he looks at is Hebrews 12:4-13.

He writes,

“In reality, we never escape God’s sovereignty. Part of learning to live as faithful children of the sovereign God is therefore tied to trusting him when he can at best be only dimly discerned behind events and circumstances that the Bible itself is quick to label evil…it is important to see that at least some of God’s means of discipline, all designed for our good, can simultaneously be viewed as calamitous evil…
“…The author (of Hebrews) frankly acknowledges that ‘no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful’ (v. 11)…Like a boy who is getting a spanking for breaking his sister’s Alice-band in a fit of rage, so the discipline God metes out hurts, and causes us to wail. But if the boy’s Daddy is good, loving, and even-handed, the boy himself is made secure by the expression of love in discipline, and ultimately grows to appreciate his father’s wisdom; and so we too learn to trust our heavenly father and rely on his wisdom to take us through paths we never would have chosen for ourselves.”

At first blush, I think I would usually agree with such an interpretation of Hebrews 12. But I’m troubled by this: The “discipline” is never identified in the text. Nowhere does the author of Hebrews tell us that God will cause evil for our ultimate good. The “pain” of the discipline is not identified as anything that might be viewed as “calamitous evil” (as Carson states), just that it is not “pleasant” but rather “painful” for the person experiencing it.

Not all pain, suffering, or distress needs to be evil. It may seem to be to the person on the receiving end of a loving action that they would rather not have done, but it does not need to be identified as an evil. If I discipline my child, it is not evil…unless I do so in a way that actually hurts him. My kids might find it "unpleasant" and experience it with sorrow, but that is only a function of their not wanting it to be done to them. However, if I do violence against my child, I am not disciplining any more, I am showing my fallenness. They would rightly identify my discipline as an evil act. This is why I don’t punish my kids when I am angry. I am unlike God—when I get angry, I cannot discipline without doing harm.

But God can discipline his children without doing harm, for all his discipline is in love. He is not angry with us, ever. The wrath has been dealt with on the cross. So, it seems to me that his "discipline" must never amount to “calamitous evil.” If it does, then God is not good.

So, what do you think? Does God “spank” his children?



RonMcK said...

As a child, I suffered in several ways. 1) Mostly my parents let me experience the consequences of my stupid choices (many times they intervened to protect me from my stupidity). 2) Sometime they reinforced those consequences with corrective words, which upset me. 3) Occasionally, they spanked me, when the natural consequences were not serious enough, but mostly they withdrew privileges. My parents were never violent towards me. 4)I often suffered because I came up against big bad kids at school. I could say that my parents were responsible, because the chose to send me to school, but that would be a bid dumb. I was stronger when I learned how to deal with this junk.

As I look back on my Christian life I see a similar pattern. 1)Mostly God just lets me experience the normal consequences of my bad decisions. He has set the world up so we usually reap what we sow. I have sometimes reaped physical pain. 2)Sometimes he has used another person to warn me. This is embarassing, when they are right. 3)On a few occasions God made the consequences more serious than they would normally be, so I would learn an important lesson. Usually the pain was emotional: fear, shame, disappointment. You could call this “spanking”, but God has never inflicted physical pain in these situations. I have never felt that God was vindictive. My life has been incredibly better than I deserve. 4) There are plenty of other times when I have suffered through coming up against evil people. I could say that God allowed that by putting me in a world where people are free to sin and demonic powers are free to do evil, but that does not help much. I think that dealing with this stuff has made me a stronger Christian, but I would not call it discipline.

Bob Robinson said...

That's a nice way to put it. Thanks.

Ted Gossard said...

Bob, Good, thoughtful post, and you're making me think on this one. I'll have to go back to Hebrews 12 and give it a renewed look. But all you say makes eminent sense to me.

And good comment, Ron.