I hesitated to post this here. After all, it is considered heretical in many circles. But more than anything else, this is my deeper story. It is how I fell into grace as a parent, and my whole life was forever changed.
I grew up in the the fishbowl that comes with being the daughter, granddaughter and daughter in law of pastors. I was steeped in the teachings of Elisabeth Elliot, Charles Finney, Bill Gothard and others who focus on holiness (legalism?), and with my own personality all of this meshed into perfectionism. Romans 6 was carved into my heart. Romans 8? Maybe not quite as much. I believed in grace, of course, but a secret, unacknowledged part of me saw it as Jesus buying time for me to work on myself instead of a true transformation. This affected all of my relationships, and it is no surprise that it affected my outlook as a parent, too.
I wanted to Get It Right. So I spent much of my first pregnancy consumed with all kinds of parenting material trying to learn all I could. After reading an article about discipline, I made an offhand comment to my husband about spanking. He immediately replied that he would never spank our kids. I looked at him in consternation. “What?! Are you trying to make me the bad guy? Oh, no. Discipline is something that both of us need to do.” He steadily answered that discipline and spanking were not the same thing.
Huh? He was the most dedicated Christian I had ever met. Hadn’t he read Proverbs? How could he say he wouldn’t spank? The Bible commanded it!
The Holy Spirit began to stir in my heart. Like Jacob and the angel, I couldn’t let go of this topic. I wrestled and wrestled until I received a blessing that I could never have anticipated. I searched the Bible, starting with those Proverbs passages that seemed so obvious. To my shock, the Hebrew reads very differently. The word for son or child used there is na’ar, which refers to a young man who is in the process of shaking off childhood and entering adulthood. According to Hebrew, spanking probably would not even begin until the teens! There were other differences, as well. Rather than referring to spanking, the Hebrew version of Proverbs simply showed the image of a rod/scepter as the importance of parental authority as a constant presence in a child’s life.
As I looked for all the standard Christian guidelines, I was stunned at what I did and didn’t find. Things like the Christian Spanking Prime Directive “don’t spank in anger”. It isn’t anywhere in Proverbs or the rest of the Bible. In fact, Proverbs insists that you discipline promptly rather than taking a moment to cool off. It turns out that the whole “spanking in love, not in anger” idea seems to have originated from the Spencer Spanking Plan–a guide for erotic spankings in marriage! (For that matter, the line “spare the rod and spoil the child” also comes from a reference to adult erotic spankings in Hudibras, by Samuel Butler). That was certainly not a healthy basis for a relationship with my children!
Discovering that the Bible does not actually command spankings meant that I needed to rethink this whole idea of discipline. I pondered how God disciplines me. It broke my heart in the very best way as I reviewed my life and saw that over and over God has disciplined me with kindness and grace. He isn’t a Greek or Roman god, blasting me (spanking me) with lightning bolts when I displease Him. He disciplines us just as Jesus disciplined His disciples. It was never about punishment, but about showing who He really is–teaching so patiently, washing our feet, forgiving us and covering us with mercy and grace. It is His kindness that leads us to repentance, not His punishment. Even when my stubbornness resulted in unpleasant consequences, it was kind of like gravity: jumping off a roof may result in a broken leg, but it isn’t God breaking my leg to make me feel bad. In His discipline, He never adds pain to make me feel worse.
The whole history of the law shows that punishment is powerless to change our hearts. God makes it clear so many times in the Bible that He cares about relationship and our hearts, not just the outward actions. Isn’t that the main issue with the Pharisees? Spanking may teach our children to have acceptable outward behavior to avoid pain and humiliation, but it does nothing to motivate love and genuine care for others–just self-centeredness. It shifts the focus from how our actions affect others to what we can get away with.
Over and over, I saw that what the Bible really teaches about parenting is a picture of grace, love, peace and self-control. “Parents, do not provoke your children to anger.” “You who are spiritual, correct gently.” “Love is patient, love is kind.” “Do not repay evil for evil, but blessing instead.” “Whatever you do to the smallest of these, you have done to Me.” “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. “ “Be slow to anger.” Above all, treat others (including children!) the way you would wish to be treated. God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
I said at the beginning that this was my deeper story. Deciding not to spank was just the beginning, but not really the most important part. The important part was how it changed me. This is a tough process. How do we show grace and mercy to the people that live everyday life with us, who know exactly how to push our buttons, who always see the ugly spots and rough edges, who are intimately acquainted with our anger, impatience, pride and weakness?
“Love always hopes, always trusts.” I started by looking for the best in my children and assuming that they were doing their best to have their needs met, not acting out of malice or evil intent. Most of the time, I was right! This even began to spill over to how I saw my husband’s actions. Believing that we are on the same team instead of seeing my children as opponents to be conquered changes everything! Jesus taught us that authority is about the power to serve and protect, not to selfishly demand compliance from those under us.
This is still discipline, not passivity or permissiveness. Far more than any other experience in my life, this has pushed me to develop healthy boundaries, and I am still learning in practical terms what this laying down of my life looks like. Thankfully, God has brought me some wise and gentle parents who are teaching me so much, such as Sarah Bessey’s Practices of Mothering, Jessica Bowman’s Parenting Wild Things, Megan Tietz’s Spirit Filled Parenting as well as the Gentle Christian Mothers website.
Seeking to parent with grace has forced me to dig deeper and deeper into God, to cling to Him when my own strength isn’t enough. The truth of the parable of the unmerciful servant drives straight into my heart whenever I am tempted to exact vengeance and punishment on these tiny little offenders, despite all that God has forgiven me. This is disciplining me, in the truest sense. Like Hebrews mentions, it is not always pleasant to confront my own issues. Honestly, it’s hard. Some days, I don’t want to disciple them. I’d rather just use the threat of a spanking to force compliance so that I don’t have to take the time to teach instead.
My own brokenness sends me crying out to my gentle Abba for wisdom and patience and love, because I am only nine years old as a mom and I need to be parented in this, too. But gradually His grace is helping me to find my own, and to be able to pour it out on others the way He lavishes it on me.
Ultimately, gentle discipline is transforming me. It has changed all of my relationships, with God, with my husband and the people around me. I began to blink away some of the judgement that clouded my vision, both of others and myself. Little glimmers of mercy and grace started flashing everywhere, at first just in the corner of my eye, then shining until I was blinded with the glory. Slowly my eyes are opening to see just how much love and patience, tenderness and delight my Heavenly Papi has for me. And if He has so much for me, then maybe I can love other people like that, too, including my own kidlets. Instead of looking suspiciously for darkness, I am waking up to the light of His compassions that never fail. They are new every morning. For me and for my children.