christian parenting

Is Spanking Biblical? An Extensive Exegesis by a Skeptical Mama – Part 3

This is final installment of a three part series. Read part one here, part two here

The Punishment for Sin

God will punish his disobedient children. It is the natural consequence for sin. Yet, God always does it in love. It’s clear in Scripture.

Consider Psalm 89:30-34, in which God speaks of David’s offspring: “If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the shebet and their iniquity with stripes, but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness.” 

Those terms “iniquity”, “transgressions” sound familiar, don’t they? They’re the same terms used in the prophecy of the suffering of the Messiah in Isaiah 53:4-6: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, nakah by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

I think we often forget that the ultimate punishment for sin is death. It is the fate that we all come to: Adam and Eve, those who perished in the flood, the firstborn children of Egypt, Absolom, Solomon, all of us. 

But God wasn’t content with just punishing sin. He found a way to redeem the sinner.

That is the Gospel story. Jesus’ suffering, his sacrifice, his turn-the-other-cheek way of life is what secured our salvation. His obedience to God covered all of our disobedience. God’s punishment, as the prophecy states, was on him, so that we might have peace with God again.

God’s heart has always bent on reconciliation. That’s why some call the Bible the “Redemption Narrative.” He’s always been about bringing the wayward souls back to Himself.

Adam and Eve

In that age-old story, Adam and Eve chose to believe a lie and trust in their own authority over God’s. God’s warning had been very clear: death would be the consequence.

Yet when he knew they disobeyed, he didn’t lash out with “How dare you?” Instead he asked, “Where are you?”

God was looking for them. He was searching for his lost sheep.

We don’t read about God smiting his creation, the one whom he knelt in the dirt to form and painstakingly crafted a world for, in unfettered anger. Was he angry, disappointed? I’m sure of it! But it was with compassion he clothed their naked bodies. It was by his grace that he removed them from the Tree of Life, ensuring that they would not eat of that fruit and live eternally in separation from him. The escort from the garden was for their good, even though it was painful for them, and surely Him, in the moment. It with the greatest compassion that God orchestrated a solution for the punishment problem: He would pay it himself.

Perhaps we are so focused on how to discipline our children, how to correct their behavior, that we forget that we actually can’t save them. We can’t rescue our children from physical death, and we certainly can’t redeem their souls from sin; only Christ can do that.

But we can, and must, point them to their need for a Savior by illuminating their sins, reminding them that it separates from the Father who made them and loves them despite their sin, and pointing them to Jesus, the One who took the rod on their behalf. 

The Risks of Spanking: Valuing Good Behavior over a Submissive Heart

In my opinion, using a physical form of punishment on God’s behalf can actually push our children away from God. 

On one level, spanking is used primarily as a form of behavioral modification. It is not much different than Pavlov and his dogs, programing children to have negative association with negative behavior in order to prevent it from happening. True discipline needs to address the heart, not merely the behavior. While some parents may use spanking to address the heart, I have most often seen spanking used as a “quick fix” to create well-behaved children.

The danger in this is that a child believes that she is good if she does the right things, or she is good as long as the wrong things she does are not found out. This is incredibly problematic. Firstly, it can promote pride: “I can be good because it is my  behaviors that matter, and I can control my behaviors.” Pride, I believe, is the single most thing that pushes us away from God, because it deceives us that we don’t need him and that we are in control of our lives.

Secondly, it can lead to hiding shameful or “bad” behaviors. A well-behaved child still has a sinful heart. So what happens when a well-behaved child encounters envy, lust, hatred, slander, addiction? They hide behind a mask and become enslaved to secret sin because they have been trained that they are valued when they behave well. Sin has always created a barrier between man and God, and secret, shameful sins are so difficult to get into the light. I’ve known many “good Christian kids” who have grown into adults manacled by the evils of their own hearts.

The Risks of Spanking: The Hardened Heart

I also believe most parents, no matter how good their intentions, may spank out of anger at some point. I have, and needed to repent of it. It’s part of our fleshly nature, to retaliate in aggression when we are hurt or angry. When a parent spanks a child in anger, the child, consequently, may begin to fear or despise the parent.

But even if a child is spanked by a kind, patient parent, there is opportunity for confusion: Why do they sometimes protect me and sometimes hurt me? When I am bad, they hurt me. Does that mean parents don’t love me when I’m bad? I must behave so I do not get hurt. I must “be good.”  Fear, then, becomes the motivator behind good behavior. But what happens if a child no longer fears his parents’ authority? There is no reason to “behave” and the child’s soul, indeed, may be at risk of sheol.

Since we, as parents, are a child’s primary experience with authority, it is likely that their relationship with us will be projected onto their perception of God. Children who fear or despise their parents may very well fear or despise God. I fear that spanking, while intended to soften the heart toward God, may harden it against him instead.

Consider Pharaoh. All of the nakah used against him and his people hardened his heart against God. Do we not also run that risk when we choose physical punishment instead of compassionate, authoritative redirection?

And how many of us “chose” to follow Christ out of fear of God’s wrath as opposed to sincere gratitude for his sacrifice, out of love for him?

Who is God, really? Is he the wrathful authoritarian dictator that is disconnected from his creation and seeking to punish humanity for their willful disobedience? Are we to truly be afraid of him?

Fear and God

The apostle Peter knew what it was like to be chastised by Jesus. Not only was he the key player in the “Get behind me, Satan” incident, but he infamously denied Jesus on the night of his arrest.

When Jesus resurrected and confronted him on the seashore, he did not bash Peter. He did not strike him or punish him or threaten him. He asked him three times, “Do you love me?” The third time he posed the question, we read that, “Peter was grieved.” There it was, the repentant heart. He knew of his sin, his three denials of the man he loved. In the end, Jesus commissions Peter to “feed his lambs” and asks him, once again, to follow him, warning Peter that he would suffer because of his allegiance to him.

And Peter did. Because Peter loved Jesus.

In the first of Peter’s letters, he writes this: As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’  And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you  who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (I Peter 1:14-21) 

We are yet children. The fear that drives us to obedience and holiness is not fear of God; rather, it is fear that we forget Christ’s precious sacrifice. It is in view of God’s lovingkindness, out of gratitude to Christ’s beautiful sacrifice for our sake that we live a life of obedience. We will only be grateful for that sacrifice in view of our own sin, in understanding we can’t be good on our own, in knowing that a loving, trustworthy, patient, merciful God has planned for us to be reconciled to him but taking our punishment.

Obedience should stem from love of God, not fear of him.

The Greatest Commandment

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37b-40)

Love is a choice, surely. It is not a gushy mushy feeling we receive when we get our own way. Love is a commitment to another person. We generally feel love from a trustworthy, safe person with whom we want to be. True love for someone means we are willing to suffer, even die, for them.

This, then, is the love of Christ, the love that ought to model to our children.

What we see when we look at “biblical heroes” such as Abraham, Enoch, Noah, Israel, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Hannah, Samuel, David,  Daniel, Jonah, John the Baptist, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Magdelene, Peter, John the Baptist, John the Beloved, the Samaritan woman, Zaccheus, Paul, and Jesus himself is a relationship between God and man. While they were not always obedient to every command, they were obedient to the greatest command, by God’s grace.

While these individuals knew their place and had respect for God, what some would call a “healthy fear” of him, we also see intimacy. We see honest and open conversation between them, hear them converse in the language of – dare I say it – friends. We see God’s authority in their lives, his correction, his instruction on how to live and serve. We see God providing for their their needs. We see God delivering them from difficult situations. We see God sticking with them while they suffer the consequences of their actions. Those individuals saw God as a trustworthy and reliable Father and King. Those individuals respected God because of their relationship. They saw his unfailing love, his endless mercy, his swift deliverance in their lives. These are the people who walked with God. These are the people who were willing to suffer on his behalf.

These are the types of people we pray our children will become.

Bring the Sheep Back to the Shepherd

We also have to remember that our children are ultimately God’s children.

Paul David Tripp, in his book Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That can Radically Change Your Family, he writes that we, as parents, are God’s ambassadors. He goes on to lay out thoughts on how to best do our job as parents, which he says is “doing everything within your power, as an instrument in the hands of the Redeemer who has employed you, to woo, encourage, call, and train your children to willingly and joyfully live as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ” (184). 

When our children sin, as they will, we need to respond to them the way Christ would. In order to do that, we need to understand how Christ responds to us in our sin.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:4-6)

He pursues us. He takes the time and the energy to search, to pick up, to hold close, to return us to where we belong. We all go astray. Our children will, too. The question is, what will we do when they wander?

James 5:19-20 says: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

This language is so similar to that of Proverbs 23. There’s that idea of delivering one from one’s sin and an eternal fate. In Proverbs, the recommendation is to use the shebet. In James, the image is similar to that of the Good Shepherd: bringing back he who wanders. The difference, of course, is that Proverbs is speaking to a parent while James is not.

But the heart of the message is the same: sin leads us away from God, away from life. We have responsibility to return wanderers to God. 

Spanking and Conviction

I believe that there are parents out there who truly spanking is the best tool to bring their child closer to Jesus. If this has been tested against the Scripture, the interpretation of the Holy Spirit, and can be done with clean conscience, I don’t think I can argue with it. After all,  “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

I know there are many issues in Scripture in which God-loving, Bible-believing people fall on opposite sides of the fence. I am a pacifist, for example, while Kevin is not. Some believe exclusively in predestination, others free will. You know all these things.

But in my heart, at this time, I feel a conviction against spanking. I certainly do not think that spanking is a command of God that must be adhered to. I think there are other ways to discipline and disciple, other ways that will promote a love of God instead of a fear of him.

I believe a child is more likely to obey his parents and respect their authority  when he feels loved by them, safe, and able to trust them. A child is more likely to be grieved and repentant when he sees how sin has negatively impacts his relationship with his parents and negatively impacts himself; that will make him want to make things right.

I believe this, because I am a child, God is my Father, and this is how our relationship works. When I feel washed in the wonder of his sacrifice and love for me, even at my worst, I want to obey, I want to reconcile with him. Fear of him made me run from him and cower in the shadows; love for him is what has brought about sanctification in my heart.

I hope to be a mother who manifests that unconditional love and grace. I hope to be a mother who goes after my children when they sin, who brings them back to the lap of God with humility, remembering well my own wandering feet. I hope I can demonstrate to my children the gratitude of one whose punishment has been undeservingly lifted by God’s great mercy and love. I hope they see in me an intimate relationship with my Savior, the one who has pursued me, known me, forgiven me seventy-times-seven, and loved me despite of myself.

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