by Charles Bridges
Proverbs 23:13,14. Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
Christian parents do not always recognize the scriptural standard of discipline. “Foolishness is bound in the heart” of the parent, no less than “of the child”. “The wild ass’s colt” (Job 11:12) must always need its measure of correction. The rule therefore is, notwithstanding all the pleas of pity and fondness, withhold it not. Do the work wisely, firmly, lovingly. Persevere notwithstanding apparently unsuccessful results. Connect it with prayer, faith, and careful instruction.
We admit that it is revolting to give pain and call forth the tears of those we so tenderly love. But while hearts are what hearts are, it is not to be supposed that we can train without discipline. It may be asked, Will not gentle means be more effectual? Had this been God’s judgement, as a God of mercy, he would not have provided a different regimen. Eli tried them, and the sad issue is written for our instruction. Must I then be cruel to my child? Nay, God charges thee with cruelty if thou withhold correction from him. He “goes on in his own foolishness”. Except he be restrained, he will die in his sin. God has ordained the rod to purge his sins and so deliver his soul from hell. What parent then that trembles for the child’s eternal destiny can withhold correction? Is it not cruel love that turns away from painful duty? To suffer sin upon a child, no less than upon a brother, is tantamount to “hating him in our heart”. Is it not better that the flesh should smart than that the soul should die? Is it no sin to omit a means of grace, as divinely appointed as the Word and the sacraments? Is there no danger of fomenting the native wickedness, and thus becoming accessory to the child’s eternal destruction? What if he should reproach thee throughout eternity, for the neglect of that timely correction, which might have delivered his soul from hell? Or even if he be “scarcely saved”, may he not charge upon thee much of his increasing difficulty in the ways of God?
Yet let it not be used at all times. Let remonstrance be first tried. Our heavenly Father never stirs the rod with His children if His gentle voice of instruction prevail. Continually finding fault, applying correction to every slip of childish trifling or troublesome thoughtlessness, would soon bring a callous deadness to all sense of shame. Let it be reserved, at least in its more serious forms, for wilfulness. It is medicine, not food; the remedy for the occasional diseases of the constitution, not the daily regimen for life and nourishment. And to convert medicine into daily food gradually destroys its remedial qualities.
Some parents, indeed, use nothing but correction. They indulge their own passions at the expense of their less guilty children. Unlike our Heavenly Father, they afflict and grieve their children willingly; to vent their own anger, not to subdue their children’s sins. Self-recollection is of great moment: Am I about to correct for my child’s good? An intemperate use of this scriptural ordinance brings discredit upon its efficacy, and sows the seed of much bitter fruit. Children become hardened under an iron rod. Sternness and severity of manner close up their hearts. It is most dangerous to make them afraid of us. A spirit of bondage and concealment is engendered, often leading to a lie, sowing the seed of hypocrisy – nay, sometimes of disgust and even of hatred towards their unreasonable parents. “If parents”, said Matthew Henry, a wise and godly father, “would not correct their children except in a praying frame, when they can ‘lift up their hands without wrath’, it would neither provoke God nor them.”
Other parents freely threaten the rod, yet withhold it. It was only meant to frighten. It soon becomes an empty and powerless sound. This again contravenes our Great Exemplar. His threatenings are not vain words. If His children will not turn, they will find His words faithful and true to their cost. This threatening play is solemn trifling with truth, teaching children by example what they had learnt from the womb, to speak lies (Ps 58:3). Let our words be considerate, but certain. Let our children know that they must not trifle either with them or with us. The firmness of truthful discipline can alone convey a wholesome influence. Any defect here is a serious injury.
We must learn, however, not to expect too much from our children nor to be unduly depressed by their naughtiness. Yet we must not wink at their sinful follies. We must love them not less, but better. And because we love them, we must not withhold, when needed, correction from them. More painful is the work to ourselves than to them. Most humbling is it. For since the corrupt root produces the poisoned sap in the bud, what else is it but the correction of our own sin? Yet, though “no chastening for the present be joyous, but rather grievous” (Heb 12:11), when given in prayer, in wisdom, and in faith, the saving blessing will be vouchsafed. “Lord, do thou be pleased to strike in with every stroke, that the rod of correction may be a rod of instruction.” (2) “It is a rare soul”, said good Bishop Hall, “that can be kept in constant order without smarting remedies. I confess, mine cannot. How wild had I run, if the rod had not been over me! Every man can say he thanks God for his ease. For me, I bless God for my trouble.”
1. In extract from the author’s Commentary on Proverbs (hardback, 656 pp, available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom at £12.95). The teaching in this piece is always relevant, but is specially valuable in the light of the recent proposals from the Scottish Executive (see the note on page 318 of the last issue of this magazine). Bridges (1794-1869) was a leader of the Evangelical party in the Church of England in the nineteenth century. His commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Psalm 119 are also available, as is his work on The Christian Ministry.
2. George Swinnock.