Discipline and Punishment: Know the Difference

by | Jan 16, 2018 | Church Life, Gospel

How would you explain the difference between punishment and discipline? You have likely heard attempts to clarify the differences between the two, but if you’re like me, you may still find it slightly difficult to clearly grasp the difference.

Executing punishment and discipline can look incredibly similar. For example, when you hear the phrase, “take a lap,” what comes to mind? For many, this command is associated with negative connotations. This is because if they were ever told to take a lap, it was because they were doing something wrong at sports practice. For them, taking a lap was a form of punishment for not paying attention to the coach. Additionally, most people find running rather uncomfortable, if not downright painful.

But for someone like myself, who is a track athlete, taking a lap has no negative connotations. I often see fellow runners wearing shirts that say, “My sport is your sport’s punishment.” That is totally true! My sport consists entirely of taking a lap, over and over again. However, I ran laps not because I was being punished, but because I was being trained. Running these laps was certainly uncomfortable, yet I endured the pain knowing that this was for my athletic betterment.

Backward or Forward?

This is exactly what makes punishment different than discipline. Punishment looks backwards at what you did wrong, and exacts justice. Discipline looks forward to who you want to become, and helps you get there. Punishment hurts you. Discipline strengthens you. Furthermore, the one punishing is usually motivated by anger, whereas the one disciplining is motivated by the betterment of the disciplined.

Do you see the difference? discipline is training. It’s only for your growth and development. Each of us engage in self-discipline when we want to eat healthier, get physically stronger, etc. We endure difficult trials in order to better our lives. Punishment however, is a tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye, exacting of justice.

Life can be extremely painful; we may lose a job, have a car break down, or get sick. In the midst of these situations, many will cry out to God asking, “Why God, are you allowing this to happen to me? What did I do wrong?” While suffering, many Christians will assume that God is punishing them for something they’ve done wrong.

But did you know that Christians are no longer punished by God? It is impossible. If you are in Christ, your sin was already punished. The cross of Christ was the once-and-for-all punishment for all of your sins. Justice has been exacted; the punishment is complete.

However, Christians can and will be disciplined. The Bible says that “[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). In order to grow us in our faith, God may allow us to endure painful circumstances. But this will be for our betterment and growth, not as retribution for our past sins.

The Bad News 

We cannot prevent or avoid His discipline. No amount of obedience will prevent suffering from coming our way. There’s no way around it. Growing hurts. Even Jesus, who never sinned, wasn’t able to escape the painful discipline of the Lord. The author of Hebrews said that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. If our Lord couldn’t escape painful discipline, then neither can we.

The Good News

Even though we don’t know when God is intentionally disciplining us, we do know that he is not mad at us. He is not angrily punishing us for what we’ve done wrong. His eyes are on our future, not our past. Therefore, when we hurt the most, we can draw near to him, knowing that he loves us, is with us, and is on our side.