I’m continually amazed at my own hypocrisy as a parent. Part of parenting, a big part, is realizing how childish you still are. Here’s the most recent lesson I’ve picked up.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said the following sentence to one of my children: “You don’t seem to change until you’re punished!” All parents can attest to those countless moments when you repeat commands only to watch your children do the very thing you’re almost begging them not to do. It’s sort of like yelling at a freight train with faulty breaks. No matter how loud your voice gets, the train keeps on chugging along and eventually goes where you don’t want it to. It’s a phenomenon that’s both exhausting and, as it turns out, illuminating when you think about God and his dealings with people.
Punishment, after all, isn’t something we’ve thought up. It’s not a human invention; it’s a divine, grace-giving behavior. It may not seem grace-giving, but all punishment, done rightly, should be just that. Consider the first need for punishment in human history: Adam and Eve disobeying the clear command of God in Genesis 2:16-17. God certainly punishes Adam and Eve in pronouncing judgment on them (Gen. 3:16-19). But he doesn’t take their life, which was originally threatened. Instead, he removes them from the garden. Why? Because of grace.
You see, if Adam and Eve would have taken fruit from the tree of life in their sinful, rebellious state, that would have kept them in that state for eternity. God willed their redemption, their salvation, and the restoration of their relationship with him. So, in grace, he removed the possibility that they would take from the tree of life and be eternally separated from him. The punishment, though it appeared ugly on the outside, was an act of grace. Buried beneath the soil of punishment is grace and love.
We find this echoed throughout Scripture, perhaps most famously in Proverbs 3:12 (referenced in Heb. 12:6), “for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Punishment, reproof, happens because of love, and grace is a branch of love. When we love, we uphold the value and worth of another. When we show grace, we do the same thing, showing our love in the form of an unmerited gift. Grace is an unmerited gift.
What’s abundantly clear in Scripture, however, is that God’s people seem constantly in need of reproving, in need of graced-based, love-driven punishment. How many times did God have to punish his chosen people to get them to repent? Too many times to count! In almost every case in redemptive history, God’s people do not seem to listen until punishment comes in. Punishment gets them to hear the voice of God, and to listen.
Given that history, is it any surprise that we find ourselves in a similar place today? Originally, I asked myself, “Why is it that kids don’t seem to listen until punishment (in some form) comes into the picture?” I should ask myself the same question. “Why don’t you listen to the voice of God until punishment comes into the picture?” And I think my response to that would be embarrassing silence.
I don’t know why I don’t listen to the voice of God, other than the fact that I’m a sinner in need of grace. In that sense, I’m a sinner in need of punishment. Notice how the gospel is wondrously bound up with this. I could say to my children what I would say to myself, and what God said, in essence, to his people by sending Christ in the power of the Spirit: You can’t change without grace. And you have it in the person of Christ.
Punishment, in the end, isn’t the thing that causes change. That’s far too legalistic, and far too easy to disprove based on our own life history. What causes change is grace, which sometimes comes in the form of punishment. The ultimate question that parents should have isn’t, “Why don’t you change until you’re punished?” It’s “Why don’t any of us change apart from grace?” And that, my friends, is a profound mystery. My response to it is simply gratitude. Punishing your children should, in some ways, make you profoundly grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ, who took your punishment so that you could just have the sweeter part of grace–the part without the sting of death. We might not change until we’re punished, but for eternity, Christ changed all of us because he was punished.
Don’t get so mad at your kids for disobedience. You’re right there with them, begging for grace in Christ. And he always gives it to you.