Does God Love Us By Sending Us Pain?

Slate recently reported that spanking children may not be such a bad form of discipline after all. Surprisingly, the reporter pushed past a lot of the cultural anti-spanking prejudice to ask some reasonable questions about what the studies indicate. Although it appears she has not been persuaded to spank her own child, and she chooses to end the piece with a touch of doomsday, she maintains a level of clearheadedness in much of the article.

But I suspected at some point the article would get awkward, because discussions on discipline always do. There comes a point when you must define spanking, you must explain what spanking is and that can only be done by explaining what it looks like in practice. And when this particular reporter gets right down to it, her definition of discipline is to “(lightly) spank your kids with the palm of your hand several times.”

There was no elaboration, so I’m not exactly sure what that means to “(lightly) spank.” And how many is "several times"? What is clear, even from this fairly open voice in the media, is a reluctance to define spanking as anything that brings to a child, say, a sharp stinging sensation on the rear (see, I told you it gets awkward).

Sixteen years ago, Douglas Wilson noted this trend inside the church. “Many Christian parents do not really spank," he wrote, "but simply go through the motions — tippy, tap, tippy, tap — on the top of the diapers. It does not take the child very long to figure out this does not hurt.” What’s the problem with this? “When there is no pain in discipline, there is a chronic unpleasantness in the home rather than acute pain. Discipline must be a memorable event; it is not effective as a low-grade unpleasantness” (124).

Or to say it another way, discipline that does not hurt is not discipline (Hebrews 12:11).

What I find so interesting about this discussion is how it digs down to expose the roots of our theology and forces a much bigger question onto the table: Does God purposefully and intentionally send stinging pain into my life? For those addressed in Hebrews 12:3–11, the answer was “yes,” the strong opposition to their faith and their persecution was an experience of God’s loving discipline. God wanted to grab their attention.

Perhaps we prefer that our Heavenly Father delivers only a “tippy, tap, tippy, tap” or “light pressure.” And that’s all we want to attribute to God. But the really hard and painful times of suffering in life — those memorably painful times — may be stinging discipline from our Heavenly Father.

On one hand, we need to be careful in how we interpret providence in our lives and in the lives of others (see John 9:1–3). But we also need a category for “sharp and memorable pain” in our lives as an expression of God’s love for us. And until that point of theology becomes settled for us, trying to define parental discipline for children will be really hard to figure out.

To explore how God expresses his love to us by sending “memorable pain” into our lives and to better understand why this matters in our parental discipline, see the following resources:

Tony Reinke is a content strategist and staff writer for Desiring God and the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015). He hosts the Ask Pastor John and Authors on the Line podcasts, and lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and their three children. He also blogs at tonyreinke.com.