(A) Introduction

Discipline is something a teacher knows a lot about. It is not pleasant to experience especially when it is by no means clear what the benefits are going to be. Perhaps we should also be aware that it is not agreeable to administer. The aspect of teaching that I disliked most was the daily necessity of imposing discipline. For the most part it is a thankless task. I suspect that God rarely gets thanked for disciplining his sons.

(B) The right to discipline

A person acquires authority or the right to discipline. Policemen cannot be disciplined by members of the public. They are disciplined by their superior officers. A superior officer has acquired the right by virtue of his or her training, experience and expertise. A teacher may be an authority in a certain subject. Years of study and acknowledged research give her the right to correct others. God has the right to discipline because he is our maker. We are his creation and he must know what is best for us. He takes responsibility for us.

(C) Why does the person in authority discipline.

    (a) To assert his authority.
    Not all boys and girls are obedient. They have an innate tendency to rebel. A teacher cannot fulfil his responsibility to teach unless his authority is respected. So battles are fought and sanctions imposed until the rebels learn to comply.

    God occasionally asserted his authority during the history of the Israelites. This was particularly the case in the early years of nationhood. God intervened several times during the wilderness wanderings to teach his wayward, rebellious and discontented people the importance of obedience.

    God intervenes in our lives when we are being disobedient. When we disobey the teaching of Jesus things may go horribly wrong. I have often been consumed with the spirit of retaliation and imagined all sorts of ways of getting back at the person or persons who have upset me. During this period of burning resentment I know no peace. It is only when I decide to obey my master that I experience relief.

    (b) To show disapproval of wrong behaviour.
    A teacher faced with disruptive behaviour must punish it to show thoroughgoing disapproval. The teacher knows that it is impossible for pupils to learn in a classroom where there is anarchy. It is vital to show zero tolerance of conduct that hinders the education of others, that limits progress and damages life chances.

    On many occasions God needed to show his disapproval of behaviour on the part of his people that would end in disaster. Following the incident of the golden calf this is what God says to Moses: "I have seen these people...and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." Ex32v9 God knew that the worship of idols would make the Israelites indistinguishable from the Canaanites and rapidly lead to a loss of identity. They would not be his people and the means of blessing all the nations of the world. Moses was convinced of the seriousness of the situation. When he returned to the Israelite camp he saw the people running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become the laughing stock of their enemies. Ex32 It sounds like a description of a tough class in an inner city school that is giving a supply teacher the run around! Moses had been convinced of the seriousness of the situation and sent the Levites through the camp killing at random to teach his people a dreadful lesson. Three thousand people died. Finally the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.

    This is an awful sequence of events and might seem out of all proportion to a bit of silliness with a golden calf. It was necessary. It took centuries and many disciplinings before idolatry became anathema to the Jews.

    Can you think of times in your life when God has shown disapproval of your behaviour? I loved my father and cared for him during the last four years of his life. The last year was especially difficult. By then my father was in the final stages of Parkinson's disease and was suffering from dementia. It was very difficult to dress him in the mornings. He would fight as I tried to put on his clothes. Nor could I just leave him, as he would fall about. One morning after an hour or so of all in wrestling I gave him a slap to bring him to his senses. This happened two or three times as things got worse and worse. Then one morning when I slapped him my father said, "That was the hardest one yet." It was. It was the first rational thing he had said for days. I did not slap him again. It was a rebuke from God. He was showing disapproval of my behaviour. My father did not live much longer. If I could change one thing in my life it would be those slaps.

    (c) To raise standards.
    If a teacher has high expectations of his pupils he or she will demand improvements when work is slip shod or shoddy. A teacher might make a pupil repeat work that is substandard. It might be necessary to detain the pupil after school to ensure that this is done. Similarly a good teacher will show that poor behaviour and a bad attitude are unacceptable. Teachers with high expectations get far more from children than teachers who do not expect or demand much. The disparity between pupil performance from teacher to teacher and school to school owes much to variations in expectation.

    God had high but realistic expectations of his people. During those years of wandering in the desert the Israelites were given a demanding moral code. I love some of the Old Testament laws: If a fellow Hebrew, a man or woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your wine press. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today. Deut15v12to14. From time to time God had to remind the Israelites that they were not keeping these laws. He did so through his prophets and national calamities.

    Jesus has set us high standards of conduct. No one could have higher expectations of his disciples. There are times that we fall short of the mark and we need, for example, to be reminded by the Holy Spirit that an apology to someone that we have wronged is necessary. We need to be forgiven. It isn't easy to admit that we were wrong and ask to be forgiven.

    (d) To highlight a weakness.
    It is amazing that weaknesses that are glaringly obvious to the teacher are not recognised by the individuals who have them, nor by their parents or indeed, sometimes by their friends. I was talking to a former colleague today whom I had not seen for several years. Her son married a girl whom I used to teach. My friend told me that the marriage had ended after 20 years. Her former daughter-in-law was lazy, moody and self-centred. It did not take me 20 years to find that out. The girl was just like that when I taught her.

    The teacher should occasionally take a pupil aside and highlight a weakness that is spoiling their lives. It might be unpunctuality, rudeness, laziness, arrogance, insensitivity, dishonesty, presumption or a tendency to give up. It is never pleasant to have a weakness highlighted. I was impressed by an anecdote in Frank Muir's, 'A Kentish Boy', his autobiography. His mother had taken delivery of a new carpet. It was the first carpet that she had ever had. Frank's mother was inordinately proud of her carpet. This is how Frank tells the tale: Charles gave me for my birthday a joke ink blot. It was startlingly realistic. Sniggering with excitement I laid it on mother's new carpet, put an empty ink bottle on its side beside the blot and called out, "Quick, mother! I've had an accident!" Mother shot from the kitchen took in the sight of the ink bottle on its side and the large blot on her beautiful new carpet and gave me a whack round the back of my head with her wedding-ring finger which sent me ricocheting off three walls. This would probably have won her 14 days hard labour in Holloway Prison in these enlightened times but it was exactly the right treatment then. I have hated the lurking sadism of practical joking ever since.

    God taught Moses a lesson about the dangers of taking the law into his own hands. Presumption was Moses weakness. He killed the Egyptian who was beating one of his own people. It was not a hot-blooded, unthinking, act of blind rage. Glancing this way and that and seeing no-one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Ex2v12. Later Moses was rebuked by God when he intervened to stop two Hebrews fighting. God spoke through the Hebrew in the wrong when he asked, "Who made you a ruler and judge over us?" Moses learned not to be presumptuous during his forty year exile in the land of Midian. It was a lesson he had to learn to become the God reliant leader of the chosen people. Even so it was a weakness that cost him his opportunity to enter the Promised Land. It was presumption that caused Moses to strike the rock in the Desert of Zin and speak angrily to God's people. See Numbers20v3to13.

    God may find it necessary to highlight a weakness in our character or conduct that is spoiling our lives. I was talking to my brother Peter on the telephone only a few days ago. I mentioned something that was bothering me from my career as a teacher. He was not too sympathetic. His rather cavalier attitude stirred up all the bitterness and resentment I felt. It had been festering for months. Eventually my brother did say something that proved a help. He said, "I don't know what to say to you, John. I'm sorry to hear you carry on like this - it just isn't like you." God used those words to bring me to my senses. I had not been the sort of person in the past to bear a grudge but here I was bearing one that was having an adverse effect upon my life and was contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

    (e) To train in good habits.
    A teacher knows that he must train his pupils in good habits. All work must have a heading. Headings should be underlined with a ruler. Writing should be in ink and drawings in pencil. Homework should be recorded in the homework diary and finished by the time set. This might seem petty to the reader and typical of a fussy, old fashioned, schoolteacher but good habits make for efficiency and effectiveness. The driver of a motorcar knows that good habits save lives.

    The Israelites were taught good habits in the wilderness. They were to collect just enough manna, their desert food, for each day - except on Friday when they collected enough for two days so as to avoid working on the Sabbath. The Israelites discovered that any food they tried to save overnight, except for Friday night, went mouldy. On the Sabbath when some heedless, feckless, individuals went out looking for manna there was none!

    God relies on others to train us in good habits. My parents insisted that I attend Sunday school and chapel on Sundays. I think they made the mistake of not having family prayers. My father prayed for me in the home on special occasions and that meant a lot. We should have prayed together more regularly. However I am grateful that as soon as I was baptised I was encouraged to attend the weekly prayer meeting. I got into the habit of attending and have never willingly missed going.