Alternatives to Punishment Part 2: How Does God Discipline His Children?

This is part 2 of this series. If you missed part 1, catch it here.

In part 1 of this series we established that God’s definition of punishment seems to be different from man’s definition. And then I asked, “so how does our Heavenly Father discipline us, His children, if He doesn’t punish us (i.e. intentionally cause us pain out of retribution)?” Before I answer that, it’s important to note that the word ‘discipline’ comes from a word that means ‘to teach.’ So how does He teach us?

He allows us to choose and then He allows the consequences of our actions (both positive and negative) to teach us. He does all in His power to connect with us and help us feel His love so that we will desire to follow Him. Through prophets and the scriptures and the Holy Ghost, He continually and patiently teaches us the truth and the way to be happy and return to His presence. He gives us guidance and teaches us through the Spirit, helping us find answers to our problems. He requires certain things of us, certainly. And He expects us to repent (turn to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit) when we sin, but He is unfailingly loving and patient with us when we do stumble. Repentance is not a punishment, like we might sometimes think it is, but rather, it is a tender mercy, a gift from a loving Father and His loving Son.

If we are to become like our Father in Heaven (as parents, and in general) and gain all that He has, then we must develop and cultivate a character like His. What is His character like?

We might sometimes think that God is harsh because He is bound by justice (and because the scriptures sometimes portray Him that way), and that only Christ is merciful and kind. But Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in a talk titled The Grandeur of God, says that the Savior came to show us God’s character. (This is an incredible talk, and everyone should read it. I can’t recommend it highly enough!) Jesus only did that which He had seen the Father do (John 5:19). Why do we think God sent His Son in the first place? He desperately wants to show us mercy, to welcome us all back home, but He can’t if we don’t make use of His Son’s atonement and repent. Elder Holland says, “In word and in deed Jesus was trying to reveal and make personal to us the true nature of His Father, our Father in Heaven.”

1 John 4:8 says that “God is love.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie explains that “God is also faith, hope, charity, righteousness, truth, virtue, temperance, patience, humility, and so forth. That is, God is the embodiment and personification of every good grace and godly attribute—all of which dwell in his person in perfection and in fulness” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:398).

Elder Holland continues, “So feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rebuking hypocrisy, pleading for faith—this was Christ showing us the way of the Father, He who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness” [from Joseph Smith’s Lectures on Faith]. In His life and especially in His death, Christ was declaring, “This is God’s compassion I am showing you, as well as that of my own.” In the perfect Son’s manifestation of the perfect Father’s care, in Their mutual suffering and shared sorrow for the sins and heartaches of the rest of us, we see ultimate meaning in the declaration: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).”

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Christ, who showed us who our Father is, never condoned sin, but He was full of mercy and compassion and tenderness. I love the story of the woman taken in adultery, wherein Jesus showed us a perfect example of setting firm limits with empathy and kindness. He understood how this woman must have felt to be publicly shamed for her sins, which would not actually prevent her from sinning further (because we can’t do better by feeling worse), and so He diffused the situation, connected with her in a merciful act of love, and then admonished her to “sin no more” (see John 8:3-11)

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Some might still argue that God does punish the wicked, that sometimes His actions can be considered as inflicting punishment. Even then, though, I don’t think He would ever act with the desire and intent to cause pain and suffering, but rather so that His work can move forward and so that He can save as many of His children as possible. I believe He desires to help and save all of His children, but He will not force us. So in this sense, His actions still would not be considered punishment as we know it – retribution, or getting back at us for wrongs done – but rather, simply, the effects of purging sin, the result of justice.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say God does use punishment, at least sometimes. If He does punish His children, I will leave that to Him. That’s His call, His judgment to make. If I can successfully lead and guide the hearts of my children like we have been taught and counseled to do, then why even consider harsh punishment or “tough love” – especially when we know it doesn’t actually teach or change people? God has the final say, the last judgment. His ways are always just and merciful – but of course His mercy extends only as far as we are willing to accept it by our repentance. “The Lord will forgive whom [He] will forgive, but of [us] it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). We have been commanded to show love and kindness to all mankind (and this certainly includes children). See James 1:19-20. God has shown us how (by and through His Son) we can be firm in our limits and boundaries and also kind and gentle and compassionate. Regardless of whether or not God is ever the one who actually inflicts punishment on His wicked children, I feel strongly that when disciplining our own children, He would have us be kind and gentle, and to discipline in His way, which is to “lovingly and patiently teach” them (see this wonderful talk by Elder Lynn G. Robbins).

When it came to little children, Christ only ever showed loving attention and adoration and gentleness to them. He commanded us to become like children if we want to inherit God’s kingdom (3 Nephi 11:38). He taught us that they are whole and innocent (Moroni 8:8). He loved the children so much that He wept when He blessed them (3 Nephi 17:21-22). Children are precious to Him. Regardless of whether or not He was always merciful and without anger toward grown men, as some will argue and try to use as justification for their harshness toward children, Jesus was always gentle and compassionate toward children. Being gentle and respectful and kind does not mean we allow children to run the show or that we don’t set limits and boundaries for them. It just means that we treat them how we would want to be treated as we do.

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Surely, in addition to natural consequences doing the teaching, we must also be proactive about teaching our children important lessons. It is imperative that we set and enforce rules and limits with our children. We have a solemn responsibility to teach them correct principles and behavior. So how do we enforce limits and teach lessons when they misbehave without using punishment or control? Stay tuned for Part 3 of this post, where I will go into detail about some alternatives to punishment.

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