Discipline (Proverbs 12)

How do we respond to the challenges of circumstances around us? During COVID-19, I believe I’ve seen three unhelpful responses to circumstances. The first is to leap in and announce that this is a plague and therefore judgement from God. Usually, such firm pronouncements come with an opinion on the specific sin we have committed. Secondly, some see things as unjust persecution, especially the restrictions on church gathering. Thirdly, there is the temptation to act as though all of this has nothing to do with God’s providence at all, it’s just about natural causes.

I want to suggest that there is a fourth option. We have already been told not to despise the Lord’s discipline in Proverbs 3:11 (a theme picked up in Hebrews 12), now at the start of Proverbs 12, the one who loves discipline is distinguished from the one who hates it. The former brings knowledge whilst the latter is seen as a sign of stupidity.

COVID-19 may not be a specific punishment for a particular sin but by holding a mirror up to our society, our culture, our churches and our own hearts, it becomes a tool in the Lord’s hand as he seeks to discipline us, to correct us so that we become firmly rooted in him and fruitful.

Discipline comes through circumstances.

Solomon goes on to show the different ways in which our circumstances can be used to discipline us for good and also how discipline can be avoided leading to trouble.  Notice that  this is all about the righteous person becoming rooted as they know God’s favour, something that wickedness cannot provide (v2-3).

God uses marriage and relationships (v4), our own thought life (v5, 6, 8), work (v14, v24, v27), advice (v15, v26) and encouragement (v25) for the good of the righteous. Each of these things contribute to fruitfulness whereas wickedness, poor relationships and false friends prove to be the lot of the foolish and ungodly.

Discipline highlights the difference between appearance and reality (v9)

The cost of a servant was about 30 shekels and within the reach of most ordinary citizens in Israel.[1] So Waltke and Longman both see verse 9 as highlighting the importance of reality and substance over appearance. It is possible to put on a show of extravagance whilst living on credit. Equally, it is possible to live a happy, comfortable life without show.[2]

As we have seen during COVID-19 and in past periods of crisis and disaster, these testing times strip away at the appearance, at the things we hide behind and cling on to until we can see what is really there. Jesus illustrated the same point with a parable about wise and foolish builders. One built on sand, the other on rock. No doubt, both houses looked fantastic but the storm came and exposed the foundations, which, in one tragic case, were completely absent.

The point of a servant of course is that they are there to help and assist. It is possible to live wisely and to have the help and support of others without great riches. Indeed, Christians have a helper and counsellor in the Holy Spirit.

Discipline encourages humble prudence (v23)

As my dad used to say “Son, don’t let people think you are a fool when you can open your mouth and prove it.”  The wise person is not in a rush to show off what they know but takes care to listen and to weigh up carefully. No doubt, they have learnt by experience the dangers of shooting one’s mouth off and being proven ignorant.

The Disciplined path is the path to life (v28)

God’s people were invited to choose life over death, blessing over curse. The whole point is that it is the righteous life which is the one filled with hope and joy.  The purpose of discipline is to encourage us to grow in righteousness. It also helps to test and prove our faith. Whether the discipline of circumstances or the discipline of church sanction, discipline exposes the reality of the inner life. That is why it is for our good. It is better to be found wanting now whilst there is time to respond to the Gospel than to discover too late on judgement day that your faith was false.

Conclusion

The discipline proverbs point us to Jesus, the obedient son who also learned obedience. Jesus’ suffering was on our behalf. His obedience and righteousness was on our behalf too.

God is at work in our lives today. We should not despise difficult circumstances now because this is how God works in our lives for our good.


[1] Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 525.

[2] Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 525 -526.  Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 273.

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