Discipline and punishment are not the same thing. Discipline is a kind of teaching, it has as its goal the training of the person under discipline. Punishment is a mater of retribution, it has as its goal the carrying out of a sanction or penalty based on the transgression of a moral, legal or social code.
Discipline is an essential part of Christian life, punishment is not.
For the one under discipline, however, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between discipline and punishment. In fact, in the ascetic tradition of the Church, sometimes the word “punish” is used as a synonym for “discipline.” A good example of this is when an ascetic talks about “punishing his body” to bring it under control. Similarly, St. Paul in Hebrews 12 talks about the “chastising of sons,” which is never pleasant but rather painful. Such suffering is not punishment for breaking moral, legal or spiritual law; it is discipline “that yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Nevertheless, it is harder to think in terms of discipline rather than punishment. To understand suffering and unpleasant consequences in terms of discipline requires discernment. It requires one to reflect on his or her life, relationship with God, and relationships with others. Because discipline leads to learning and growth, it requires that one fully engage it–not just endure it. Punishment, on the other hand, is easy to deal with. You only need to endure it.
If my sufferings are just punishment, then all I have to do is affix blame. If I am being punished, then I merely identify a rule or principle that has been violated. I just ride out the suffering, for there is nothing much to learn except not to break that rule again, or at least not to get caught again, or to find a loop hold or obtain an exception. Punishment does not require much reflection. It requires no growth. Punishment is fulfilled in forcing conformity to code or law, it has nothing to do with personal growth.
The tendency to think in terms of punishment rather than discipline pervades our psyches much more than we realize. As a culture, our concepts of equality are based largely on the presumption of equal treatment under the law. Such thinking trickles into our church and family life. When someone violates a moral or legal code, we feel something rise in our minds demanding punishment equal to the violation. While such legalistic thinking may seem to be necessary in certain secular settings, it has no place in the church, and particularly not in a Christian family.
Children are not equal. The goal of Christian child rearing is not equal conformity to any moral, legal or social code. The goal of Christian parenting is to train our children to know Christ, to love Christ and to become more and more full of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. When our children fail to keep moral or other laws, our goal is not to enforce conformity. Our responsibility is not to punish. When our children sin (miss the target in their behavior, speech or attitudes), our goal is to help them find repentance. Our responsibility is to provide the discipline (training) to help our child recognize and overcome temptation.
Sinful behaviour is a symptom of a deeper wandering from God. Helping our children find their way back to God is our goal, not the eradication of certain behaviours.
And while discipline is usually unpleasant, its success is measured not in conformity to any code, but in the “peaceable fruit of righteousness.” We must never forget St. Paul’s words to the Romans, it is “God’s goodness that leads you to repentance” (2:4). Goodness and discipline together, but mostly goodness: When the prodigal son returns, he receives only goodness.