Whoever spares the rod hates their children (Proverbs 13:24)
Unfortunately, many Christian books have been written to promote the belief that you may abuse your children in the name of God. One famous example is the best-selling book “To Train Up a Child” by preacher Michael Pearl and his wife Debi, in which they teach parents to hit their children with plastic tubes, whips, paddles and belts to “break their will.” They promote abusive tactics such as withholding food, giving cold showers, or leaving them outside to shame them for disobedience. “To Train Up a Child” has sold over one million copies and has been translated into twelve languages. That means millions of children have been affected. Oy Vey!
As you can guess, this sweet old Baptist couple also used verses, out of context of course, to biblically back up their abusive views. I’m sure you have heard people refer to one specific proverb many times:
Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (Proverbs 13:24)
In fact, the Pearl couple quotes Proverbs 13:24 several times in their short book. For example, on page 37 the couple quotes the proverb and explains that in modern times, the ‘rod’ is “called whippings.” And in page 46, the couple writes:
A spanking (whipping, paddling, switching, or belting) is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment.
They are reading (and teaching) this verse as if saying, “If you don’t torture your child, he will end up being tortured by God forever.” In page 46, the Pearls commented on this verse: “A child can be turned back from the road to hell through proper spankings.” So they hit, and they hit bloody hard. Then, young children learn to associate wrongdoing with severe physical pain and will do everything in their power to avoid being caught or admitting fault out of fear of punishment. This is exactly how legalism works.
I find it absurd to think that someone’s sin can be cured by fear and trauma. Nevertheless, this is not to be blamed on Proverbs 13.
What Proverbs 13:24 really is about?
Israel was a shepherd culture. Even today, driving through the roads of modern and high-tech Israel, you will often see shepherds with their flocks. Understanding this cultural aspect will give us a better context to understand Proverbs 13:24. A shepherd carries a rod to fight predators and to lead his sheep. Sheep, known as not being the wisest, will sometimes wander off at the slightest provocation. The shepherd uses the rod to block their way if they wander, leading his flock by directing the sheep back to the desired track. In this way, he disciplines them not to wander away.
The Shepherd, however, does not beat up the sheep with his rod and does not cause them distress. If panicked, they will only run away and freak out the rest. Sheep are to be disciplined with tenderness and gentleness, not by hurting them. This is why king David, a shepherd himself, said: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). A rod will only bring you comfort if it protects you against evil, not if it breaks you.
Therefore, this proverb says the exact opposite of disciplining your child by beating them up, hosing them with water, and leaving them outside to spend the night alone. If you hate (reject/avoid) your child, you won’t bother protecting, guiding, teaching, and correcting them in their life’s walk. Parents are supposed to discipline their children by protecting, guiding, educating, and warning them (Proverbs 22:6). When punishment is unavoidable, there are plenty of non-violent ways to do it.
I’m not trying to point out whether someone should or shouldn’t ever hit their children. Each parent will do as they see fit (and will one day give account accordingly). Although my personal belief is that there are much better ways to teach and guide our children than by inflicting physical and emotional trauma upon them, my point is that one should not use God’s name in vain to promote unnecessary violence. In fact, I witnessed several times how some parents broke their children thinking they were “disciplining” them in God’s name. The results were devastating. In one case, with three brothers, one of three boys committed suicide, another is in prison, and the third is a drug addict who lives on the streets. In another case with two sons, neither can hold a job and both are heavy drug abusers. And the examples I witnessed are many. I know their parents loved them, but I am afraid they broke them, following advice like that of the Pearls.
I mentioned the book by the Pearls in the first place to show how Divine Abuse theology reflects in real-life situations. Other theologians pointed out as well:
Do we really believe that God is appeased by cruelty and wants nothing more than our obedience? It becomes imperative that we ask this question when we examine how theology sanctions human cruelty. If God is imagined as a fatherly torturer, earthly parents are also justified, perhaps even required, to teach through violence . . . The child or the spouse who believes that obedience is what God wants may put up with physical or sexual abuse in an effort to be a good Christian.[i]
The way we understand our Father in heaven – to be loving, tender, and full of compassion or angry, furious, and full of wrath – will directly reflect in how we raise our children. Whether we like it or not, our theology shapes everything about us, including how we treat others. If people look at the cross and see the violence of a Father abusing his own Son, we should not be surprised if they, too, justify their abusive behavior towards their children under the banner of “godly discipline,” fearing if they won’t hit them hard enough, God will.
P.S. After researching serial killers and abusers along with their family histories, I have arrived at this conclusion: One of the most effective ways to foster criminal behavior is by having hyper-legalistic parents who inflict abuse on both the body and soul of their children.
This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
A free sample is available here.
[i] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, “Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015): 31.