I want to define the three words—judgment, punishment, and discipline—particularly from one another, in an effort to correct a few misconceptions that I read and hear everywhere. But before we jump in, read these Bible verses:
"'Vengeance is mine,' says the Lord, 'and I will repay'" (Deut. 32:35).
"Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God's wrath" (Romans 12:19).
"On the day I settle accounts, I will punish them for their sin" (Exodus 32:34).
"'When I punish them, they will collapse,' says the Lord" (Jer. 8:12).
"The Lord is a God of retribution; He will repay in full" (Jer. 51:56).
"The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; he is avenging and full of wrath. He takes vengeance on his foes and reserves wrath for his enemies" (Nahum 1:2).
"He judges the world with justice; he will govern the people with fairness" (Psalm 9:8).
"For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him" (John 3:17).
"The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22).
"You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one" (John 8:15)
"If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world" (John 12:47).
No one on earth right now seems to know what the word 'judgment' means. Planet Fitness can't even spell the word right—"Judgement free zone." Judgment means, 'to weigh in on, to pronounce a final decision upon, to issue a verdict or punishment." It can also refer to someone's capacity or authority to judge.
Here are some of the contexts in which you hear the word judgment used incorrectly:
- Someone says, "Don't judge me." This is rarely used in response to an actual judgment pronounced upon the person.
- Someone says, "You're being judgmental." The right word is 'intolerant,' or it might be more precise to say, "You lack empathy or understanding."
- Someone says, "I trust your judgment." Judgment is often used synonymously with 'discernment.' I get this, but I don't like it. Why? Because discernment is knowing right from wrong when you see it, while judgment most often implies issuing a verdict for wrongs committed (e.g. "The courts issued summary judgment in favor of the defendant").
- Someone says, "I'm reserving judgment on that until I hear more." What they're saying is, "I'm not categorizing this thing one way or another" or, "I haven't put a label on this yet." I don't like this, because, let's say you're being racist and I call you a racist. I'm not judging you—I'm calling a spade a spade, right? I'm describing your words or actions as I perceive them. And sure, I could be wrong. But my descriptor is rarely a condemnation. It seldom comes with my recommendation for how you ought to be punished. Think about that.
- Someone says, "Use your best judgment." Again, this is used in place of the word 'discernment.' It's technically correct, but I don't like it. We have the word discernment for a reason—why not use it?
By now I'm sure you're wondering why any of this matters at all—if you're still even reading this blog post. Here's why this matters.
The Bible says (as quoted above) that it is the right of God and only God to judge. All judgment belongs to God. Treat that as my point number 1.
If all judgment belongs to God—if the right to judge is God's and God's alone—then, when you pronounce judgment upon someone (when you curse them), you are playing God. And that's a dangerous game.
There is one exception to this rule. God puts in place governments and authorities to judge based on societal norms and standards. See Daniel 2:21: "He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning."
Or, see Romans 13:1: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God."
All judgment belongs to God, and God appoints earthly judges, to whom he grants limited powers, for the purpose of punishing crimes and promoting peace. They're granted limited powers; rest assured that God will strike down those who abuse their powers.
But why am I choosing to talk about this? Stick with me.
Point #2: God defers the right to judge to Jesus. See the above passages of Scripture. "The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22). Jesus, when giving his great commission to the Church, began by saying "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
All authority to judge belongs to Jesus. So when you curse someone—when you pronounce a judgment—you're elevating yourself to Jesus' level. That's foolish.
But, you ask, didn't I just read that the Lord will repay? and that he will have his revenge? Does the New Testament contradict the Old? No. God did issue his punishment. God did punish someone. God did pour out his wrath.
That leads us to point number 3.
Point #3: Jesus took our punishment upon himself. Bask in the words of Isaiah:
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him (Jesus)
the iniquity of us all.
So all right to judge is God's, God deferred to Jesus, and Jesus—rather than coming in wrath to weigh in on our sinful behavior—took our sins upon himself.
Jesus said he didn't come to judge the world, but to save it. One verse before that, we read the famous John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life."
Paul said that God made Christ who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become righteous before God.
Let's review: God alone can judge me; God defers that right to Christ; Christ chooses instead to pay the penalty for my crimes.
Why is this important? Why am I choosing today to talk about this? Here's why.
We live in a world full of self-punishers. I'm a self-punisher. I'm a perfectionist. When I miss the mark, I beat myself up.
Some people physically harm themselves. Some people withhold food as punishment for exceeding their daily calorie count. Some people choose self-sabotage, poisoning otherwise healthy relationships because they don't feel they deserve happiness or true love.
Those who have a history of trauma or abuse are highly likely to self-harm, and self-harm is at an all-time high among adolescent males, who I believe are ill-equipped by society to handle the pressures of manhood.
If you are like me, a perfectionist who cannot let even one failure go unnoticed or unpunished, or if you're among those who self-injure, or if you've been beating yourself up over some embarrassment or some slip-up, hear this:
You are not God. Stop judging yourself. Stop pronouncing judgment upon yourself. What's that mean? It means stop telling yourself what you deserve for what you've done. You're not God. You don't know what you deserve.
Trust that God, who alone has the right to judge, is not judging you. God was willing to give you a pass by deferring his right to judge to Jesus, who then also gave you a pass by taking any punishment you deserved upon himself and dying for you on a brutal cross. This is the gospel.
If God isn't judging you, does that mean you can do whatever you want? No. Paul asked, even though "there is now no condemnation to he that is in Christ," and as much as I sin, "grace abounds all the more," does that mean we should "sin so that grace may abound?" The answer is no.
In other words, Paul asks, "Does this give us license to do whatever we want?" And the answer is no, "because the law of life set me free from the law of sin and death," he says that we are finally free to be holy. Once we were slaves to sin, now we're free to honor God.
If God isn't judging you, and Jesus isn't judging you, why are you judging yourself? Are you the God of the universe? Do you know something that God doesn't know? No. So cut yourself some slack.
Punishment can come in two different ways. First, punishment can have a karmic property—you did something wrong and you're living with the consequences. As they say, "What goes around comes around." But this is only true when a straight line can be drawn from cause to effect.
My mom treats everything that happens to our family as if a vengeful God is spilling his wrath upon us. It's how she was raised. To her, if I didn't get that promotion at work, it's because I'm not reading my Bible every morning. That's how a lot of traditional thinkers think. But I've already refuted this kind of thinking, with the passages I quoted above.
If you can draw a straight line between action and consequence, then you're being punished. Watch fail videos on YouTube. Sin: Not calculating the weight that that tree branch is able to support. Punishment: Branch breaks, falls flat on face. Scorpioned.
But just because your situation sucks right now doesn't mean that you're being punished. We live in a brutally real world—the effects of man's first sin have spread to everything on earth—our Fall was wide-reaching and our depravity is pervasive. If your situation sucks, you might just be living in the real world.
I say that to encourage you, believe it or not. You aren't being punished. You're sharing in the hardship that is humanity, that's the human condition, and we're all in this together. Your hardships will make you a stronger, more empathetic person, so that you can help someone else through their own hardships.
Second, punishment can come as payment for a sin committed. You're not God. You're not a judge. You don't get to demand payment for a wrong you've done. You don't get to judge yourself in that way. I hope I've made that clear by now.
So stop punishing yourself. Or in Jesus' words to the woman who was found having an adulterous affair, "Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more." In other words, stop punishing yourself and just go try to be better everyday.
The father corrects a son whom he loves. The Bible says that the Lord disciplines those he loves as a father corrects the son he takes joy in. My dad loved me, so he didn't let me run out into the street—he disciplined me for disobeying, because my disobedience could have killed me.
As we mature, we've got to start living with discipline. What does that mean? It doesn't mean that we punish ourselves, again, that's playing God. That's wrong. No, the mature man lives according to a code of conduct befitting mature men.
At some point in our growth, we've got to shake our reliance on teachers and begin teaching ourselves. You know what's right, now do it. That's discipline.
If you self-injure as the result of past trauma, abuse, or to relieve the pain within by inflicting pain without, or if you feel there is some punishment that you simply must level upon yourself, or if you're hurting yourself to combat a feeling of numbness inside, find a therapist, consider medical treatment, talk with loved ones, and go to God.
If you beat yourself up as a perfectionist—that's a slippery slope—you might very easily become one of those people who physically injures, when emotional injury is no longer enough.
If you judge others, harshly condemning them and cursing them, you are not being like Jesus Christ. Jesus didn't judge.
If you judge yourself, letting yourself be impeded by what you think you deserve, you are playing God. Stop it. Forgive yourself and let yourself be happy.
If you're undisciplined, you're hurting yourself in a different way. What you indulge in now, you'll live with later. I'm learning that the hard way in the gym right now—my past self-indulgence is causing real world implications today, as I've become overweight, short of breath, drowsy, and probably have some pre-diabetic insulinogenic issues.
What prompted this blog post? As I said, I'm back in the gym, and as a perfectionist I want to do everything perfectly. Hit every weight perfectly, with perfect balance and perfect form, and feel no pain while I'm at it. I want to be proven strong. But I'm learning that in the gym, failure is a good thing.
You want to hit failure—that means you're exhausting that muscle. You're breaking it down so that it can be built up later on. Exercise science researchers from New Mexico University define failure as, "the point where the neuromuscular system can no longer produce adequate force to overcome a specific workload."
But in the gym there's often an initial failure, where a slight adjustment allows you to go beyond failure. That's where, I'm learning, the workout begins to really work out. That's where you notice gains in muscle mass.
As a perfectionist, I am learning to let myself fail. For too long, fearing failure, I stopped letting myself be challenged. I used to be pretty fit in college—I would run 5 miles a day and lift most days. I ate vegan. But after school, I started consistently choosing comfort. I stopped pushing myself.
My first time back in the gym after graduating, I punished myself for not working hard enough. I ended up leaving frustrated. That was two years ago—I've gained 20 pounds since then.
Today, I choose to reserve judgment upon my own identity—I refuse to label myself one way or the other. I'm not lazy. I'm not undisciplined. I'm not whatever. No—I, like everyone else, am a work in progress. Everyday I've got to choose to try to be better. Everyday I have to refuse to condemn myself.
Today, I refuse to punish myself. That said, if I'm not pushing myself in the gym then I'm totally going to call myself out—I want to hit it hard everyday. That's not punishment, that's discipline.
Today, I promise to help others who are having a hard time, and I refuse to curse another. I refuse to kick someone when they are down. I choose compassion, because I too have suffered.
Judgment, punishment, discipline. Get them right. Get them right in your head and get them right in your interactions with others. It's important.