In Praise of Limits

Read: Proverbs 23:13-14

Do not withhold discipline from your children; if you beat them with a rod, they will not die. If you beat them with the rod, you will save their lives from Sheol (Proverbs 23:13-14, NRSV).

It’s hard to know what to do with a proverb like this. No, check that. It’s not hard to know what to do with it. Choose your preferred option from this list: reject it, ignore it, and/or weep for all the anguish it has wrought over the millennia.

Before we consign this proverb to oblivion, however, it might be wise to ask whether there is still something to be salvaged from it. No, I’m not going to suggest that it’s ever appropriate to beat your children with a rod. I am going to suggest, however, that the essential impulse of the proverb—discipline—is worthy of serious consideration.

The book of Proverbs is full of comparisons, so perhaps an analogy or two would help here. A fire, for instance, is best enjoyed inside a fireplace. Food—no matter how delicious—is best enjoyed in moderation. A river is best when it stays inside its banks. (Having experienced a house fire, too much of my grandma’s fried chicken, and the Mississippi flood of 1965, I can personally attest to the truth of these examples.) “Everything in moderation” the ancient Greeks observed, and their point is well-taken even today. Although I can’t resist Oscar Wilde’s point as well: “Everything in moderation, even moderation.”

Without limits, life would be chaos. Rivers would overflow, stomachs would explode, fires would burn unchecked. If you have ever dealt with a child up past their bedtime, you know the truth of this, and this may be part of the “discipline” our proverb is pushing. Consistent limits, wisely and lovingly enforced, make for happier children, happier parents, and ultimately, for happier societies. God save us from people in power who have never learned to accept the word “no.”

There are two themes that are central to the whole book of Proverbs: wisdom and discipline. They are portrayed as a kind of matched pair that should never be “put asunder.” Wisdom without discipline makes no sense, since to have the former implies that you have the latter. Discipline without wisdom, on the other hand, can quickly turn demonic.

One of my favorite hymns meditates on how limits have been built into God’s design from the beginning. The hymn is called, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” and the words are by Tom Troeger:

God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free

to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.

God set one limit in the glade where tempting, fruited branches swayed,

and that first limit stands behind the limits that the law defined.

The line, the limit and the law are patterns meant to help us draw

a bound between what life requires and all the things our heart desires.

But, discontent with finite powers, we reach to take what is not ours,

And then defend our claims by force and swerve from life’s intended course.

We are not free when we’re confined to every wish that sweeps the mind,

but free when freely we accept the sacred bounds that must be kept.

God, evidently, did not think it wise to withhold discipline from God’s children.

Ponder: What limits have made your life better? Worse? Why?

Pray: Help us to discipline wisely, and help us to accept wise discipline well.