Does God Believe in Tough Love?

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Both Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura advocate it. There’s even an organization—Tough Love International—to help parents deal with out-of-control children. A practicing family psychiatrist has written a book calling for parents to use tough love. But the concept of tough love originated back in the first few pages of the Bible—long before the creation of any support group or self-help manual. Our Creator offers tough love to those He loves.

In The Epidemic: the Rot of American Culture, Robert Shaw, a practicing family psychiatrist and head of the Family Institute of Berkeley, California, writes, “Far too many children today are sullen, unfriendly, distant, preoccupied... They whine, nag and throw tantrums and demand constant attention from their parents...”

Shaw lists 15 ways to “ruin your children and your life,” which include “give in to your child’s whims... let your child think he is the boss of the universe... and don’t supervise your child’s friendships.” In contrast, the antidote to the epidemic so many of us have witnessed is, Shaw writes, “a strong bonding experience, a routine, disciplined environment, moral training” and good old “down time.” He says his book is not a “how-to” book, but a “what is necessary” book.

One of Shaw’s best observations is, “Today’s parents seem to have absorbed the notion that a child’s life should be totally serene, totally self-expressive and totally free from frustration. But creating an atmosphere that feels satisfactory to the child all the time does her [or him] a disservice.”

Polishing rough stones into gems

Shaw says the solution is simple. More parents need to be as parents of old—like our parents and their parents before them. Most parents knew they were not around to be their children’s best friend. Their job was to nurture them with a firm hand. Sure, there would be friction, but friction is how you turn rough stones into polished gems. In Proverbs:29:17,15 we read, “Discipline your son, and he will give you peace... the rod and correction impacts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraces his mother” (New International Version).

Years ago, most parents knew kids needed a set of moral boundaries, and they should face the consequences when they stepped outside those boundaries. They knew kids needed chores. They needed set times for family dinner, for bedtime, for waking in the morning and preparing for school. They needed structure.

I remember living next door to a couple with two daughters about my own age of 12. These girls had to do the dishes on a regular basis, make their beds and do other chores, all under the watchful eye of loving parents. I envied my friends. I wondered why my parents were so lackadaisical in their approach and did not make me do things as my friends’ parents did. I equated the structure and discipline in their home to an act of love. And I wanted so desperately that kind of love.

So, why do we think we need to be soft toward those who require chastening? God says chastening is for our profit (Hebrew 12:5-11). Today’s mush love psyche has practically wiped out the sensible understanding of biblical tough love. God’s tough love splashed over the pages of both Testaments has been deleted as simply not fitting in with today’s “modern” ideologies, especially with regards to child rearing.

And yet we desperately love our children and want the best for them. Then why is it we cannot see the truth in Proverbs:13:24, “If you refuse to discipline your children, it proves you don’t love them; if you love your children, you will be prompt to discipline them” (New Living Translation)? We’d do well to listen to Dr. Phil’s timely advice: “Quit rewarding your children for bad behavior!”

Tough love in the Garden of Eden

Look at the example of God’s love toward his first child, Adam. He had great plans for him. He talked to Adam about everything and told him how much He loved him. God expected Adam to look after the garden and name all the animals. Then God made Eve. They had much freedom and great joy in the garden and enjoyed a wonderful relationship with God, just as our own children do in our homes.

But, like any loving parent, God made rules for Adam and Eve. They had access to all the trees in the garden but one. They must have had certain chores. So what happened? Eve took of the forbidden fruit and Adam followed suit. Do you think God said, “Didn’t I already tell you not to do it? Let’s have a time out—go, just don’t let it happen again”? That sounds more like us, doesn’t it? But God only speaks once. Mankind had to know God meant what He said. So the penalty was carried out, not because He did not love them but because He did. Without further ado, Adam and Eve were escorted out of their beautiful home to make their way in the world. They were introduced to a rough existence, which required labor for survival.

A little further down the line we see when God saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, He decided to destroy His human creation (Genesis:6:5-7). Yet the people were given an opportunity to change before the punishment was meted out. Then the judgment was made against Sodom and Gomorrah. This was also the case in Nineveh, but repentance occurred and a loving Father reversed the decision.

Many might argue things have changed under the New Testament administration, that Jesus Christ brought only a gospel of love, mercy and forgiveness. God does not change (Malachi:3:6). Jesus Christ is also the God of the Old Testament. And God loves His children so much He was willing to die for them. He is also willing to use tough love to bring about a glorious end result.

Jesus was not weak when it came to discipline within His Church. Remember the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts:5:1-11)? God knew that “when evil people are not punished right away, it makes others want to do evil, too” (Ecclesiastes:8:11, New Century Version).

Society’s view on tough love

In the earlier years of our nation, Benjamin Franklin understood the wisdom of tough love. He remarked, “If we provide encouragement for laziness, and support for folly, may we not be found fighting against the order of God and Nature, which perhaps has appointed want and misery as the proper punishments for, and cautions against, as well as necessary consequences of, idleness and extravagance?”

Some still have common sense. Grant Hill, a member of the Canadian Parliament and a medical doctor, says, “Using force is a responsible way to discipline children but it must not go beyond reasonable force... Spanking and disciplining in this manner has been part of parenting for centuries. I do not believe that the social engineers and interfering law-makers of today know better than the generations of parents who reared their children using spanking.”

But, for the most part, we have lost sight of what’s right and wrong. “As a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Canada is obligated to make periodic appearances before the U.N.’s Committee on Rights of the Child, which said the country should ‘adopt legislation to remove the existing authorization of the use of “reasonable force” in disciplining children,’” the National Post reported (Oct. 9, 2003,

We can see the results of our namby-pamby approach to wrongdoing in escalating crime, violence in schools and deteriorating families.

Biblical tough love, however, is based on eternal truth. Anything less than tough love won’t get the job done. After all, Jesus was God. Can we do any less than Jesus Christ when it comes to tough love? He knew His plan would take a great deal of love and a great deal of getting tough. I think we need to appreciate the exquisite balance of God’s mercy, love and justice in His dealings with each and every one of us. Yet in the end He promises us, “He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son” (Revelation:21:7). God speed that day!

If you would like to learn more about God’s approach to parenting both for our children and ourselves, please contact our website at to request free literature or the Good News magazine.

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