He who neglects discipline despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.
The word “discipline” conjures different images for different people. For some, the unjust or brutal disciplines inflicted on them in childhood, in school, or in the workplace stir a negative reaction. Others have a more positive view, having experienced discipline as instruction, as gentle correction or wise advice.
In Proverbs, discipline is always something that arrives, visiting us in one of two forms. The first kind of discipline is that which a parent inflicts on their child, as in Proverbs 22:15: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (cf. 13:24; 19:18; 23:13-14). Care must be taken here. Many times I have heard such verses used to justify harsh forms of discipline, or “corporal punishment” as it was called when I was a child. While Proverbs rightly commends discipline as an essential parenting practice, we would be wise to recognise the very different cultural environment in which we live, at least in the west, and so be very moderate in our use of physical disciplines. Further, we should note that the purpose of discipline is not punishment but regulation and instruction in hope that the child will learn to self-regulate and self-discipline (cf. Proverbs 23:15,-16, 19, 22-25).
The second form of discipline common in Proverbs is the reproof of others. Our text today contrasts the one who neglects discipline with those who “listen to reproof.” Verse 31 states the same truth in a positive tone: “He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.” And verse 33 commends the essential demeanour if one is to receive this kind of reproof: “The fear of the Lord is the instruction for wisdom, and before honour comes humility.”
Hearing reproof is difficult, especially when it comes in the form of criticism. The critic often is less than kind, less than caring, less than formative in their criticism. Criticism stings. It may be unfair, ill-informed and intended to wound. Or it may be legitimate and aim to instruct. Either way, if we are to benefit from the criticisms, admonishment and discipline that come our way, humility is essential. In such times we need the grace to listen and respond quietly in the moment, perhaps clarifying what we are being told so we may reflect on it later. Even if the criticism is harshly given and unkindly meant there may be a grain of truth in it that we would be wise to hear.
This combination of discipline and reproof is common in Proverbs—see Proverbs 12:1; 13:1; and 15:5. Proverbs 3:11 indicates that the Lord disciplines us by way of reproof, while 6:23 show that such reproofs are the pathway of life. As was the case with parenting, so here: the purpose of reproof is that we might become wise (19:20, 27). According to Proverbs 13:18, “poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, but he who regards reproof will be honoured.” And so Proverbs 23:12 exhorts each one to “apply your heart to discipline and your ears to words of knowledge.”
Both the ears and the heart are necessary to gain the wisdom that comes from reproof. With the ears we listen to the reproof, no matter how hard it may be to hear. With the heart we ponder and evaluate the truthfulness and relevance of the counsel we have heard. If the words spoken were unkind and untrue we may reject the so-called counsel, but still learn something profitable about that person and the relationship we are in. If, however, the words contain some degree of truth or relevance, we would be wise to accept that part of the counsel, despite the sting which the words delivered. And, of course, it may help to have a trusted friend or counsellor with whom we can process these words and thoughts.
The great irony of this verse is that often we refuse discipline because we despise others; we despise their interference, their authority, their nagging, or sometimes, we simply despise the person. Yet the proverb insists that those who neglect discipline despise themselves. Some disciplines focus on the pursuit of the good: disciplines towards healthy lifestyle, productive work habits, spiritual growth, and kindness toward others. Without such disciplines we may fail to achieve what we otherwise might, or fail to receive all that God might graciously give. Other disciplines focus on the refusal of evil: disciplines against laziness and lust, anger and anxiety, foolishness and falsehood. Without these disciplines we may fall into disaster and unending shame—and not only ourselves, but others who depend upon us.