Parents see the benefits of discipline more easily than their children. When I was a child, I never quite bought the idea that I was being punished because my parents loved me. I just didn’t size it up that way. Acting as my own defense attorney, I rehearsed in my mind the severity of my punishment; I considered the hastiness of the verdict, the disproportion between the crime and the punishment. I milked my self-pity and cried into my pillow. Unfair! Only when I was older did I view discipline through a clearer lens. Of course, now I’m glad for my parents’ loving discipline.
But what about God’s discipline? Are we grateful for it? Do we see his love in it?
As believers, we struggle to apply this childhood lesson to our walk of faith. We often view God’s discipline from a childish perspective. We suffer—prompting us to ask, why? When bad things happen to God’s people, we puzzle in wonder or frustration or doubt. We question God’s wisdom. We question God’s motives. Like the parental discipline we faced as children, we question the severity of the suffering, the aptness, the justness of the trial. Why should I go through this pain?
This certainly fits the situation being addressed in the book of Hebrews. The writer urges the Hebrew Christians to consider their current trials and suffering with spiritual maturity. He encourages them to remember God’s ways with his children. They needed a reminder.
Don’t we all? With them, we need to be reminded of the Word of God: “And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?” (Heb. 12:5). These words are part of the prior exhortation to remember Jesus Christ in His suffering, the One who “endured the cross” and “the opposition of sinful men” (12:2–3).
We slip into a forgetfulness of God’s Word. The author of Hebrews, therefore, reminds us of that Word, referring to God’s fatherly discipline as an “exhortation” or an “encouragement.” The specific word used here bears a kinship to the word used for the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John, where He is called our “Advocate” (NIV) or “Comforter” (KJV) or “Helper” (NRS V). In John’s gospel the word is paraclētos; here the word is paraclēsis. This comforting word of God, which the writer to the Hebrews tells us not to forget, is actually a quotation of Proverbs 3:11—12. The biblical writer informs us of two things, followed by an explanation: first, we must not make light of the Lord’s discipline; secondly, we must not lose heart when rebuked; and, third, the explanation: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (vv. 5b–6). Discipline is grounded in God’s fatherly care for us. The point is clear, and we must not miss it: In the face of suffering and struggle, in the face of disappointments and persecution, God has not abandoned us. He has not forgotten us, nor is He treating us as rejects or unwanteds. On the contrary, He is treating us as His sons and daughters.
The writer expands on this theme. He points these beleaguered believers to the love of human parenting. Our earthly parents “disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them.” By saying, “as seemed best to them,” the writer indicates that our parents weren’t without fault. They worked on raising us as best they could—and “we respected them” for it. Under normal circumstances, as grown-ups, we appreciate our parent’s efforts in raising us, especially when we have children of our own. We respect our parents because they tried to better us and develop our character. Honestly, we must pity persons who were never taught how to guard their hearts, resist their impulses or bridle their tongues.
But God doesn’t discipline us “as seems best”; rather, He “disciplines us for our good” in order that “we may share his holiness.” There’s no question here as to whether God knows what He is doing. There’s never anything uninformed, misguided, or unfair in His child-rearing efforts. Is it pleasant? The writer to the Hebrews says it isn’t. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful” (12:11a). There is no getting around that—discipline is distasteful. It is corrective. It steers us in a new direction. It forces us out of ruts of sinful attitudes, actions, thoughts, and words. It makes us look at our habits from a better, more biblical perspective. Though the path is painful, its rewards are blessed: “Later on . . . it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (v. 11b).
“For those who have been trained by it.” We must not miss this pivotal point. The Hebrew Christians are urged to be “trained” by their sufferings. In other words, if the discipline is to have its desired effect, they are not merely to endure what they suffer. They must be “trained” by their suffering. They must learn from it, for “training” doesn’t take place automatically, just as going to school doesn’t guarantee that we learn anything. Some Christians who have suffered a great deal have learned very little. Others, however, were “trained” by God’s discipline, and the “fruits of righteousness” are there for God and for us to see.
The story of Job helps us in this regard. Job suffered the severest trials of faith. The tragedies that afflicted his life were not because he was a sinner or because of his sins. He was tested because he was faithful (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). Satan had one purpose in Job’s trials, but God had another. Recall that Job lost much of his family, as well as his wealth and his health—all this so cruelly timed. Even his wife abandoned him. Her counsel: “Curse God and die!” (2:9). Job suffered all these terrors; and then he suffered under the accusation of three so-called friends who informed him that bad things don’t happen to good people, that Job was afflicted because of his sins. Their counsel: “Repent!” (8:5–6; 15:4–5; and more). Job, however, was a man instructed in the Word of God, and so he argued his case against his would-be comforters. He also argued with God. Staggering in bewilderment, he called God to account. He wanted God to explain. God did finally speak, but it was Job who came under divine interrogation, not the Lord (chapter 38).
Job repented in dust and ashes (42:6). He repented for not trusting God in the midst of his suffering. He repented for “losing heart” and for doubting God’s justice and good purpose for him through his suffering. He repented for questioning God’s wisdom and favor and love. He repented for failing to see that God uses the trials he faced for his good. And that is what the writer to the Hebrews is saying as well. God uses our trials as discipline “for our good.”
If we are to believe this, we need ears to hear.
God’s Word is the organ of His discipline. Yet circumstances get our attention—and God uses all sorts of circumstances as attention-getters: lost employment, naughty tots or troubled teens, an injury, a disease, a divorce, an accident, and many more. The burdens can be large or small. Job’s were large.
Maybe, by comparison with his, yours are small. No matter. God disciplines those whom he loves. Getting your attention with trials and difficult circumstances, God’s Word in Scripture serves as the organ of correction, as the voice in your ears to correct, to console, to rebuke, to train, and so on. This is fatherly “discipline.” Notice how close the word discipline is to another biblical word, disciple. God’s discipline serves to make us Christ’s disciples. The trials we face are divinely designed to mature us so that we become more serviceable disciples in Christ’s church and kingdom.
Are you being corrected and “trained” by the hardship you endure? Are you becoming a fit disciple of Christ from God’s fatherly discipline? God’s fatherly discipline is for believers only; it is for disciples. No doubt, unbelievers can also learn a lot through the hard knocks of life, and as a result they might become a better people because of trials. But life’s hard knocks don’t sanctify them. They aren’t being made into Jesus’ disciples through suffering. God’s discipline toward His children, however, is sanctifying. His discipline is love in action, for He loves us not by spoiling us but by correcting us. He is making us disciples.
If God’s voice of discipline is in your ears—perhaps difficult circumstances are making you pause to listen to His voice—you’re wise and obedient only when you bid good-bye to unbelief, break ties with sin, and leave behind without regret your wayward habits, attitudes, grudges, questions, or self-pity. Do that, and trust in God along with it, learning to pray, “Lord, your will, not my will, be done.”