We do not know completely the situation that the original audience of Hebrews found itself in. The repeated calls to persevere in faith, the warnings about abandoning Christ, and the explanation of the insufficiency of the old covenant throughout the book of Hebrews make us confident that the first readers of this book were being persecuted for their faith and were tempted to reject Jesus and return to the old covenant religion. Today’s passage, however, does give us insight into the divine purpose behind their suffering. Hebrews 12:5–10 tells us quite plainly that God’s discipline ultimately explained why the audience suffered as it was called to endure in faith.
Augustine, in his magisterial work On the Trinity, comments that in this passage, “discipline is spoken of in reference to those evils that anyone suffers for his sins in order that he may be corrected.” That makes good sense of Hebrews 12:5–6, where the author of the epistle cites Proverbs 3:11–12 to make his argument. The passage in Proverbs has to do with correcting sin or error, so evidently the original audience of Hebrews faced persecution as divine discipline for transgression.
That is not to say, of course, that every episode of persecution or hardship that Christians face can be traced back to a specific sin. Scripture is clear in places such as the book of Job that not every trial falls on us because of a specific evil. However, it is also clear in texts such as Deuteronomy 28 and 1 Corinthians 11:32 that some of the trouble we face is because of our sin. When we suffer, we should consider the possibility that we may be facing discipline for a specific sin, though in many, if not most cases, we may not know the reason for our suffering.
In any case, the church father John Chrysostom comments, “Of necessity every righteous person must pass through affliction.” That is exactly in line with today’s passage, which says that the discipline of the Lord is a good thing inasmuch as it proves that we are His children and it makes us progress in holiness (Heb. 12:7–10). Often we believe that the discipline of the Lord proves that He does not love us, when the exact opposite is true. Good fathers discipline their children so that they become responsible adults. Similarly, our heavenly Father disciplines us so that we become more like Him. If He did not discipline us, He would not be a loving Father.