Is there a difference between God’s general discipline (of which all believers share as they move toward Christian maturity) and targeted discipline (in response to a particular sin or area of disobedience)? Since Jesus bore the punishment our sin deserved, should we be uncomfortable with the thought that God punishes believers for specific sins?
Jesus’ clearly settled the judicial matter of our standing with God and our eternal destiny. Discipline, by contrast, is focused on a parental rather than a judicial purpose. It is a sign of membership in God’s family and of His fatherly love for His redeemed children.
It’s worth pondering the strong imagery of scripture when it refers to God scourging every son he receives. This is a graphic analogy of painful punishment. And, discipline is unpleasant and painful (Hebrews 12).
On an earthly level, we like to remind parents that the focus of discipline should be on what we do for our children not what we do to them. Children are often slow to “get” this and God’s children are much the same. Scripture repeatedly emphasizes that God disciplines us for our good:
- The experience of Joseph: Genesis 50:20 `You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’
- The experience of David: Psalm 119:67,71 `Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word….It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.’
- The experience in all things: Romans 8:28 `And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.’
- The experience of discipline:Hebrews 12:10b `…But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness.’
There are also specific cases of decisive actions from God. Consider the circumstances in the Church at Corinth when believers were disrespecting each other at the Lord’s table: I Corinthians 11:29- 32: “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32 When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.”
The same tone of warning is found in the letters to the seven Churches in Revelation 2-3. In Revelation 3:19, Jesus said: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.” Even more to the point is the warning he gave to the Church at Thyatira concerning their toleration of “that woman named Jezebel”:
In Revelation 2:21-23 Jesus said, “I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.”
These are the words of Jesus to the Church and words for all who have ears to hear what the Spirit says.
When trying to understand the trials that come into our lives, tracing the specific purposes of God is difficult at times. It is tricky to interpret as discipline each specific trial.
Does God use hardships to punish us or to get our attention? Consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Follow his description of the purpose of this great trial in II Corinthians 12
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Paul acknowledges the beneficial restraining influence of his suffering. After three seasons of prayer, he comes to understand God’s greater purpose: v.8– “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Although this thorn is from Satan, and personally tormenting, the apostle recognized that God was protecting him from a more dangerous temptation: “Conceit”—the sin that occasioned the fall of Satan himself (I Timothy 3:6). God allowed him to remain in a significantly dependent awareness so that his source of power would be Christ.
In Paul’s case, we cannot say God sent the thorn because he had become conceited but to keep/protect him from allowing conceit. It is highly instructive to realize that God uses the forces of Satan and intense suffering to keep us from sin.
The original readers of the NT book of Hebrews were also perplexed about how they should read their trials in relation to God and His care for them. The text reminds them that their hardships were not an indication of being abandoned by God but of being His children. Whatever the reasons (or the sources), they are charged to “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (7).
What did hardship include for these early believers? From the context, it at least included hostile treatment from unbelievers. These believers faced unpleasant and painful circumstances (11) yet they must be assured that “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” (10). Spiritual transformation includes a painful training process of our Father’s loving dicipline.
Sometimes it is hard to get a specific read on God’s dealings in our lives (and even harder, and often ill-advised, when looking at the lives of others). Yet the “Why?” question can always be answered through these general statements of purpose and biblical examples found in II Corinthians 12 and Hebrews 12 (also, James 1:2-5; II Corinthians 4:16-18; esp. Deuteronomy 8:1-5).
We do not want to be like Job’s three friends. And, looking at Job’s own struggle with the “Why?” of his suffering, we learn much about God’s response. In a sense, God said, “Don’t go there.” “It is beyond what you will understand.” Forgive the paraphrase but there was a purpose to all those questions God presented to Job—right? In the end, Job repents. Of what does he repent? Perhaps he repented of his demand to understand.
Is it possible that God “aims” specific discipline at specific disobedience or sin? Yes. But we must be careful not to read this the wrong way. Our tendency is to “hunt down” the sin we think is being disciplined and confess it with the hope of sudden change in our circumstances. What happens, however, when we get “fully confessed up” and the trials remain—or increase?! God’s refining purposes are much larger than we realize. It is wise to go back to these revealed purposes of Scripture and live out our response in light of them. Otherwise, Satan might trap us in a paralyzed state of self-pity, defeat or a warped view of God.