Some Christians are not experiencing spiritual growth because they have a bad attitude toward God. Life didn’t turn out as they desired. They feel as though God let them down. Is it possible that they have forgotten the reminder of Scripture that, “The Lord disciplines those he loves”?
Here is a truth we can’t afford to ignore, misunderstand or underestimate. If you have known the Lord for any length of time, you have learned this truth. You understand the words of Hebrews 12:11: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” You know that “. . God disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).
Discipline is part of God’s plan for spiritual transformation for all of His children.
If you are new in the Lord, however, it’s possible that you have not yet experienced the reality of God’s discipline. Or, facing intense hardship, you question whether God has forgotten you. “Perhaps I have angered him and he has turned from me,” you think to yourself. You are confused. You thought life with God would fix everything but now you are dealing with new challenges and old ones continue to frustrate you. What should you think?
In an excellent passage, Dr. J. I. Packer wrote,
“the God of whom it was said, ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms’ (Is. 40:11), is very gentle with very young Christians, just as mothers are with very young babies. Often the start of their Christian career is marked by great emotional joy, striking providences, remarkable answers to prayer and immediate fruitfulness in their first acts of witness; thus God encourages them and establishes them in ‘the life.’ But as they grow stronger, and are able to bear more, he exercises them in a tougher school. He exposes them to as much testing by the pressure of opposed and discouraging influences as they are able to bear — not more (see the promise, 1 Cor. 10:13), but equally not less (see the admonition, Acts 14:22). Thus he builds our character, strengthens our faith, and prepares us to help others. Thus he crystallizes our sense of values. Thus he glorifies himself in our lives, making his strength perfect in our weakness. There is nothing unnatural, therefore, in an increase of temptations, conflicts and pressures as the Christian goes on with God — indeed, something would be wrong if it did not happen” (p. 246, Knowing God).
Dr. Packer then raises the question of how God carries out His purposes in drawing us closer to himself: “Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another: it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of his time bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road.”
“When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him. And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself – in the classical scripture phrase for the secret of the godly life, to ‘wait on the Lord’” (p. 250, Ibid).
In Proverbs 3, the father reminded his son that the Lord disciplines those he loves. Earlier, the father challenged his son to trust in the Lord with all his heart and acknowledge the Lord in all his ways. To respond this way to God, the son must avoid the temptation to lean on his own understanding. He must fear the Lord and shun evil, lest he become wise in his own eyes. If he responds to the Lord in this way, He will “make his path straight or smooth” and the son will find that it will “bring health to his body and nourishment to his bones.” If he honors God with his wealth, “with the firstfruits of his crops” he will have an overflowing provision of his necessities.
Will things always go this way for His son? The father knew better. In his helpful commentary on Proverbs, David Hubbard suggested that the father
“. . . knew that perfect obedience was an impossibility. The temptations were too pressing and attractive; individuals were too gullible and willful. No matter how clearly God marked out the paths of righteousness, some would miss them by carelessness and others would leave them by stubbornness. And when they did, because their basic trust was in God and their deep-seated desire was to please Him, He would meet them as a disciplining Father determined to point out their mistakes and return them to the right road” (pp. 72-73, Communicators Commentary, Proverbs).
The words of Proverbs 3:11 suggest a possibility that the son will be tempted to misunderstand the Lord’s discipline and respond adversely to it. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke.” Like a child who resents his father’s or mother’s discipline, so God’s children sometimes resent His discipline. It is this concern that occasioned the New Testament use of these verses in Hebrews 12.
The Hebrew Christians, to whom the book was written, were facing persecution and suffering. They were being persecuted mostly by their Jewish friends and relatives who opposed their turn to Jesus as Messiah.
“The affliction had largely been in the form of social and economic pressure, though some of them had been imprisoned (10:34). We can imagine the arguments they heard for rejecting the new faith. ‘Look at what you have gotten yourselves into. You have become Christians and all you have had are problems, criticism, hardship, and suffering. You have lost your friends, your families, your synagogues, your traditions, your heritage — everything.’ Some believers perhaps were wondering why, if their God was a God of power and of peace, they were suffering so much. ‘Why are we not winning out over our enemies, instead of our enemies seeming always to have the upper hand? Where is the God who is supposed to supply all our needs and give us the answers to our questions, and fulfillment to our lives? Why, when we turned to a God of love, did everyone start hating us?’” (MacArthur, Hebrews, p.384).
These believers were in danger of being overwhelmed with discouragement from a false reading of their circumstances. It is this that occasioned a very significant use of Proverbs 3:11-12:
“And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son’” (Hebrews 12:5,6).
Notice how the New Testament author takes a text of scripture written centuries earlier and treats it as the voice of God conversing with suffering believers in NT times. He personalizes the text in verse 5; “addresses you.”
Then, in verses 7-13, the writer actualizes the authority of the text from proverbs by expounding its implications — resulting in one of the most in-depth treatments of the subject of God’s discipline.
NT use of OT Scriptures
Not unlike other New Testament uses of the Old, this one freely re-applies the Old Testament text, without drifting outside its original intention. The quote runs this way, “do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you.” It picks up the Septuagint (Greek translation of the O.T.) addition: “and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” But the main truth is that “the Lord disciplines those he loves.” The readers of the book of Hebrews needed to hear this so they would not misread their hardships as an indication that God had abandoned them—that he was unconcerned for their well-being.
In fact, the author of Hebrews argues for the opposite position.
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:7-11).
The statement in Hebrews 12:7 is significant: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” Their hardships were brought on primarily by mistreatment from others. Here they are encouraged to “endure it” — (don’t collapse and give up) — as God’s discipline. As an example, verses 2-3 appeal to Jesus. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Emphasis mine).
Perhaps it is most difficult to discern the hand of God or, “God treating us as sons,” when difficulties come from hostile treatment by others. Yet it is at these times that we must rise above the circumstances and see God as superior to the evil intentions of people. We must resolve to see our situation as from our heavenly father — not from those who treat us with hostility. We must confess our Father’s greater love and ask him to sustain us and thank him that he is willing to take so much time to conform us to his likeness. “God disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).
Endure the unpleasant work of the planting and growing season by being mindful of the harvest (see Hebrews 12:11). What did Joseph say to his frightened brothers in Genesis 50:20? “Although you intended evil against me God meant it for good to bring about the saving of many lives.” The Psalmist recognized another benefit in suffering when he wrote: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” and “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I may learn your decrees” (119:67, 71).
Sometimes God uses afflictions to promote obedience. Other times he allows suffering to prevent disobedience as in the case of the apostle Paul. In II Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul wrote,
“To keep me from being conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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. 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.”
God protected the spiritual well-being of Paul by means of a thorn in the flesh. Whatever this thorn was, it was clearly tormenting and something Paul begged God to remove. But God allowed it to remain to protect Paul from the devastating effects of what would prove to be a greater disaster — conceit. Although the thorn was a “messenger of Satan,” it was also given to Paul by God for a higher purpose.
In application, one author suggested that, “Our sickness, lack of business success, or other problems may be God’s way of keeping us from something much worse. If God’s children accepted His preventive discipline more willingly and gratefully, He would have much less need for administering His corrective discipline” (MacArthur, P.387).
I appreciate what A.W. Pink recommended concerning our response to hardships:
“Remind yourself of how much dross there is yet among the gold and view the corruption of your own heart and marvel that God has not smitten you more severely. Form the habit of heeding His taps, and you will be less likely to receive His raps.” The conclusion? “. . . do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves . . .” (Proverbs 3:11-12).