In the study of science and nature (and even spirituality), we find it true again and again that when you take pain and struggle out of the life of something, or someone – rather than following the logical conclusion that their life would be easier and happier, the opposite occurs – they grow weak and die, or at very least fail to attain their best: the butterfly freeing itself from its cocoon, the chick breaking out of his egg, the piece of black sooty coal being transformed into a diamond, the athlete striving to increase his strength and endurance, the Christian growing in his faith. So struggle, though it is unpleasant and painful, seems to play some important role in the overall picture of life.
When Job’s world collapsed around him, his sense of reason and fairplay was cast into turmoil and doubt. Suddenly, this man who had enjoyed God’s favor and blessings had everything taken away from him – his possessions, his family, and finally his health.
Three friends came, and for a week sat and said nothing (their presence and their silence were profound – and if they had left after that first week, it would have been to their credit. But unfortunately, they, like we, try to offer an explanation for the unexplainable.)
They espouse the philosophy of the day – that the good man is blessed by God and the evil man is punished. Job is suffering, therefore God must be punishing him for some horrible sin he has committed. He should, they tell him, repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. And while our experience tells us otherwise, that really appeals to our sense of justice and fairplay – it’s neat and clean.
But the book of Job begins by letting us in on the workings behind the scene, and there are things going on that Job is unaware of – nor are Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar, Job’s three friends.
And at least one of the messages of the book of Job is that suffering isn’t always for some discernible reason. God is not the source of suffering in our lives, but God can always use suffering in a powerful way to bring about growth in our lives.
For the people to whom our author of the Hebrews letter is writing, no message could be more relevant. They have experienced suffering and hardship for the sake of Christ. It is, in so many ways, senseless and without purpose, and they are wondering whether it is all worth it. Is it worth living as a Christian and be ostracized and persecuted? And if I am doing what God wants me to do, why am I suffering for it?
We don’t want to begin at verse 4 without being keenly aware of the verse that precedes it: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus” – he suffered, he died, and for a purpose that is so lofty and far reaching that it stretches through the centuries into our lives here today.
But they were asking the question, “Is there purpose in MY suffering?” And it’s a question we find ourselves asking. It is a question that for many really calls into doubt the existence of a fair and loving God. After all, if God is loving, why does he let painful things go on around me and to me?
Let’s listen to the answer that the Hebrews writer offers:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 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.” 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. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
First, the writer calls us to remember how Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith endured the cross – its horror, suffering, shame.
Any encounter they had had with suffering fell short of what Christ went through on our behalf. His suffering is the measuring rod. And the fact is, most of us start complaining long before we have the right to complain.
But after he puts their suffering in perspective, he opens a whole new door of understanding into suffering (though maybe not so new) – he takes us back to the OT book of Proverbs and quotes – “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.” (vss. 5-6)
Did we hear correctly? “My Son!?”
Are we really children of God? Because while there incredible blessings of being a child of God, there are some very profound responsibilities that go along with them.
And then he begins to tell them what that means:
Vs. 7a – “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” They are thinking, “If that means suffering and pain, I can do without the favor.”
He takes it one step further: vss. 7b-8
“For what son is not disciplined by his father. If you are not disciplined, then you are illegitimate children.” No discipline, no sonship; no discipline, no relationship with God as Father.
Let’s define discipline. Especially in our day with the rising concern and public scandals over child abuse, and the monstrosities that are perpetrated on children by men who slander the sacred name of “father” by their actions. Discipline does not equal punishment. Discipline takes many forms: guidance, protection, encouragement, reward – and yes, punishment. But the heart of godly discipline is a deep love for our children and a realization that discipline is a necessary part of training a child to become a mature adult.
Prov. 22:15 – “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.”
Prov. 13:24 – “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”
The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. And if I refuse to discipline my children, then I am doing the greatest injustice possible to them, and am in fact, condemning them to a miserable life.
This is not a sanction or excuse for abuse or mistreatment. It is a part of that stewardship of children. It is a necessary responsibility. You see, the goal of all good discipline is self-discipline. Discipline is the sign of true sonship.
In the next two verses, he makes some significant contrasts between human fathers and our heavenly Father. But one thing remains constant: discipline. He explains: 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. (vss. 9-10)
Earthly fathers, even the very best, are going to administer discipline capriciously – sometimes justly, other times unfairly – at times with a little too much harshness, at other times too leniently. We are just human, and our judgment is limited and clouded by our humanness. Somehow – even though we blow it, and seem inconsistent – when we do it out of a love for our children, our children still respect us, and in time will appreciate us for it.
But look at the contrast. God’s discipline is never arbitrary or capricious. It is never done in anger, never unfairly. It is always for our best that he does it. And its ultimate goal is that we might share in his holiness.
And then two indisputable facts about discipline:
First, it is never pleasant: No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. (vs. 11a)
Second, once you get past it (and how often we see the value of things with 20/20 hindsight) we see the rich rewards of discipline: Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (vs. 11b)
That all sounds interesting and hypothetical. What does it mean?
It means we all experience trials and suffering. But trials and suffering don’t always accomplish the same thing in every person. Your perspective and your attitude have a lot to do with it.
Suffering may come from any number of sources, and there just may not be any discernable cause or reason. But it has the ability either to crush you, or the ability to strengthen you.
God can take any seemingly bad thing in your life and bring good out of it – and through it discipline you (or a better word would be, train you) and mature you.
Listen to Peter’s unique perspective: In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
There are times when God works in our lives through the trials to get our attention – to wake us up and help us see. C.S. Lewis wrote this in his book, The Problem of Pain:
Pain is not only immediately recognizable evil, but evil impossible to ignore. We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (C.S. Lewis)
But when we allow those same trials to burden us and dishearten us and finally crush us – the devil has been the victor.
There must be a willingness to allow God to be in control – not a passive “grin and bear it” approach, but as Peter said, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Each trial, each temptation – when the world throws us a curve – actively, consciously putting them in God’s hand.
Submitting to his guidance and seeking his strength.
Confidently, faithfully knowing that when things in our lives seem out of control – that’s when he can take control. And he powerfully, yet lovingly begins to create out of the raw material we give him, a godly man or a godly woman more prepared for his service.
Take the struggles out of our lives, and God’s work is cut short – his most powerful tool is blunted. So, with James, we look at these struggles in a different way – Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (James 1:3-4 – Peterson – The Message)
Then, the final two verses – Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. (vss. 12-13) He is telling them, and us, to take courage, find healing in God’s work in your life.
Many precious gems come out of the South African diamond mines. But years ago, one diamond was unearthed that was by far the most magnificent ever discovered. It was sent to the King of England as a gift of inestimable value. The king sent it to the most skilled lapidary in the world to be cut. What do you suppose he did with it? He cut a notch, then placed his instrument and struck a single blow, leaving the magnificent diamond cleft in two pieces. Had he made a mistake? Did he do this out of recklessness or incompetence? Not at all. He had studied the diamond for weeks – drawings and models had been made – every defect, line of cleavage, and facet had been studied in minute detail. When he struck that blow, he did the one thing which would bring that gem to its most perfect shapeliness, radiance and jeweled splendor. That blow which, to an untrained eye, seemed to ruin the precious stone was, in fact, its perfect redemption. And from those two halves were created two perfect matching gems which the skilled eye of the lapidary saw hidden in the rough, uncut stone as it came from the mine.
God sees in you his perfect, precious child. And through trials and suffering he is molding you and forming you to become what he sees in you. Take courage and hope when you are going through difficult times, because you know that is when God is most actively at work in your life.