When It Feels Like God Is Punishing You
As a Christian, when you experience a painful providence like an illness or a rebellious child or a broken marriage or a financial hardship or persecution, do you ever wonder if God is punishing you for some sin you committed?
If you do, there is some very good news from the letter to the Hebrews.
The original readers of this letter had been experiencing persecution and affliction for some time. They were tired, discouraged, and confused — why was God allowing such hardships? And some were doubting.
So after some doctrinal clarifications and some firm exhortations and a few sober warnings (so they could examine if their faith was real) the author of the letter brought home a very important point.
He wanted his readers to remember that the difficulty and pain they were experiencing was not God’s punishment for their sins or weak faith. Chapters 7–10 beautifully explain that Jesus’s sacrifice for sin was once for all believers for all time (Hebrews 10:14). No sacrifice of any kind for sin was ever needed again (Hebrews 10:18).
He followed that up in chapter 11 with example after example of how the life of faith has always been difficult for saints.
And then he wrote the tender encouragement and exhortation of chapter 12 where he quoted Proverbs 3:11–12:
My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.
“It is for discipline that you endure. God is treating you as sons,” he said. These saints were not to >interpret their painful experiences as God’s angry punishment for their sins. That angry punishment was completely spent on Jesus — once for all — on the cross.
Rather, this was the message they were to understand from their hardships: God loves you! He has fatherly affection for you. He cares deeply for you. He is taking great pains so that you will share his holiness (12:10) because he wants you to be as happy as possible and enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness (12:11).
This is why as a father, whenever I discipline my children, I always try to make it clear to them that I am not paying them back for their sins. That’s why I don’t use the term “punishment.” I don’t want them to misunderstand and think I am giving them what they deserve. That’s God’s job. And if they trust in Jesus, all their punishment was taken care of on the cross.
Instead, I always use the terms “discipline” or “correction” and explain that I love them and my intention, even though the discipline is painful, is to correct and train them. I want them to know that their father loves them, cares for them deeply, and is taking great pains to point them toward the way of joy.
It is crucial that we remember that everything God feels toward us as Christians is gracious. Even when God disapproves of sinful behaviors and habits and thoughts and disciplines us, it is a precious form of his favor. It’s what a loving father does. He is not giving us what we deserve because he “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands... nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Instead, he is training us in righteousness. Because he loves us so very much.