The Painful Discipline of Our Heavenly Father
For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by him; for those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Hebrews 12:3–11)
Resting and Wrestling
There is a restful side to the Christian life and a wrestling side to the Christian life. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” Jesus said in Matthew 11:28. “Be anxious for nothing . . . let your requests be made known to God . . . and the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). There is rest and peace in the Christian soul.
But there is also wrestling and struggle. Jesus said in Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” And the word “strive” is agonize — to wrestle and struggle. At the end of his life, Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” Keeping the faith is a fight to be fought and a race to be run.
These two sides are not related in such a way that you rest one day and wrestle the next. They are interwoven in two ways:
The main aim of our wrestling is to rest — in God and not in money or position or looks or achievement; the aim of our wrestling is to rest in the promises of God and not the promises of sin.
All our wrestling and fighting and running are done with a deep restfulness of spirit that Christ himself has already won the decisive victory for us and is sovereignly working in us and will bring us to glory.
Providence in our Pain
The book of Hebrews is a very mature and sober book when it comes to the pain and stress of Christian living and the endurance that it takes to run the race and fight the fight and finish well. It’s not a book that people (especially teenagers and strong young adults) gravitate toward — unless they have suffered and struggle for some explanation of how that relates to God. In other words, the more easy and pain-free your life has been, the less you will cherish the kind of spirituality taught in this book. And the more you have suffered, the more you will cling to the precious teachings of this book — if you are willing to believe them.
“It is normal for Christians to have experiences of stress and suffering that threaten their faith and press too hard.”
That is a big if. I was talking with one of our members at the baptism service Wednesday evening, and he was telling me about recent conversations he had had with people who simply do not believe what this chapter teaches. It’s not a little feel-good chapter about how to make the best of your troubles — or even about how God makes the best of your troubles. It is a massive statement about the gracious sovereignty of God over the evil that befalls his people. And the big “if” is: will you believe this? Will you accept the mystery of God’s providence in the pain of your life, and be trained by it (as verse 11 says) for the sake of good and peace and holiness and righteousness and life? Or will you kick against this chapter and demand in the season of suffering that God give a greater account of himself than he does in this chapter?
I think it will be helpful to approach verses 3–11 like this:
- We will notice the pain and sorrow in this chapter.
- We will ask what kind it is and where it comes from.
- We will ask if it has a purpose or design and what it is.
1. The Legacy of Suffering
First, then, let’s notice the thread of suffering that runs through this section. Keep in mind what we saw two weeks ago and last week. Two weeks ago in Hebrews 11:35–38, we read about Old Testament believers who were tortured, mocked, whipped, imprisoned, sawn in two, destitute, homeless. Then, last week in Hebrews 12:1, we heard the call for all of us to lay aside sins and weights and run the marathon of radical love and holiness, while these saints witness to us along the route that it really can be done “by faith.” And then in verse two the writer tells us to look to Jesus who, like these Old Testament saints, endured a horrible death and was shamed, but set his eyes on the joy set before him.
And now he brings this legacy of suffering up to date and applies it to the believers of his day. In verse 3 he says, “Consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” The first glimpse of suffering we see in this church here is that something is threatening to make them “grow weary and lose heart.”
It is normal for Christians to have experiences of stress and suffering that threaten their faith and press too hard, or last too long and feel almost intolerable. Losing heart is a great spiritual danger. And these Christians were in that danger, as are many of you.
Another glimpse of their suffering is the reference to the hostility against Jesus (verse 3): “Consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself.” Why consider this? Because the same kind of thing is happening to you and you need to get strength from Jesus.
Another glimpse is in verse 4: “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin.” The point here is that things are bad, but not as bad as they could be. There is hostility and trouble and stress and suffering, but evidently no martyrs yet. We know from Hebrews 10:34 that some had been imprisoned and some had been plundered. But it is not yet martyrdom, though that could come. The stress level here is huge. How do you sleep at night when being a Christian may result in mob violence?
Another glimpse of their suffering is in verse 11: “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful.” In other words, the present experience of these Christians was sorrowful. Joy had been covered with a dark cloud of pain. The word “seems” (discipline “seems” not to be joyful) hints that there is a kind of residual joy of hope that hangs on beneath the cloud, but the tears and the sighs and the groans are so many that it looks like sorrow has the upper hand — at least for a season. As it does when a child cries after a spanking.
So I think it is fair to say that the believers in this passage are under tremendous stress; they are enduring some form of hostility; they are wrestling with great sorrow and are in danger of growing weary of the battle and losing heart. This whole book is written to keep that from happening.
2. The Source of Suffering Is Hostile Sinners
Now the second thing to ask is what kind of suffering this is and where did it come from. The first answer is that the suffering is coming from hostile adversaries. This was true in Hebrews 10:32–34; and it was true of the Old Testament saints referenced in Hebrews 11:35–38; and you can see that it is true here in the connection between verses 3 and 4. “Consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin.” The link with Jesus and the hostility shown against him shows that this is what the Christians are dealing with. “He endured hostility from sinners . . . you too have resisted, but have not yet had to shed your blood.” So the suffering in view is mainly persecution in various forms, short of martyrdom.
“God is the doctor planning our surgery, not the doctor repairing our lacerations.”
But where did it come from? Who is doing this? Who’s in charge of this? The first answer to that is seen in verse 3: “Consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners.” This is what Jesus endured, and this is what you are enduring. The suffering comes from the hostility of sinners. The suffering is coming from the hostile will of sinful adversaries. That is the first answer.
It is not the main one, and it is not the decisive one. This whole passage is built on another answer to the question: Where does this suffering come from? And who’s doing this? And who’s in charge? The main answer of the passage is that God is in charge here, and that he is in ultimate control of these afflictions and that they are in fact the loving discipline of a perfect heavenly father. That’s the burden of this passage.
Paging the Great Physician
Verses 5–7 say that one of the reasons you are growing weary and losing heart is that “you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord. For those whom the Lord loves, he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you endure.’” (see Proverbs 3:11–12). In other words, what adversaries do to you out of sinful hostility, God is doing out of fatherly discipline.
This is extremely important for knowing your God and for living by faith through the suffering that is coming sooner or later into your life. Notice very carefully: this text does not say that God looks on while hostile sinners hurt his people, or while Satan ravages the elect, and only then steps in to turn all this evil for good. That is not what the text says. It has a totally different conception of what is happening to us.
It says that God is disciplining us; he is teaching us and correcting us and transforming us. In other words, God has a purpose and a design in what is happening to us. God is the ultimate doer here. Verse 6 goes so far as to say, “[God] scourges every son whom he receives.” Who is scourging? Who is whipping? (See Hebrews 11:36). God is. God is not a passive observer in our lives while sinners and Satan beat us up. He rules over sinners and Satan, and they unwittingly, and with no less fault or guilt, fulfill his wise and loving purposes of discipline in our lives.
This is what I said earlier some Christians simply will not believe. They say that God is not in charge of the evil that happens to us. That he has given the world over to Satan and the free will of man. But it will not work in this passage. The hostility of sinners is real and it is wrong and responsible and guilty. But it is also — and this is a great hope for us — it is also the loving, painful discipline of our Father in heaven.
God is not coming to his children late after the attack, and saying, “I can make this turn for good.” That is not discipline. That is repair. It’s the difference between the surgeon who plans the incision for our good, and the emergency room doctor who sews us up after a freak accident. This text says, God is the doctor planning our surgery, not the doctor repairing our lacerations.
Are Natural Calamities Also God’s Discipline?
Someone might ask, does this principle of discipline apply to things like natural calamities and sicknesses that are not caused by the hostility of sinners? Should we see these things as part of God’s overarching discipline of his children for their good?
Which is harder to attribute to God’s design: the hostility of sinners against God’s people or the destruction of a hurricane? I believe the hostility of sinners is more difficult to attribute to God’s design. The reason is that in both cases — hostility and hurricanes — you have to deal with the pain caused by the event. But in the case of hostility you have the added difficulty that people’s wills are involved, whereas in the case of a hurricane you don’t have that difficulty.
No human agent is causing the hurricane, but a human is willing the hostility. So if we say that God is governing the hostility of sinners against the saints, we imply that he governs not just natural effects but human wills, and what harm they bring to the saints.
And that is what this passage teaches. What hostile sinners mean for harm, God means for good. What they will as hurtful, God wills as helpful. What they plan as destruction, God plans as salvation. What they design as a deterrent to faith, God designs as discipline for faith.
The upshot then is this: if it is more difficult for God to govern the hostility of sinners against his people, and yet this passage teaches that he does just that, then why would we even think of denying the less difficult act of God’s rule over natural things like hurricanes and sickness? Especially when God himself says in Exodus 4:11, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”
So I see in this passage the precious teaching that God reigns over the hazards of our circumstances and over the health of our bodies and over the hostility of our adversaries and he designs all of life ultimately as a loving father’s discipline.
3. God’s Design Is Love
Which leaves one last question: what is the design of God in this sovereign governing of our adversaries and circumstances? The text is wonderfully clear on this. Verse 6: “Those whom the Lord loves he disciplines.” The design of God is love. Our pain is not the effect of God’s hate, but of God’s love. Will you believe this? That is the question.
“The design of our loving Father’s discipline is for our good, our holiness, our peace, and our righteousness.”
Or verse 7: “It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons.” In other words, in your pain, you are not being treated as a slave or as an enemy. You are being treated as a loved child of God. The issue is: will you believe this? Will you let the Word of God settle the issue for you, so that when the suffering comes, you don’t turn on God and put him in the dock and prosecute him with accusations?
He probably will not tell you why it is your turn, or why it is happening now, or why there is this much pain, or why it lasts this long. But he has told you what you need to know: it is the love of an all-wise Father to a child. Will you trust him?
Designed for Our Good
But he is even willing to tell us more. Verses 10–11, “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Four words: our good, our holiness, our peace, and our righteousness. This is the design of our loving Father that comes to us painfully and mysteriously through the hostility of sinful adversaries and the natural hazards of a fallen world.
Verse 9 poses our concluding question: Will we “be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?” Or will be rebel against the father of spirits, and die? Will we trust him? If we submit to this sovereign, loving, fatherly care, we will not “grow weary and lose heart,” but we will keep the faith, fight the good fight, and finish our course, and die well, and glorify our Father in heaven.