“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
– Hebrews 12:1-11
Does God really act in love toward Christians all the time? Does he always treat us as his precious children? We know the answer we should give to these questions, but sometimes we don’t feel it. Sometimes we feel far from him, or go through pain, suffering or opposition that makes us question if what we are experiencing is mercy or judgement. Why then do we face pain and suffering if God really loves us?
Hebrews 12 helps us begin to answer this question. It says (quoting proverbs 3) that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.”
This is jarring to modern ears. We resent the idea that the Father would discipline us.
This may stem in part from our view of our Heavenly Father as more grandfatherly than fatherly. We hear that he loves us and think he must always want us to be happy- a nodding dog rather than a holy God. This dislike of God’s discipline may also stem from a forgetfulness of Grace. We can easily begin to feel that we deserve a certain quality of life, a certain level of happiness, and become outraged when our experience doesn’t match up. We forget that ‘life itself is grace’, as Frederick Buechner once said, and that we are owed nothing from the one whose glory we have fallen miserably short of.
In Hebrews 12 we see both the motive of the Lord’s discipline and its result.
In verse 6 it says that “The Lord disciplines the one he loves“. The motive for the discipline of God is love. It is because he cares for us so deeply that he disciplines us. Verse 7 adds “God is treating you as sons“. It is because God loves us as his dear children that he disciplines us. In verse 10 it says “he disciplines us for our good”. It is because the God wants what is good for us that he disciplines us, but what is the good that God wants for us, what is the result of his discipline?
Verse 10 helps us again; “he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness“. God disciplines us that we may be holy. Romans 8:28-29 says “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” We see again here that all things (including Gods discipline) are for our good, but we also get to what that good is- “to be conformed the image of his Son”. God disciplines us so that we would be like Jesus.
Hebrew 12 shows us that we have a Heavenly Father who truly loves us, who cares for our holiness above our personal happiness, and therefore disciplines us. Does this then mean we will enjoy his discipline?
The bible’s honesty here is refreshing. Verse 11 says “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant”. Gods discipline will hurt, but it is pain which leads to life. Verse 9 says “Shall we not…be subject to the Father of spirits and live”. What is the alternative? The alternative is to reject the discipline of the Lord and to move towards death. Ann Voskamp puts it starkly when she says “There is either the pain of self denial – or the pain of self-destruction”. We can accept the discipline of the Lord and live, or reject it and destroy ourselves.
There have been many believers who have grasped, wrestled with, and ultimately rejoiced in these truths, but here are just three who have expressed these realities in particularly beautiful words.
John Newton, the wretched sinner saved by amazing grace wrote many hymns, but one in particular shows the Lord disciplining us that he might make us holy- ‘Prayers Answered by Crosses’. In the opening verse he asks to grow in holiness and love for God:
“I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.”
He hoped that the Lord would answer his prayer quickly, simply by Gods power making him so, but:
“Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.”
And so he cries out, asking the Lord why he has done these things. The answer reveals the loving discipline of God, which makes us holy.
“‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
Our trials are therefore not purposeless suffering, but have our ultimate joy and Christ-likeness as their goal.
Another who understood these truths was the great poet T.S. Eliot. In ‘Little Gidding’, part of his famous ‘Four Quartets’ we find this passage:
“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”
Both stanzas present the stark choice each person faces – Pyre or pyre; fire or fire. We die to ourselves or we die in our sins; we face the fire of God’s refining love, or the fire of his judgement. The pyre of death to self and exposure to the refining fires of God’s holy love is shown as “The only hope, or else despair”. It is the way to life.
However, it is painful. Eliot describes it as an “The intolerable shirt of flame”, and something that we can do nothing to remove. Should this make us terrified of it?
According to Eliot we shouldn’t feel we are without hope, because it is torment devised by love. Though it seems merely painful to us, we face trials that we might live, we face trials because the Lord truly loves us, and his love is great enough to use our pain for our good.
Another poet who wrestled with the difficult love of God is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here is Stanza 9 from his poem ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’
“Be adored among men,
God, three-numbered form;
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung;
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.”
Hopkins describes God as both like ‘a bolt of lightning in a stormy sky’ and ‘tender and nurturing like an infatuated lover’ (from Wesley Hill’s description of the poem in his book ‘Washed and Waiting’). But Hopkins doesn’t think God has mood-swings, he think that God is both of these things at once. In fact, it is in his “dark descending” that he is most merciful.
Why did Hopkins think that God was merciful even when it hurt him? He knew that God’s discipline was designed that ‘my chaff might fly’- that we would become more like Christ.
Wesley Hill sums up Hopkins understanding of God in a moving paragraph in his book ‘Washed and Waiting’. He says “Hopkins knew better than many that God isn’t tame or safe. True, he is merciful, but his mercy has sharp edges. God judges sin and transforms sinners in a way that often feels as if it is ripping apart our deepest selves. Hopkins also knew that even on our loneliest roads, when the valleys are so shadowed that day feels like night, God is watching, rejoicing over ever inch gained, gazing down as the Author who cares about every twist in his story.”
So what are we to do so that we may keep walking this path of pain, even when obedience seems hopeless.
Hebrews 12 gives us at least three things.
We should consider the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 11, wonderful examples of those who trusted the Lord through difficult circumstances, who remained faithful when it cost them. By extension we might also consider those around us who also follow this pattern, learning from them and being encouraged by their faith.
We should also consider Jesus, and the pattern his life gives us to follow. Verse 3 says “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Jesus endured suffering for us and therefore he understands its difficultly, and leads us through it to be with him where he is- at the right hand of God.
This leads us to the final thing we are called to consider – the reward of our endurance.
Our reward for enduring God’s discipline is sharing his holiness, being filled with the fruit of righteousness. And not only that, but we have joy waiting for us, that is beyond anything this world offers us, when Jesus returns to establish a New Creation with no pain any longer.
And in the context of the book of Hebrews these are things that we cannot do alone. We must encourage one another to endure, reminding each other of the example and love of Jesus, and of the wonderful hope we have.
Therefore, when God’s love hurts, we endure, knowing that even the pain is mercy.
Lord of lightning and love, help us to be those who endure when your discipline is painful, remembering that you care for us, Jesus’ example and the hope of joy everlasting. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.