Training through Discipline - Don’t Despise it!

Hebrews 12:5-11 (NIV)

5 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 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 spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 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.

The truth of this matter we discuss is that we won’t always know if something was meant to be discipline or not because our discernment is never perfect. We don’t remember every sin we commit every day, do we? Then neither will we always be able to pick out whether something was discipline or not. The intention of discipline can still be fulfilled and thus heeded by us whether we understand that this type of reaction from our Lord is a test or discipline. All that matters is that we learn from these sobering experiences to better our walk with Him. So if the sting of chastisement has its intended effects, then failing to realize what we just went through is not the end of the world. The Lord always wants to see us repent of our behavior by confessing and moving on from it. If we do this, we respond to the Lord’s handling of us accordingly. The fact that we don’t always distinguish discipline from testing falls back on the truth that we are imperfect human beings who don’t catch everything. God wants us to react appropriately to His response to our wrongdoing, but telling the difference between a test and a “spanking” isn’t always easy, nor is it a distinction we make perfectly every time.

The inner convictions of the Holy Spirit and the instinct within our believing hearts (assuming they are under the Spirit’s control) will tell us to handle any circumstances in a godly way whether we realize what we are undergoing or not. So it may be the case that we either react appropriately or not simply based on the fact that the present difficulties brought on by the Lord cause us to rely on and trust Him more. But just because our assessment of the situation is never perfect does not mean we should automatically run to conclusions and assume that our present hardships result from our negative choices. The other extreme is to presume that discipline meant to refine our faith is testing and that God is honoring our so-called “good behavior” when that is not the case. In other words, we don’t want to mix up discipline with testing and vice versa. If we are not sure which it is for whatever reason, it is best to respond to the present ordeal in a way that pleases the Lord, just as He intended. We don’t always technically need to know why this or that came about. Instead, we need to allow it to cause us to better our behavior and relationship with the Lord. Some things may be clear to us, while others will be less transparent. Since we aren’t perfect, our knowledge of all situations will never be complete.

There is also the issue of how long discipline lasts and how difficult it can become. Then you have the question of, “What constitutes discipline?” We know with certainty that God will never bring more upon our heads than we can bear, so He would never inflict any hardships on us that would swamp our faith. The level of difficulty depends on the severity of the wrongdoing and its duration and consistency. The more we sin, the greater the discipline. But never will it be so much that it doesn’t correspond to our spiritual maturity. God never allows us to be tempted or tested beyond what we can handle (1 Corinthians 10:13), so never will we ever have to worry about facing something out of our control. Of course, God never tempts anyone to sin (James 1:13-18) but tests us to see how we will react. Tests are from God, while temptations are from the evil one.

On the other hand, there are plenty of times we can adequately determine whether the Lord is disciplining us. Some of it is obvious, while some are not. But God won’t “penalize” us for every sin we commit, but more likely for harmful habitual patterns we have developed and refused to get out of up to a certain point. Mature believers who have mastered their sinful habits are far less likely to receive discipline when there is no reoccurring pattern. But even they too can and will occasionally lapse once in a while. However, the stronger their faith becomes, the less frequent and intense these episodes. Plus, these individuals have learned from years of experience and through disciplinary training to check all bad behavior as quickly as possible so that it doesn’t get out of control. Even just one sin can lead to a disaster that results in a plethora of problems if not dealt with properly. But those who have yet to develop a more acceptable (in God’s eyes) level of control over their sinful tendencies will receive more of what they are rightfully due. The more we disobey, the greater the amount of corrective behavior the Lord will have to inflict on us.

Next, a question we have not answered is what discipline entails. There is no direct answer because our heavenly Father can use any means at His disposal to get the message through to our heads. There are various ways He could do this (sickness and mental anguish being two of the many options), so many that we could never discuss even close to all of them. Therefore, we will continue our main discussion.

As we should already know, discipline and punishment are not the same things when contrasting believers and unbelievers. Punishment involves God condemning people for refusing to choose for Him. At the same time, discipline entails the Lord chastising faithful followers with the intent of getting them to turn around and do away with that which threatens their relationship with Him. So God never “punishes” believers in the sense that he does with those who reject Him, a truth John 3:18 clarifies well.

John 3:18 (NIV)

18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Verse eight in our Hebrews passage has caused a lot of fear in the hearts of many believers because it states, “If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.” Some brothers and sisters have taken what they see as a “lack” of discipline in their lives as a possible indicator that their faith is illegitimate and that they stand condemned. But the truth is that all believers receive discipline and don’t always perceive it when it comes their way. It may not be apparent to us what is going on, so we assume otherwise that our circumstances are something else or nothing entirely. Or we don’t pay attention and take little notice of the events that befall us whenever they occur. But if a person is a true believer who has put their faith and trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, then they are saved. And if that is the case, they have had their share of discipline, whether they realize it or not. Therefore, their perception is off, which ties into what we said above about believers not always being aware of what is going on when God decides to teach them a lesson. Just because someone is oblivious to something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. If we pay better attention by heeding the Spirit (not the same thing as worrying or obsessing), we are far more likely to see the pattern that occurs whenever we er in our conduct for an extended period. It takes time, growth, and increased spiritual maturity to improve in this area, even though our knowledge of all that happens to us will never be perfect. Discipline trains those who learn from it.

Next in our brief discussion is how to react to discipline and how not to handle it. Verse 5b in Hebrews twelve warns us against two dangers that improperly approaching discipline can cause. First, it says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you.” Discipline is the Lord’s way of rebuking us, as in, He isn’t standing right next to us and scolding us as another person would. We cannot see our true Master physically, though we can discern His still small voice. Instead, the Lord’s actions toward us speak for themselves whether we realize what is going on or not. We have a choice to either repent or rebel. But disobedience can manifest itself in the two ways we have in bold above. If we take our “whipping” lightly, we are complacent and could care less about our present behavior because we have become indifferent. Admittedly, all believers commit this error many times throughout their lives. It may take multiple “beatings” till the message gets through and we finally come to our senses and do away with all that which brought the trouble on us. But not every heeds the warnings and continues to ignore them to their own peril, which can result in the abandonment of faith altogether. The reader should already know what apostasy is and the common causes and “side effects” of it. It is not possible to keep sinning without eventually destroying one’s faith. A person will not remain a believer forever if they don’t ever stop their immoral lifestyle because sin destroys faith just as fire burns paper.

The other danger of negatively responding to spiritual chastisement is to allow it to overwhelm and swamp our faith. But we have already discussed that God would never let us face something if He knew we could never handle it, and that goes for all discipline. There have been many cases of believers who have embittered themselves toward the Lord because they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions; we discussed that already. The other case involves individuals who feel God has wronged them because His treatment of them is too harsh or too great for them to bear. They may give into such terrible grief and anguish that they feel they can no longer continue fighting the good fight. Yet they fail to realize that their faith is strong enough to face the present situation and endure it. That is why verse seven says to “endure hardship as discipline.” We never want to make Job’s mistake and assume that God no longer loves us and that He has “wronged” us. We know that our Savior is perfect and can do no wrong, so why would we ever reason to ourselves that what has befallen us is unfair? It is not only just; it is loving and gracious because arduous trials such as these come upon us to protect and safeguard our eternal salvation and the eternal rewards that come with it. God wants us to spend eternity with Him and to store up as many treasures in His kingdom as we can. But grumbling and complaining against the One who wants to give us more than we could ever imagine defeats the whole purpose of the happy life we want to live as human beings. Living the Christian life is challenging but the most joyful and fulfilling. How much more happy could we be in eternity! That will be a life as good as it gets!

Romans 8:18 (NIV)

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

It isn’t always easy to bear up under the consequences of our actions. But we must remember to see them as they are! Not sure if something is discipline or a test? Either way, we know that both are for our own good because God has our best intentions in mind.

Jeremiah 29:10-12 (NKJV)

10 For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. 11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.

As Jeremiah 29:10-12 indicates, God always wants what is best for us whether we believe His ways are always better or not. The sole purpose of exiling Israel to Babylon was to get them to see the error of their ways and repent. But if we don’t genuinely desire to change the course of our lives for the better, then the discipline will get heavier and the dangers all the greater. God will not listen to us if we aren’t willing to take up our cross daily and follow Him. No one who is unwilling to do this wants to change. Instead, they would prefer to go through the motions and practice a ritual of “confessing” their sins so that they can turn around and do it again. In other words, they want to have life both ways.

Indeed, real repentance won’t always result in exceptional spiritual maturity overnight. Some people may have fallen into such a bad pattern for so long that progress is slow and difficult. But what matters is that change is occurring and that the individual is recovering. The more seriously they take their resolve, the faster they will come to recovery. Of course, there is no excuse for any sins along the way because all sin is evil. But we are all sinners, which is why we have grace that considers all of our weakness, whatever and however many they may be. Overcoming habitual sin can take time and a lot of pain. But victory will come to those who persevere in their efforts empowered by the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NKJV)

9 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. 10 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.