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Old Man in Sorrow on the Threshold of Eternity by Vincent van Gogh, 1890

The Discipline of the Lord — Hebrews 12:1-13

IS SUFFERING THE WAY of God’s saving love? Is pain a means to our redemption? The Scriptures lead us to believe so. Whatever else suffering is, it is a primary path to holiness. As pain causes us to rely on strengths beyond our own strength, so is the perseverance in grace of people who encounter humiliating defeat a sign of God’s transcending power.

Admittedly, it is a temptation to think of God as cruel and unmerciful when the tragedies of life befall us; but God is not a despot, a ruthless taskmaster who inflicts suffering for the sake of revenge, heaping punishment upon us so that eventually we will break down and surrender. Yet neither is God a permissive God who sets no limits to human indulgence and provides roses without thorns. The truth about God lies somewhere between the extremes of a theology of unremitting judgment and a theology of “cheap grace.”

Is that not why the writer of the letter to the Hebrews counseled the church not to “regard lightly the discipline of the Lord” (vs. 5) and at the same time set the discipline of the Lord within the context of the redemptive suffering of the cross? God, to the fullest extent possible, enters the pain and suffering of the created order.

God could have remained at a distance and chastised us for our disobedience; instead, in Christ, God drew near and was “in every respect… tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15). The discipline of the Lord is therefore the divine self-discipline of complete identification with the human predicament. This places our discipline in an entirely different perspective. God is not against us, but for us. We suffer with hope. “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (12:3). We look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (vs. 2).

To what avail, then, is the discipline of suffering? It becomes the essential way for us to identify with God. And not only that, but it is the essential way of our participating with God in the suffering of all people. Our suffering has redemptive value for others, just as “he does it for our good, to make us share his holiness.”* This means that all reproval and correction, which we experience as trial and tribulation, is filled with redemptive possibilities. “With his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).

The Lord’s discipline has a double edge; we are disciplined by one who first has subjected self. The “disciple” is one who is so “disciplined.” “At the present, all discipline seems not to be joy, but pain; later, however, it produces a peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained through it.”**

*Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Bible: An American Translation (University of Chicago Press, 1935), Hebrews 12:10.
** George Wesley Buchanon, To the Hebrews, The Anchor Bible, vol. 36 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), Hebrews 12:11, p. 180.

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