A meditation on Hebrews 12:5-11
Last month we saw that discipline, though often hard to bear, is the product of God’s fatherly concern for his children. In this second article, we consider the problems that arise if there is no discipline, and the benefits that accrue when there is.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us: ‘If you endure chastening, God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?’ (v.7). The answer in our day is, ‘Far, far too many!’ So what happens when there is no discipline?
He explains: ‘But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons’ (v.8). The meaning of this is not difficult to understand.
The stark modern expression ‘biological parents’ identifies the physical progenitors of a child but also implies that these parents did little more than bring the child into the world. The real parenting — that is, the day by day upbringing — has fallen to others, either foster or adoptive parents, or perhaps grandparents.
The use or neglect of discipline not only produces predictable results in the child, but says a great deal about the love and dignity with which the child is regarded by its parent(s).
A neglectful parent is no parent at all. In the eyes of such a parent, the unloved child is little more than an unwanted, illegitimate product of conception. On the other hand, parents that care will discipline their children. This pictures God’s love towards his spiritual offspring.
In one of the most searching comments from an always searching preacher, John Calvin asks: ‘Why does God call all those who avoid correction “bastards” rather than foreigners? It is because he is addressing those who were enrolled into the church, and thus [are] sons of God. He is indicating that if they withdraw themselves from the discipline of the Father, their profession of Christ would be false and untrue so that they were bastards rather than legitimate children’ (Calvin, Hebrews p.191).
This is strong stuff but, alas, it is too true! A neglected child feels the lack of love most cruelly. It recognises that its parents do not regard it as their true child at all. ‘He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly’ (Proverbs 13:24; cf. 22:15; 23:13-14).
The point, of course, is this. When Christians receive troubles and afflictions as from the Lord, fulfilling his role as their heavenly Father, then they may take it as evidence that he loves them and cares about them.
On what grounds? On the authority of God’s Word. ‘Whom the Lord loves, he chastens’ (Hebrews 12:6); ‘Blessed is the man whom you instruct, O Lord, And teach out of your law’ (Psalm 94:12); ‘But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world’ (1 Corinthians 11:32); ‘As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent’ (Revelation 3:19).
Our highest good
The next thing to notice is that discipline improves our love and respect for God (12:9-11). The writer contrasts our ‘human fathers who corrected us’ with our heavenly Father, ‘the Father of spirits’ (vv. 9-10). The argument is from the lesser to the greater; if the former was good for us, how much more the latter!
Firstly, our human fathers exercised discipline over us: (a) ‘for a few days’, that is, during our formative years; (b) ‘as seemed best to them’, that is, imperfectly, according to their light; and (c) thereby earned our respect (‘we paid them respect’).
Secondly, and by contrast, our Father-God chastens us: (a) throughout our whole life; (b) ‘for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness’ — that is, for our highest good and everlasting blessedness, through the regeneration of our nature and the renewal of our lives after the image of God. Accordingly, (c) we should ‘much more readily be in subjection’ to the heavenly Father who gives us life, now and for eternity.
That we may live
Acceptance that the Lord’s hand is in our suffering is the starting-point for a transforming understanding of what is going on. It brings an enlivening experience of his grace, even in severe trials.
So the writer tells us that only by submitting to our heavenly Father can we ‘live’ (v.9). It is an article of faith (a proposition to be accepted as true), that newness of life is alone from God and involves obedience and submission to his will. But there is more to it than that.
We can easily profess truths without feeling their power; this, of course, begs the question as to the true state of our hearts. It is vital to grasp, therefore, that the writer is talking about a necessary and experiential reality in the life of faith.
When we are submissive to the Lord, we are alive and know it. On the other hand, if we are discontented with his dealings with us: if we determinedly go our own way, shaking our fist at the Lord for allowing these terrible things to happen in our lives, then we are more dying than living!
You may have professed Christ as your Saviour, and you may actually have ‘eternal life’ (John 10:28). But you will not experience the liveliness of that new life if you are kicking against the Lord’s chastening in your life.
The psalmist understood this: ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word’, he says, adding: ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes’ (Psalm 119:67, 71).
God understands that discipline is ‘grievous’. There is no getting around it. Discipline hurts: ‘no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but grievous’ (v. 11).
I still remember when my mother spanked me for bullying my ‘wee brother’ (as he was then). It happened almost fifty years ago, but I could take you to the very spot. I still remember both her righteous wrath and my signal humbling (which was a lot worse than the pain). It made an impression on my soul as well as my rear-end!
The chastening experiences of adult life are more painful, by far. And they need to be grievous for the moment, if only to bring us down a peg or two and inject some reality into our thinking.
What we do with the tests of life will make all the difference. Just as the Word of God brings no profit unless it is ‘mixed with faith’ in those who hear it (Hebrews 4:2), so God’s dealings with us must be faced in faith if we are to see victory plucked from the ashes of despair.
God promises that discipline will bear ‘peaceable fruit’. The believer might easily be crushed by life’s blows, were it not for the assurance that these serve a higher purpose: ‘Nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it’ (v. 11).
We cannot assess the usefulness of afflictions from our feelings at the time. The Lord wants us to ‘walk by faith, not by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5:7). If we go by our feelings we will only increase our hurt, wallowing in discontent and harbouring resentment against the Lord. Our feelings tell us only that we are victims.
But our text warns us: ‘Do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by him’ (v.5), and points us directly to his love for us (v.6).
At this stage, if we are responding in faith rather than anger or self-pity, we will start to look up. We shall begin to understand that, whatever anguish has enveloped us for the present, the Lord will lift us up. He will do in and for us ‘exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think’ (Ephesians 3:20).
It follows that we must look by faith, beyond the event horizon of our sufferings, to the goal that God promises to those whom he loves and chastens. A harvest is promised, ‘the peaceable fruit of righteousness’, a quietness of heart and mind that flows from the righteousness of Christ.
In place of disquiet there will be peace; a peace that rests on the conviction that God is righteous in his dealings with us in the unfolding events of life.
I am not merely a victim of sin (whether my own or that of others) or of Satan’s aggression. Nor am I the victim of a God who does not care. Even through the valley of the shadow of death, he is with me (Psalm 23:4). I am in my Saviour’s hand, and cannot be snatched away by any means whatsoever (John 10:28-29).
After the Lord’s chastening, we will soon look back and be able to claim the joy that he promises: ‘For his anger is but for a moment, his favour is for life. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’.
And we shall exult in his saving grace: ‘You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. To the end that my glory may sing praise to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever’ (Psalm 30:5, 11-12).