READ : Hebrews 12:8
I don’t know anyone who enjoys suffering, but I do know at least one reason it’s necessary.
This message is one of a series about four “indispensables”; things which, according to the epistle to the Hebrews, we absolutely must have in order to be saved. Some are obvious, like faith. Some are unexpected -atonement, for example. But the indispensable that is my subject now, I’m afraid, is going to be unwelcome to many. What is it? Suffering. That’s right, suffering – pain, grief, persecution – is indispensable to salvation. According to the Bible, this is a necessary part of the Christian life.
Here is how the writer to the Hebrews explains it:
Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
(Hebrews 12:7-11 nrsv)
THE PROBLEM OF PAIN
Why do people suffer? Why do so many terrible things happen to innocent people in a world supposedly run by a God who is both infinitely powerful and infinitely good? We have all wrestled with that question, and I suppose we have all tried to answer it one way or another. Sometimes we may even try too hard – especially those of us who are Christian teachers or pastors.
We often feel called upon to defend God. Eugene Peterson has described ministers as “clerks in the world’s complaint department.” We’re often called upon to listen to the grumbling and respond to the questions of life’s dissatisfied customers. We sometimes try to patch things up by apologizing on behalf of the management and explaining company policy. But God doesn’t need anyone to defend him. Our attempts to explain his ways can even do more harm than good. We are usually much wiser simply to suffer along with others in silence and love, rather than offering easy answers to the mysteries of life and the ways of God’s providence.
I don’t want to do that now. I don’t want to offer any easy answers or defend God or explain exactly what I think he’s doing in your suffering. Instead, let me just draw your attention to two noteworthy things the 12th chapter of Hebrews tells Christians about their suffering.
SUFFERING IS DISCIPLINE
“Without discipline,” the writer says, “you are illegitimate children and not sons [or daughters] of God” (v. 8).
The first thing Hebrews teaches Christians is to call our suffering discipline. The word discipline occurs nine times in as many verses in Hebrews 12, and the root meaning of it is “teaching” or “instruction”; discipline is the use of sometimes painful means to encourage growth in the proper direction. And this, says Hebrews, is what all the trouble and suffering we as Christians experience in the course of our lives is. It is discipline.
The great thing about discipline is that it has a purpose. Now that doesn’t necessarily make it pleasant or easy or something we enjoy, but it does give meaning to suffering that would otherwise be meaningless. No one likes the disappointments, humiliations, denials, griefs and sorrows that we all go through, that we have to go through to wean us from the love of ourselves and this world and to teach us to value and desire God alone. But though discipline is painful, it is also meaningful. It leads somewhere. And because it is purposeful, it is also bearable.
What is the purpose of God’s discipline in our lives? In a word, it is our holiness.
For they [our human parents] disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he [God] disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.
We must always keep in mind God’s ultimate goal for our lives. His purpose is not merely to save us; he wants to make us perfect, whole, complete, holy. God intends to turn every person who belongs to him into an exact replica of the Lord Jesus Christ, like so many new minted coins bearing the likeness of the original. This has been his purpose all along. God predestined us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). It is knowing this that gives us assurance that “in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose,” as one of the great verses of the Bible says (Rom. 8:28).
There’s a memorable illustration of this point in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
This is the point and the purpose of God’s discipline. This is the true meaning of suffering for Christians. But not everyone accepts this view. I said that discipline is what Christians call suffering. Many others disagree. They think suffering has no meaning or purpose, that it literally is a senseless tragedy. The problem is that apart from the good news of the gospel, the Christian message of eternal life in Jesus Christ, there is no real hope beyond this world. And if there is no hope of a life to come, then there can be no ultimate meaning in this life. I freely admit that if this life is all there is, then it really is impossible to make any sense of all the pain, all the horrible things that happen, of suffering, of death. Life seems to be a terrible joke, and the best we can expect is to get through it with as little trouble as possible, and hope that our joys outweigh our sorrows.
But Christians know different. We know that God is working in us, “remodeling” us so that we will eventually become just like Jesus Christ. We know, too, that this job won’t be finished during our lives here on earth, but only when we get to heaven. We can never understand suffering only from the perspective of our earthly lives; its full meaning will only be realized in the life of the world to come, toward which all God’s purposes are working and for which all God’s discipline is preparing us. As Christians we know that “this slight momentary affliction [in the words of the apostle Paul – meaning all of the pain we undergo here on earth] is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Cor. 4:17). So we call suffering discipline.
DISCIPLINE IS ENCOURAGING
The second thing to note in what Hebrews tells us about suffering is that Christians accept discipline with encouragement. I use the word encouragement intentionally. You see, we don’t just face suffering with a stoic sort of courage or patient endurance (though sometimes those things are necessary). No, we greet it as an encouraging sign because suffering of any kind can actually be a source of comfort and assurance to us. How can that be? Because God’s discipline (and biblical Christians have always believed that everything that happens to us comes by God’s appointment) is a token of sonship. It is a proof that you are a genuine child of God. When you can accept suffering from your Father’s hand, taking it as coming from a God who loves you, that is solid evidence that you truly do belong to God’s family and are God’s beloved daughter or son.
Two things tell us this. First, the scriptures say it. Discipline is the family mark of the child of God, according to Hebrews. “God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (v. 7). So true is this, that if you experience no discipline, you are no real child of God. “If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children” (v. 8). According to the Bible, discipline is indispensable because without it, we have no part in God’s family.
Second, the life of Jesus illustrates this. Jesus is the great model for faith, the supreme example of what it means to live a life of faith. And of course, he is uniquely God’s Son.
But think how he suffered! “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself” (Heb. 12:3). Discipline is the way God treats his children, including his only beloved Son. “Consider him,” urges our writer. Have you suffered the way he did? “What will you do now?” he might ask us when we are faced with bad things in our lives. Will you complain about how unfair it all is, how you just don’t deserve what has happened to you? Will you conclude that God must not be real, that believing in him doesn’t make any difference, that he can’t help even his most devoted followers? Will you condemn God as weak or wicked because children develop malignancies and good folks get killed in car crashes? Or will you consider the Lord Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, who endured even the cross, and will you be encouraged by remembering that your suffering is discipline, and is an evidence to you that God loves you and he is your father?
Understanding God’s discipline in this way gives us a realistic view of God himself. God is neither a jolly grandfather who spoils us rotten by giving us automatically everything we want, nor is he a monstrous tyrant who torments us at every turn, who lies in wait to hurt us and allows our happiness to grow only so that our pain is all the greater when he destroys it. No, God is our loving Father who always does for us what is best, even when we cannot clearly see what that best might be, or understand how present evil can result in future joy.
Understanding God’s discipline will also give us a realistic approach to whatever suffering we may be called upon to endure. This determines how we view each setback, each check, each loss, or grief, or pain. It will lead us to look for the Lord’s hand in these things. “What is God teaching me in this experience?” we’ll ask. “What can I learn from this? What is it that prompted God to get my attention in this way?” Perhaps we will not be able to draw specific conclusions about the purpose of specific troubles, for God’s ways are often beyond our comprehension, but we can look to see how he is drawing us by means of this discipline onwards to himself and to the goal in Christlikeness. And we can always ask him for the grace and strength to get by.