August 5, 2009
The Lord’s Discipline
Rev. 3:19 “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent!”
Heb. 12:5-7b “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons…”
John 15:2b “…While every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
Matt. 7:10b “…How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
I came across that verse in Revelation 3 the other day and really meditated on it. “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline.” Those whom I love. What really caught me is that often when we suffer, we say to God, “Why?” Or we ask the soul-searching question, “What have I done?” We think that God is punishing us for something bad we have done. That’s what disciple is, right? However, according to the scriptures, He disciplines and rebukes those he loves. So, I must conclude that the primary point of God’s discipline is not as a punishment to us but as an expression of His love.
The Revelation passage was certainly a rebuke to the sinful Laodicean church, calling them to repentance. Doubtless, there is wrongdoing in us that brings about God’s discipline. However, the point of it was that they would become holy. Look at Heb. 12:5-7 and John 15:2 in context. Neither refers to our sin as the cause for God disciplining us. In John 15, it even states the very opposite. We are disciplined because we bear fruit. Verse 3 continues, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you!” So this pruning (literally our “cleaning” in the Greek) is to those are already clean. Discipline’s purpose is therefore to make us even cleaner.
I’d like to clarify a couple terms. I don’t believe that the Bible uses them exactly like this, so this is my assigning a meaning, not a specifically Biblical distinction (in the words themselves). I will call “just punishment” the outpouring of God’s wrath on the ungodly because of their sin. It comes as a result of His justice. It is manifested ultimately in two places: Hell and the cross. Hell is the eternal, just punishment of the wicked, and the cross is where Jesus bore the punishment that we deserve.
“Discipline,” however, is the hurting of the righteous so that they will become more righteous. I think that I can define it most clearly in terms of Heb. 5:8 “Although He [Jesus] was a son, He learned obedience from what He suffered.” This “learning obedience from what He suffered” is how I’d like to define “discipline.” The reason I’m pulling a definition from that verse is because it is so clear with Jesus that He was not suffering for his sin. Rather, through His suffering, he become our great High Priest who could sympathize with us in our weakness (Hebrews 4:15). He also became an example for enduring hardship through His own suffering. He was our perfect example of one undergoing God’s discipline.
In the case Jesus, His discipline was also a “just punishment,” but not for His own sin, for ours. At the cross, Jesus perfectly took our punishment, and now, in the place of God’s wrath against us, He deals with us as His children on the basis of love. And God disciplines those He loves (now that our punishment has been paid for).
For a good example of this, in Acts 5:40-42, The apostles were beaten for preaching the gospel. The result was an increase in their joy, as they rejoiced being counted worthy to suffer for Christ. I would call this a prime example of what I’m talking about: they were hurt for righteousness, and their righteousness was increased after the hurt, and God’s name was glorified by their faith.
The Joy of this Doctrine
Before I go on, I want to pause and meditate on the sweetness of this for a moment. That when we suffer discipline, the primary cause is not our sin; the primary cause is God’s love. That’s not to say we don’t have sin. However, when we are being disciplined, we should look to God’s love. That’s what these passages do. If we look to our sin, then the discipline increases our unease and guilt, because if the discipline is this bad, then I must have some terrible sin!
Furthermore, if we look for our sin when in hardship, then we’re more likely to flee from and hate God’s discipline, because our eyes are focused on our own sin, not on love (which is the root cause for His discipline). God will root out our sin without our constant questioning of what is wrong in us causing our suffering. There is a need for a little bit of that, but many people, especially those who care about morality as Christians, have a dangerous tendency to blame ourselves too much in hardship.
Discipline is made to increase the good qualities in us as much as purge the bad. In Jesus’ words: “Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will bear more fruit.” He is, in our discipline, bolstering the good us in us, not just trying to get things out of us.
God is willing to go through a lot to make us holy. He is willing to go through the pain of disciplining us! It’s worse watching someone you love suffer than suffering Yourself. To make it worse, we often grumble and complain at Him in hardship, but He endures our complaining and false accusations in order to sanctify us. I am convinced that He does not enjoy inflicting pain on us, but He does anyways, because His perspective is greater than ours. He knows that there is a great benefit to our souls to be gained, far outweighing the pain.
So, let us take that perspective as well. When disciplined, say to God, “Thank you. You know what is best, and the holiness reaped from this will make all the pain worth it.” In doing so, we align our perspective with God’s and walk in truth, leading to joy, rather than in lies and false condemnation.
Furthermore, look how else that should impact our perspective: If it’s not as a result of some specific sin that God is disciplining me, then I can’t make the discipline end faster by fixing that sin. It’s for my sanctification. So, instead of “how can I get out of this,” I say, “I’m in this place of discipline. So, I’d better open my heart to get as much benefit as I can from it.” If it is as a result of some sin that I am being disciplined, then I control how long this thing lasts by how long it takes me to get my act together. But if it’s otherwise, then HE is the one in control of the length of my discipline, and my perspective becomes one of patient endurance and humble learning.
A Powerful Implication
Here I will say something rather radical. If all this is true (that discipline stems mainly from God’s love), then God’s discipline is a good thing. It is a very good thing. But that’s not what is radical. After all, Heb. 12:10 already says that: “But God disciplines us for our good.”
What is radical is this: We should pray for God’s discipline. We should ask God for good things. Discipline is a good thing. Therefore, we should ask Him for it! That’s why I included part of Matt. 7:10 up top: “How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” The assumption there is that we are smart enough to ask God for good things!
Why do we not ask Him for it? A rather scary question, I think. But in answer, I believe that we need look no farther than a few verses up from Revelation 3:19, starting from verse 15: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” Like the church in Laodicea that Rev. 3:14-22 is addressed to, we are lukewarm. That’s why we don’t ask.
But I think there is an even bigger reason that westerners in particular don’t want God’s discipline, and it’s the first half of verse 17. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’” We are happy with our earthly lives. And not even in a way of carousing, cursing, and practicing witchcraft. We go to church on Sundays. We give 10% of our income. We look righteous! But inside, the Superbowl interests us a great deal more than the cross. It’s not that enjoying the Superbowl is a sin. The sin is rejoicing in the Superbowl more than in your redemption.
Simply put, because we are part of a wealthy society, we are complacent in our faith, like the Laodiceans. We do not really believe that the reward that comes after discipline is worth the disciple, because otherwise we would pray earnestly for it! We see God’s discipline as an unpleasant thing that will get in the way of our earthly comforts, sort of like having your house robbed, so the last thing in the world that we would do is to pray for it.
But how does God see us? “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” (17b). Our wealth is useless to produce worthwhile happiness and contentment. It is useless to produce anything of eternal value. Only God can do that. To have real joy, we must undergo His discipline. We look to our comforts and conveniences (wealth), but if we could see reality, rather than being blinded by lies, we would realize that we have no meaningful wealth.
So, what should we do? You really don’t have to search the Bible for the answer. It’s right there in verse 18, “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” God didn’t make it hard to figure out the right answer: buy gold refined in the fire. That fire is God’s discipline. It hurts, it scorches, and it melts.
But it refines.
And the end results are real riches, honor, and vision. That gold, those clothes, and that salve are a thousand times better than the comforts we would have if God never disciplined us.
If we are commanded to buy gold refined in the fire, it only makes sense to ask for it. Or, In other words, pray for God’s discipline.
I must say, I first started thinking along these lines when I found Phil. 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” When I saw Paul saying that he wanted to know the power of Christ so much that he even desired the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, then I began to suspect that there was a deeper Christian life of a whole different quality than I had ever imagined, and that the pleasures of that lifestyle were worth a million times more than the life I had lived. So, sometime around my first year of college, I prayed, “Lord, let me know what it is to be like Christ in His death and so become like Him in His resurrection.” I wrestled with it. It was not an easy prayer to pray, because I was essentially praying for suffering.
“Ask and you will receive.” Why, Oh Lord, does that have to be true?
I think the way that prayer was answered was in Sapporo, Japan in 2004, my first summer project. It was suffering. It was difficulty. I was terrified of the ministry there, critical to my team, and incredibly out of place. It was awful. And yet, it was the defining experience of my life thus far. I began to understand grace through it, and afterwards, God did such a strong work in my heart that I was filled with an incredible passion for Him. And I really started to change. By far, that summer was worth it, though at the time I could not see that. Discipline did its work.
Why do I keep praying that prayer? When will I learn? I’m sure I prayed it before coming to Kagawa, and boy has it been answered. It’s a total mess here! Isolated, lonely, depressed… but I’ve written enough about all that already. I’ve spent a lot of time, off and on, regretting coming to this assignment. If only I hadn’t been so hasty in making that decision. If only I had done more preparation. If only, if only… But then Hebrews 12 knocks some sense into me, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son.”
The root reason why I’m in this mess is not my sin nor my poor decisions. The root reason that I’m in this mess is because God loves me. He is sovereign. He not only allowed but ordained that I should come here and learn obedience through suffering. He is supreme and there is none besides Him. “God disciplines those He loves.” Those words give me strength to press on. He loves me a lot.
I have not yet seen the fruit of this season of discipline, but I can’t wait for it. I have a reward waiting for me, ultimately in Heaven, but I expect to receive some foretaste of it on this earth in the form of the intangible benefits of maturity. And I will be a better missionary and witness for this time. I do not live with significant regrets, for my reward is certain, because He does not break His promises. Hebrews 12:11: “Later on, however, it [discipline] produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” I claim that promise over my current trials as I wait for harvest time.
So, I challenge you. Pray for God’s discipline. It seems like… He will answer that prayer. Be careful of getting stuck with a martyr complex (sometimes I fear I have one), but it is a good thing to pray for His discipline, especially if you are currently in a comfortable place with trials that you can handle.
What do we do when that discipline comes, whether asked for or not? Here’s a few commands for you:
Heb. 12:12 “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.”
Phil. 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!”
Rev. 3:18a “I counsel you to buy from me gold, refined in the fire…”
And, a reminder:
Rom. 8:18 “For I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”