Great Themes of the Bible (#20-Discipline)

"And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children — ‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts' Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?" (NRSV).

Can you possibly explain to me why the Everlasting Logos chose to enter life on Planet Earth by a nine-month gestational period that ended in a bloody, dirty birth event — that left him screaming and crying? Can you tell me why he would subject himself to obeying ordinary mortals such as Joseph and Mary? Can you make sense of the time he spent working in a carpenter shop shaving boards, hammering nails, and smashing his fingers? And why in the world did he wait until he was more than 30 to start his teaching ministry — in the company of exasperating disciples and against the opposition of powerful enemies?

Here is the biblical answer to these puzzlements of mine: "Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Heb. 5:8-9). When the text says that Jesus "learned obedience" through his human growth, frustrations, and sufferings, it doesn't mean that he was having to unlearn or be purged from a disobedient heart. It simply likens his experience to the customary training of children who need to receive instruction that teaches them obedience. Hold that thought! We'll come back to it.

What is going on in our lives when it takes so much time and anguish to grow through frustrating puberty and adolescent bewilderment in company with parents who've forgotten what it's like and just don't seem to understand? Why is school so boring with its requirement that I take subjects that don't relate to my true interests — yet still so expensive? Why is it so hard to manage money without getting too deep in debt and frustrated? And why do company layoffs happen at the worst possible times? Can you make sense of birth defects, brain tumors, or strokes? Why is it that the harder you try to do right and honor God the more obstacles you seem to face?

Allow me to answer these questions by adapting the text I cited earlier about Jesus. Although we are children of God, we are learning obedience through events that cause us great pain and sorrow; and once that process is complete, we will know how to trust God as Jesus did and be participants with him in the sort of obedience that distinguishes only those who have eternal life.

God Disciplines All His Children

God is doing in our lives what he did in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. He is allowing some and providing other experiences that challenge us to our very depths. Yes, there are abundant good and positive things in this world — crisp fall air and breathtaking sunsets, a mother's unselfish love and a child's unabashed joy, prosperity and family life. But there is also pain and sorrow. They hurt us. They limit us. They dishearten us and wound us deep within our personalities. There is nothing good about these things — except for the fact that we can react to them in faith, learn to snuggle in closer to the heart of God, and sometimes know that it is all right to wait for things to be made right beyond this world.

So the challenge in all this is to see that we are no different from the Son of God in this very fundamental way. It is the common lot of all God's children — Jesus, Terry, Ann, Wilma, Mark, Colette, Tanya, Rubel. If Jesus had to learn obedience and grow in faith, we shouldn't be surprised at the same thing in our lives. So I need to get over my habit of complaining about things and people that frustrate me. I need to grow up enough to learn that praying about them doesn't typically make them go away so much as tap into a divine resource for dealing with them. It is hardship. But it is also discipline. And it is God's way of teaching me to depend more on him and less on myself, to obey rather than to be self-willed, to learn how to be patient and humble rather than intolerant and rude. It's a process of formation over time that requires discipline and endurance.

I'm discovering that the very same adversities that cause me so much distress are often the same events that school me in the virtues that matter most to God, that the things I dread most and whine loudest about are the very ones I eventually look back on as my best teachers.

The Job of a Coach

Do I want to experience the discipline of God? No, because it is painful and unpleasant to endure. But do I want the outcomes that require his discipline? Yes, for I am his son and want to give him pleasure. Discipline is the formative process by which raw talent becomes expert ability; it is the refining fire through which possibilities become realities, children become adults, sinners become saints.

It was the late Coach Tom Landry who used to say, "The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don't want to do in order to achieve what they've always wanted to be." Why, that's a task that reflects what God is doing with us!

I remember those first few weeks of practice every year for my high school basketball team. We'd suit up and lace up and race onto the gym floor eager to shoot layups, practice a few free throws, and scrimmage. Then Coach Thompson would blow his whistle and make us shelve all the basketballs. First there were laps. Then there were sprints. Then there were agility drills. Then more sprints. Then final laps. We wanted to hang him from the rafters with barbed wire and watch him die slowly!

When I was a sophomore and about a month into basketball practice without a single game having been played, my appendix burst. There was no doctor in the little town where we lived and the diagnosis came slowly. By the time we got to Methodist Hospital in Memphis around 20 hours later, I had gangrene throughout my abdomen. I don't remember much from the first three days. Dr. Stevenson said my appendix had probably been diseased for a while and oozing its poison into my body. "If you hadn't been on the basketball team and doing all that running and sweating, young man, there'd have been no way you could have pulled through!" he said. "You sweated some of that poison away. And you were in great physical shape so that your body could fight back from such a massive infection after surgery. If your coach hadn't made you run all those laps, you'd have died." At that moment, I saw Coach Thompson in a whole new light! Winning a few games later that season was just icing on the cake.

I wonder if we won't see God in a whole new light someday? Paul thought we would:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:18-21).
In the meanwhile, though, we still get frustrated with what has to be endured. We still resent the laps, sprints, and drills of spiritual life.

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.

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 (Heb. 12:11- 13).
"Before I Was Afflicted, I Went Astray"

Sometimes we have enough experiences to realize even in this life — not having to wait until we can look back from heaven — that a particular hardship was actually discipline, a time of incredible frustration was actually the prelude to triumph. Take the language of Psalm 119 as a case in point. This acrostic poem is an extended meditation on the instruction or Torah of Yahweh. Listen to these lines:

Do good to your servant
according to your word, O LORD.
Teach me knowledge and good judgment,
for I believe in your commands.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word.
You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees. . .
It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.
The law from your mouth is more precious to me
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Psa. 119:65-72).
How did this writer come to his view of how precious instruction from God's mouth is? What had taught him the value of obedience to Yahweh? His faith had been forged in the fires of testing. He had been "afflicted" — and that affliction had brought him back from forbidden paths. His anguish had grabbed him by the collar and hauled a rebel back to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

How many faithful believers do I know who have come to Christ in a life crisis! Life's lies made them seek the truth. Its false-and-failed promises sent them to seek the One who is reliable. Their shame sent them to the God of grace and forgiveness. No wonder the first steps in recovery for people who go to Alcoholics Anonymous are these:

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
I can't count the times I have heard the equivalent of these words from people who have been in recovery from alcohol, drugs, or sexual addiction for a while: "It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn God's ways." For anyone who hasn't yet had an experience that makes those words meaningful, I can't explain them. For anyone who has, nobody needs to make the effort.


Last Thursday a ship's crew of just over 300 and by now every American who has heard of the event were reminded that military service to the Unites States of America is not free tourism or government-funded education. It is perilous duty in service to a nation that has enemies. When the men and women aboard the USS Cole were attacked and 17 of them murdered by terrorists, everything was put in perspective. Recruitment posters may emphasize seeing the world or getting financial help with college, but the harsh reality is that enlistment in our nation's armed forces carries serious and great risk.

Christianity is a realistic, serious, and demanding faith. To represent it as simply good social fellowship and the challenge to live up to one's full human potential is "false advertising" — and maybe even heresy. That is why God has to teach, coach, and discipline us. Don't resent it. Be thankful. "A righteous man may have many troubles," wrote David, "but the LORD delivers him from them all" (Psa. 34:19).


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