The Lord disciplines those he loves.

My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. (Prov 3:11–12)

This is not a pleasant passage. When you read this in the Old Testament, you think about recalcitrant children who donate their jewelry for a golden calf and pine away for Egypt rather than turn to their father and deliverer. At least that’s what I think about. And apparently, the writer of Hebrews knows that a few others might think that way too, so he doubles back on this passage and insists on making personal application. Notice how following a common Greek translation of the Old Testament, he adds oomph to the Proverbs passage (see bold).

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. (Heb 12:5–6)

Or you could get out your King James Bible:

For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. (Heb 12:6)

Like it or not, this is a very fair translation of the original Greek.

“Word of encouragement”? So much for grace. And don’t forget that he is writing to people who are being persecuted because they follow Jesus. It almost sounds as if they are getting it from both sides. They are getting whacked by their neighbors and they are getting whacked by God.

But we know this: God is good. He loved us when we were enemies, so we expect to find his goodness on display even here. The meaning of these verses becomes clearer when understood in light of those around them.

Hebrews 12:1– my own words:

Be encouraged that so many saints from the Old Testament endured hardship but still followed the Lord. This reminds us that our God is the God of all history—he is real, many wise people have followed him, and he has been at work among his people since the beginning. Furthermore, he will give us power to persevere in hardship (“persevere” means that we continue to trust and obey him).
The real problem with extended hardships will be sin—the sin of other people and your own sin. This will be a constant distraction to your perseverance.
The sin of oppressors and persecutors will distract you because they will seem strong while you are weak. You might start to wonder, “Who is this God I am following? Maybe there is a better one.” Those who oppress you, however, are digging their own grave. They are oppressing themselves. Think nothing of them.
Your own sin will distract you because that’s what sin does. It takes our eyes off of Jesus and leaves us with questions about God’s goodness. This, of course, is a distraction that has to go. And that is exactly what hardships are intended to do. They are the perfect occasions to cast off the encumbrance of sin.
Now that our heavenly Father’s plans are more obvious through Jesus, we know that he uses hardships to discipline and train us. Jesus had hardships; we will too.
Think about it. Good parents discipline; indifferent parents don’t. When someone doesn’t care about you, he or she just lets you go your own way, even if that way means voluntary self-destruction. That is the worst possible treatment, and that is what God does with those who don’t belong to him. He lets them go their own way.
Not so with us. We are his children. He loves us and wants the best for us. He disciplines us for our good. He knows that the worst thing that could happen is that we go our own way and endlessly flirt with sin. The best is that we share in his holiness and, as a result, revel in righteousness and peace. (The apostle Paul writes about this same thing in Romans 8:28–29.)

Some Thoughts about God's Discipline

If we think we are basically perfect, then discipline doesn’t make sense, or it just seems cruel. But if we know that sin is our most dangerous and deepest problem, then discipline is a gift of love. The reason I have glossed over these passages in my life is that I prefer that my spiritual education come through glowing affirmation and positive reinforcement. I wasn’t expecting sanctification through hardship. Suffering, however, is an opportunity to cast off more and more of that nagging and distracting sin.

Two important clarifications. First, don’t think for a moment that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a specific sin and a particular hardship. The passage avoids that interpretation. The writer of Hebrews is writing about sin as a general human condition. As such, he gives no room for the common, though wrong idea, that if we finally guess the specific sin and repent of it, then the Lord will relent from his discipline.

Second, the writer of Hebrews is not trying to provide a complete theology of hardship. When we have trouble, we have the opportunity to turn from sin, as he emphasizes. We also participate in the sufferings of our King.

So, what can we do with this passage?

At least three things:

  • Ask, “How does my sin surface in the midst of trouble?”
  • Expect more confession of sin during suffering, and expect it to contribute to peace.
  • Insist on linking the love of God with our suffering. If we can’t, ask for prayer.

And One More Thing...

I know that discipline conjures up many horrible images, and corporal punishment is too controversial. Let me leave one more appropriate image.

I remember going to my uncle’s house for Sunday dinner. When we walked in, he was disciplining his six-year-old son, but I had never seen anything like it. He calmly explained the reason for the discipline, his son readily acknowledged his need for discipline, my uncle spanked him, then they shared a long hug, and I saw my uncle crying.