The Discipline of God
14th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 16C)
August 25th/26th, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. [. . .] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” [Hebrews 12:5-6, 11]
Discipline. As a concept it is easily understood, yet I don’t think many people really like it. Most parents don’t like to discipline their kids, and children certainly don’t like to be disciplined. Adults like being disciplined even less than kids do. When a boss or supervisor disciplines you as an adult, don’t you want to tell that person that you’re too old to be treated that way? When the cop pulls you over for speeding, aren’t you are ready with you list of reasons why you don’t deserve a ticket? When the credit card company or the bank penalizes you for a missed payment, don’t you get the tiniest bit indignant? After all, you’re an adult. You don’t need to be disciplined. Sure, your kids need to be disciplined so that they grow up into responsible adults. But you? You’re already are an adult, and while you know you’re not perfect, you certainly don’t think you need to be disciplined.
Or maybe that’s not how you feel. I know it’s how I tend to feel. I don’t like to be reprimanded or told that what I’m doing is wrong. I don’t want to be disciplined. By anyone. And yet the Scripture is clear. I will be disciplined by God. The Israelites certainly were. Years wandering in the desert. Poisonous snakes sent into their camp to bite them. Years of drought and famine brought about by the Lord’s prophets. Being led away in chains by Assyria and Babylon. It’s discipline. As a concept, it’s easy to understand, but it gets a little messier when we consider the discipline we might actually receive in our lives.
To muddy the water even further, the scripture also makes it clear that we are under the constant threat of attack from the devil. The story of Job begins when Job is attacked by the devil, when Job experiences tremendous suffering at the hands of the devil. Peter warns us that the devil is on the prowl like a lion seeking someone to devour.[i] Paul warns us that we are not battling flesh and blood, but the spiritual forces of evil.[ii] Luther commonly said that the devil would be most active among the children of God, bringing suffering and trials into our lives in an effort to entice us away from the mercy of our Lord.[iii]
So which is it? Are the sufferings and trials in my life discipline that God has sent to me just as he sent drought to Israel? Are these hardships an effort on God’s part to strengthen my faith? Or are they the attacks of the devil, Satan’s attempts to get me to abandon my faith?
We have to acknowledge with the writer of Hebrews that God disciplines us. Yet we tend to stop short of attributing to God any actual discipline in our lives. We are uncomfortable saying that the cancer we or a loved one have is from God. Yet we know he sent pestilence into Israel. We stop short of saying that the unemployment or economic trouble we have is from God. Yet we know he sent drought and famine to Israel. We tend stop short of actually attributing to God’s hand any of the hardships we endure. We are much more comfortable attributing those to the attacks of the devil. But are they from the devil? Or are they from God? How can we know?
The simplest, and probably least satisfying, answer is that we can’t know which is which in our own lives. We know that God sent snakes into Israel because he told us so in his Word. We can’t know with 100% certainty whether or not the thing we are suffering is discipline from the hand of God or an attack from the hand of Satan. However, we can keep a few things in mind when facing it.
Like the Road Runner. Or, more accurately, like Wile E. Coyote. Yes, that Wile E. Coyote, of the Latin Pseudonyms Eatius Birdius, Apetitius Giganticus, and Desertous Operativus Idioticus. Wile E. Coyote, he whose use of ACME brand apparatuses never resulted in the desired mouthful of Roadrunner, but rather typically ended with a mouthful of desert sand, usually after a long fall, often times followed up by the crash of a large rock on his head. Whether it was his rocket-powered roller skates, a deluxe high bounce trampoline kit, or a simple crate of do-it-yourself remote controlled missile bombs, whatever that silly coyote did to catch the roadrunner always backfired on him. He always ended up on the wrong end of his own scheme.
So it is with suffering in the life of a Christian.
It is the nature of our limited knowledge that we cannot know whether any specific instance of suffering in our life is discipline from God or an assault of the devil, for both are active in our life at the same time. Therefore, Luther had no problem saying that the same suffering comes from both God and the devil. But here’s the beauty of it: in these moments of suffering our response is the same, for when the devil thinks he is working against God’s people, in reality he is helping to overthrow his own scheme. Yes, on some level all hardship is discipline from God, for it is not the devil’s Law we have broken. It is not the devil’s creation that our sin has corrupted. As Paul makes so abundantly clear, none of us have lived a blameless life, so it is not from the devil but from God that we deserve discipline.
When such discipline comes into our lives, we ought to acknowledge it as a punishment which God allows his enemy the devil to execute, like in the case of Job. But in the midst of such suffering, in the midst of such discipline, the new creation given to you in the water of baptism cries out with the voice of faith, looking to God for deliverance. In the face of hardship the Christian turns to God in prayer. To pray is to depart from the devil’s grasp, where we are left to stand in our sin against God, and to enter into the mercy of God, where we stand in the righteousness of Jesus. The devil opposes God’s children, but succeeds only in driving us to prayer, putting us squarely back in the camp of our Lord. The final outcome of Satan’s attacks against us is ultimately God’s victory over Satan in your life. Like Wile. E. Coyote’s schemes always end up shooting him over a cliff, so the devils schemes to entice us to despair through suffering end up backfiring against him when we turn to our Lord in the midst of such suffering.[iv]
The trials and tribulations we face drive us closer to God; they benefit us rather than harm us. They are the discipline of God that “seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”[v] But only the eye of faith sees this, for the eye of faith looks to Jesus on the cross. The eye of faith sees the God who suffered as one of us in order that we might spend eternity in his new creation, free from all trials and tribulations. Yes, the hardships in our life come to us as something evil, but faith turns them into something good. If faith does not believe this, then life’s bitterness remains something evil. If faith does not trust in God’s deliverance, then we become jaded against God and angry, and Satan’s attack is successful. It is the eye of faith that changes the reality of the suffering.[vi] It is the eye of faith that sees Satan’s work undone.
So what are you suffering in your life? What hardship or tribulation is troubling you? Is it financial? Is it health? Is it a combination of struggles that seem to avalanche on top of you? Do you feel that the light at the end of the tunnel is a rapidly approaching train? Don’t let Satan use that trial to drive you into despair. Turn his scheme against him, and send him barreling over the cliff. As the old hymn says, take it to the Lord in prayer. Believe our Lord’s when it encourages us to b cast our anxiety on him who suffered for us, for he will give us rest.[vii] Look at these challenges with the eye of faith.
Remember that these struggles are the way that Christ leads us through our earthly life. Paul said after being lynched and stoned in Lystra, “we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”[viii] These struggles leave us humble before God, as Paul’s thorn in the flesh exalted the mercy and grace of God in the midst of human weakness.[ix] These struggles strengthen our faith by moving us to prayer[x] and focusing our attention not on what we can see, but on things eternal[xi], on the promises of God rather than on our own perception of blessings and curses in the life around us. Satan may attempt to use the discipline of God to drive us away from him, but as Luther said in his commentary on 1 Peter:
God afflicts us in this way in order that our faith may be proved and made manifest before the world, with the result that others are attracted to the faith and we are praised and extolled.
All Scripture compares temptation to fire. Thus here St. Peter also likens the gold that is tested by fire to the testing of faith by temptation and suffering. Fire does not impair the quality of gold, but it purifies it, so that all alloy is removed. Thus God has imposed the cross on all Christians to cleanse and to purge them well, in order that faith may remain pure, just as the Word is, so that one adheres to the Word alone and relies on nothing else. [. . .]
As long as we are still in the flesh, we can never become completely pure. For this reason God throws us right into the fire, that is, into suffering, disgrace, and misfortune. In this way we are purged more and more until we die. [. . .] When faith is tested in this way, all alloy and everything false must disappear. Then, when Christ is revealed, splendid honor, praise, and glory will follow.[xii]
Where the world sees only suffering and tribulation, the eye of faith sees God at work in our lives. Where the sinful flesh resents and rebels against the discipline of God, the new man takes comfort that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.[xiii] Where the sinful flesh is easily distracted by all the supposed injustice it must suffer, the eye of faith is firmly fixed on Jesus, who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, that we may not grow weary or fainthearted.[xiv]
So while it may not be easy, and it may not be fun, “do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. [. . .] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”[xv] That is why “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,”[xvi] that on the day of our Lord’s return he would look to us and say “Well done, my good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of your master.”[xvii]
[i] 1 Peter 5:8
[ii] Ephesians 6:12
[iii] Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount
[iv] Wingren, Luther on Vocation. Chapter II, section 1
[v] Hebrews 12:11
[vi] Wingren, Luther on Vocation. Chapter III, section 6
[vii] 1 Peter 5:7
[viii] Acts 14:22
[ix] 2 Cor 12:7
[x] Psalm 18:6
[xi] 2 Cor 4:16-18
[xii]Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 30: Luther’s works, vol. 30 : The Catholic Epistles (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (1 Pe 1:10). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
[xiii] Romans 8:28
[xiv] Hebrews 12:3
[xv] Hebrews 12:5-6,11
[xvi] Romans 8:18
[xvii] Matthew 25:21