The Gospel redeems areas of our greatest pain One of the things I love most about the gospel (good news of Jesus) is that it is not afraid to wade into the areas of our greatest pain. One of these is the area of parental discipline. Most humans bear some pain, some wounds, due to their parent's discipline – or their own struggles with disciplining their children.
There are three general causes of this pain. First, many bear pain because their parent’s discipline towards them was harsh, severe, overbearing. An angry, violent, abusive parent can deeply wound a child’s heart. Second, there is another cause of pain which is often overlooked. It is the pain that comes when the parent’s discipline is only surface level, only concerned with outward appearance, outward behavior, and never addressing the heart. In this case the child knows that the parent is not interested in them but that their discipline is motivated by the parent’s desire to look good, have good behaving kids. Children whose parents discipline them in this way feel a deep lack of connection and intimate relationship with their parents. The third cause of pain in parental discipline is caused by parents who refuse to discipline their children, who refuse to say “No” and set boundaries. Children who grow up in homes that lack clearly articulated and followed through discipline feel abandoned, unloved, and lost-without-boundaries.
Into this area of great pain the Bible wades, and the gospel of Jesus redeems. The twelfth chapter of the book of Hebrews explains why all human discipline falls short. It says that while discipline is of the very essence of the father-son relationship, human discipline is always temporary (“for a little while”) and limited by finite understanding (“as they thought best”). In contrast, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (12:10).
Let us take a moment to see how the Christian gospel redeems discipline, this area of great pain in our life.
First of all, the gospel calls us to be encouraged. God is treating us as sons and daughters when he rebukes and disciplines us for “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. So we must not make light or lose heart at God’s discipline, rather we should treasure it. Why? Because it means that we are in a special Father-child relationship with the Holy God.
Endure all Hardship as Discipline
Second, we should endure hardship, all hardship, as discipline. This does not mean that all hardship in our life is corrective hardship: that God is punishing us for something bad we have done, some sin. Rather, hardship in our life can also be formative: the kind of hardship that trains us, matures us, forms as godly sons and daughters of God. This implies two things. First, in every hardship we face, we have a decision to endure it (not necessarily like it) - to interact with the hardship - with a soft, teachable, submissive heart rather than becoming hard, cold, calloused and cynical towards God.
One of my friends shared a letter with me written to his second child who was lost through a miscarriage. It is an example of honest and humble interaction with hardship:
One thing your mom and I talked about over and over was the pain of wanting something — lack of miscarriage, but really a healthy pregnancy and birth — and the helplessness of not being able to do anything to bring it about. First, we were helpless during the time of uncertainty, then we were helpless when the miscarriage was confirmed. In the face of this helplessness our first reaction was to exert more control, to treat your life as something we were entitled to, and to hold God responsible for granting us our dues in the form of a healthy pregnancy.
We decided that the way we treated this uncertainty before the miscarriage would set a big precedent for how we treated uncertainty as parents. We could make the tight-fisted claim on your life now — we’ll only love you if you don’t die on us, or we could hold your life with an open hand and offer our love unconditionally. All this had very little to do with what happened when the uncertainty was over — whether you lived or died. It was primarily about how we chose to approach your life regardless of what happened….We saw that parenthood in general, and this pregnancy in specific, was becoming something about which we would say, “Our life is incomplete without this.” In that sense it was like Dagon — a false god that claimed our allegiance and defined the way we reacted to the events of our life. And our love for you, such as it was, was the possessive consuming love of Psyche’s sister [a reference to C.S. Lewis story, Till We have Faces].
Henri Nouwen talks about prayer being a process by which our fists become unclenched and their contents released into God’s care. A focus of my prayers during this time, both when I was with your mom and while I biked to and from work, was the admission how tightly clenched our hands were around this pregnancy, and the request that God pry our fingers open. Not that we wanted to be open-handed about this — we didn’t. But if we weren’t we would pay the cost for trying to control and regulate something that was out of our hands.
My petitions felt very much like the bruised knuckles beating on heaven’s door, as I prayed for your life. I acknowledged that the odds were slim based on the visits to the doctor. Nonetheless I told God how much your mom and I wanted your life. I knew it was a potentially dangerous desire — partially wrapped up in the devouring love and desire for control I talked about earlier. So I made this prayer with its fallibility and mixed motives, the tightly coupled healthy and unhealthy desires placed before the throne of God.
Instead of choosing the path of turning from God is cold hatred for allowing such a terrible thing (the miscarriage of their child), my friend wrestled to interact and respond to this suffering, this hardship redemptively."
This brings us to the heart of the gospel’s redemption of discipline: discipline is of the very essence of a Father-Son relationship.
The Essence of a Father-Son relationship is discipline
The logic of Hebrews goes like this. In discipline (whether corrective or formative) God is treating us as sons for “what son is not disciplined by his father” (12:7)? In fact, if we are not disciplined “then you are illegitimate children and not true sons” (12:8). We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for that. Why? Because children are not only sinners but they are incredibly immature; they need discipline, boundaries, rebuke. If a parent does not discipline a child, the child’s heart and conscience judges them for their lack of discipline, and bears the wounds of being unloved, unpursued. Conclusion: If we respected our human father’s for their discipline, how much more should we respect and submit to the discipline of our heavenly father.
What an amazing thing! The gospel says that through Jesus Christ, we are legitimate sons and daughters of God. And God’s discipline, unlike our earthly father’s is not temporal and limited by human fallibility and finiteness. No! God’s fatherly discipline is for our good and, ultimately, that we might share in his holiness.
The End of God’s discipline
What is the end, the goal, the purpose of God’s discipline of his children? The answer is almost unspeakable. It is beyond human comprehension. It is this: “that we may share in his holiness” (12:10). Do you see what this is saying? God values and treasures and pursues and disciplines and corrects and rebukes and forms and chastises and punishes so that he might make us his treasure. Through this process of discipline God shares with his children his very glory, his moral beauty, his otherness, his holiness.
In his second sermon on “Charity and It’s Fruits”, Puritan pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards makes much of this. It is worth hearing.
In contrast with God giving “spiritual gifts” (the gift of tongues, prophesy, healing, etc) – which both believers and unbelievers may have, the far greater gift is his making his children holy. Edwards writes:
“Gifts of the Spirit are excellent things, but…they are not things which are inherent in the nature, as true grace and holiness are…gifts of the Spirit are, as it were, precious jewels, which a man carries about him. But true grace in the heart, is, as it were, the preciousness of the heart, by which…the soul itself become a precious jewel…The Spirit of God may produce effects on many things to which he does not communicate himself. So the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters, but not so as to impart himself to the waters. But when the Spirit by his ordinary influences bestows saving grace, he therein imparts himself to the soul…Yea, grace is as it were the holy nature of God imparted to the soul.”
No human parent is able to give us the kind of discipline our heart needs. All parents are finite and flawed and fallible. But, due to sin and immaturity, our souls need discipline. In the good news of Jesus Christ, we have hope that the one who “knows us best loves us most” and is every faithful to discipline us so that we might share in his holiness.