“Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. Therefore, ‘strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees,’ and ‘make straight paths for your feet,’ so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed. Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a ‘bitter root springing up’ and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled.” – Hebrews 12:11-15 (NET)
These verses are a continuation of the passage featured in my last essay concerning the principle that says God has to chasten us. I hope I showed that our Heavenly Father does so to keep us from becoming too attached to this wicked world we live in. A world that blatantly promotes pride as an asset, gratification as an ideal and the pursuit of happiness as the ultimate expression of freedom. Those things cause us to not seek God before all else and, therefore, He must sometimes spank us to reel us back into the faith. His reprimands, while painful, are nonetheless positive. They cultivate wisdom via humility and further our comprehension of how much He loves us. He deals with us as the best earthly father would. This solid doctrine is laid out earlier in verse 6 where it says, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.” That’s a truth as solid as granite. Enough with the review, though. We have more to learn from the writer of Hebrews, beginning with his implication that God’s reprimands do not achieve their objective automatically. In other words, a figurative swat on the caboose will surely sting but it doesn’t guarantee we’ll take the hint. If we don’t fully digest the teaching being imparted to us through His divine intervention and thereby fail to apply it to our lives then we gain nothing from it and our sanctification slows to a crawl. So, whether it comes in the form of a financial loss, a betrayal by a loved one, a shattered dream or a devastating illness, there’s a right and wrong way to react to it. The Bible doesn’t imply that everything we suffer in this life is heaven-sent, only that some things are. Tragedies happen to Scientologists, Hindus and atheists alike so it’s not fair to say that all crises’ are ordained by the God of Abraham. Sometimes stuff just happens but Christians should be aware that God can and will send “direction corrections” our way as warranted.
There are three bad ways to respond to God’s chastisements. The first is found in verse 5. “Do not scorn the Lord’s discipline.” To scorn is to treat lightly or ignore altogether. We sometimes act tough and utter “That didn’t hurt a bit.” The rebuke comes along and instead of it grabbing our attention and sending us back into The Word we shake it off as a ballplayer would a stinger. You know what I mean because from our earliest years we’re told when we encounter difficulties to fight through our feelings and develop a thick skin else this cruel world will eat us alive. So when God gives us a few swift licks we suck it up and carry on stoically as if nothing of consequence occurred. Scriptures tell us that such behavior is not spiritually productive. It fosters in us an impersonal attitude towards life that spills over into how we view our attachments to our spouses and others, eventually leading to us walking out on our responsibilities or breaking our sacred vows. Openness and vulnerability are considered signs of weakness by society and if we build protective walls to ward off pain then we’re apt to treat God’s chastisements with scorn. The second bad way appears later in verse 5 when it warns not to “give up when he corrects you.” It’s a line pulled from Proverbs 3 that talks about fainting under pressure, of throwing in the towel, of developing a sense of hopelessness. Those of us prone to bouts of depression know all about it. When severe hardships arrive we claim that it’s more than we can bear so we collapse in a pile of self-pity and start asking why God would allow catastrophes if He’s such a great guy and all. We, like the Hebrew Christians, begin to grumble, gripe and hold grudges against the Almighty. They were crying out, “Why’s this happening to us? No fair! Maybe this Jesus stuff ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. We were better off worshiping Baal!” Hebrews was written as a response and to stem their discouragement by exhorting them to remain strong and not simply “give up when he corrects you.” Unfortunately all of us have a tendency to want to wave the white flag and buckle under anything that proves unusually difficult and we’re not alone. Peruse the Psalms for example and you’ll plainly see that facing God’s tests and rebukes with a defeated, hang-it-all outlook is nothing new.
The third is in verse 15. “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a ‘bitter root springing up.’” We easily grow bitter when things don’t go our way and I’m as susceptible as anyone. As a leader in Celebrate Recovery I’ve seen a divorce or a falling out with a business partner turn warm, loving believers into callous, vindictive human beings overnight. It’s near impossible to minister to them when they retreat inside, deem everyone an enemy and shun all counsel. Words alone can’t reach them. Yet isn’t that the point God’s trying to make about all of us in Hebrews? Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “We often unconsciously proclaim what we are by the way in which we react to the things that happen to us. These things that happen to us in life test us, they test us to the very depths and they show whether or not we are truly children of God.” Non-believers instinctively become sarcastic grumps when troubles beset them but Christians shouldn’t and we won’t if we heed the warnings about “bitter roots springing up” in our hearts. Take note. If any one of these reactions arise in us the spankings God administers will be worthless. That’s why the writer of Hebrews pleads with us to respond the right way. “What’s that?” I hear you ask. Basically he says we must behave as adults, not as infants. “Have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons?” Toddlers don’t understand getting paddled by a parent. Being far from mature, they see it as humiliating, unnecessary and harsh. Alas, some of us are still spiritual tots in our thinking. The author of Hebrews doesn’t coddle us. He cajoles us to grow up already and face the music accordingly. That’s one thing about the Bible you gotta love. It never patronizes. It always treats us like the adults we’re supposed to be.
How can we consistently avoid reacting the wrong way? He gives us some advice. He asks us not to forget what we’ve been taught, no doubt referring to the Old Testament, Proverbs in particular. Christians are to take everything that happens in this life and view it in the context of the Bible. When strife befalls an unbeliever he only has the wisdom of the world to help him explain it but a disciple of Christ has God’s Holy Word. We should always be quick to inquire “What do the scriptures say about this situation?” We’re knuckleheads if we don’t. Next he says we must listen to and follow the Biblical truth “addressed to us as sons.” I find it fascinating that God’s Word presents truth not in a condescending way but in the form of an intelligent argument. I also find it annoying when folks treat the Bible as they would a sentimental devotional. The scriptures “exhort” us, they reason with us, they confront us and force us to employ logic in order to comprehend its instructions. It’s not possible to bring too much of our intellect with us when we open our Bibles. It doesn’t stoop down. It treats us with dignity. Your follow-up may be “What’s the argument re: God’s meting out corporal punishment?” The answer has been presented earlier but I’ll sum it up thusly. God chastens because He’s your concerned daddy who loves you. It’s plainly stated back in verses 9 and 10. God is the spiritual Father of the new life in us, not the old, earth-bound life but the one born of the spirit. God alone knows what’s good for us and the sooner we come to grips with that truth the better off we’ll be. We shouldn’t make light of, give up over or be embittered about being rebuked by God. We should adopt the attitude of “If God’s behind this then I know it’s being done for my own good. Period. The end.” We should also continue to follow the argument to its conclusion and try to savvy its reasoning. Verse 11 reads, “Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it.” Notice the last five words. Only those who allow themselves to be trained during the process will benefit.
What does he mean by trained? To train also translates to exercise, like what we do in a gym. The word is a derivative of a term that means “to be stripped naked.” So in a sense we’re to go to God’s fitness club, disrobe and bare our soul. Why? In verse 1 we’re told to “get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” We do that so our trainer, God, can show us what areas need to be dealt with ASAP. This mental image presents two aspects. We should see ourselves as (1) being out of shape spiritually and (2) in need of a workout regimen. In verse 12 we receive yet another recommendation. “Therefore, ‘strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees,’ and ‘make straight paths for your feet,’ so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed.” This presents a picture of someone who’s not just flabby but crippled. Someone in need of serious physical therapy. Not only does the ailment (sin) need to be treated but the patient must do his or her part by doing specific exercises to aid in the healing. Stay with me here as I try to clarify. God gets us into His workout room, checks us out thoroughly and then tells us what’ll do us the most good. Thereafter we need to constantly examine ourselves using the Bible as our guide. When difficulties arise in our life we should assume, since we voluntarily joined God’s health spa, that there’s something about us in dire need of correction. Whether we get the message through a hospital stay, a disappointment, a failure or even someone’s death we should seek out what our merciful Father wants us to learn from it. Read Psalm 119. It’s all about a man who hadn’t been aware of his backsliding ways till a chastisement from above made him stop and think about his condition. He then thanks God for it all. He doesn’t pretend that it’s been the least bit enjoyable. On the contrary, he goes to lengths to describe his angst and he’s brutally honest about the agony involved. As I said before, the Bible doesn’t water down the truth when it comes to our sanctification. It’s a hard row to hoe sometimes.
We’re told that once we’ve been shown the core defect that’s causing us to stumble in our walk with Christ we must not only acknowledge it but we must confess it to God and to a fellow believer we trust. That principle is one of the foundations of the Celebrate Recovery ministry and it comes straight from the Word of God. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) and “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) It’s fair to view confession as a stretching activity that leads to reconstructive exercises aimed at “strengthening your listless hands and your weak knees.” This is practical advice, as anyone who’s ever had arthritis or even a muscle pull will know because our tendency is to nurse and protect tender spots. A wise instructor will tell us to fight through the pain and work the affected parts of our body in order to get the healing blood to flow into them. God urges us to do the same spiritually. Look at it this way. When I turned 40 I was going through an ugly divorce and a friend gave me a membership to a gym so I could work out my anger productively. When I went in the first time and saw all the cool Nautilus machines I only wanted to use the ones that looked easiest. If it’d been left up to my own inclinations I would’ve wasted my time. But a fitness coach there took me under his wing, figured out what I needed to work on most and set me up with a list of things to do and contraptions to use first. I saw results within weeks. God’s our coach in the spiritual realm and He’ll whip us into shape. Then it’s up to us to “make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed.” What that means is that a Christian, having been spanked by God in order to steer them back onto the narrow path of righteousness, must realize that discipline and self-awareness are the only things that will ward off further chastisements from the Father in heaven. We’ll be able to stand up straight and walk without a limp if we stay focused on what’s truly important.
Verse 14 offers more on the matter. “Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord.” To pursue something means to hunt for it, to strive for it, to chase it relentlessly. Lloyd-Jones wrote, “I cannot understand how anyone who has read the scriptures can accept and adopt any idea of passivity with respect to the way of holiness.” God expects us to push ourselves to become more like Christ. All of what the author of Hebrews wrote is intended to encourage us. “Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it.” God isn’t preparing us for this world, He’s training us for a glorious eternity in heaven serving Him. We must be made holy “for without it no one will see the Lord” so it’s imperative that we pay attention to his rebukes. Finally, if you think God’s methods of scolding us are too hard, consider what our Lord and Savior endured for our sake. Verse 2 says we must “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus knew what it was going to take for us to be saved; an excruciating ordeal far beyond what we can fathom. So if you think God’s disciplinary actions are more than you can handle I ask you to look to the tortured Christ hanging on the cross and be humbled. There is no comfort to be found that comes close to the solace you’ll gain from realizing that you’re in your Heavenly Father’s hands and He’s doing everything He can to cleanse you of sin. His reprimands may be sharp sometimes but rest assured that, as Paul wrote, nothing can separate us from His love. So do your exercises as God instructs and keep at it even when it hurts so that you will one day “enter into the joy of the Lord.”
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)