Monday, November 2, 2015

Divine Discipline in the time of Trials

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

       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.

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 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.
Hebrew 12:1-11
(v. 5 cf. Proverbs 3:11, 12 and Job 5:17; v. 6 cf. Psalm 94:12, 119:67 & 75, Rev. 3:19)

 The writer of the book of Hebrews has arrived at a very practical teaching here.  After spending eleven chapters speaking in a very heavy theological tone, he now speaks of something that his audience ought to put into practice.  Surrounded by difficulties, trials, persecutions, the audience of the letter is weary.  They are experiencing their faith shaken to the core.  They live in a very difficult era.  Being Christians at that time is not easy.  It is significantly more difficult than whatever difficulties we are experiencing today.  Following Christ during the reign of the Roman Empire is very challenging.  How much more when it is combined with the zeal of the Jews, who regard Christians as heretics.  Their life is in grave danger.  No security, no safety, always followed by threats, fearing that today might be the time to be tried, to be captured, to be put in jail, to be flogged, and so on.  Life is never at peace ever since they received Jesus as their savior.  They hide from one place to another.  They worship in fear.  They cannot speak loudly because the walls have ears.  But yet they cannot abandon their faith.  They really truly love Jesus.  Yet their endurance runs thin.  Their stamina drops quite significantly.  They begin to lose hope.  Too much pressure.  Unsure of the future.  What about our family, our kids, how can we live?  Such is the context of the letter.
  So the man of God is inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down a letter for the purpose of strengthening the people of God.  In their weariness, they need encouragement, they need God’s care, they need God’s love, they need God’s grace.  The previous chapter is full of the examples of those who believed in God.  Starting from Abel to John the Baptist, all went through some sort of difficulties as they walked in their faith.  Life did not become easier when they started their journey of faith.  Life became harder.  Faith was tried over and over.  Even Abraham did not receive in the flesh what was promised.  Even the faithful prophets of God were tortured and persecuted mightily because of their faith.  Yet they endured.  And then finally, the writer points to the one they have been following ever since the day they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, ever since the day they are washed clean by the blood of Christ, and that person he is pointing at is the Lord Jesus himself.  The One who is far more superior than Moses, and even far more superior than all the angels.  The One whom all the heroes of faith in chapter 11 were also following faithfully.  Whom is said as “(v. 2) the founder and perfecter of our faith.”  Brothers and sisters, this doesn’t make the trials any easier.  For the trials still threaten their lives.  Truly the purpose of this letter is not to lighten the trials.  The suffering is even heightened at the dawn of their understanding.  The letter is meant to comfort their spirit, not to ease the suffering of their flesh.
Yes the trials still lurk and at the opportune time would swallow them and devastate their life.  We too even in the 21st century still hear persecutions endured by our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  Not as intense as the first church, but nevertheless the persecution is here too.  Churches are burned down.  Pastors are the target of ridicule and beating, even murder.  Christians are tortured by their oppressors, burned, beaten, scorned, plundered, and so on, simply because they refuse to deny their Lord.  This refusal to deny the Lord manifests in many different forms.  There is this direct refusal to deny the Lord who saves them.  There is also indirect refusal by standing on the Christian principles and ethics as the world is luring and tempting them to compromise their faith.  Whatever the form is, suffering results in their refusal to deny their Lord.  Being pounded with suffering after suffering, often the heart of man begins to take the toll.  Gradually they begin to fade.  Their strength begins to crumble.  Their stand begins to shake.  The imagination of suffering haunts them so as to signal a flee response in their brain whenever the threat of persecution shows up.  Their immediate reaction is positioned to avoid suffering at all cost.  Often all they can think of when persecution lurks on their door is how they can get away from it.  So they list possible ways to avoid suffering.  At this point, temptations grow larger significantly.  Their flesh is tempted.  Their imagination is being stimulated.  Compromises are at the tip of their fingers.  To compromise begins to present itself as a viable way, a reasonable way, even the only way.  Compromise begins to taste sweet in their imagination.  Loaded with fear, their heart’s tendency is to embrace compromise.  It is the layout of the fragility of human heart contaminated by sin.
Being experienced in suffering is no guarantee that one will be strong or stronger when dealing with trials.  It can manifest itself as an excuse to run away from standing firm on the truth.  Why run away from defending the truth?  Because the result is suffering.  Sinful humans learn quickly to avoid pain.  The brain structure, of which the central command resides, is shaped by the accumulation of experience and the interpretation of the experience including the tying of the narrative of each experience.  This condition forces the person to make a choice that is preferable for his belief or his tendency.  As we know that in this world we cannot completely avoid suffering, so our sinful tendency dictates us to choose the lowest possible pain.  This philosophy I call “We Choose Our Suffering” philosophy.  In fact, in our calculation of risk and all, we actually are calculating what or the amount of suffering that we are willing to take.  This applies in everything. 

Let me illustrate it in the following. Say we got toothache.  The pain suddenly strikes us.  It starts with an insignificant pain that we can just brush off.  Then after two days we feel the pain intensifying.  It starts giving us headache too.  In that kind of situation most commonly we are face to face with two choices.  To bear the pain hoping that the pain will go away after a while.  Or to go see a dentist to get the pain gone immediately.  The first option tries to avoid the suffering of going to the dentist, waiting in line before getting the dental treatment, paying a lot of money for the dentist’s fee, taking the medicine, and even the treatment itself which might involve the drilling of the tooth decay or the dreaded root canal procedure.  So the rational choice then is to bear the pain, because we feel that we can live with this suffering rather than the other one.  Now, the second option tries to avoid the pain caused by the toothache we are having.  In this option, we then choose to bear the suffering of going to the dentist, even if it is in the middle of winter, through the long waiting list, sitting at the scary dental chair, ignoring the smell of alcohol and other things common to the dental office, bearing the x-ray procedure, then opening the mouth for the dentist, allowing the dentist to drill the tooth to get rid of the decay after the application of anesthetic be it local or general, or going through the root canal procedure to rid of the infection, or even tooth extraction procedure if necessary.  We go through all those other sufferings in order to avoid the pain we are currently having from the toothache.  So we choose our suffering.  Which one we choose depends on the kind of suffering we are willing to bear and we are trying to avoid at all cost.
In Christian faith, we too operate similarly.  Often we calculate the kind of suffering we are willing or unwilling to go through.  Let us take one example from our rich pool of Christian ministries, say evangelism.  Lord Jesus gives us the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, cf. Acts 1.  We are His witnesses and our task is to testify of what He has done and of who He is.  But often we find it difficult to open our mouth to even speak of Jesus to our friends.  We do not wish to go through the suffering of being ignored, being humiliated, being scorned, even being harmed.  In order to avoid those sufferings, we choose to suffer God’s displeasure.  For others, they’d rather go through with being ignored, humiliated, scorned, or even harmed than feeling the agony of knowing that God is displeased and sad due to our disobedience.  So we choose our suffering.  We opt for the suffering we are willing to go through.  Our choice is a reflection of who we really are, of our true character.
Now, God doesn’t let us remain in our level.  He is a good God.  He is a good Father for all his children.  So He desires for us to grow up, to mature, and to go up to the level he has ordained for us.  He wants us to become like His Son Jesus Christ.  In order to achieve His noble goal and for the sake of our own goodness, He chooses out of His own will to discipline us.  The Hebrew writer explains very clearly that God is infinitely better than our earthly fathers who discipline us only for a moment.  With the relationship between God and us understood to be between the Father and His children, the Hebrew writer then says:
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.
Quoting from Psalm, Job, Proverbs, and Revelation, he wrote a succinct teaching to encourage his audience to choose the right suffering or to be willing to endure the kind of suffering that God has chosen for us for the purpose of maturing us.  The Hebrew writer speaks of the suffering God’s children experience as God’s act of disciplining us.  Our sinful tendency dictates us to be selfish.  In our selfishness we are avoiding the suffering that inflicts our self and we often choose to divert the pain to others.  We opt for the least pain that our sinful flesh is willing to bear.  In order to teach us and to build our character to become like that of Jesus Christ, God uses suffering to discipline us.  This suffering through trials provides us with experience that we can reflect upon.
This suffering disequilibrates us.  It shakes us to the core that we are forced to rethink our categories, reevaluate our commitment, revisit our identity, question our motivation, reposition our priorities, even asking question of where and what our center is.  This trial is to get us to know who we really are.  We become acquainted with our true self.  In this crucial disequilibrium state, God provides encouragement that he has prepared far before we even experience the shake.  Jesus has died for us far before we were born.  God has sent his prophets and apostles to give us guidance.  And more importantly He sent the Holy Spirit to be our comforter.  And through Him our Lord Jesus is present with us in our suffering.  In that way we are given a way out of our disequilibrium.  We are led to the reequilibrium process that will correct our position gradually to become like that of Jesus Christ himself.  All this God goes through with us because He loves us.  He has purposed for us to attain glory like His Son.  This glory cannot be given unless we live up to its measure.
Attaining to the full stature of Christ cannot be achieved without our old self be dissolved.  Unlearning the old habits is very hard.  It requires discipline.  External discipline is not enough.  Trials and suffering provide the perfect combination of external and internal discipline.  As children of God, the pain caused by trials prompts them to be true to their own self.  If they are not willing to go through the suffering in the name of the One who saves them from eternal death, then it becomes proof of their center.  Once we know who we are, we realize where we are at.  God is teaching us just like when we go through some kind of education and be assessed by our teachers.  As we know our position, we know how far we are from the standard we need to attain.  Here, we too need to know where we are and how far we are from the standard that God has set for us to attain in Christ Jesus.  This informs us of how we can cooperate as God trains us and disciplines us for our good.  When an athlete needs to achieve the stated goal, he/she needs to know where they are at, so they may know how to improve themselves accordingly.  In the same way as children of God, we too need to know how we can be improved further, which areas we are lacking, and so on.
We need to understand that this is in no way a path to attain salvation.  Surely it is not.  Salvation is only through Jesus Christ, not through our work or cooperation.  The dissonant experience can be an experience that points us to Jesus Christ.  It can also become an experience that shows us that we actually do not belong to Him.  But it also can be an experience that shapes us to become more like Christ after salvation.  The main purpose of the letter is to encourage those who have received salvation to endure suffering as God’s discipline, which is God’s instrument to develop us into maturity.  And one mark of maturity is holiness.
Holiness in the Bible always carries two meanings.  One is purity.  And the other is being separated for God.  Both meanings are to be formed in us as we go through the divine discipline.  God desires us to be pure.  Like a goldsmith purges gold from other kind of metals, God purges us from any other kind of competing devotion.  Goldsmith refines gold through fire, God refines us through sufferings.  God also desires us to be separated only for Him.  So we are to be trained properly for God’s Kingdom.  His Kingdom has rules and regulations that we need to obey.  Disobeying them results in penalty.  And the penalty is death.  So we are to be trained in such a way to follow the path of salvation.  Salvation is the initial act when we are deemed worthy to be ushered into His Kingdom.  Without salvation we can’t be considered worthy.  The divine discipline is the follow up of our salvation.  It is the second act of God to sanctify his saints.  As we are already designated for the Kingdom purpose, we too must be formed accordingly.  We are to be shaped to meet the needs of the Kingdom.
 The thing is we cannot expect God to accommodate us by changing the rules of His Kingdom.  Instead we are to be changed according to the rules of His Kingdom.  A Palace of the King cannot be expected to be changed just to accommodate a set of silverware newly introduced to the Palace.  Instead, the set of silverware must be chosen and formed in such a way that it would fit the Palace.  In the same way, we who are designated for the Kingdom of God, must be formed in such a way so as to fit God’s Kingdom.  In our present state we do not fit.  As long as God allows us to live in the world, our formation is still ongoing.  One of the reasons is that we are being molded to fit into whatever purpose God plans for us in His Eternal Kingdom.  The divine discipline continues to be executed so that we may achieve our final form according to His plan and will.  After the gold is refined through fire, it then is formed following the design of the goldsmith.  The formation of the gold is patterned after the design of the goldsmith.  After we are being purged, we are then formed following the design of God.  Each of us is different.  We are designed for different usage in His Kingdom.
Now, we should not think that when a Christian is undergoing terrible ordeal then we conclude that much purging is needed from the troublemaker person.  Not necessarily.  We all are born in sin, so we all are in need of much purging.  But more importantly, our formation doesn’t always have something to do with purging.  It may well be to form us for a specific use.  It is very likely that the prolonged terrible suffering a Christian endures has something to do with how he/she is purposed in His Eternal Kingdom.  All I’m saying is that difficult trial doesn’t always mean that there are much more sins one has than those who go through easier trials.
For sure, as disclosed by the Hebrew writer, “11 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.  It is indeed painful.  No doubt about it.  Discipline is not pleasant.  How much more living in this sinful body.  Discipline feels ever harder.  But our eyes must not be focused on the present discipline.  Instead, we must focus on the goal, which is to yield peaceful fruit of righteousness.  All we need to do is to endure it.  Enduring suffering makes more sense when we know who is inflicting it on us.  And we know that God is the one in control.  He is indeed disciplining us through various trials.  As God is trustworthy, we then can be safe and secure as we go through trials.  We trust the Lord that He designs it for our own good.  That He designs us for our glory.  The goal is that in the end we would yield that peaceful fruit of righteousness.  We cannot produce it unless we are disciplined by the Lord.  God knows where we are at.  God knows how much we are lacking.  God knows how far we are from the standard.  So it is necessary for us to trust Him who is the Master Designer of the curriculum of our life and glory.
As we are face to face with our self and with God at the same time, we are face to face with choices.  Our decision on which choice to take leads to the discovery of our true self.  In turn it leads deeper into further decision of whether we are going to trust the Lord and thus willing to endure His discipline or we distrust Him and thus quit the test by way of compromising our belief.  If we choose the latter, our quest meets a regress.  This doesn’t mean the end of the world.  It might as well be that God would discipline us harder to get us back on track.  There could be the case too that such decision is the end for them.  But it only applies to those who are not truly God’s children.  For God’s children they would always come back according to God’s plan.  John Mark is one example on how someone who ran away from the difficulties of ministry came back and wrote the gospel of Mark and thus be very instrumental in spreading of the gospel.

If we choose the former, we progress in our development.  In the eyes of the world we might look like we are regressing in our life.  But in the eyes of heaven we are moving forward.  Our spirit grows significantly as we press toward the goal.  Our affection to God continues to grow in our trusting Him.  We are given opportunities to express our love to Him and also to be taught by God to live more richly as God’s children.  So dear brothers and sisters, it is affirmative that divine discipline will only produce good things in us.  Divine discipline in time of trials is designed by God to improve us spiritually.  And with such knowledge we thank God our Father who passionately disciplines us for our own sake.  In the end we would become glorious like His Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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