52.Hiking in Hebrews: That Discipline Thing

There’s a guy in Psalm 73 you might recognize: a believer struggling with trials that make him feel “plagued”, while he watches the godless seemingly float from blessing to blessing. Their lives appear healthy, prosperous, and carefree, despite their arrogance and wickedness. The anguished psalmist admits to bitter envy and woeful self pity. Eventually, God gives him a glimpse into the future of the wicked, when they will be “completely swept away by terrors”—and the struggler’s faith in God’s justice is restored.

I think we’ve all been there.

But let’s go deeper. Most of us can find comfort in knowing that God will eventually mete out judgement on the wicked. But what if the ‘others’ we’re envying aren’t the godless, but other believers? Believers whose lives seem disproportionately blessed in every way, compared to our own?

 Perhaps this is the greatest curse of our social media-driven generation: those great-to-awful glimpses into the lives of others. Countless people have written about this; I’m saying nothing new*. But I don’t often hear other Christians confess to the envy that tempts us when our own lives feel challenged, even besieged, while Christian friends post photos of tropical vacations,  family get-togethers, reunions with friends around the globe that we haven’t seen in decades, beautiful bouncing grandchildren, stunning homes and gardens, fine dining and endless holidays…you get the picture. While we– struggling with finances, health, relationships, and/or our own private versions of PTSD or late-life regrets—just can’t relate.

I know people who avoid social media like the plague.  The sun-drenched lives portrayed online only amplify their own struggles. And I can name other Christian friends, faithful and devoted, whose lives have been beset with challenges for years, with no apparent end in sight—except heaven.

Why the imbalance? Well, we know things are not always as they appear—especially on Facebook. Only God and their closest friends know what’s really going on in these seemingly perfect lives. And yet, however we rationalize it, some of us still seem fated to struggle a lot more than others. I’m thinking of Christians with major health challenges, family heartbreaks,  mental health issues, floundering marriages, financial insecurity, and other circumstances that tear at the heart and soul of our faith.

I’ve been there. My life and heart are in a  much brighter place than they were ten years ago, thanks be to God. But I’ve been Psalm 73 guy, and Psalm 88 guy (“The darkness is my closest friend”) more often than I care to remember.

That’s why this next passage we’re hiking in Hebrews is so enlightening:

“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.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?  (Hebrews 12:5-7)  

Let me ask: what comes to mind when you hear the word “discipline”?

If you’re a free-spirit type like me (product of the ‘60s and ‘70s), the word may carry negative connotations.

If you had parents who were harsh and intense in their punishment, the word may trigger painful memories and emotions.

If you come from a home with a military background, you might have learned the value of discipline—or you might rebel against it.

If you were fortunate enough to have parents who loved and disciplined you wisely, you likely grasp the value and importance of discipline in a way many of us don’t.

My natural instinct is to view discipline in two ways: Personal discipline (as in, living a disciplined life) = Good.   Being disciplined (as in, going through hard times) = Bad: I’ve messed up and don’t deserve to be loved.

But this passage says the opposite. Being disciplined SHOWS that God loves me. He’s accepted me as His child, and He plans to keep me. He absolutely wants what’s best for me, and being rebuked or punished by God is a sign of His deep love.   

It’s when the discipline stops that we need to be worried.

Endure hardship as discipline. Did you catch that? Hardship—economic uncertainty; doing without; having less than we think we need; being misunderstood, mistreated, or ostracized; being un-or-underemployed; living with physical, mental, or emotional challenges that make everyday life an uphill slog—these are all part of God’s loving discipline. Hardship doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve done something wrong to put ourselves there, but if we have, part of God’s discipline is helping us learn from our mistakes and rebellion so we don’t keep repeating the same harmful patterns.

It’s all administered in love. And with perfect wisdom.

We’re not called to love our hardships, but to endure them. I take that to mean ‘with a godly attitude’: not resentful, not self-pitying, not envious of others, not self-hating. Enduring with dignity, humility, and a willingness to endure for as long as God sees fit. And to learn, whether it’s through necessary repentance, or by simply accepting the circumstances in which God has placed us, for short-term or long.

We’re also warned against two things in this passage: making light of God’s discipline, or losing heart. Which are you most prone to?

Those who make light don’t stop to consider why God is allowing specific hardships in their lives. Perhaps they compartmentalize their everyday life from their spiritual life, not seeing the connections between their actions/attitudes/weaknesses, and what lessons God is trying to impart. Or perhaps they minimize or deny the pain they’re actually in, not ready or willing to do the hard but necessary work of digging deep and facing their inner demons. Either way, they’ll miss out on growing from God’s discipline until they’re ready to face the truth.

Those who lose heart—and that’s who I’ve tended to be—get overwhelmed by feelings of worthlessness, failure, hopelessness, and despair. They view hardship and discipline as rejection, not loving correction. They forget that a loving parent MUST discipline, or the child will go astray. They forget they’re a work-in-progress, far from perfect and in need of discipline till the day they die and fully inhabit their true perfection in Christ.

Losing heart when we’re going through hard times shows we don’t understand this. And a simple look back at our Biblical heroes confirms an obvious truth: those whom God loved and chose to be part of his faith team went through MANY hardships throughout the course of their lives. Their Facebook posts would have gone silent many times as they passed through dark and lonely waters, patiently (or not) enduring the trials God chose for them.

I’m closing this out with the rest of this passage on discipline, confident these words will shine a light on your path, as they do on mine:

If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true heirs. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while, as they thought best, but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.   (Hebrews 11:8-11)

So be encouraged! Share your hardships! And know that you are loved, deeply loved—beyond comprehension.

*For an eye-opening expose on the machinations behind social media—and its terrifying impact on our world—I highly recommend the new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.

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