Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Father's Discipline

Lessons on God the Father:  The Father’s Discipline


I read the other day yet another story of persecution of Christians by Muslims.  This report was out of Pakistan, where Fouzia Sadiq, a divorced mother of three was beaten, was raped, and was forced to convert to Islam by her boss—so he could force her into marriage.  These sort of reports are unfortunately all too common in other parts of the world, but what I found most disturbing was how Fouzia related to God through an ordeal that had to be unbearably humiliating and painful.  She said, “It made me angry that God was blaming me.”  Her boss commits the crimes against her, but her anger is directed against God the Father.  But I am not criticizing her complaint.  Her anger against God is really above criticism; you could even say that her anger against God is Biblical.  The Bible is full of stories of God’s people who are made to suffer and then have some choice words for God.  They know that God, if He wanted to, could stop the suffering, could stop the injustice.  And when He does not, He attracts the anger of suffering people.  The most obvious example is Job, who in his suffering came oh-so-close to blasphemy against God—and may have even crossed the line.  The words of Fouzia even seem to be a rough translation of the words of Jesus while He was being crucified:  “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani—my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The problem of suffering is tied to the kind of world we live in, and the question arises, “Couldn’t God have made us a better place to live?”  Most of us would be happy to offer God some suggestions:  “Just give us a world without violence and war!  Give us a world without diseases.  Give us a world that is always fair.  Give us a world without pain and suffering!”  Without a doubt, even we could design a world that is more pleasant and comfortable to live in.  And surely God could do even better than we can.  But it is made clear in the Bible that God’s purpose for creating the world was not to give us a safe and pleasant environment where all of us are well treated.  If it were, He plainly failed to achieve it!  Leave it to Yogi Berra to come up with this gem:  “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

Rather, God created the world to be a place of education, a place where lessons might be learned.  Some call it the “vale of soul-making.”  A vale is a poetic word for valley—we are down in the lower regions—and this expression is found among the classical poets like Shelly and Keats.  Nicholas Wolterstorff writes:  “In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed.  But there also character is made.  The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making.”  And what exactly is the curriculum down here in God’s schoolhouse?  Some would call it morality.  God set up the world to be a place where people could learn the difference between right and wrong.  I don’t have a problem with that, so long as we understand that morality is all about relationships.  This world, complete with all of its hardships and injustices, provides the best opportunity to develop the best relationships with other people.  Morality is about good and evil.  That’s fine, as long as we understand that what is good is what makes for the highest quality of relationships.  Love is good, respect is good, faithfulness is good, honesty and sincerity are good—they all enhance and strengthen relationships.  And we should understand that evil is anything that is destructive to relationships:  selfishness, greed, exploitation, dishonesty, etc.

For the world to be the kind of place that provides this education, it needs have four characteristics:

1.      It needs to be a place where evil is possible.  To have the ability to choose between good and evil is a supreme privilege from God.  The love given from the heart’s choice is far superior, but granting that opens the door to the possibility of evil.  It is not good that evil exists; but it is good that the possibility exists.

2.      The world needs to be a place where humans can act upon one another.  They not only need to be able to act in loving and beneficial ways, but we need to have the opportunity to be the agents of evil.  We need to understand that our thoughts and actions have consequences for other people, and we need to see our individual responsibility toward others for the choices we make.  God could have created a world in which the bullets from guns turn into cotton balls or bubbles, so that no one ever gets hurt.  He did not.  He made the world a place where it is real possibility to be a criminal, a thug, a tyrant, a sinner.  But the world is also the place where it is possible to be a hero, a model citizen, a benefactor, a saint.

3.      We need to know that God will hold ourselves and others responsible in some ultimate sense.  One day, the lessons will have all been taught, and every student will be examined to see if God’s lessons have been learned.  There will be appropriately extreme rewards and punishments that follow.

4.      The world needs to be a place where the end of life is guaranteed, but uncertain.  Because we are mortals, we only have a limited time to learn what we need to know so as to successfully pass the judgment of God.  And the time we are given is uncertain.  Death could come later, or it could come sooner than we expect.  That uncertainty is important because it compels us to be diligent toward learning the lessons of life.  Tomorrow may be too late.

It is against that background that the Bible teaches us something very important about God’s role as our educator.  God has not put us into the middle of a world of hardship and suffering, and then walked away closing the door behind Him, leaving us alone to figure it out for ourselves (that would be “deism”).  The Bible teaches that God tailors the earthly experience of each one of us to provide the exact learning experience that each one of us needs, and the Bible has a name for this educational activity of God.  It is called discipline.

What we read in Hebrews chapter 12 is built on the previous chapter.  Hebrews 11 is the catalog of the heroes of faith.  The book is written to people who are about to give up on Christianity.  They are experiencing hardship and humiliation, and they are getting wobbly in the knees.  So the author sets before them all these people from earlier in the Bible who went through experiences that were just as bad, if not worse (11:32-40).  Remember Fouzia Sadiq?  These are people who went through what that poor Christian did, and they came through all of that with their faith intact.  Their knees did not buckle.  Yes, many of them complained against God, just like she did, but they never stopped believing.

Well, these heroes of faith are now watching us as we go through the same schooling that they received (12:1).  And while they watch us, the writer tells us who to watch.  We are to keep our eyes on Jesus (v. 2).  God became flesh and actually experienced all of the hard edges of this world that we have to live in.  Jesus walked that path, from start to finish, to show us how it’s done.  He has shown is that even if the path of suffering goes through crucifixion, that path ultimately will take us to the throne of God.  He is “the author and perfecter of our faith.”  It seems that the teacher has shared the learning experience with us (5:8):  ”Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”  Listen, everything you and I suffer down here is meant to teach us a valuable lesson that eventually will bring us to a good place.

But listen to the warning of vs. 3-6.  You will be tempted to become a drop-out; you will be tempted to quit school; you will be tempted to say, “this is just too hard—I don’t need this!”  Jesus went all the way through.  Are you going to quit?  You complain against God and say that He is blaming you as though you deserve bad treatment.  But, says the writer, “In your struggle against sin, you haven’t lost even a drop of blood!”  Jesus did.  Notice how he says that as if to say, “even if you had lost blood, there’s no way you could call that unreasonable, could you?”  Jesus demonstrated His love for you by being nailed to a Cross.  You’ve received His love, His grace, His forgiveness.  After all that, you wouldn’t hold back from losing blood for Him, would you?  You wouldn’t consider that unreasonable, would you?  I mean, if you really love Jesus the way you say you do, if you really love Him in a way that is willing to reciprocate and pay Him back a responsible measure of love.  That’s not at all unreasonable, is it?

Look at vs. 7-13.  These verses teach us that by allowing us to suffer through hardship, God is really playing the part of a Father.  Human fathers do that, and we may not like it, but eventually we have to acknowledge that giving us hard lessons ultimately was beneficial.  Those tough lessons, as much as we hated it at the time, we have to admit that they shaped us, and grew us up, and saved us from childish ways—because we know that we would still be childish if we had never been disciplined, if we never had a Father who loved us enough to discipline us.

Each of us knows where we are disappointing God and need to grow up.  You should pray to Him about that.  For example, you may realize that you are impatient with people.  God will answer that.  But you won’t wake up the next morning and exclaim, “Wow—I feel all different!  I just feel really patient!”  That’s not the way it works!  More likely, if you pray to God to give you patience, He may put you behind a traffic snarl that goes on for miles, surrounded by rude drivers full of rage and beeping their horns, while you are late for work, or for your wedding.  That’s how a God of discipline teaches patience in His vale of soul-making!

And remember that earlier we said that all of our learning experience under God’s discipline is focused on our relationships?  Look at v. 14.  It’s all about relationships, about pursuing peace (successful relationships) with all people.  And you might be tempted to think that relationships with people are one thing, but holiness before God is a totally different thing.  This verse and many others teach that we have no holiness before God if our relationships fail to grow, and deepen, and mature.  Paul David Tripp (a Baptist preacher) writes:  “We forget that God’s primary goal is not changing our situations or relationships so that we can be happy, but changing us through our situations and relationships so that we will be holy.”

Finally, vs. 15-17 give another warning.  Discipline may generate two different responses.  It is usually a humiliating and painful experience.  One person may respond with acceptance, and with humility, and thus will actually benefit from discipline.  But another may respond with resentment, and with bitterness, and thus will remain immature.  Esau was like that.  He made a mistake and was filled with anger and bitterness.  He wanted to reclaim what he had lost, but was unwilling to humble himself.  Lots of tears of regret, but no repentance, no fundamental change of character or way of life.  Esau was rejected because he would not accept discipline.  And we are warned that we will be rejected to if that is our response to God.

Before it’s too late, learn from the Father’s discipline!  Appreciate what you have before it becomes what you had!