4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
6 for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.”
7 Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? (Heb. 12:4-7, citing Prov. 3:11-12)
In many ways this is a very challenging passage. It would be very easy and simplistic to read this as saying that all suffering comes from God and is intended as discipline, as a chastisement to make us better and stronger. I don’t think we should confuse the “trials” described in this passage with the kind of unmerited suffering that is leads to so many to question the very existence of God. I don’t think so, but I could be wrong. It is a very difficult passage.
Instead we must consider this language in its context and intent the author seeks to encourage his audience. He has previously chided them for not yet being able to move beyond basic teaching (Heb. 6) and he is now trying to reassure them that even though they may struggle in some ways this is merely evidence of God’s existence and care for his people. Their struggles do not yet seem to be dire since, he points out, has not even led to their physical suffering (“you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”). He then uses the analogy of a parent disciplining a child in order to place their hardships within a proper context of God caring for them, as opposed to the implied erroneous conclusion, that God has abandoned them.
But notice the how the author frames their hardship. It is a “struggle against sin.” The trials then are evidence of God’s support of them as they seek to live a holy life.
When I was in college and part of a fellowship I had a friend who was fond of saying that if we were struggling we must have been doing something right, since otherwise why would Satan be attacking us? Of passage like this (not to mention Job) places such struggles in a different context. It could be that if we are struggling it is because we are doing something wrong and God is trying to help us to learn from these errors and to grow in our faith.
This is the challenge of discernment. How do we know when a hardship we are enduring is the result of God’s disciplining us, Satan trying to impede us, or simply the result that we live in a very fallen and broken world? We cannot simply throw up our hands and say, “I don’t know!” The practice of discernment requires our engagement, our deep and prayerful reflection on our life and God’s word. It is only through this sort of engagement with God and ourselves that we can hope to understand what is happening in our lives and why. If we live such a reflective life then even when we do face the deep tragedies that are unmerited and unbidden can be redeemed.
11 Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:11)