(This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, February 28, 2010 , at FBC Benbrook)
Endure Hardship as Discipline
Preaching through the book of Hebrews has been quite challenging. And I am sure you have found listening to me preach through the book of Hebrews to be quite challenging, too. For all of the good parts of the book of Hebrews, it is not really the kind of book that most Christians gravitate towards. Sure, there are parts of it that are encouraging to read, but most of the book deals with harsh warnings, complex theological arguments involving Old Testament minutia for which practical application is often hard to find, and weighty theological issues that are not all that warm and fuzzy. And unlike some books in the Bible, like James for instance, Hebrews has one predominate theme to which the author pounds chapter after chapter. The writer circulates through the same exhortation again and again. As a result, preaching through Hebrews is challenging because I find myself plowing the same ground over and over.
Since the book has one major theme, encouraging the Christians in Rome to stay faithful to Christ despite their trials and sufferings, the writer keeps returning to make the same case again and again. As the one doing the preaching, I have often thought that perhaps I should skip over a section of the book since we have already dealt with this issue before. And I am quite sure that as the listener, you have probably had the same thought. I find myself thinking, “Haven’t I already preached on this before?” And I can only imagine the thoughts that are going through your mind.
But there is a grave danger in skipping parts of book during a study because we feel that it is redundant. If the divinely inspired author thinks that the truth he is sharing is so important that he needs to repeat it to his audience to make sure that they “get it,” then perhaps that truth is so important that it needs to be repeated to us, too. If the divinely inspired author thinks that his audience might not grasp a particular truth unless it is repeated and restated and explained in a various ways, then perhaps it would be unwise for us to assume that we are mature enough to get it the first time.
Moreover, I find this paradoxical principle at work. On one hand, there are the stumbling blocks to the faith which are almost universal. Issues that cause so many believers in Christ to abandon the faith and to give up on Christianity. These are the issues where some of our greatest questions lie, and these are territories where we struggle the most in our faith. And yet at the same time, there is something within us that would rather not put forth the energy to dwell on the weightier issues for too long. We share the sentiment of one of my children’s books that I would read to them at night, Tell Me Something Good Before I Go To Sleep. Tell me something good when I go to church. Let’s be happy; let’s be joyful; let’s celebrate. Let’s purge the urge to dirge!
On one hand, we know what causes people to lose faith in Christ, but on the other hand we don’t really want to spend too much time thinking about those issues or growing in our faith regarding those issues. And that is just not a very good growth plan.
But there is another reason why it is so dangerous to skip over sections of a book when they seem to get too repetitious: if we are not careful, we are tempted to skip over the greatest biblical material that deals with a certain issue. In the issue of not being repetitive, we may actually be depriving ourselves of hearing God speak to us through some of the most significant portions of Scripture that deal with a certain issue. While we are convinced that we have “heard all that,” perhaps there is a truth found only in this paragraph of the Bible that we are considering skipping.
Today we come to Hebrews 12. And on some levels, the issue at hand is not new to our study of Hebrews. Again, the author is encouraging the Christians in Rome to continue to be faithful to Christ despite their sufferings and hardships. But this chapter contains one of the most important biblical principles regarding the issue of faith in all of Scripture. It may be taught in other places, but this is the clearest articulation of this spiritual principle in all of Scripture. And yes, we can skip over it because we have already been talking about living a life of faith in the midst of hardship, struggles, and trials. But if we do, you will miss one of the most important biblical principles about following Christ in all of the New Testament. And I think that is extremely unwise.
For the last few weeks, we have been stuck in Hebrews 11, the faith chapter. We have discovered that faith is God’s gift to us to give us proof of what we cannot see but know to be true so that we can take courageous steps of obedience in the face of great sufferings, trials, and hardships. Last week, we saw that faith is not the absence of fear but living in faith means keeping your eyes on the unseen in the presence of unpleasant feelings of anxiety caused by the anticipation of danger. Faith is refusing to allow fear to prevent you from acting in faith.
Though we haven’t talked about it too much, we should point out why the writer of Hebrews has taken the time to list the great stories of faith. In the first few verses of chapter 12, the author writes,
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12.1-3 NIV)
He is trying to encourage the Christians in Rome to persevere and do the will of God (Hebrews 10.36) and to not be of those who shrink back and are destroyed (Hebrews 10.39). These stories of faith were meant to encourage them to run with perseverance the race marked out before them just as Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, ran the race marked out before Him. (Hebrews 12.3). The writer wants the Christians in Rome to consider Jesus who endured such opposition to sinful men so that they will not grow weary and lose heart.
And with the remaining words of Hebrews 12, the author lays out a powerful principle of living in faith, of what it means to run with perseverance and to not grow weary and lose heart.
But before we get to that principle, let me make just a few clarifying remarks. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, wrote, “There is only one question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people? All other theological conversation is intellectually diverting.” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The major intellectual obstacle to Christian faith is the existence of evil.” Three hundred years before Christ was born, the Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
The “problem” of evil is the fact that three great truths seem to be at odds with one another: God is great, God is good, evil is real. If God was all powerful, then He could prevent evil. If God were good and loving, He would want to. But evil abounds, so what does that say about God?
What makes the question even more frustrating is that the answer to this question is an unsolvable mystery. Our soul will never find a peaceful answer to this question. Philosophers and theologians have been asking this question and writing down their answers for over two thousand years, and a decent answer has yet to be found. And as a result, year after year, hundreds and thousands of men and women who claim to be followers of Christ will abandon the faith because their soul will not be able to find a satisfactory answer to this question: “why is it that bad things happen to people who follow, faith, trust, and obey in the Most High God?”
If the question were not complicated enough, we have to deal with the reality that we are fighting this war on two fronts. Millard Erikson, in his book Christian Theology, points out that with the problem of evil we have both a religious problem and a theological problem. The theological problem deals with the problem of evil in light of God’s goodness and power in a theoretical vacuum. In other words, it wrestles with the problem of evil and suffering in general. It asks the question, “If God is good and great, then why are other people suffering?” But the religious problem deals with the presence of evil and suffering in my life. It asks the question, “If God is good and great, then why am I suffering?” Erikson wrote, “If we fail to recognize the religious form of the problem of evil, then we appear insensitive to the heart cry of others. But, if we fail to deal with the theological form of the problem of evil, we appear intellectually insulting to those with serious questions.”
The problem of evil has not been solved in thousands of years, and I am not going to solve it in one sermon this morning. But, what I would like to do this morning, is to point you to one of the most instructive biblical texts for people of faith who are enduring a time of suffering. But I want you to know, this text is not a significant text for the theological problem of evil. This text is significant for those who are wrestling with the religious problem of evil.
The theological question leads us to examine all of the different ways that theologian have tried to answer the question. Some, like Christian Scientists, have tried to convince us that evil is just an illusion and does not really exist. Others teach that there is only one reality in the world with no distinction between good and evil, but our hearts know better. Some, like Rabbi Kushner, answer the question by saying that there are two powers in the universe, good and evil, and though God wants to, He is just not powerful enough to defeat evil. Others, like Deists, answer the question by seeing God as one who created the universe, got the ball rolling so to speak, but has removed Himself from any direct activity or intervention. And some have just concluded there is no god at all and the laws of the jungle rule the constantly evolving world of nature.
Theologian debate how the sovereignty of God relates to evil. Does God allow evil things to happen or does God cause evil things to happen? Does God show up after the evil has happened and then make good use of it or does God create and use the tool of evil to bring about good? These are the words that theologians use to answer the question of evil, but for those who are struggling with the religious problem of evil, a whole other set of perspectives must come into play.
Counselors and therapists will tell you that your perspective in the midst of suffering will determine whether or not you will find victory. Those who remain consumed with the “why” question, the theological question of evil, often get stuck in their pain and never find life on the other side; they never find peace for their soul. Those who move onward from the why question to the “where to from here” question are the ones who find healing and life on the other side.
The words of Hebrews 12 will not answer the “why” question. This section of scripture will not address the theological problem of evil. But they do address the “where to from here” question of evil. They may not be the final answer, but they are an important part of the equation. Let’s read them together.
3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9Moreover, 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! 10Our 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. 11No 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.
12Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13“Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. (Hebrews 12.3-13 NIV)
The writer of Hebrews is writing to a group of Christians who are “struggling against sin.” He has already told us that these Christians have been publicly insulted and persecuted because of their faith, and many have had their property confiscated (Hebrews 10.33-34). Later on in the book, he will tell them to visit those believers who are suffering in prison and those who are being mistreated because of their faith (Hebrews 13.3). And while they have not yet been martyred for their faith (Hebrews 12.4), times are definitely difficult. The Roman government was making it very difficult to be a Christian in Rome since Christianity was still an illegal religion in first century Rome. They were being opposed by “sinful men” (Hebrews 12.3), and the apostle is trying to encourage them to persevere and to not grow weary.
The trials that these Christians are going through are not the result of their sinful choices. It’s not like they are in the hospital with a broken leg after driving drunk and asking, “Why do bad things always happen to me?” Rather, because they are following Christ, sinful men are opposing them, insulting them, persecuting them, confiscating their property, mistreating them, and putting some in prison. This is not insignificant. This is the governmental, systematic persecution of Christians, which can get extremely ugly.
And in the midst of that situation, the author places before them this incredible principle: “Endure hardship as discipline” (Hebrews 12.7). The word “discipline” has two primary elements. On one hand, discipline refers to “punishment designed to teach somebody obedience.” It is the correction of mistakes to encourage a change in behavior. Its how you get someone to stop going bad and to start doing good. But on the other hand, discipline is also “the practice or methods of teaching and enforcing acceptable patterns of behavior.” It is the “instruction which aims at increasing virtue.” Negatively, discipline is correction; positively, discipline is cultivating the soul. You might be disciplined by your teacher because you did were acting up in class, but you might also be disciplined by your coach to help you reach a goal of winning first place in the district track meet.
The principle here is to endure hardship as discipline, specifically, as God’s hand in your life to either correct your mistakes or to bring you to maturity. And notice, the author does not even try to answer the “why” question. He does not venture a guess as to why God is allowing “sinful men” to insult them, to persecute them, to confiscate their property, to mistreat them, or to put them in prison. The theological question is not the concern. Rather, the writer’s concern is much more pastoral: “What do you do with hardship once it has arrived at your door?” And notice that he is drawing a parallel with Jesus, so the author is not trying to tell the Christians in Rome that they are suffering because of their sinful choices. It is not the negative side of discipline. No, just as Jesus endured opposition from sinful men, so are the Christians in Rome undergoing extreme hardship at the hands of sinful men.
And what should they do about it? “Endure hardship as discipline.” Don’t focus on whether or not the hardship is fair. Don’t focus on whether or not you deserve the hardship. Don’t focus on whether God should or could stop it. Instead, accept the hardship as discipline, as God’s working in your life to bring you to maturity.
And the writer says, “Don’t forget the word of encouragement” (Hebrews 12.5). Please don’t miss the encouraging words about those who endure hardship as discipline. First, if you are being disciplined by God, that just proves that you are indeed children of the heavenly Father. Every child who has ever been on a sport’s team where the parent was the coach knows this basic principle: coach is always the hardest on his own kids. Of course, this reality is often abused, but you get the point. A coach, in general, is trying to discipline his team, but he disciplines his child to the fullest because he wants that child to develop into all that he or she can be. Why? Because the coach is connected by blood to the child. There is a deeper connection between parent and child than between coach and player. And when God takes you under His wings and wants you to become the best you can be, to develop into the full image of Christ, that is a testimony that you are in fact a child of the King. Your heavenly Father is not content to treat you like the other guys on the team because He is especially concerned about your development. He has taken a special interest in you, and His discipline in your life proves that.
The second word of encouragement is that a father’s discipline is for our good. We respect our earthly parents for the hard work they have done to discipline us for a little while in a way that they thought was best because we know they were doing it for our own good. The same is true of our heavenly Father. Christians are encouraged to accept their hardships as a situation where their heavenly Father is at work for their good. Remember to keep this in context. The writer of Hebrews is saying, “Endure the hardship, the insults, the persecution, the confiscation of property, the imprisonment, and the opposition by sinful men as God’s discipline in your life for your own good.” This is a perspective choice that you make in the middle of hardship. God is sovereign over this hardship and is disciplining me through this for my own good.
The third word of encouragement is that discipline yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained by it. The NIV translates the phrase “a harvest of righteousness and peace” but “peace” really describe the fruit of righteousness which is why the better translation is “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” The result of yielding to the work of God in our lives is that we grow in righteousness which brings peace into our lives, which is the fruit that we long for when we are in suffering. We long for peace, and those who are consumed with the “why” question do not find it, but those who “endure hardship as discipline” are able to find it.
Of course, there are two caveats to this. First, discipline is not pleasant. The author of Hebrews is not sugar coating the situation. He is not saying, “Slap a happy face on the oppression of sinful men.” No, he admits it will not be pleasant but will be very painful. Enduring hardship as discipline will not remove the pain but gives purpose to the pain.
The second caveat is that we have to yield to the discipline. The writer of Hebrews uses a great word. Literally, it means, “to exercise naked.” The image is of a serious athlete. In the days before spandex and dry fit running apparel, if you were a serious athlete, you would have to get rid of your robe. A casual walker might gather his long robe into his belt, but a serious athlete would have to get rid of the robe altogether. Today, serious athletes put on $500, scientifically designed running clothes to get an edge. What the author is saying is that you have to be seriously into enduring hardship as discipline in order to get the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
It is entirely possible to endure hardship as nothing more than hardship. You can go through hardship and resent every moment of it. You can go through hardship and refuse to be trained by it. You can go through hardship and determine not to learn a single thing through any of the pain. You can go through hardship and be more bitter and unrighteous than you have ever been. Or, you can yield to it. You can submit to it. You can allow yourself to be trained by it. You can become a serious competitor in the arena of God’s discipline. The laser focus of your life is, “What is God doing to do with my life through this hardship?”
I understand that is truth does not answer the theological question surrounding suffering and evil. Does the fact that God is disciplining us mean that he caused the evil? That is a very real question. Couldn’t God have prevented this particular suffering and evil? That is a very good question. Aren’t some things so evil that they cannot be used for good? That is a very good question. And I am not saying that this basic principle overcomes all of those very good questions.
But, focusing on those theological questions will not make the hardship go away. If you get the answer to those questions, sinful men will still be opposing you daily. Even if you find the answers, you will still find yourself facing the question, “What am I going to do with this hardship? Will I endure it as discipline or will I endure it with anger and bitterness and rebellion?”
That is why the writer of Hebrews quotes from Proverbs, “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” (Hebrews 12.5-6). Two threats to enduring hardship as discipline. First, don’t make light of it. Don’t scoff at it. Don’t reject the awesome ability of hardship to mature you and develop you. Don’t minimize that idea. Don’t be foolish enough to neglect thinking about how God is shaping you through this. The lessons, the truth, the growth, the development that will come through your hardships are some of the most important things that will ever happen to you. Don’t dismiss it.
Secondly he says, “Don’t lose heart.” Don’t get discouraged. Don’t grow so weary that you lose heart. Do whatever you need to do to find encouragement so that you keep training yourself in the discipline of God’s love.
“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.”
 By Joyce Dunbar.