In central Texas, where I’m from, it’s not uncommon when you’re hiking in the summer to run across a rattlesnake. If I’m hiking with my dog, and he gets too curious about the snake, I won’t hesitate to give him a swift kick to send him running. Was that a mean thing to do? Obviously, no one could rightly call that a mean move on my part, because while a kick in the rump can cause my dog pain, a bite from a rattlesnake is lethal. A kick like that couldn’t be interpreted as anger or hate—it’s exactly the opposite! Although my dog has no idea, I just paid him a huge compliment by valuing his life over his momentary comfort. In many ways, this is similar to God’s discipline in the lives of His followers.
Although it’s not popular to say anymore, it doesn’t make it any less true. God disciplines His followers like a Father disciplines His children. Hebrews 12:3–7 tells us that, as sons and daughters of God being redeemed by Christ’s blood, we shouldn’t expect to always have smooth sailing. Sometimes God will test us, challenge us, and even break us down in order to build us up better. This isn’t abuse—it’s correction out of love to bring us out of death and into life. “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7a).
God’s discipline can’t just be seen as punishment. God’s discipline doesn’t have to do with wrath, or salvation, it has to do with living a transformed life. God doesn’t just want to fill up the book of life like a hotel reservation log for heaven. He wants to transform the world through people who are being transformed to be like His Son, and He chooses to use hardships to get us there.
The famous, and often only half quoted verse, 1 John 4:18, says “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” Punishment is not what we should think of when we think of God’s disciplines for Christians. It is in love.
But, if you’re like me and you have a skeptical mind by nature, you might be a little put off by the Bible’s idea of God using hardship, persecution, catastrophes, etc. to discipline us. You might think, I wouldn’t need to learn discipline and perseverance if there was nothing to persevere. Why doesn’t God just snap His fingers and make the trouble stop? I know, even as I say it, that this is a hopeless argument. God is sovereign, God is good, and God chooses to let difficulties happen. We can’t bury any of these truths, we have to live in the tension. Although we could never call the car accident, the mental disease, and the empty bank account good things in themselves, we have to allow them to be tools in the hand of a good God.
Think about the passage in Hebrews again. In the ancient world more than in the modern, it was good and right for children to grow up reflecting the qualities of their father. Not just having the right set of genes for a similar voice and eye-color, but reflecting interests, passions, and drive. As children of God we are meant to reflect His purposes, to adopt them as our own intentions for our lives. I was speaking to my dad last night, and during our phone call he mentioned how he finds that he is most worried about life when he fixates on a plan or expectation for his future. Over the years he’s learned to be realistic about the fragility of our plans on earth—but also the durability of God’s plans. He said, the more he seriously tried to align his intentions and desires with God’s, the more peace he found in life, even when things weren’t going right.
God is an unshakable anchor—that’s not just a nice platitude, that’s the truth! Our plans, ambitions, and worries are breeding grounds for soul-withering pride. God knows this and saves us from ourselves by introducing circumstances where we can’t help but rely on Him. God’s discipline helps us to become more and more like Jesus in our daily actions and thoughts, as we consciously and intentionally fix our minds on Christ, allowing Him to transform us through the trials that will inevitably come (Heb. 12:1–2).
It’s probably not hard for you to think of some crisis or negative situation in your life right now. God doesn’t just help us cope in these painful situations; He grows us in them! Take some time to bring your situation to God. Feel free to vent, and pray for help, but also ask what He wants to be teaching you in this. Cross-examine your own responses to the situation with how Jesus would respond and pray for the strength to live like He did—at the end of the day, that is the core ambition of the Christian walk.