Embracing God’s Discipline, Part 3 (Hebrews 12:4-5)

Discipline is essential for the child of God. Running our race requires us to embrace God’s discipline knowing that He disciplines us out of love and intends our good through it. An exposition of Hebrews 12:4-5.

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If you are joining us today for the very first time, you are dropping into the middle of a series of messages on the subject of discipline. Not church discipline, but God’s discipline, His training and correcting of His people, in Hebrews chapter 12. We’re going to read together verses 4–11. And this is something of a deep dive that we’re doing into this subject matter, and you’re going to see why here in just a moment. Hebrews chapter 12, beginning at verse 4. We’ll read it together.
4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin;
5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him;
6 for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?
8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?
10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.
11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
We must never be ever in doubt that God is behind all things that come to pass, that He has a purpose in it, and that He is, in everything that He appoints and ordains for us, that He is working out a perfect plan and that He is accomplishing our sanctification. He is working all things for our good and for His glory. Of that we can never have any doubt. We can know that with absolute certainty.
Now, generally speaking, we know that these things are true. It’s in the specifics that we get bogged down and we begin to question that reality. Generally speaking, we can know that everything God ordains happens for a purpose, He has a plan in it, He has appointed it for us. Suffering, affliction, good things and bad things, blessings and things that are not so much blessings to us—at least how they appear—we can be confident that God is working through all of those things, all of the variety of circumstances and events that happen to us in life, and that He is accomplishing something through it. Generally speaking, we can affirm all of that.
Specifically, in the specific afflictions and sufferings of life, oftentimes it is much less obvious what God is doing. We can describe what God is doing. Generally speaking, He’s accomplishing our good, He is working for His glory, and I can submit to that. But specifically, in this particular affliction, what is God doing? That is a question that is a lot more difficult to answer because we don’t always know exactly what it is.
Sometimes there is a one-to-one correspondence between things that are going on in our lives—the afflictions and the suffering—and something we have done to bring that into our lives. Sometimes there is no necessarily obvious, on the surface, one-to-one correspondence between what we are enduring in our life and what God is doing. Sometimes, and I think that all of us have probably been in a situation where you have said, why is the Lord bringing this into my life? Why is He allowing this to happen at this time, of all times? I don’t understand what He is doing in it. I don’t comprehend what the purpose of this is. And I’m not even sure that I know what it is that I’m supposed to be learning in the midst of this affliction.
Have you ever had that happen to you? You’re wondering, what’s the purpose of this? I missed my flight, and so I missed the conference, and then I missed my rental car, and then I missed this, and all these things happen. And you’re sitting on the other side of that, waiting for something good. You think, I’ve endured all of these things, there must be some hidden blessing, right? I’m going to run into John MacArthur at the airport, and he’s going to offer me a ride, and I’m going to be able to ride with him, and he’s going to give me a bunch of free books. And had it not been for the fact that my flight was canceled, I would have never had this providential experience. But then that doesn’t happen. That doesn’t unfold. And instead, you spend the night in the airport next to some guy who smells like he hasn’t bathed in a week or a month or more and probably hasn’t. And then still you get home and you think, I don’t even know what the whole purpose of all that is. And that’s just even the lightest afflictions that we endure. We don’t always understand what it is that God is doing in the midst of them.
This last week I finished the book of Genesis in my annual going-through-the-Bible plan that I’m part of, and the last twelve chapters of Genesis are some of my favorite chapters in all of the Old Testament. I should save the book of Genesis for the end of the year so that I can read that at the very end. Because the story of Joseph is one of those stories where you watch the affliction that unfolded in the life of Joseph, what he endured, and if you don’t know the story going into it, what the outcome of it is, all the way through his little biographical section there in Genesis, you would be asking yourself, OK, what’s the purpose of this? I don’t understand why it is that Joseph is enduring all of the things that he is enduring. He was hated by his brothers. They couldn’t even speak kindly to him, the text says. They resented him. They couldn’t even say a kind word to him. Hey, can you pass the salt? I’ll pass you the salt. Do we have one in a rock shaker so that I can pitch it across the table? They couldn’t say anything to him kindly. So much so that when they were away from their father, they plotted his murder. Now, by the grace of God that got thwarted; he was thrown into a pit instead. He had to wonder what was going on with that.
Then they sold him into slavery, where he was sold to Potiphar. And then in Potiphar’s house, Potiphar’s wife made advance after advance, proposition after proposition, until she was finally so frustrated that Joseph was turning away her propositions that she falsely accused him of sexual impropriety and had him thrown into prison, where he spent years and did good to others only to have that good forgotten when the people who were in prison with him got out and could have done something to deliver him but didn’t; they forgot all about him. So sitting in an Egyptian prison after all of those things, Joseph had to wonder, what in the world is going on with all of this? All of the difficulties and the injustices and the hostility, one bad thing happening after another, and here I sit in a prison. And how was Joseph to read the providence of God in those events? In the moment, he could not read the providence of God, until retrospect. It’s looking back on that that Joseph would have been, as ruler of Egypt, able to say, this is what God is doing all the way through these things.
Have you ever considered that maybe the reason God allowed Joseph to grow up in a family full of people who were hostile to him and would not give him affection was so that God could prepare him to be able to say no to the advances of somebody else’s affection? Maybe it’s possible that Joseph, when Potiphar’s wife would come after him, could just simply say, you think I need your affection? I don’t need your affection. Have you met my family? You’ve never met my family. I don’t need these advances. Is that what God was doing for all of those years? Preparing Joseph to turn away a false affection and be able to identify it for what it truly was? Is that what God was doing there?
Is it possible that all of his time spent in the prison wondering and waiting day after day, night after night for years if anybody was going to remember him—is it possible that all of that was intended to prepare him to forgive his family, to save his family, and to preserve a nation when he finally got out of prison?
Now Joseph could never know that right then in the moment. I don’t think that when his brothers plotted his murder and then Reuben saved him and they threw him into a pit instead that Joseph was in the bottom of the pit thinking to himself, I’m going to rule Egypt someday. He would not have been thinking that. Probably at no point until Pharaoh said to put a crown on his head and a robe on his back did Joseph ever think, I’m going to rule Egypt someday. It certainly wasn’t in the pit. And it wouldn’t have been in Potiphar’s house as a slave, and it certainly wouldn’t have been in the prison where he was forgotten.
In the moment it is very difficult to read the providence of God in the sufferings and afflictions that He appoints and ordains for us. But in retrospect we can look back on it and see it for what it is, see it for what is obvious. This is exactly what Joseph did when his brothers finally arrived in Egypt. Joseph was able to say to them,
5 Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.
6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting.
7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.
8 Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over the land of Egypt.” (Gen. 45:5–8 NASB)
Joseph understood that in retrospect, not in the moment of the affliction. It’s in retrospect that Joseph was able to say, “This is the hand of God, and He has been preparing me for this this whole time.” And before that were to happen, Joseph could not, apart from divine revelation, have any way of seeing the circumstances as they unfold and be able to predict what it is that God was ultimately going to do through those circumstances.
So through all that Joseph endured over the course of his life, God was training him and preparing him and molding him and shaping him for His purposes. And though Joseph could be excused for his ignorance that he would someday rule Egypt, he could not be excused for his ignorance that God was in some way doing something in Joseph and for Joseph through all of the afflictions. That is the paradigm. That is the mentality by which you and I have to embrace the disciplinary purposes of God in the sufferings and afflictions that come into our lives.
Joseph was a son of God and he experienced God’s discipline in life, just as Solomon would later describe to his son. You see here in Hebrews chapter 12, verse 5, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:5–6). Joseph was loved by God, therefore Joseph received the discipline of God—that’s the afflictions and the sufferings and everything that comes into our lives that is intended to train us, equip us, motivate us, encourage us, and strengthen us for the work that God has for us. Joseph could not have avoided it. The afflictions were appointed by God and they were God’s doing. That’s why Joseph, at the end of it, was able to say, “You didn’t send me here. God sent me here.”
Now, what could his brothers have said? “No, no, no, we sold you, we got the money. We sold you into slavery. We took your robe, we dipped it in an animal’s blood and lied to our father about it. That wasn’t God who did any of that. We did that.” And Joseph would say, “You didn’t send me here. God sent me here for a purpose that you didn’t even know you were being used to accomplish. And yet all of the suffering and afflictions that have come into my life as a result of your hatred for me have only accomplished this: the preservation of Egypt, the preservation of our lineage and our family, and the good that God is going to do to you and I through it.” It’s in retrospect that Joseph could see all that God was doing. He could not know that he would eventually save Egypt and his family, but he could know that God was going to do something in him. And God demands of us, He calls us, to at least believe that much. He doesn’t call us to be able to explain all the minutiae of what He is doing.
Charles Spurgeon—if Joseph had been alive when Spurgeon was preaching, Joseph would have agreed with what Spurgeon said. Spurgeon said this. “There is no attribute of God more comforting to His children than the doctrine of divine sovereignty. [Listen.] Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe troubles, they believe that sovereignty hath ordained their afflictions, that sovereignty overrules them, and that sovereignty will sanctify them all.” Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe troubles, they believe that sovereignty hath ordained their afflictions, that sovereignty overrules them all, and that sovereignty will sanctify them all. This is the humble mindset by which the child of God kisses the rod that strikes his back. That’s our mentality. Kiss the rod. It is an expression of God’s love for us, His infinite, eternal, all-wise, omnibenevolent love for us, His redeeming love that chose us from before the foundation of the world and has saved us and sanctifies us and secures us everlastingly. That love that the Father has for His own, that is the love that is behind the rod. And if you and I understand that even in the most adverse of circumstances God is using those things for our good and for His glory and even for our eternal good—not just our temporary good, but our eternal good—then you and I can turn around and we can kiss the rod that strikes us because we know that it is out of deep affection. From that quote that I gave you last week from Spurgeon, the rod is baptized in His deep affection before it is ever laid to the back of the believer. That is what we must know. That is what we can know.
This is not a mindset that comes naturally to us, and I understand it is not a mindset that is easy for us to adopt. And I’m gleaning something from the feedback that I’m getting from a few people: I think this has been beneficial for us as we’ve done sort of a deep dive into this subject. Some of you have said that you have never heard discipline explained like this, that this is the purpose of God in it. You have an idea of what God’s discipline is that is entirely wrong, or you’ve just never even thought about it. You’ve never gone deep into it. You’ve never really given yourself to think of what it is that God is doing through it and what Hebrews chapter 12 means. And I think that for most of us, what we’re looking at, those three things that I mentioned last week, they help reframe the entire issue. And since this sermon is really the continuation of last week’s—we’ve had seven days off, but this is the second part of last week’s sermon—I want to give to you those three things that we went through last week in terms of God’s discipline.
Number one, the purpose of discipline is correction, not punishment. That’s a paradigm changer. It’s correction, it’s not punishment. Number two, the motive of discipline is love, not anger. And third, the aim of discipline is our good and not our harm. It’s correction, not punishment; it is out of love, not anger; and it is for our good and not our harm. Those three statements which are all borne out here in Hebrews chapter 12, they frame the issue of God’s discipline for us.
And I’m going to give you another one that will help sort of revolutionize the way that you think about discipline. Here’s another one. You could call this number four if you wanted to. If you’re caught up into outlines and you want to have one, this would be number four. The purpose of this passage is encouragement and not warning. It’s encouragement, not warning. Most of us, when we read Hebrews chapter 12, we think that this is a warning passage. It’s not a warning passage. There are five warning passages in Hebrews, right? We’ve gone through them. Chapters 2 and 3, chapters 4 and 5, chapter 6, and there’s one in chapter—what was it?—9 or somewhere in there, 10 maybe. I forget where it was. That’s the fourth one. We have one more that is ahead of us. It starts down in verse 19 or so. There are five warning passages in Hebrews. This is not a warning passage; this is an encouragement passage.
Most of us read Hebrews chapter 12, and we read verse 5—and I want you to look at what it says: you have forgotten the stern warning which is addressed to you as sons. Is that what it says? You’ve forgotten what? The encouragement, the paraklēsis (the word from which they get the word paraclete). You’re familiar with that word because we refer to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, the Paraclete. Jesus, in the Gospel of John chapters 14, 15, and 16, in His Upper Room Discourse there, described the ministry of the Holy Spirit as being a ministry of comforting and encouraging. Jesus said, “I will send the Comforter (the Paraclete) to be with you.” That’s a reference to the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and the Encourager. This is paraklēsis, a form of that same word which describes an exhortation that is intended to encourage and to comfort. Verse 5 doesn’t say you have forgotten the stern warning that is addressed to you as sons. Verse 5 says you have forgotten the comfort and the encouragement that is addressed to you as sons. You see, that frames discipline in an entirely new way. This is all encouragement. This is all intended to show us that behind all of the discipline and the afflictions in this life, there is a loving hand of providence that is behind all of that. There is a sovereign grace and a sovereign love that is behind that, that is acting for our best interest, for our good, in protecting and preserving and sanctifying us.
Therefore, when we face discipline in this life, we are intended to be encouraged by that. And yet that is not the perspective that most Christians have about discipline. Most Christians read Hebrews chapter 12, verses 4–11 and they think that this is a warning passage. God is in Heaven, and the rod of His discipline and His anger is raised high above His head, and He is watching you. One little slipup, one little sin, one little mistake, and He will bring the rod of His discipline down upon your back with a fury and an anger and a vengeance that we cannot even describe with words. Therefore, don’t you sin, don’t you mess up, don’t you have a wrong motive. Because God in Heaven is just waiting, He is just wringing His hands, waiting for you to mess up so He can show you what for. That’s the perspective most Christians have about God.
Or they think that God calls us to run this race and then, having called us to run the race, to finish our course, to cross the finish line, to lay aside every sin that so easily entangles us and the encumbrances which make the race difficult to run, that God is in Heaven and His goal is to throw things into your life to make that race difficult. I could run my race if it weren’t for afflictions. But God tells me I’m supposed to run the race with endurance, to cross the finish line, and then God sits in Heaven and says, OK, let’s see how he handles the car breaking down at just the most inopportune moment possible. Let’s see how his sanctification handles that. And not just the car, but this month I’m going to make it the car and the refrigerator and the stove and the dishwasher all at the same time. And then once he digs himself out of that financial mess, that hot water heater that has been on the brink for a number of years, I’m going to bring that one crashing down on his head. And that furnace. We’ll see how he handles that. And over here is this couple. They’re doing really good spiritually. I’m going to give them a miscarriage. And I’m going to give him a terminal illness. And I’m going to take his wife from him. We’ll see how he finishes the race.
Some of you here have that perspective of God, and you need to repent. That is not our God. It’s not our God. That’s not what this passage is about. This passage is not about all the hindrances and difficulties that God throws into our path to keep us from finishing the race. It is about all the things that God has appointed for us to strengthen us to finish the race. That’s what they’re there for. So that you will put off sin, that you will lay aside the encumbrances, that you will fix your eyes on Jesus, and that you will run with endurance the race that is set before you. And to guarantee that you will cross the finish line, God, with all of the love of Heaven, none of His anger, and for your good and His glory, is going to correct you along the way, and He is going to bring things into your life that will discipline you so that you will finish the race and you will finish it with joy.
This passage is not a warning passage. This passage is an encouragement passage. It’s intended to be an encouragement passage. It doesn’t say you have forgotten the somber, terrifying, earth-shaking warning that is addressed to you as sons. If you are faint in your heart, if you are about to give up, if you are in despair and affliction, if you have need of endurance, it’s because you have forgotten the encouragement of verses 4–11. Look at that passage. I want you to notice all of the encouraging phrases, beginning in verse 5: don’t faint when you are reproved by Him. Don’t faint when you’re reproved by Him.
Verse 6: “Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines.”
Verse 7: “God deals with you as with sons.”
Verse 8: If you don’t have discipline, you are not a son.
Verse 10: “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.”
Verse 11: He is producing in you the peaceful fruits of righteousness.
Every phrase of this passage is intended to be an encouragement, an exhortation, a comfort to us, so that we look at afflictions and sufferings in this life and we don’t view them as God’s hammer coming down on us in His wrath for our harm, but as God correcting us out of love for our good. And we don’t view the afflictions and sufferings of this life as something that God is doing in order to trip us up so that we don’t finish our race, to see if we’re really going to be able to do what He’s called us to do. No, instead, they are the things, the elements of training, that God brings into our lives to strengthen us for the race that is ahead. This is a passage of encouragement.
And because this is so misunderstood and often abused in church teaching, we are well served to take more than just a couple of moments to think through the implications of what we are seeing here. So I mentioned earlier that last week I gave you those three statements: the purpose of discipline is correction, not punishment; the motive of discipline is love and not anger or wrath; and the aim of discipline is our good and not our harm. And one thing that we need to get to now is some of the applications of these issues in the scenarios that come up in day-to-day life. We need to think through these from a biblical perspective, and that’s what I want to do with the rest of our time here. Everything that follows was intended to be at the end of last week’s sermon. We got to what ended up being the end of last week’s sermon and realized if I go all the way to the end of that, I’m not going to answer any questions. I’m just going to raise more questions than Hebrews chapter 12 will answer. We need to take the time to think through what this means for us in the day-to-day afflictions that we endure.
So I mentioned a number of questions for which Hebrews chapter 12 does not give answers, but these are the things that pop into our minds: How often should I expect discipline? How severe will it get? How long will it last? What form will it take? What sins bring discipline? And which sins does the Lord let slide? What am I to learn in the midst of the discipline? What are the specific lessons? How does discipline affect those around me—my children, my spouse, my family, my church? Is all difficulty discipline? And are the difficulties that come into our lives—are there some of them that are not discipline? And how do I know when it’s just the difficulty of living in this world and when it is discipline?
But with these three principles in mind—the purpose is correction, not punishment; the motive is love and not anger; and the aim is our good and not our harm—now let’s walk through a couple of scenarios and say, how do these principles inform how I view an example of affliction or suffering that comes into my life?
Here’s the scenario: A natural disaster strikes or a man-made disaster strikes. Could be a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, a mudslide, or a war. A disaster strikes, and it affects more than just one person. Let’s say in our scenario, our imaginary scenario, that it takes out two people’s houses; they’re right next door to each other. It’s a mudslide. Two of them are entirely wiped out, and the result of this disaster on these two people is identical. They lose all of their earthly possessions. Their computers, their clothing, their food, their appliances, everything is completely destroyed, and they are left with nothing but the shirts that are on their backs. In the very same event, God is working in multiple ways to accomplish multiple things on multiple levels in multiple different peoples and people groups.
So let’s walk through it. To the believer, God is using adversity as discipline and training. So we have our two men, the unbeliever and the believer. Let’s deal with the believer first. In the life of the believer, the Lord is using that adversity as discipline, as training, as correction. God intends in that mudslide, for the believer, that believer’s good. That’s all that the Lord intends for it. The Lord has no evil intentions at all in that mudslide for that believer. None. There’s not a frown, there’s no condemnation, there’s no scowl on God’s face at all. God intends that event in the life of that believer for good and only good. So what is the Lord doing? He might be, in the life of that believer, setting that believer’s affections on Heaven, where nothing can destroy—where moth cannot destroy and rust cannot take away our inheritance, where we have an inheritance that is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, in Heaven, waiting for us who are kept by the power of God so that we might receive that inheritance. He fixes our eyes and attention on that, reminds us of our heavenly home. In the life of that believer, the Lord may be divorcing that believer’s affection from the things of this world and setting his affection and his mind on the things that are to come, drawing him nearer to the Savior and sanctifying him, giving that believer opportunities to share the gospel with his neighbor who is an unbeliever, for the purpose—a number of different purposes. So those are just a few of the things that God might be doing in the life of a believer to accomplish all of these purposes.
And here are just a few of the purposes. Number one, preventing sin. That believer may be reminded by that tragedy that his life does not consist in the material possessions that he has. And his fixing of his heart upon those material possessions in the future may be the very thing that God is preventing by taking the material possessions from him. In other words, though what he possessed in that moment may not be a snare to him, it might have been a matter of weeks, months, or even days before his affections got set on that and those things then became a sin to him. So God may be preventing in the life of the Christian sin that He knows is going to take place by taking from us something or by sending us through an adversity.
It may be that he will be equipped to comfort those and lead in comforting those who face similar difficulties.
It might be that God is preventing the sin of apathy or indifference, spiritually speaking, in the life of that Christian. Or He is preventing the sin of making compromises doctrinally or spiritually or financially or with his integrity in order to hang on to those things later on. He gives the believer no opportunity to make those compromises if He just takes everything from him. In so doing, He prevents sin.
It may be—another purpose may be that God is training that believer to respond properly and to comfort others who go through similar things. So that a year, five years, ten years, fifteen years, maybe twenty-five years down the road, that person, that believer who has lost everything, will be able to comfort somebody in a very similar situation and share with them the love of Christ and say, “I understand what you’ve gone through. Here’s what I learned in the midst of that. Let me pray for you. How can I help you out?” He is equipping that believer for future service and future comforting. This is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians that God comforts us in our affliction so He may train us how to comfort others in their affliction. God is accomplishing that in the life of the believer.
And then God does something in the church body as well, doesn’t He? Because the believer who has everything wiped out suddenly is surrounded by people who are learning how to give and to love and to provide and to help. That disaster serves as an outlet for others to use their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the body and for the benefit of those who suffer. Others then, by observing that, even though they themselves have not had everything taken from them, they observe it and they learn similar lessons just by watching from a distance what is going on. It displays the grace of God in the life of the body and in the life of the person who undergoes those afflictions all at the same time. This is why—look down at verse 12 and 13 in our passage. “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” What is that a reference to? That is a reference to the work of the body in coming alongside those who are under discipline or enduring adversity and the role that they have in strengthening those whom God is taking through difficult times. There’s an address there to us as a body of how we handle the believer when he is going through disciplines or afflictions.
But what about in the life of the unbeliever? Remember our mudslide has taken out two houses, the believer and the unbeliever. God’s doing all these things in the life of the believer, accomplishing all these various purposes, and it might be a myriad of different purposes and things that God is doing and not any one thing, but maybe half a dozen or more of those things. Oh, the wisdom of the knowledge of God, how His mind is past finding out! Who has been His counselor? Who has been His instructor? If you just look at what God might do through one event, and then we compound the complexity of the mind of God, in that He’s doing something else in the life of an unbeliever . . .
So in the life of the unbeliever God is at work to warn him of the judgment that is to come, to remind him that there is a righteous indignation that even right now is being poured out from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. God is a God of wrath, and He’s pouring out that wrath even in this world now. And the expressions of His wrath in this creation are reminders that there is a judgment that is to come and that all men will stand before Him and face that judgment. It is for the unbeliever a harbinger of a wrath that is to come, a time when he will lose everything, all his barns. To quote the Lord Jesus Christ, “You fool. You build more barns to put more stuff in, and you don’t even realize that tonight your soul will be required of you? And you’re planning for the future as if you have some lease on the future that is irrevocable and you don’t.” So the unbeliever learns that lesson. In a Psalm 73-style judgment, the Lord pours out upon the wicked prosperity and wealth so that He may lift up the wicked and make him ripe for the judgment of God eventually. And then when he falls down, his destruction is sudden and his destruction is complete. And the wiping out of every earthly thing in this world that the unbeliever has is a reminder that there is an even greater loss that is to come when he will lose not only everything in this world, but he will lose even his own soul. It’s a warning of worse judgment.
And what is the purpose of God’s warnings of judgment in the lives of unbelievers? He is giving a warning to the unbeliever that we’re all going to die, that life is short, that riches make themselves wings and fly away. In the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the Lord is teaching to believers and unbelievers through disasters like that—He is teaching them that life does not consist in your material possessions and they ought to be looking at something else. That you can have your gardens and your houses and your building projects and your barns full of wealth and then, as Solomon says, you’re going to die. You’re going to turn it over to your son. And who knows whether he’ll be a wise man or a fool? And it might all vanish in one generation. The wicked are reminded that eventually that is going to happen.
To what purpose? To bring him possibly to repentance. It might be that that is part of God drawing the wicked person to Himself. It might be that this tragedy may be used by God to save unbelievers around that wicked person who see it and are reminded of what God is doing. It might be that the purpose of God destroying the wealth or the possessions of a wicked person is to harden their heart, just like He did Pharaoh. “You’ve rejected My grace, you’ve rejected My truth, and I will harden your heart through this.” How many wicked people have you seen go through difficulty and adversity and you present the gospel to them and they’re harder afterward than they were before? Why is that? Because one of the things that God does in the hearts of wicked people through adversity in this life is to harden them for the judgment that is to come as an act of judgment in this world, just like Pharaoh.
Now, in our scenario, what is the difference between those two people? There are three distinctions. Number one, their relationship to the God who ordained and appointed that disaster. God deals with you as with sons. God deals with them as with enemies. That’s the difference. Therefore, His intentions or His motive in the event is different. His motive in that event for the believer is their good. It’s their good. It’s love. His aim is their good. His purpose is correction. He is preventing sin; He is purging sin from their lives. He is strengthening them to cast away every sin and entanglement so they can run their race. But in the life of the unbeliever, God’s wrath is being poured out. And it is not intended for that unbeliever’s good, but for his harm as an act of judgment, unless God uses it to bring them to saving faith, in which case that person becomes a believer. And God’s intention toward that unbeliever, even before he was a believer, was because that unbeliever was one of His, and that disaster was intended to bring him out of his unbelief and make him a child. So in that situation, God’s intentions toward that unbeliever are ultimately good.
Once we understand that the afflictions of this life are for our good, they’re not for our harm, they’re not from anger and wrath, but out of love, and that it’s not punishment, but it’s correction, then you and I can begin to frame the things that happen to us in this life and say, OK, God is accomplishing these things. I must always remember that He deals with me as with sons. If I’m in that category, I can never question that truth.
My children, in growing up, did not always understand everything that I was doing for them and to them in the moment. They can’t understand that. But the one thing that they could never question was that I loved them, that they were my children, and that I wasn’t spanking the unruly kid in Walmart for one reason, one reason only. That’s not my son. But I discipline my own children. And they might not understand what’s happening in that moment. They can know this: I love them, I intend their good—they can never question that—and they’re my children. It’s the same thing with us and the heavenly Father. I may not understand everything He’s doing right now, but I know this: He deals with me as with sons. If that can frame my understanding of affliction and discipline in this life, then I know it is for my good, not my harm; it is out of love, not of wrath; it’s not punishment, it’s correction, it’s training, it’s discipline.
Let me give you a couple of other scenarios, and these will be quick and easy. We could apply the same paradigm to persecution, can’t we? Let’s back up and talk about that. What about persecution? I don’t know if it’s ever going to come to America or not. Seems to be trending that direction, but you never know what the future holds. So how do we handle persecution when it comes? We understand, of course, that God is sovereign over it, that He rules the nations. And here’s something crazy: God is wise enough to take the evil of sinful men and use it for the good of His believing people. He does this. So a wicked person may intend persecution to accomplish the destruction of the church, but God uses it for building up the church, for purifying the church, for disciplining His people, for the good of His people. God uses sin, the sin of others, sinlessly. That’s what we have to keep in mind. God uses sin sinlessly without creating the sin and doing the sin and therefore being morally culpable for the sin. God takes the sin of other people that is intended for our harm and He turns it to use it for good. And in so doing, He is heaping up judgment upon those whom He will judge, and He is accomplishing the good of His people. And what is the good of His people? All the things that I’ve listed.
So what does persecution do in your life or in my life? I would submit to you that it might do two entirely different things, that the one event in the life of two believers, two Christians, can accomplish two entirely different purposes. And God knows all of that. Oh, again, the wisdom and the knowledge of God! Who has been His counselor? Who can know His mind? Who has instructed the Lord? If He’s doing all those things for all of those people in any one event! One event can unfold, and God can accomplish thousands of things in the lives of thousands of people to accomplish thousands of things that will go into eternity. And He knows it all, He plans it all, He orchestrates it all, and He works it all for the good of His people.
Like Joseph—his brothers intended one thing in selling him into Egypt; God intended something else. Which is another thing that Joseph said to his brothers in the book of Genesis toward the end. He said, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” The same word, intended. Both God and his brothers intended—same word, the same event—but one of them intended it with a holy will and one of them intended it with an evil will. And in the life of Joseph and Pharaoh and Potiphar’s wife and all of Egypt—do you understand that what God did to Joseph in allowing his brothers and causing his brothers to go their own way and to hate Joseph, that ended up saving two nations?
Millions of people were affected by that for all of eternity. God was doing all of that through the adversity of one man at the end of the book of Genesis. Could you have known that? We could not.
So what if the believer, then, in this scenario—they lose the house or whatever imaginary scenario you want—what if the believer is married to an unbeliever? Oh, that changes things, doesn’t it? No, it doesn’t. Don’t nod at me. It doesn’t change anything. God is still doing in the life of the believer these X number of things, and in the life of the unbeliever something entirely different. So it doesn’t change anything. You just have still two people, now not living in two different houses but in one house. So in the life of the believer, God is doing a bunch of things. In the life of the unbeliever, God is doing a whole bunch of things. Even if they are the only family on the block whose lives were destroyed by the flood, God is still doing something in them. What about the children? What does God intend with the children? Well, are they believers or unbelievers? God might be doing something in the life of the child that He is not doing in the life of the parent and not doing in the life of the other person.
What if you have two people married together and they are both believers, but one of them is being disciplined, severely or strongly, because of something that they did? How do I cash that out? That’s going to affect the spouse, isn’t it? It will. So is the spouse able to somehow throw up a firewall and say, “OK, the hammer is coming down on you. You get that. I’ll be over here on the other side protecting me and the kids. God’s going to do this in your life and when He’s done, then I’ll step back into it and we’ll see how things work from that point forward.” That’s not how God works, because that act of discipline that falls on one spouse ends up also being used by God to accomplish something in the heart and the mind and the life of the other spouse. Even though God may primarily want to use it in one person’s life, there are a whole bunch of people that He wants to benefit through that act of discipline.
So if you’re in a home where there’s discipline happening and God is doing something and it’s difficult, here’s the key: you embrace it. Children, you embrace it, and you say, what is God doing in me through this? What can I learn? How can this produce holiness in my life? How can I respond in a way that honors God, honors my parents, and submits to His will? And then if you’re the spouse of that person, then you say, God may be doing this in the life of my spouse, but God can accomplish all of these other things in my life. Because in an event where you have a family situation like that, where somebody’s going through a difficult time, God is doing different things in the lives of all of the people through His discipline, through the affliction, the suffering. The painful event might be intended to reveal X, Y, and Z in the heart of person A, and A, B, and C in the heart of person M. And you never know what God is going to do through that, but God intends that one difficulty to have a multiplied effect in the lives of many people.
Our response, our job, again, is not to try and parse out every last thing that we are to learn, every last thing that God is doing, as if we can know the secret counsel and the mind of God in the events that He sends into our lives. Our job is simply to humble ourselves under it and to ask ourselves, how can I pursue holiness in this? Scripture tells me down in verse 14 to pursue holiness or sanctification, without which no one will see God. I’m to pursue holiness in the midst of this difficulty.
So how do I do that for the glory of God? Because if I’m not being sanctified in some way through this, it’s evidence that I don’t belong to God. So if I belong to God, then the purpose of this trial is my sanctification. Without that sanctification, I’ll never see God. Does that make my own personal sanctification the means by which I am saved? No, it is the evidence of my salvation, so that that sanctification there is present because I’m a child of God and God sanctifies all His children. So if you have no sanctification, it’s because you’ve had no discipline. And if you’ve had no discipline, you’re an illegitimate child. Therefore you will never see the face of God. Those without sanctification will never see God because they’ve never endured the discipline that produces sanctification, and they’ve never endured the discipline that produces sanctification because they don’t belong to Him. God reserves the blessing of discipline for those of us who are His children. He loves us just that much that He will accomplish our sanctification through that. And with that sanctification then, we will stand in the presence of God.
So the question is, how do I embrace holiness? How do I embrace growing in holiness and in Christlikeness through this? How do I respond biblically, humbly, submissively, so that I might be changed through this for the better? For the better of my spouse, for the better of my kids, for the better of my church, for the better of everyone around me who knows me? What can I learn from this? What sin is in my life that God needs to mortify and put to death? I would advise us to search that, and once we’ve identified it, go after it and kill it, mortify it. How do I lay aside all the sin and encumbrances that threaten my race and that promise my ruin?
Again, Spurgeon: “There is no attribute of God more comforting to His children than the doctrine of divine sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe troubles, they believe that sovereignty hath ordained their afflictions, that sovereignty overrules them, and that sovereignty will sanctify them all.” This is the mindset by which we embrace God’s discipline, knowing that it is not punishment from wrath for our harm, it is correction out of love for our good.
Adoniram Judson was a missionary in Burma for almost forty years. At the age of twenty-five, he left America to take the gospel to the Burmese people. On the mission field in Burma, Adoniram Judson buried his wife. He remarried and buried a second wife. In the process of all of that, he buried more than one of his children. And he spent some time in prison for the gospel, in a Burmese prison. And here’s what he writes: “The result of our travels and toils has been the wisest and best possible. A result which, if we could see the end from the beginning, would call forth our highest praise. O slow of heart to believe and trust in the constant presence and overruling agency of our own almighty Savior.” The result of our travels and toils has been the wisest and best. And you and I can say the same thing. If we could see the end from the beginning, it would call forth our highest praise.