No one likes being told what to do. It’s my life, after all. Personally I’m profoundly passive aggressive in this area. I mean, I don’t even like it when Netflix recommends movies I should watch. In school, the surest way to get me to lose interest in reading anything was to assign it for class. It could have been the greatest book ever written—like, The Illustrated Guide to Fireworks, Candy, and Puppies—but as soon as I realize I have to read it I lose all interest.
It’s one thing when these things are to our obvious benefit. It’s another thing when we’re asked to live contrary to what our society dictates. That was the situation in the first century. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was pleading with his fellow Jesus-followers to hang on—to endure the pressures of a society that saw Christianity as a source of shame, not honor.
So while Hebrews 12:1-3 had used the image of a distance runner to illustrate the need for endurance, the writer now switches things up a bit, moving from the imagery of an athlete to a student.
He starts by shaming them just a bit—reminding them that their current suffering can’t be compared to what Jesus endured on the cross:
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:4)
Now, from a purely historical point of view, this is quite helpful—it tells us that the letter was written before the Christian persecution rose to a crescendo. And this also means that while yes, some early peoples had witnessed displacement and the loss of material property (recall that at one point in the first century, Jews had basically been evicted by the Roman government), this was nothing compared to the actual shedding of blood. In a way, their persecution was cause for joy—not sorrow.
The writer then moves directly into his central argument. In this next section, pay close attention to a word that he repeats in nearly every sentence (we’ll highlight it in bold to make it easier):
5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits land live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11)
Discipline. The Greek root is paidea—if you’re a teacher, you might recognize it as the root of the word pedagogy, referring to the methods of teaching. If you trace it’s meaning over time, you see a clear evolution in the way “discipline” was understood.
For the Greeks, the term related to intellectual instruction—primarily of young men. The ancient Jews (during the time of the Old Testament) saw “discipline” as related to a person’s moral development—such as when Proverbs 1:7 emphasizes “wisdom and discipline,” and a “wholesome discipline” that is related to a person’s “integrity.” By the time of the first century, the Jews’ many years of struggle led them to connect God’s “discipline” with their own suffering—a writing from the years shortly before Jesus said that “[God’s] discipline consists in fire and pain” (Shadrach Apc. 4:1).
So when the writer quotes from Deuteronomy’s lessons on discipline (Hebrews 12:5b-6, above), what is he saying? He’s telling his readers: if you think your current struggle is arbitrary, you have it all wrong. Don’t merely endure this—learn from it.
If you’ve ever been skeptical about religious belief, passages like this must surely throw you for a loop. Religion is man-made, we’re repeatedly told; but who would make up a God like this? A “Santa Claus” God who gives me what I want—that makes sense. But a God who disciplines? Who allows me to become wounded? Who would want that?
Sigmund Freud thought he knew the answer. Though much of his ideas have now been lost (or rejected), Freud gave the world permission to understand the human soul without God’s help. Freud believed that religion provided a way to help us cope with immoral behavior and guilt. Freud essentially said that when thinking about morals, the human mind could be split into two categories: (1) conscience (“Don’t do that!”) and (2) guilt (“I can’t believe I did that!”). If I violate my conscience by doing something immoral, then I feel guilty. But if I am punished, my guilt is relieved (think about the Dobby effect we learned about earlier in this series—where people feel less guilty if they experience pain or displeasure). So if I want to justify my wrong behavior, all I need to do is accept my punishment. Religious “penance” becomes the cost of doing business. Did you see the movie The Godfather? Remember the final scene? The Godfather is in church, taking communion. But the director splices in scenes from the streets, where the Godfather’s hired guns are committing heinous crimes. Freud never saw the movie, but if he did, he’d say: See? Religion can be a powerful way of justifying the most heinous things imaginable. In other words, there are times when yes, I want a God who punishes me, because this punishment liberates me to act immorally as long as my crime brings more pleasure than my punishment brings pain. Freud would see this as a great irony: the punishment designed to correct behavior ends up enabling it.
If Christianity were any other religion, we might need to concede this point. Karma makes more sense than grace. But Christianity offers a different message altogether. And the cross scandalizes the extremes at both ends. The cross defies my desire to see God only as a cosmic Santa Claus with a bag full of blessings; the cross challenges me to see God’s punishment resting on the shoulders of Jesus.
At the cross, Jesus absorbed the wounds of God’s anger so that we could absorb the wounds of God’s mercy. Both are forms of God’s justice—it’s just that while Jesus absorbed God’s retributive justice we experience God’s restorative justice. I don’t know if I can always draw a straight line between suffering and God’s restorative discipline. What I do know is that our every human experience—even the ones that seem “painful” not “pleasant” can be opportunities for learning and spiritual growth.
The writer of Hebrews concludes that there is nothing more empowering than self-forgetfulness:
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:12-13)
Are you going through a rough season? A hard time at work? Problems in a relationship? Don’t waste your suffering. Don’t waste your childlessness, don’t waste your heartbreak, don’t waste your grief. Instead, allow God to use even the harshest of seasons to sharpen you and strengthen you into a better agent of his kingdom.