The reason we don’t get this passage is that we think “discipline” is spelled p-u-n-i-s-h-m-e-n-t. We see the word “sin,” and we know that sin is bad, and we know—or think we do—that discipline means punishment, and we put those two things together and bang! we think we have it all figured out. We think this passage is all about God spanking us when we’re naughty, and that’s all we need to understand about it; and that’s just not true. Our translations don’t help us with that, but the biggest problem is our mental reflex; and so we need to stop, take a step back, and read a bit more carefully.
The first thing we need to remember is the context of this passage. If you look at the first two verses of Hebrews 12, and if you were here last week you remember we talked about this, the author tells us to run the race of faith with perseverance, with endurance—to run it all the way to the end, all the way through the finish line. He tells us we need to let go of the good things that have taken too large a place in our lives—they have become excess weight that slows us down as we run—and that we need to throw off the sin that distracts us into looking away from Jesus and running off the road; and then in verse 3, he says that we need to think about Jesus “so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” We didn’t talk about this last week, but this is also athletic language—these were terms that were used of runners who crossed the finish line and then collapsed from exhaustion. The author’s concern is that his fellow Jewish Christians not do the same before they’ve ever finished the race. He doesn’t want them—or, by extension, us—giving up and giving in when there’s still more to go and more to do.
It’s in this context, and with this concern, that the author does two things. First, he shifts the athletic metaphor from running to boxing, because he’s shifting his focus from the internal struggle against our own sin to the external struggle against the forces of sin around us; he’s concerned, as we’ve seen, that his readers will give up the faith because of external pressure and opposition, and so he wants them to understand that that opposition is also part of their struggle against sin, and also something in which they need to persevere, to keep going and keep fighting, rather than giving up. Part of following Christ is that it sets you against the power of evil, which is very strong in this world—and that means that the more faithfully and the more energetically you follow Christ, the more you will face resistance and the more you will be attacked. Indeed, the author reminds his readers—and it’s something we should also remember—that they haven’t really seen much trouble yet; Jesus died on the cross for them and never gave up, while they haven’t faced anything anywhere near that bad. Should they leave him over so little?
Second, it’s here that Hebrews starts talking about discipline; and we need to realize that while punishment for wrongdoing is part of the meaning of this word, it’s far from all of it. The Greek word here is one from which we derive some of our technical educational terms, and it’s as much about training and instruction as it is about punishment—in fact, it’s related both to one of the words for “child” and to the word for “teacher.” It’s a word that encompasses all the things that are necessary to train and prepare and equip a child to grow up into an adult who is mature, well-rounded, knowledgeable, wise, and generally capable of living a good and productive life in society. As such, this word fits right in with the athletic metaphor in this passage—the discipline that is in view here is the training and coaching that is necessary for athletes to compete well and win.
With this, then, we have a new thought introduced—and a profoundly important one. To this point, as the author has addressed the struggles and pains of the life of faith, his focus has been on telling his readers that it’s worth enduring them because there are joys and pleasures coming that will make them worth it in the end. Now, he goes beyond that to make the point that as unpleasant as the struggle against sin may be—and this is true both for the struggle against sin in our own lives and for the things we suffer as a result of the sinful brokenness of the world—as unpleasant as that may be, there is good in our suffering. It’s not just something that’s bad and we have to get through it, but God is actively at work in our trials and our pains, in the times when we’re attacked and the times when others hurt us, in our temptations and our struggles with sin; in all those times and all those situations, God is at work in us for our good.
In other words, the bad things in life aren’t obstacles to God’s plan for us, they aren’t necessarily signs that we’re outside his will, they aren’t evidence that we don’t have enough faith, and they aren’t even times we just have to grit our teeth and get through in order to get the blessings God has for us; they are, as strange as this may sound, part of the work God is doing in us to bless us. They are part of his discipline—he’s using them to make us the people he created us to be. Training is painful at times, if it’s effective, because in order to be effective it has to push us past the point where we’re comfortable. One of the reasons I’ve been out of shape most of my life is that I have always found exercise quite unpleasant; now I’m in a position where, for a couple reasons, I’m forced to exercise, and I’m starting to learn for the first time that the pain and the discomfort actually have a good side—they are part of a greater blessing.
What I’m starting to figure out when it comes to physical discipline is something I already knew to be true in other areas of life: in our sin-sick world, there is no growth without pain. It just doesn’t happen. To seek to avoid pain is to stunt ourselves—physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually—and ultimately only to ensure greater, more hopeless pain in the end. This is not to say, of course, that pain is always good for us; to intentionally seek out pain for ourselves would likely do us worse than trying to avoid all pain. But as Christians, we have the remarkable assurance that the pains and struggles and temptations we face are ones which God has allowed for our discipline—that we may have the endurance we need, as James says, to run the race of faith all the way through the finish line; and that as Hebrews says, we may share in the holiness and righteousness of our perfectly good and perfectly loving Father God.
Therefore, Hebrews says—and we’ll look more at this next week—take heart. Don’t be listless, don’t give in to fatigue, but gather your resolve and recommit yourself to running the race; run hard, and run straight for the goal (that’s what the phrase “make level paths for your feet” means). You can do it, because God is enabling you to do it—it’s by his power, not yours; in our own strength, this would be too much for us, but God has placed his Spirit in our hearts and what he asks, his Holy Spirit makes possible. Take courage and run hard, not just for yourself but for those around you—so that those who are weaker and those who are wounded may find healing, and so that no sin will grow up within the community to defile it and turn it away from God. It is for this, too, that God is disciplining you, so that he may work through you to guide and strengthen others.
Let me close with an illustration. When Sara was in junior high, she and her best friend did the 10-mile Crop Walk. They’d done it before, and usually took about three and a half hours. This time, as they were starting off, they noticed a woman ahead of them wearing headphones who was walking at a good, steady pace, and decided to match her. They followed her the whole way, about 20 yards behind, and finished the walk in two and a half hours. When they were done, they went up to her and thanked her for the help she’d given them; she was of course quite surprised, since she hadn’t known they were there. For her, it was just another day’s walk, the result of a settled discipline of walking most days; but for them, her discipline had enabled them to go beyond anything they’d ever done before, or known they could do. Hebrews challenges us to accept the Lord’s discipline as a sign of his love for us, because it trains us and builds up our endurance to run the race of faith well; but how we run isn’t just about us, because we don’t run this race alone—and you never know who might be following you.