The surprise in suffering

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 12:4-13

One long scream

In 1996 Henry Nouwen, not long before he died, released a book titled "The Inner Voice of Love" that constituted his journal during the most difficult period of his life, from December 1987 to June 1988. He writes in the introduction to that book:

That was a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life. Everything came crashing down - my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God ... everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness.

What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss.

The strange thing was that this happened shortly after I had found my true home. After many years of life in universities, where I never felt fully at home, I had become a member of L'Arche, a community of men and women with mental disabilities. I had been received with open arms, given all the attention and affection I could ever hope for, and offered a safe and loving place to grow spiritually as well as emotionally. Everything seemed ideal. But precisely at that time I fell apart - as if I needed a safe place to hit bottom!

Just when all those around me were assuring me they loved me, cared for me, appreciated me, yes, even admired me, I experienced myself as a useless, unloved, and despicable person. Just when people were putting their arms around me, I saw the endless depth of my human misery and felt that there was nothing worth living for. Just when I had found a home, I felt absolutely homeless. Just when I was being praised for my spiritual insights, I felt devoid of faith. Just when people were thanking me for bringing them closer to God, I felt that God had abandoned me. It was as if the house I had finally found had no floors. The anguish completely paralyzed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people's problems. I lost all appetite for food and could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn't know existed, a place full of demons.

Nouwen endured tremendously painful circumstances, and felt that God had abandoned him. Although Nouwen was encouraged by people, sometimes it is not that way. Sometimes people do and say horrible things, and sometimes those circumstances trigger feelings of despair. In Hebrews 12:1-3, we saw how drawing encouragement from the lives of believers who have gone before us and from the example of Christ helps us run the race of faith, looking forward to the joy of heaven. In Hebrews 12:4-13, the writer continues to offer us encouragement to endure, offering additional motivation. He tells us that our heavenly Father, motivated by his love for us, designs painful circumstances for our good.

The key word in the passage is "discipline," which would be more broadly translated "training." It was used of the upbringing of children and included different kinds of instruction and discipline. In this passage, where the word appears in various forms and pronouns 10 times, it is used of the Lord's training of his sons. Hebrews 12:1-13 can be seen as a unit, beginning an ending with allusions to running a race.

The motivation of training (12:4-8)

Hebrews 12:4-8:

(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.

The "sin" that the people were striving against was the sin of others (verse 3), not their own sin. The struggle was to not be influenced by whatever opposition they faced from "sinners," fellow Jews who opposed the gospel, and to continue believing in God's promises. Up to this point, they had not resisted "to the point of shedding blood," or to the point of martyrdom. Some of the people listed in Hebrews 11 resisted to the point of shedding blood (11:37), as did Jesus, who endured the cross (12:2). The point is that their struggle may be intense, but it's not that intense, at least not yet.

The larger point, however, is that in the midst of their struggle, they have become forgetful of a certain word of exhortation, or encouragement, from the scriptures. It comes from the book of Proverbs, and addresses them as sons - specifically, sons of the Lord. Originally, Proverbs 3:11 contained the words of an earthly father to a son, although even the last line spoke of the Lord's actions toward "every son" - meaning, every son of his. The writer of Hebrews, however, places the entire verse in the mouth of the Lord. The Lord, then, in this word of encouragement, is "speaking" to us, and he is speaking to us as his sons. This is highly relational speech. The Lord is wanting to relate with us deeply, and to share with us his Father's heart for us.

In light of the book of Hebrews, it is an amazing thing that God calls us sons. The book opens with words that exalt God's "Son," Jesus (1:1-4). Consider what the Father thinks of that Son, the Son. Now, we too are called sons. We are not the Son, but we are sons, in whom the Father delights.

The Father wants us to know something so thoroughly foreign to our thinking that it is difficult for us to accept it and easy for us to forget, just like it was for the original readers of Hebrews. But if we hear it, and remember it, and believe it, our spirits will be lifted in the middle of the struggle.
The word of encouragement that we need to remember concerns our attitude toward the discipline, or training, of the Lord. What is this training? The word "faint" in verse 5 is the same word that is translated "grow weary" in verse 3. There, it was the hostility of sinners that might cause one to grow weary. Here, it is the training of the Lord, which leaves us to understand that the training of Lord includes the hostility of sinners - the horrible things that people do to us.

From the writer's use of Proverbs 3:11, we can see that training can include reproof and scourging for destructive behavior, although it is by no means limited to reproof and scourging. Training, or discipline, is not to be confused with punishment or retribution. That would be a negation of the cross, where Christ absorbed all of God's wrath for us. In punishment and retribution, there is no intent to help, only to hurt. The goal is vengeance, not redemption.

What, then, should be our attitude toward the Lord's training, which can take the form of evil things done to us by others and can also be connected with reproof and scourging? We are not to regard it "lightly," as if the Lord didn't take it seriously, nor are we to "faint" in the face of it. As we saw in Hebrews 12:1-3, living in a hostile world of sinners, some of whom take aim at us or just happen to project their anger toward us, could cause us to "grow weary and lose heart" in the race of faith. What would cause us not to collapse under the weight of such hostility? The writer answers that question with the last two lines of the Proverbs 3:11, beginning with the word "for": "For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives." The key words are "loves" and "receives."

The emphasis here is not at all on the result of training but the motive behind it. The motive is love. The Lord trains us because he loves us. Bad things happen to us because he loves us. The training of the Lord is a sign of the Lord's acceptance of us as sons. It is a sign that he wants us close to him. More than that, it is a sign that we are close to him, for if we are scourged, we are received.

The beginning of verse 7 is difficult to translate. Literally, it says either, "Into training you endure" (an indicative statement), or, "Into training endure" (a command). However it's translated, it indicates a strong connection between training and endurance - specifically, endurance in the faith (10:36, 12:1-3).

In training us, God "deals with" us as sons. It is what he does with his sons. The writer asks "for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" The answer: A bad father. God is a good Father, so he trains us. God is a good Father, so bad things happen to us.

The writer knows this kind of thinking is unnatural, seemingly absurd. He knows that because of the pain that this kind of training causes, we would likely prefer to do "without discipline." But if we are without training, if the Father does not train us, then he is not our Father and we are not his sons; we are "illegitimate children." Training, then, should be received as a sign of the nearness of the Father and that all the privileges of being his son are ours.

This is all quite preposterous. The training of the Lord includes horrible atrocities carried out by sinners against us. Not only that, this training is motivated by the Lord's love for us and indicates his acceptance of us as sons. Now, we're prone to think in other terms. We're more likely to think that the bad things that happen to us are motivated by something else - the Lord's anger with us or his indifference toward us, perhaps. We're likely to interpret the bad things that happen to us a signs not of his acceptance but of his rejection. We are likely to faint when we are reproved by him. We're likely to respond to him in anger.

It's difficult for us to accept the truth of these verses because they teach something that is foreign to our experience. So much of the bad things that happen to us are not motivated by human love and are not signs of human acceptance. In fact, they are motivated by human anger and are signs of human rejection. They are expressions of non-redemptive punishment or retribution, not training. Their intention is to hurt, not to help. That is our human experience, which makes it difficult for us to understand such experience in different terms when it comes to God. It's difficult for us to understand God's training as motivated by love when that training comes in the form of human punishment motivated by anger. It may seem that God is treating us as enemies or aliens; in fact, he is treating us as sons.

As we have seen, God's training includes correction for wrongdoing, but it is by no means limited to such correction. Because our human experience includes non-redemptive punishment for wrongdoing, we may be likely to assume that we suffer when - and only when - we've done something wrong.

This quite clearly is not the case. And even if it were, the correction would still be motivated by the Father's love, not his anger. So it makes no sense to beat ourselves up when we are suffering. Even if we are suffering as a result of wrongdoing, we are suffering redemptively. And if we are suffering as a result of wrongdoing, how are we supposed to know? The Spirit may reveal something to us, but nothing in this passage suggests that we should go looking for a connection. In fact, this passage suggests that our response to all suffering, regardless of whether it represents correction for sin, should be seen as motivated by the Father's love for us and indicative of his acceptance of us. In every instance of suffering, the follower of Jesus Christ has every reason not to mutter, "I must have done something wrong" but to proclaim, "The Father must love me very much."

The next section treats the end result of training. But the first thing we need to know about it is the motive behind it and that it indicates relationship with the Father. The first thing to do when suffering is not wonder, "What am I supposed to learn?" but to affirm, "I am the Father's son, loved by him!"

Commenting on these verses, pastor and author John Piper says, "Where does this suffering come from? And who's doing this? And who's in charge? The main answer of the passage is that God is in charge here, and that he is in ultimate control of these afflictions and that they are in fact the loving discipline of a perfect heavenly father. That's the burden of this passage. ... Notice very carefully: This text does not say that God looks on while hostile sinners hurt his people, or while Satan ravages the elect, and only then steps in to turn all this evil for good. ... God is not a passive observer in our lives while sinners and Satan beat us up. He rules over sinners and Satan, and they unwittingly, and with no less fault or guilt, fulfill his wise and loving purposes of discipline in our lives. ... The hostility of sinners is real and it is wrong and responsible and guilty. But it is also - and this is a great hope for us - it is also the loving, painful discipline of our Father in heaven. God is not coming to his children late after the attack and saying, 'I can make this turn for good.' That's not discipline. That is repair. It's the difference between the surgeon who plans the incision for our good and the emergency room doctor who sews us up after a freak accident. This text says, God is the doctor planning our surgery, not the doctor repairing our lacerations."

Piper further comments, "Will you let the word of God settle the issue for you, so that when suffering comes, you don't turn on God and put him in the dock and prosecute him with accusations? He probably will not tell you why it is your turn, or why it is happening now, or why there is much pain, or why it lasts this long. But he has told you what you need to know: It is the love of an all-wise Father to a child. Will you trust him?"

So, we have seen the Lord's motive in training us. What result does he intend it to have?

The result of training (12:9-11)

Hebrews 12:9-11:

(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, 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.

In verses 9 and 10, the writer compares and contrasts the training of an earthly father with that of our heavenly Father so that we might more greatly appreciate the training from above. Assuming we had earthly fathers who had good intentions toward us, we "respected" them and therefore their training. We didn't regard lightly their training. If this is the case, the writer argues, we should be even more inclined to subject ourselves to our heavenly Father. Literally, the comparison is between fathers "of the flesh" and the Father "of the spirits," which is a reference to our spirits (Hebrews 12:23). Our heavenly Father is the father of something more important: our spirits. He is our spiritual Father, not our fleshly or earthly father.

If we subject ourselves to him we will "live," and because he is the Father of our spirits, this refers to spiritual life. For the readers of Hebrews, this encouragement to subject themselves to the Father and live would take them back to Deuteronomy 30:11-20, where the covenant was placed before them and they were commanded to subject themselves to the Lord and "live" in the land. The New Testament takes life in the land and brings out its fuller spiritual meaning, which concerns spiritual life and eternal life. What that life entails is spelled out in verses 10 and 11.

Earthly fathers train us according to what "seemed best to them," but our heavenly Father trains us according to what is best, according to what is "for our good." Even the best of fathers who have the best of intentions make mistakes, because unlike the heavenly Father, they are not omniscient. No matter how well they know us, they don't really know us, and they don't know the future. When our heavenly Father trains us, it is unquestionably for our good. Being the Father of our spirits, he knows us inside and out. Being omniscient, he knows the future.

Although the writer speaks so positively of the Father's training, he is realistic with how it meets human experience. He says that "for the moment it seems not to be joyful but sorrowful." The Father's training can be extraordinarily painful in the moment of suffering. Although suffering is sorrowful, those in the middle of it still can experience some element of joy if they accept the biblical perspective on the training of the Lord. If we understand the Lord's motives and the end results, we can move beyond a desire for instant gratification and accept the Lord's training as a gift.

The main joy to be entered into, however, is "afterwards." What we experience after being trained, is the "peaceful fruit of righteousness." Also, as the writer states in verse 10, we experience the holiness of the Lord. Joy, holiness, peace and righteousness are the products of the Father's training. When is "afterwards"? The principal reference, in the context of what the writer has been talking about in chapters 11 and 12, is to what we will experience in the re-creation, the new promised land. These are the kinds of things that the Lord wanted to give Israel in the promised land, which provides for us a picture of the land to come. But the training of the Lord also allows us to experience a taste of these in this creation. Holiness; peace, or wholeness; and righteousness all belong to the sons of God. They are all gifts of the New Covenant. The full implications of these gifts will be realized in the new promised land, but their implications are being realized more and more when we subject ourselves to the training of the Lord and are changed by it. The suffering takes us to a deeper place, where we encounter deeper aspects of the relationship we have with the Father. Growing closer to him, we become more like him. We share the holiness and righteousness of the Lord. We become more whole, more fully realizing our humanity. These are all sources of great joy, but the greatest joy is seeing the Lord face to face and being completely transformed. The joy that was set before Jesus was the joy beyond death (12:2); it is the same for us.

Living in this hostile world, we may grow faint. But such a world is intended by God to have the opposite effect. It is intended to train us and strengthen us and make us more like Jesus and lead us into the new land of promise. We have seen that Father's motive in training is love. Now we see the results of it: holiness, wholeness, righteousness, joy. It seems that sorrow has the final word, but it only seems that way. Joy will carry the day.

Now that we see the whole picture, both the motive behind training and the result of training, it is worth visiting the question the writer asked in verse 9: "Shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?" The question that verses 5 through 8 asked, was, based on the Father's love, whether we will believe his training is motivated by his love. In verses 9 through 11, the question is, based on the Lord's love and his design for training, whether we will submit to his training and allow ourselves to be changed by it. It is a radical thing to accept. Submitting to anything or anyone goes against the grain, but submitting to pain is something else again. As the writer of Hebrews unravels for us the amazing love of God and his astounding design, the question then becomes, "Why not?" The only reason not to accept the Lord's training is if you don't want holiness or wholeness or righteousness - if you don't want joy.

Henry Nouwen's story doesn't end with him in anguish. The Lord's training had its intended effect. Nouwen connected with the Father's love, and he began to look forward to joy, realizing that despair was not the final word. He writes, "During my months of anguish, I often wondered if God is real or just a product of my imagination. I now know that while I felt completely abandoned, God didn't leave me alone. Many friends and family members have died during the past eight years, and my own death is not so far away. But I have heard the inner voice of love, deeper and stronger than ever. I want to keep trusting in that voice and be led by it beyond the boundaries of my short life, to where God is all in all."

Get back in the race (12:12-13)

Hebrews 12:12-13:

(12) Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, (13) 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.

In the race of faith, the difficulties, which are also the training of the Lord, may cause us to "grow weary and lose heart" (verse 3); they may cause us to "faint" (verse 5), thinking it all to be evidence of the Lord's anger or indifference. We may want to stop running for a while. But in verses 1 through 11, the writer has given us revolutionary truth intended to change our perspective. In verse 12, he begins with the word "therefore," and because what follows again evokes the race imagery, it likely refers all the way back to verse 1, which introduced the race imagery. His admonitions in verses 12 and 13 are therefore based on the encouragement of the witnesses who have gone before us, the example of Christ, the motive of love in the Father's training of us and the glorious result of that training.

Based on this perspective on suffering, what are we supposed to do? Strengthen our hands and knees and make straight paths for our feet. In other words, get back in the race! The suffering, which is also training, is designed to help us in the race, not hinder us. It is designed to strengthen us, not weaken us. It is designed to motivate us, not exasperate us.

The picture hear is of an exhausted runner on the verge of taking a breather, perhaps hoping to regroup. But the writer indicates that such a hope is not well-grounded. It could result in a limb being "put out of joint." It could result in spiritual atrophy. The path to healing is the race itself, where we exercise the muscles of faith. We keep reading the word, we keep striving to believe it, we keep praying, we keep hoping against hope.

'God meant it for good'

Joseph understood the insight conveyed in this passage long before the writer of Hebrews was born. His jealous brothers threw him into a pit, and then sold him to some passing Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. Thus began an amazing odyssey for Joseph. Because of the wickedness of Potophar's wife, Joseph is thrown into an Egyptian prison. But as a result of circumstances that only the Lord could have orchestrated, he rose to prominence in Egypt, becoming a ruler, so that he was in a position to help his family when they were in need. When Joseph met up with his brothers again, they were fearful that he would take vengeance on them. This is what Joseph told them: "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20).

In the first book of the Bible, we see the truth of Hebrews 12 lived out in the life of a man of faith. The sin against him, though designed by humans for evil, was also designed by God for good. The evil that we experience in this world, in God's amazing economy, is evidence of a loving Father who wants his precious sons to experience all his gifts. This is the great surprise in suffering.

- SCG, 10-11-98