by Matthew W. Bassford
Hebrews 12:5-13 makes a crucial but underappreciated point. The life of the Christian can be unpleasant, and sometimes, the One who is making it unpleasant is God. This is at odds with the worldly vision of God as an indulgent grandparent who does nothing but shower gifts upon us. However, it meshes neatly with the Bible’s picture of a heavenly Father who will do whatever is necessary to make sure that we spend eternity with Him.
In interpreting this passage, there are several things to note. First, this is a text about discipline. God is not being gratuitously cruel; rather, He is reacting to sin or spiritual weakness in our lives.
Additionally, His goal is not condemnation but correction. If an abstract warning doesn’t get the point across, maybe the pain will.
This pain can be administered in a couple of different ways. The first is through the rebuke of the word. From time to time after I preach, someone will tell me, “That sermon really stepped on my toes!”
Of course, it’s not the sermon that’s stepping on the toes of the convicted Christian. It’s the Scriptures. Whether through the lips of someone else or through our own reading and study, all of us will encounter things in the Bible that are painful for us to consider. We don’t like to hear the Holy Spirit telling us we need to make some changes! However, the most unpleasant passages also are the ones we need to consider most closely.
Second, God also corrects us through the consequences of sin. As the Hebrews writer observes in this context, righteousness often is painful right now but beneficial later. Sin is the opposite. We enjoy it at the moment, but we frequently find its fruits to be bitter.
Sometimes this is due to the nature of wickedness. God warns us away from sinful things precisely because they are harmful and will make our lives worse. When we don’t listen to Him, we are likely to find out why He instituted the commandment in the first place!
At other times, though, it may be that God’s providential care is responsible for our painful lesson. I am reminded here of the drought in Israel in 1 Kings 17 that followed Ahab’s decision to worship Baal in 1 Kings 16. Baal was a fertility god, responsible for sending rain and making crops grow. Though Ahab didn’t get the message, God wanted him to understand that seeking agricultural blessing from a false god would have the opposite effect.
So too with the Baals of our lives. When we turn to sin because we think it will make our lives better, and it has exactly the opposite effect, we should suspect the presence of God’s providence. He wants to leave us with no cause to doubt that serving Him is best.
The response to God’s correction, though, is up to us. We can pull an Ahab and ignore it.
Alternatively, we can listen to the Hebrews writer and strengthen the weaknesses so painfully highlighted for attention. This process often isn’t pleasant either, but only through perseverance can we hope to inherit eternal life.