Joni Eareckson Tada, after suffering 43 years as a quadriplegic, is now "in the fight of my life." Recently she has suffered "jaw-splitting pain" for several years and just as it let up she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and is undergoing a "rigorous schedule of chemotherapy." She sees this as a spiritual battle and is memorizing more and more Scripture and fighting valiantly because, "I don't want to tarnish His Name. I am on this battlefield. How can I glorify God?" And as it relates to our passage in Hebrews 12 she says, "I accept that I am being disciplined. What needs to be confessed and uprooted for my sanctification? What is there in me that needs to be exposed and dealt with? God is up to something big. How can I showcase Him to others?" (See World Magazine October 23, 2010)
Randy Alcorn says in his new book, If God is Good that more people (atheists) point to the problem of evil and suffering as their reason for not believing in God than any other. It is not a problem for them it is the problem. And for believers Alcorn says, a faith that leaves us unprepared to suffer is a false faith and needs to be lost – the sooner the better. Genuine faith will be tested; false faith (an unbiblical belief about God and thus a wrong response to God) will be and should be lost; again, the sooner the better.
Pastor Joe Novenson says the author of Hebrews here in these verses is telling us three things to do in the midst of suffering: 1) don't depreciate (or even delete) the truth; 2) don't disconnect the truth from Who God is -our loving heavenly Father; 3) be determined to know and obey the truth.
1) Don't depreciate ("make light of""- Heb. 12:5) or even delete the truth – In verses 3 and 4 we are reminded of the truth of how light our suffering is compared to Jesus' suffering and how He suffered to the point of shedding blood. Most commentators say this is a picture of Jesus shedding His blood on the cross for our sins. Some say it pictures Jesus sweating drops of blood at Gethsemane where He was tempted to not do the Father's will and was "striving against sin" the temptation to not go to the cross. "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." (Matt. 26:39) "And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground." (Luke 22:44) This is a condition called hematidrosis when a person is experiencing extreme stress often related to facing death. The point the author of Hebrews is making is that we, like Jesus, are called to be willing to suffer to resist the temptation to sin. And none of us will ever have to suffer like our Lord did.
"Have you forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons?" In verses 5-9 he quotes Proverbs 3 where we are challenged not to forget (i.e., not to delete the truth) that we are God' sons and thus we can know we will be disciplined by Him. "God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" The Greek word for discipline or chastening is paideuÃ…Â and here it means to train children (not punishment but correction). Even (good) earthly fathers discipline us (in love) for our temporal good (to prepare us for life) so how much more will our heavenly Father discipline us for our temporal and eternal good; to prepare us for this life and heaven (eternal rewards for faithful obedience). He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. Sharing God's holiness (like Father, like son) glorifies God, reveals Him to others and is for our highest spiritual good, both now and forever. (Gal. 5:22-23; Rev. 22:12)
Yet we can also depreciate or delete God's truth if we don't continually study and obey it. "But be doers of the Word [obey the message], and not merely listeners to it, betraying yourselves [into deception by reasoning contrary to the Truth]. For if anyone only listens to the Word without obeying it and being a doer of it, he is like a man who looks carefully at his [own] natural face in a mirror; For he thoughtfully observes himself, and then goes off and promptly forgets what he was like. But he who looks carefully into the faultless law, the [law] of liberty, and is faithful to it and perseveres in looking into it, being not a heedless listener who forgets but an active doer [who obeys], he shall be blessed in his doing (his life of obedience)." (James 1:22-25) We also have to be careful not to ignore the many rebukes in God's Word. When we do this it is like ignoring the warning of caring friends who shout "the bridge is out" and then crashing headlong into the raging river. God's Word rebukes us for our good because He knows this is a dangerous world and He wants to lovingly guide us through it.
2) In trials don't disconnect from the truth of Who God is -our loving heavenly Father – "But He (our heavenly Father) disciplines us for our good." The enemy and our flesh are quick to accuse God in trials and suffering or we wrongly condemn ourselves. When bad things happen we can think and say, God is mean and unloving; or I must be so bad that He has to send this pain. Novenson says a good thing to remember is don't try to "psychologize" God in the midst of pain (God is sending this pain because …..; remember, Job's counselors did this) but "theologize" pain in the trial. God loves me, is for me not against me, and always and only works for my highest spiritual and eternal good. (Rom. 8:28-39) Always judge your circumstance in light of God's character versus judge God's character in light of your circumstances. Sometimes we may be able to discern the reason for His discipline (our sin) and sometimes we may not. "Endure hardship as discipline." All discipline is not because of sin but at times it is to refine our faith and to prune us so we will bear more fruit for His glory and our good. "So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold-though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world." (1 Peter 1:6-7) "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." (John 15.1-2; 8)
3) Be determined to know and obey the truth – "All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, (through obedience) afterwards (in our future both in this life and eternity) it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness." ["It yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness – It is a tree that bears good fruit, and we do not expect the fruit to form and ripen at once. It may be long maturing, but it will be rich and mellow when it is ripe. It frequently requires a long time before all the results of affliction appear – as it requires months to form and ripen fruit. Like fruit it may appear at first sour, crabbed, and unpalatable; but it will be at last like the ruddy peach or the golden orange. When those fruits are ripened, they are:(1) fruits of "righteousness." They make us more holy, more dead to sin and the world, and more alive to God. And they are (2) "peaceable." They produce peace, calmness, submission in the soul. They make the heart more tranquil in its confidence in God, and more disposed to promote the religion of peace. The author of Hebrews speaks of this as if it were a universal truth in regard to Christians who are afflicted. And it is so. There is no Christian who is not ultimately benefited by trials, and who is not able at some period subsequently to say, "It was good for me that I was afflicted. Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now have I kept thy word." ( Psalm 119:67) Notes on the Bible by Albert Barnes, 1834]
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION AND APPLICATION
1. Read Joni's quotes above and summarize her attitude and perspective on her many years of severe suffering. How does your present suffering compare to hers and how does your attitude/perspective on suffering compare to hers? Now compare your present suffering to Jesus' suffering and His attitude/perspective on suffering as the author of Hebrews asks us to do in12:3-4. What's their secret and how can we apply this to our lives?
2. Read the quotes from Joni Tada and Randy Alcorn above and ask the question, "Is my faith a faith that has prepared me to suffer?" Discuss your answer.
3. What truths have you depreciated ("made light of" – Hebrews 12:5) or deleted (avoided or ignored) in your trials and suffering?
4. In your trials, don't disconnect from the truth of Who God is -our loving heavenly Father. How do we do this and what is the remedy?
5. Determined to know and obey the truth – "All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, (through obedience) afterwards (in our future both in this life and eternity) it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness." What is the incentive seen here to encourage us to be determined to know and obey God's Word?
Recommended reading: If God is Good by Randy Alcorn; A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God's Sovereignty by Joni Eareckson Tada