Updated: May 29, 2018
Early on in his book How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, D.A. Carson candidly says, “The truth of the matter is that all we have to do is live long enough, and we will suffer.” He goes on to cite examples ranging from death, war, poverty, and starvation to disappointments, infidelity, a sense of failure, and the general pressures of life. Most people will readily agree with the reality and pervasiveness of suffering based upon their own life experiences and the observations of the world around them. Suffering varies by degree and is no respecter of persons. For the Christian, the Bible treats trials and suffering as among the “givens” of life (Ps. 13, 88; Jn. 16:33; Rom. 5:3-4, 8:17-18, Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-7) resulting from the Fall in Genesis 3. While suffering befalls all people, Carson also treats the kinds of sufferings that are unique to Christians: discipline, opposition, and persecution. In speaking of the discipline of the Lord he draws heavily on Hebrews 12 and asserts its reality for all Christians.
The Discipline of the Lord
Just as trials and suffering are among the “givens” of life in a fallen world, discipline is a given for every true child of God. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons…If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb. 12:7-8). The author to the Hebrews quotes Proverbs 3:11-12 (“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights”) to show that the Lord’s discipline has always been a manifestation of his gracious love towards his children. This truth contradicts the common misconception among Christians that if they are experiencing trials then God must be upset with them for something. Rather than inducing guilt and shame because of God’s displeasure, the discipline of the Lord produces repentance, faith, and trust because of his love and grace to his adopted children.
Discipline brings to mind some form of punishment or consequence as a direct result of a sinful action, as when a son is sent to his room for hitting his sister. Indeed, this is included in the word “discipline” in Hebrews 12. But God’s discipline is not exclusively tied to an overt, public sin for which chastening is necessary. God also disciplines us for the sins of our hearts and minds that are not necessarily expressed outwardly and which no one other than him may be aware. The Greek word for discipline (paideuo) denotes teaching, instruction, and training. It carries with it the idea of a father educating and correcting his son so that the son can grow in maturity and responsibility. A father’s training for his son will also include rules or practices designed to offset potential foibles and failures that could result should his child’s sin be allowed to fully grow. In this the father challenges sin and encourages good behavior. Paideuo also brings to mind the student learning from her teacher or the athlete undergoing rigorous training so as to be prepared for the competition. The same Greek word is used in Titus 2:11-12 where Paul reminds Titus that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training (paideuo) us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” This passage in Titus reinforces the first of two reasons for God’s discipline in Hebrews 12: holiness.
Discipline to Make Us Holy
God’s discipline is for the purpose of helping Christians fight against sin and fight for holiness. The verse that introduces this discourse on discipline says, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4). The author of Hebrews is basically saying, “Yes, fighting against sin is tough and not fun, but it is worth it. Plus, none of you have been killed in your fight against sin, so, obviously, your struggle could be much worse.” The threat of death was very real to the Hebrew Christians because as they fought sin and fought for the Christian faith they were being persecuted for abandoning Judaism.
Sin is disgusting to God, and it should also be disgusting to us, his adopted children. God is perfectly holy, and his children should reflect well his holiness back to him and to a watching world. This is why the author says that, “[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). God knows what is ultimately good for us whereas we often have no idea—even though in our pride we often think we know better than God—and what is good for all of God’s children is to be holy as he is holy (Lev. 11:44, 1 Pet. 1:16) and to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29).
This is why God will at times take away earthly things that mean so much to us. He is training us to be holy and prize him above all else. Materialism and the love of money are easily concealed when we are well off and can give to God out of our excess. But they are revealed when God takes these things away to show us that he is our provider who is far greater than anything this world has to offer. Pride and arrogance can be concealed behind a smiling and seemingly put together appearance. But these sins are revealed when we lose position, authority, status, and station. Then we learn in a very tangible way that our identity is in Christ alone and only in him should we boast. Even righteous affections can be out of place when they are elevated above God or even to equal status with God. These misappropriations reveal our idolatry and sin, and compromises God’s holiness and supremacy—for he alone should be worshipped. God cares about our holiness more than we do. He will take us through things and take things from us that we would never choose on our own so that we can share in his holiness and so reflect him well as his adopted children.
Suffering Produces Endurance
The book of Hebrews speaks often of the endurance of Christians proving their true salvation (Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11; 12:1). That is to say that a truly saved child of God will persevere in the faith until they enter into eternity. This is not through their own white-knuckled effort but through God’s grace which preserves them. Mere profession of faith does not necessarily constitute true salvation, for many people profess faith and perform good works with zeal, but later recant or apostatize. Rather, one who has been moved by God’s grace to see and receive the gospel of Christ in faith will persevere in that faith through all of life’s trials and endure until the very end. “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). “The staying power of our faith is neither demonstrated nor developed until it is tested by suffering.” Viewing our trials and sufferings through the lens of faith in Christ allows us to rejoice in our sufferings (Rom. 5:3, Jas. 1:2) because we know that those sufferings will refine our faith and teach us to endure.
We can all recall times as a child when we were angry with our parents for disciplining us for something that we had done or for instituting certain rules or practices that we thought were dumb. But chances are that we can also recall more than one occasion where we eventually realized that our parents did these things out of genuine love and care for us and that we are better for it today. We were nearsighted and selfish in the midst of discipline, but in hindsight we are thankful for it. God’s discipline is always perfect, timely, and loving, but it is not fun when we are experiencing it. My experiences over the last two years of difficulties with work, unemployment, depression, and relationships have not been enjoyable. But I am thankful for them because I can see that God has been using these experiences to refine me to be more like Christ and to place my trust and hope fully in Christ. If you cannot yet say that you have received God’s discipline, then get ready, because it is coming. Pray that he would give you the grace and strength to receive it well and endure. If you are in the midst of God’s discipline, trust that he has your best interest in mind and that you can only be better for it, and that the Holy Spirit will ensure that it will result in greater holiness and endurance in the faith.
-By Kevin Tapscott
 D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 16.
 Jon Bloom, “What God Gives When He Takes Away,” http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-god-gives-when-he-takes-away
 Carson, How Long, O Lord?, 71.