I believe that it is in my best interest to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). I understand that my peace will become steadier and my joy sturdier as I grow into the Christ-like character that God has predestined me to possess (Romans 8:29). I know that it is God’s fatherly affection that drives him to discipline me toward this end (Hebrews 12:6), and that the pain of chastisement leads to the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:9). But even so, I hate that holy rod of correction with which God has, at times, inflicted great misery on my soul—yes, misery.
Maybe your experience of the Father’s disciplinary action thus far hasn’t yet been unpleasant enough to merit a word like “misery.” Perhaps you are sensitive to the Spirit and responsive to his initial, gentler proddings toward holiness. I tend to fall on the more hardheaded side of the spectrum. In my first three or four years of following Jesus, I resembled a blind, deaf mule more than a sheep that follows his voice (John 10:27). And though I think I have grown a bit less stubborn in these last couple of years, there are seasons when my obstinate tendencies gain fresh energy. There are weeks or months when I persist in various patterns of disobedience, plugging my ears to the Spirit’s soft whispers of conviction—leaving God with no choice but to take a more heavy-handed approach. And in my life (I think he disciplines each of us differently), this heavy-handedness usually doesn’t take the shape of circumstantial discomfort. God has shaken up my outward circumstances a couple of times to get my attention, but he generally goes about his disciplinary work in less visible but no less uncomfortable ways.
I am by nature an emotionally frail person. For all of my life, I have struggled to exercise control over my thoughts and feelings. However, when I am striving to embrace the faith and obedience to which Jesus calls me, the Holy Spirit gives supernatural strength to my inward life. He charges me up with joy and breathes a calming peace into what is naturally an unstable atmosphere. But when I persist in various sins about which the Spirit has gently convicted me over a substantial stretch of time, God withdraws and allows my inward life to descend into utter chaos. Anxiety and depression storm my soul. I become an erratic mess of a person who is unable to think straight, rightly perceive reality, or feel at all connected to God. I try to pray intelligible prayers but can do nothing but groan. The Lord and all his comfort-inducing blessings feel a million miles away.
Yet I know, even in the midst of my misery, that this is God’s disciplinary love in action. This inner turmoil is his doing, and he’s doing it because he cares for me. I’ll bet that some of you consider that a preposterous idea—a God of love would never be so “mean.” You may think I’m crediting God with Satan’s work. However, the Bible tells us of a man who experienced a similar misery of the soul—a misery that he, an inspired biblical writer, described as divine discipline. The following are the words of David—king, prophet, psalmist, and beloved child of God:
“O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” – Psalm 38:1-8.
God laid a heavy hand on David because of his sin, leaving him miserable and desperate for relief. Why? Was it because God is a short fused tyrant who delights in inflicting pain on his creatures, as many critics of the Christian faith suppose? No—it was because “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). It was not God’s hatred that descended upon David; it was God’s love. Knowing the destructive nature of sin, God refused to allow David to continue down a path that would lead to either great temporal suffering (at best) or even eternal demise (at worst). When he saw his beloved child veering away from the Springs of Eternal Life and sipping the poison of broken cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13) instead, he unleashed his disciplinary love to jolt his slumbering son awake—and it worked. Becoming miserably aware of both the severity of his sin and God’s righteous displeasure concerning it, David quickly departed from his hardheartedness and embraced a repentant position before the God of grace. In sober reflection and sorrowful confession, he pleaded with God to cleanse, renew, and refresh his heart. Relief didn’t come immediately. God didn’t retract his rod of correction too quickly. But David endured this discipline, waiting patiently on his heavenly Father to mend the bones his ferocious love had broken (Psalm 51:8). And after a time, God did just that:
“I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.” – Psalm 40:1-3
I am well acquainted with the kind of discipline David experienced. It’s excruciating. It’s draining. It’s miserable. But it is effective, producing the peaceful fruit of righteousness in those who are trained by it (Hebrews 12:11). God’s disciplinary dealings with me have produced only things for which I am unspeakably grateful: increased freedom from sin, increased sensitivity to the Spirit, a more sincere devotion to Christ, and a more stable spiritual life. These days I try to be a bit wiser and respond to God’s initial proddings toward obedience so that I can avoid the misery of a more severe approach. But I know that should I ever again find myself under that holy rod of discipline, it will be God’s loving faithfulness that has put me there.
“Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word . . .
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes . . .
I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous,
And that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.”
– Psalm 119:67,71,75