Run with Discipline: insights on spiritual growth and suffering from Hebrews 12

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Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? (Hebrews 12:7)

this is a radical reframing of the suffering that the believers are enduring. It is not making light of the suffering, but an invitation to see suffering in a different light. What is that light? It is to see suffering in light of belief in God’s trustworthy work as a good Father.

There are two aspects of this perspective on suffering. The first is this: the race of faith requires enduring hardship as discipline.

Now everyone knows that if you want to run well, you have to train. As much as I would love to think that I could simply wake up one morning and run a marathon by simply changing my shoes and outfit, I know that would not work at all. So, the writer says, similar to an athlete who enters into training, we can begin to see our life as not only a race of faith but a training in faith. “Endure hardship,” the writer says, “as discipline.” This is the discipline not only of a good trainer, but of a good Father who is helping to shape faith into our lives so that we can run the race well. It does not mean it is easy, but we all know that, as in athletics, so too in life: no pain – no gain.

“How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!” (Hebrews 12:9)

When we have that perspective on suffering and know that our trainer is also our good Father, we can then, second of all, as it says in verse 9, submit to the goodness of God’s fatherly training.

Now there is a difference between submitting to suffering and submitting to God’s fatherly training amidst suffering. There is a difference between giving ourselves over to suffering—letting it have its way with us—and giving ourselves over to God amidst our suffering—letting Him have His way with us. We still want to name wrong as wrong, injustice as injustice, sin as sin. We are not equating God with suffering. However, there is a difference when we know we are dearly loved children of God. We can trust our Father to apply His goodness to our lives even amidst situations we would never choose.

This is the reality that Paul describes in Romans 8:28, which is never trite, but deeply true that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

And so, in light of who we are as God’s dearly loved children, let us run the race of faith with discipline!

Discipline is the Price of Freedom

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I came across this excerpt from D. Elton Trueblood’s 1970 book The New Man for Our Time on the topic of spiritual discipline. It caught my attention as I continue to give attention to the disciplines of grace necessary for us to grow in the spiritual life, drawing upon the influence of writers like Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, as well as other spiritual writers of much earlier eras and today.

When we begin to ask what the conditions of inner renewal are, we receive essentially the same answers from nearly all of those whom we have most reason to respect. One major answer is the emphasis upon discipline. In the conduct of one’s own life it is soon obvious, as many have learned the hard way, that empty freedom is a snare and a delusion. In following what comes naturally or easily, life simply ends in confusion, and in consequent disaster. Without the discipline of time, we spoil the next day the night before, and without the discipline of prayer, we are likely to end by having practically no experience of the divine-human encounter. However compassionate we may be with others, we dare not be soft or indulgent with ourselves. Excellence comes at a price, and one of the major prices is that of inner control.

We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom, to the effect that we are most free when we are bound. But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matter is the character of our binding. The one who would like to be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track. His failure to train rigorously and to live abstemiously denies him the freedom to go over the bar at the desired height, or to run with the desired speed and endurance. With one concerted voice the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life with the dictum: Discipline is the price of freedom.

[From D. Elton Trueblood, The New Man for Our Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).]

Why It’s Good to Hit the Wall Spiritually … and How God Meets us There

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Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forevermore. (Psalm 73:25-26)

The other day while jogging, I came to the most challenging part of my route: running up a long meandering hill that seems to go on forever. When I first started running the route, I couldn’t do it. I hit the wall quickly and had to walk up the hill. As time passed and I continued to run, however, I found that my body strengthened and began to adjust. I could run part of the way up, and then most of the way up. Now, while it’s never effortless, I can run up the entire hill without hitting the wall like I used to.

Encounter our limits is inevitable as people. In fact, in our life with God, the inevitable end of our human strength brings us into something that’s better: the infinite strength of God. It is good to encounter our limits in order to more powerfully encounter God’s limitless strength and presence.

To come to the end of ourselves – and even the limits of others – opens us both to our need for God and to the joyful capacity of God to fill our need. However, like my jog up the hill that ended with a quick slowing of the pace to walking, hitting the wall spiritually can be both humbling and distressing. In that place, we see who we are and who we’re not. We realize that we are not God, and that we have limits.

But God meets us there, joyfully unencumbered by our human limitations and also eternally free to carry our burdens. What once was humbling and distressing now becomes the source of joy in God, as we reach out to Him and find that His grace is more than sufficient for us, even that His power is made perfect, as St. Paul wrote, in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). This echoes the words of Isaiah the prophet:

He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)

We all know there is no way to grow other than to encounter limits. In exercise, when we “hit the wall,” we can either pull back or press forward to develop new muscles or skills. The same is true in other areas of our lives, whether learning an instrument, developing mastery of financial skills, or apprenticing to a trade.

The same is true in our life with God. The moment we encounter our human limits is simultaneously the moment we begin to develop new “muscles” within our souls. When we are pushed beyond our capacity physically, we feel the burning of muscles pushing toward growth or lung capacity stretching in new ways. We say, “no pain – no gain.” Likewise in our spiritual lives, there is a breaking and refining that happens as we stretch into growth and development. Even here, the encounter with limits and the stretching of growth reminds us that spiritually it is also true: “no pain – no gain.”

The writer to the Hebrews describes God’s grace in apparently strange terms that resonate with this reality: “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). The discipline of the Lord shapes us in formational ways, helping us grow and develop. Without that discipline we will not change; discipline is a subset of discipleship. James also acknowledges this in one of the most memorable portions of his epistle:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

In light of this, hitting the wall in our spiritual lives is actually a moment of grace. The encounter with our human limitations is a potential encounter with God’s joyful presence and shaping grace. When we come to the end of ourselves we are also enter an opportunity to see ourselves become more like Christ as the Holy Spirit enters into our weak places to shape us, both individually and as His community, for the glory of God.

The Fatherly Discipline of God: a reflection on Hebrews 12

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Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children….God disciplines us for our good in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it….without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:7, 10, 11, 16)

While the writer of Hebrews does not ascribe all hardship to the Lord, he does encourage believers to receive it—to endure it—as God’s discipline upon us. Such discipline, he suggests, is a sign of God’s fatherly care for us meant to shape us for our own good, which, in this context, means that we share in God’s holiness.

Those who have had good parental figures, know what this looks like. A good parent disciplines us so that we might stop doing things that are either not good for us or for others. Such discipline aims to direct our efforts and goals away from that which is not helpful and toward that which is helpful. In the ideal situation, such discipline makes us into the sort of people we need and want to be.

So, too, God seeks to shape us for our own good. His discipline steers us away from sin, whether against ourselves or others, and toward holiness that is truly good. If we receive God’s discipline as the grace that it is, then over the course of our lives we will become the sort of people God most wants us to be and that we were truly made to be. It is striking that elsewhere in Hebrews, the writer says that even Jesus was made “perfect through what he suffered” (Hebrews 2:10). If Jesus needed that here on earth, how much more do we?

We endure the unpleasantness of the discipline in the present so that “a harvest of righteousness and peace” might arise from our lives. Like a farmer who prepares the land through the harsh action of plowing—land broken up and turned over—so God must at times plow up our lives through the discomfort of discipline. We, like the land before the farmer, must yield to God’s cultivation in our life, letting Him plow, plant, nurture, and bring forth the harvest He desires. This discipline is intended to “train” us and, ultimately, open up God’s best reality within our lives.

Lord, the hardships I face are sometimes difficult to endure. Sometimes my heart is weighed down by it, but I yearn to submit to You within it.  I admit I do not know exactly how You are training me, but I choose to submit to Your fatherly care and discipline in my life.