Let's build on the last two posts (here and here). They happened to be about preaching but they raise a deeper question about listening to God. Are we hearing God's challenges to us? Might God be speaking to us in the specifics of our lives but we're deaf to it? Spoiler alert: the answer is, absolutely.
My contention is that God our Father is speaking to us far more than we may think but that, generally, we pay little attention.
And the reasons we pay so little attention are just what we've been exploring in the last two posts. We fail to grasp:
- The law and gospel distinction;
- The three uses of the law; and
- The difference between flesh and Spirit.
If we were solid on these points we would know:
- I am secure in Christ, no matter my daily disobedience;
- God, nonetheless, has much to teach me and instruct me in; and
- I can and must let God's corrections 'speak to my flesh'.
In other words I can expect God to correct me. And I can let God correct me without self-protection, self-justification or self-condemnation.
Usually, though, we don't see things like that. I mean, be honest, when you read the title of this blog post, what was your reaction? "God is disciplining me?? How dare you! How could you possibly know!"? We think of discipline as a rare occurrence for wayward children. But that's not how the Bible speaks:
4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”[Proverbs 3:11-12]
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,”[Proverbs 4:26] so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
— Hebrews 12:4-13
From this it seems obvious that every child of God should expect ongoing fatherly discipline—not just the naughty kids who have to stay behind after class. Everyone. "Endure hardship as discipline" says God's word. So, do I experience hardship? Check. OK, my default understanding should be: My Father is specifically and intentionally training, correcting, chastising, and rebuking me (all those words are used in this passage).
I may not understand the whys and wherefores of God but neither is it foolish or fruitless to ask what he might be up to. On this understanding God is far more present and active in the ups and downs of our lives than many are comfortable with. Because one response to this is: "No, God does not 'pay us back for our sins', that would be a denial of the gospel! There is 'no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus', (Romans 8:1), this means God will never bring consequences into our lives for our sins."
This is why I spent so long setting out the three truths above. Before heaven I have no sins to answer for: I have the spotless righteousness of Christ. But on the earth, I live in Adam's world, inhabiting Adam's flesh and this whole realm is one of death, curse and consequences. We know for a fact that Christians must face the consequences of sin in this world because, for one thing, every one of us will die.
Christ's death does not shield me from my death, instead it transforms it from 'perishing' to 'falling asleep.' The same is true for all the consequences I experience in this world. I still experience them. Wonderfully, though, I experience them not as the punishment of a Judge but as the intentional and custom-made discipline of a loving Father. It is the fire, not of wrath, but of refinement.
"Don't be surprised by the fiery trial" therefore (1 Peter 4:12). And don't be surprised when sin's consequences play themselves out in your life—you still have Adam's flesh and you live in Adam's world. Receive the law's diagnosis of those persisting sins. Receive the Father's discipline in your difficult circumstances. In Jesus you can finally take your sin seriously because your own ego has been taken out of the equation. Your ego was crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20), the real you is now hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3). Now you can address your sins without self-protection, self-justification, or self-condemnation. Now you can properly deal with them and not for any heavenly brownie points but for the sake of those you've harmed.
In all this I need to know in my bones that Christ is stronger than Adam, that the Spirit is stronger than the flesh, and that the Father's love is stronger than my present sins and circumstances. (That's why I started this series with preaching—I need these truths ringing in my ears constantly). But with that security I can, and I should, let the law and the Lord's providence speak to my flesh. It is no denial of the gospel to accept that my sins have consequences—consequences that I feel in this world. And God is speaking through those hardships to bring a Father's discipline.
It's true that in the midst of suffering many Christians can lose themselves in superstition, extreme scrupulosity and introspection. After the hardship hits they become convinced: "I know why this happened..." and then they name a certain sin from their past. Maybe they correctly identify the cause. Probably they don't. But anyway it's the wrong question. Because the goal is not to figure out how to avoid the Lord's discipline. The goal is to learn from it, because everyone is disciplined. It's a case of 'playing the ball where it lies' to use a golfing analogy. And to hear what the Lord is saying in the midst of the hardship.
So bring to mind a hardship right now. Your circumstances are not random and you are not alone. There is a Father's loving purpose woven into the details of your life—even, and especially, the difficult ones. Christ has brought you through the Red Sea in baptism, he accompanies you in the fiery-cloudy pillar of his Spirit, he feeds you with the daily bread of his word and all of it is motivated by relentless, unbreakable, redeeming love:
2 Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 4 Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you.
— Deuteronomy 8:2-5