Is Affliction Discipline or Judgment?

 

In the book of Job, one of the primary faults of both Job and his poor counseling friends was their inability to understand how divine affliction can be justly administered to the righteous.  On the one hand, the friends failed to reconcile this with the justice of God, while on the other hand, Job failed to reconcile this with the goodness of God.  The argument of the former was that God afflicts the unrighteous, so Job must by necessary consequence be unrighteous.  The argument of the latter was that God arbitrarily afflicts both the righteous and the unrighteous because He’s basically a big meanie who borders on being unjust.  The friends of Job were certain that his affliction was the product of divine retribution correlated to sin, consequently they viewed Job as being in the cross-hairs of God’s punishment.  Job continually maintained his innocence, but didn’t have a category, other than the capriciousness of God, for why he was being afflicted.

Thankfully, Scripture is not silent on the issue of whether Christians are either under divine discipline or divine judgment, so we’re not left wondering or debating the issue.  In the Book of Hebrews, chapter 12, we have a verse that speaks precisely to the heart of this very issue.  I’ve included the surrounding verses for context

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Briefly, the author of this passage exhorts believers to persevere on their pilgrimage to holiness, fighting against sin, and embracing the discipline that comes from the hand of the Lord.  In doing so, he supports his statement by citing an Old Testament passage (Prov. 3:11-12), which is the modus operandi of the author.  With this citation, and his own discourse, he uses the word discipline (Grk. paideia) 8 times (note the underlined use above is supplied by the translation).

In it’s first entry on this word, Thayer’s lexicon defines it as,

the whole training and education of children – which relates to the cultivation of mind and morals, and employs for this purpose now commands and admonitions, now reproof and punishment.”

The use of this particular word helps the author support his example of the relationship of a father to his children with respect to discipline.  Here, he creates a parallel of the earthly relationship of father to children in order to relate to the heavenly relationship of God the Father with His own children.  In doing so he firmly roots the source of discipline as love, the motivation as the believer’s good, and the goal as holiness.

A.W. Pink in his brief, but helpful book titled Comfort for the Christian elaborates on this word by preferring the translation, “son-training.” He writes

“Unhappily there is no word in the English language which is capable of doing justice to the Greek term here.  ‘Paideia’ which is rendered ‘chastening’ [KJV; ESV discipline] is only another form of ‘paidion’ which signifies ‘young children,’ being the tender word that was employed by the Saviour in John 21:5 and Hebrews 2:13.  One can see at a glance the direct connection which exists between the words ‘disciple’ and ‘discipline’.  Son-training would be better.  It has reference to God’s education, nurture and discipline of His children.  It is the Father’s wise and loving correction which is in view.”

Considering this in relation to the affliction that Job experienced we are, more easily than he and his friends, able to reconcile his righteousness with his suffering concluding that it was for training of a son, not punishment of an enemy.  In fleshing out this distinction between divine discipline and divine punishment further, Pink makes a threefold distinction.  First, he notes the character of God, acting in the former as a Father and the latter as a Judge.  Next, he draws a distinction between the recipients, sons for discipline and enemies for punishment.  Finally, the distinction in design, one is retributive, the other remedial.  “One flowing from His anger, the other from His love.”  Recall in the Book of Job that the entire argumentation of the friends was the misapplication of divine retribution.

God has reserved His divine punishment, or wrath, for those who have not repented and trusted in Christ for salvation.  God’s children are no longer under His wrath, no longer capable of receiving divine punishment, as that was exhausted for them in Christ’s death on the cross.  There is, however, divine discipline or chastisement, reserved exclusively for His children, from His love and for their good.  Turning one final time to Pink, he observes in the cases of David, Job, Abraham, and Paul four distinct purposes for this divine discipline.  For David, his affliction was retributive, or punishment for the sins he had committed.  Keep in mind however that this retribution is not condemning, not judgment, and not sourced from wrath.  It too is driven from God’s love for David’s good, as we may now see in Psalm 51 among others.  Turning to Job, A.W. Pink categorizes his affliction as “corrective” or we might say refining, as it exposed the indwelling sin of Job’s heart, namely pride.  With Abraham, we have and educative use of affliction for the purpose of “developing spiritual graces.”  Finally, with Paul and his thorn in the flesh, Pink describes this as “preventative against pride.”

Our loving Father knows the right affliction at the right time for each of our spiritual conditions whether it be punishment for sin, corrective or refining for sins which we were unaware, educational – that we might grow in our knowledge of God, or preventative – hedging us in to keep us from sin.  How good it is to meditate on this omniscience of God and know that in His wisdom, from His love, He cares for each of His children not leaving them to wander aimlessly like the sheep we are, but as the Great Shepherd He brings the rod for our own good.   Do not despise this, nor grow weary, but endure dear Christians, “God is treating you as sons.”

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