When It Hurts

I’m so sorry!

The words preceded Isaiah by half a second as he came flying to the dining room table, where I was writing. I knew by the sound of things that he had just been punished in the other room, and it seemed that he was seeking me out to offer an apology for the crime. But when I scooped him up and sat him in front of me on the table, he leveled a defiant gaze through the tears and finished his thought.

I’m so sorry that Mommy spanked me!

Well, yes. I could have quoted him Hebrews: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant.”

Instead, I rubbed his back as the swells of emotion subsided, thinking of the natural tension between repentance and regret.

Repentance is useful. It is a profoundly necessary process for sinful people who want to walk with God. John the Baptist preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus declared the same, word for word. Throughout the New Testament, repentance is preached with urgency — not just doctrine, but personal transformation and freedom.

Regret, on the other hand, has no apparent worth, and certainly no spiritual usefulness. Isaiah was full of regret after his punishment that day, but it wasn’t going to teach him how to avoid another spanking. That was up to me as his father, so I sat him there and caught his gaze, making sure the punishment had not been wasted and that he would learn a little more obedience.

There is a vein of Christian teaching that wholly avoids the topic of God’s discipline, as if He would never purposely cause His children pain. But Scripture flatly contradicts that notion: We read in Hebrews, for example, “If you are left without discipline … then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” Don’t gloss over these strong words. The Lord’s discipline is proof of your legitimacy as a believer — a paternity test, if you will.

There was a lot going on in that little head when Isaiah ran to me to snitch on his mom that afternoon. And there is a lot going on in the Christian understanding of discipline and suffering.

For example, not all suffering is discipline. Some of it is persecution. Some of it is “the inevitable result of being alive,” Oswald Chambers has observed. I must recognize that pain is part of the human condition; if I attribute every trial to God’s hand, I will either yield to bitterness or be crushed by the perception of spiritual failure.

Instead, pain should cause us to look up. That is where the lesson will come from if we are being disciplined, and where our strength resides otherwise. Whether or not the suffering was punishment for a sin in my life, it is useless to me if I do not see past it, to the Father who is waiting with the answer. All discipline seems painful in the moment, yes, “but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Be trained by it, child of God.

Finally, I believe any sort of pain, whether it be the discipline of God’s hand or a consequence of being human, must begin to develop in us a thirst for heaven, where sin cannot follow, where children don’t need punishment and faith becomes sight.

Paul said it best in his letter to Rome. If God is your Father, pain is eclipsed by the vision of what your future holds: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

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“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? 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. 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. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen you weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”   {Hebrews 12:3-14}