We must accept the fact that life is full of unhappy surprises. We plan on a happy marriage, yet end up in a bitter divorce. We pray and plan for healthy children, yet every year thousands of parents give birth to babies whose disabilities create a lifelong burden. If those who suffer cling to the belief that God controls everything that happens to them, that things always go according to God’s plan because God plans all things, they are bound to feel that God is targeting them for some inscrutable divine purpose. One of my students declared in class that “if God sends me a debilitating illness, He must have a reason and I must try to learn what it is.”
The Bible does not teach that God sends damaged or disabled babies to specific parents to refine them through suffering or punish them for their misdeeds. While running errands one day, I heard a radio preacher tell his congregation that there would be times when God would put them in the “refining fire.” They would cry for divine help but none might come. God would let them sit in the fire for a while until His purposes for them were accomplished. He then quoted the following passage to support his view:
“‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’ Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:5-11).
Are we to conclude from these verses and the declarations of preachers that all painful experiences are part of God’s discipline for us, either personally or collectively? The primary metaphor in the passage from Hebrews is parenting and the disciplining of children. A central principle of such discipline is that it be connected specifically to the behavior or character defect that concerns the parent. Furthermore, the context of the passage refers to resisting sin as Jesus did. The writer is exhorting us to be faithful witnesses to God’s redemptive work in Christ, even when faced with persecution. Suffering for the sake of the gospel strengthens us in service and disciplines us for challenges not yet faced. We are hardened, in the good sense of the term, against crippling fear as we proclaim God’s salvation to the world. This is quite different from arguing that my child’s brain tumor or my liver cancer is a discipline from God that I should welcome.