Focusing on discipline

When I last wrote, I asked us to consider what it would look like to focus on Jesus in the coming year. Turning my attention to Hebrews 12:1-2, however, often forces me to consider again the rest of that wonderful and challenging chapter.

As the chapter unfolds, the writer of Hebrews challenges his audience to reframe how they evaluate the hardships they face. It is likely the community was under pressure to repudiate Jesus and return to the synagogue, and that pressure could have come in the form of formal legal actions or in the form of everyday acts of ostracism.

Either way, the community was suffering, and the writer of Hebrews urges them to see this suffering as an act of God’s discipline. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am a little too American for my own good. I like my creature comforts and I don’t like anything that is hard. For example, I used to rig the statistics on my computer’s baseball game to give my team a profound advantage. And I had no problem winning games 52-3. I loved it!

Much to my consternation, that is not how the Kingdom of God works. It is true that our faith is in Jesus, not in ourselves. It is also true that the Spirit is the real agent of transformation in our lives. But, like any good athlete, we still have to put in the work. And, very often, that work comes in the form of the difficulties we face in life.

So, how exactly does all of that work? How do the struggles we endure help us overcome sin and focus on Jesus? I don’t have all the answers. One thing I have observed, though, is that hardships help me focus on what really matters. When things are going well, it is easy for me to fritter away my time and energy on things that don’t contribute to my spiritual growth. And it is easy for me to use up all the blessings God has given me on my own selfish desires. Hardships help me detect these wrongheaded ways of approaching life.

Hardships also force me to consider again what it is that God has really promised us. They reveal the childishness of some of my complaints, but they also force me to admit there are just some things about God and His ways that I do not understand. They encourage me to join the long line of saints before me who have cultivated the practice of lament, and they put me in the position of having to wait upon God.

Moreover, this process of engaging with my disappointment and expressing it in the terms of a faithful lament turns my heart towards the suffering of others. Sometimes, I need to be reminded that my struggles do not compare in severity with those experienced by other people in this world. That does not mean my problems are not real. It simply means they are not unusual. And once I recognize this fact, I am reminded again of how I need to be open and available to God as He works to answer the anguished cries of His saints.

Now, I can also tell you from experience that hardships do not work by themselves. It takes a willingness to be humble and persistence in prayer to make our hardships the kind of “discipline” the writer of Hebrews describes. And the lessons you learn may be very different from the ones I have described above. But I hope you will “consider Jesus” when you struggle, and I hope that you will see your struggles as an opportunity to encounter our loving Father in a new and surprising way. 

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