Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Divine Discipline

As I write this post, snow is on the ground.  I don't know about you, but personally I look forward to Spring thaw.  As the weather warms up, I’m excited to get back to my regular running routine.  I started running last May—something I said I’d never do unless someone was chasing me.  Then I realized that the Grim Reaper is chasing me, so my wife and I laced on some running shoes and got started.  We ran our first 5k in September, and ran a 10k in October.  Then it began to cool down.  Then it began to COLD down.  Then, I quit running—not because of the cold air on my skin, but because cold air in your lungs hurts.  But now as it’s warming up, I’m beginning to run again. 
Since it’s not exactly summertime yet, I dress in layers to stay warm at the beginning of my run.  But as my body temperature heats up, I begin stripping off layers.  When I was new to all this, I would tie my jacket around my waist, tuck my extra shirt into my waistband, stick my hat in my pocket, and so on.  But getting all tied up in extra clothing tangles me as I run—so I’ve just begun dropping the extra clothes on the side of the trail, and picking them up when I’m done.  Even if somebody decided they wanted a sweaty shirt (which they wouldn’t), it’s pretty low-risk compared to the risk of tripping over something tied around my waist.
The author of Hebrews must have been a runner, and must have understood this exact thing, when he wrote, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us (1:1[i]).”  If the Christian life is like a race, Hebrews tells us that our sin is like that extra clothing that easily entangles us.  When you begin the race of faith, it’s like your core temperature heats up.  You decide you don’t need that sin anymore, so you strip it off of yourself—but you tie it around your waist, just in case you want to put it on again later.  Instead, you need to get rid of it—and keep your eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” 
When I first started running, I did all kinds of research on the best kind of running shoe, what type of fabrics to wear (and not to wear) for hot weather and for cold weather, and every other subject I could imagine.  But better than any research I did was the advice I got from actual runners—people who knew what they were doing because they had made running their life.  In the same way, we’ve got to look to Jesus, who ran this endurance race before us.  Just as a runner might need a physical trainer, let Jesus be your spiritual trainer.  Keep your eyes on Him, and let Him discipline you.  That way you won’t “grow weary or lose heart (v. 3).”
“Discipline” isn’t a word that most people want to hear.  It makes us think of punishment and pain.  But there’s a difference between punishment and discipline.  Punishment is to satisfy an offended person’s desire for power, after a violation has been committed.  An example of punishment is when a parent smacks a child on the mouth after the child speaks rudely to the parent.  The main purpose of punishment is to make the parent feel better.  Unfortunately, many people view God as a punisher rather than a trainer.  Like good parents, trainers teach by using discipline, correcting and encouraging along the way.  God wants to be that kind of a trainer to you—if you’ll agree to His discipline.
Hebrews 1:3-11 talks about parental discipline.  Just as good parents train their children, God is teaching us every day.  Parents have all kinds of methods of disciplining their children—all of which may be necessary at different times, depending on the situation.  From gentle rebuke to louder rebuke, and even enforced silent time-outs, God corrects His children.  Like a good parent, God sometimes takes away His children’s privileges or allows natural consequences to teach us or even (though rarely and in a controlled manner) spiritually spanks us when we refuse to listen.  Nobody enjoys discipline when it comes, but God’s word tells us, “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts (Heb 1:6).”  The child whose parents never discipline him don’t really love him; but the child who is corrected is greatly loved.
It would be a sad case indeed if a child grew to maturity, yet continued to need her parent’s discipline.  It would prove that she hadn’t learned anything at all.  The goal of divine discipline is to get you to the point where you don’t need it—where you begin to exercise self-discipline instead.  You’ll know when you’re beginning to exercise self-discipline when you can shed that extra sin that so easily entangles, leave it on the side of the trail, and run away from it without thinking you have to tie it around your waist.  Verses 12-15 (emphasis mine) talk about the things that you need to do, in order to exercise self-discipline, training yourself in God’s way:

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 Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. 

Spiritual self-discipline involves Bible study, prayer, fasting, solitude, simplicity, giving, worship, meditation, submission to godly authority, service, confession, seeking spiritual guidance, and celebrating God’s blessings.[ii]  By exercising these spiritual disciplines, we ensure that we don’t stumble over roots of bitterness that may be in our path as we run the race of life (Heb 1:15). 
As we enter the season of Lent, I hope that you’ll consider the ways in which you can practice self-discipline in your own life.  Many people practice a form of fasting, giving something up for Lent.  Others increase their times of worship and fellowship with other believers.  Still others commit to a more intensive time of Bible reading and prayer.  I hope that this season of Lent will lead you to understand that sometimes life’s suffering is God’s way of disciplining His children.  I hope that you’ll grow past divine discipline, into the practice of self-discipline so that you can grow more like Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  I hope that you’ll “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and… run with perseverance the race that is set before [you].”

[i] All scriptures taken from the NRSV.
[ii] For more about this, please read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Harper Collins.  2009.

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