Read below or watch at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xdXhPaQSFk. (Sermon begins at 24:42.)
A farmer once told me he doesn’t like to get much rain in the weeks after planting because the corn won’t need to send its roots deep to get nourishment. If there is enough moisture near the surface, the plants will root near the surface. Later, when the hot days of July and August dry out the ground, there won’t be enough moisture for the plants to flourish, and yield will be down.
People are like that. It may seem counter-intuitive, but no one flourishes without a fight. That is true both of families and individuals. Flourishing doesn’t happen in the absence of sustained effort; it happens because of it – if people go through it well.
Individuals and families that don’t endure difficulty in healthy ways don’t flourish. They may look impressive on the outside, like a nine-foot cornstalk but, like that cornstalk, they will bring little good into God’s world.
Parents want their kids’ lives to flourish but they also want their kids’ lives to be easy; want success to be right at the surface. They want their kids to have sports’ triumphs, academic honors, and scores of friends. But if life is always easy, those kids won’t root deeply and they won’t flourish.
But when is life easy – either for adults or for kids? Financial uncertainty, sickness, loneliness – sounds like Covid-19, doesn’t it? But there needn’t be a pandemic to experience hardship. Long ago, the author of Hebrews wrote a brilliant letter to help people who were going through a tough time. They were harassed and mocked, refused jobs—and some even lost their homes and were incarcerated.
Our situation is different, but our need is the same. Life was hard for them. It is hard for us. They were tired. We are tired. Some of them were ready to give up. Perhaps some of us are ready to give up.
The Book of Hebrews urges readers not to give up, explains why giving up would be a mistake, and tells people what they can do to avoid giving up. The letter comes to its climax in chapter 12, which we will look at today and again next week. Today we will discover five things we need to know in difficult times. Next week will look at four things we need to do in difficult times and three things we need at all costs not to do.
Let’s read a part of our text, Hebrews 12:4-11: In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
I started reading at verse 4 but in verse 3 the author sets the stage by naming the very real danger his readers faced, which we also face: the danger that we might “grow weary and lose heart.” A literal translation of that Greek phrase goes: “lest you weary your souls and come loose.”
How often we have heard about some pastor or Christian leader who has been caught up in scandal. Many of these people are, to all appearances, genuine followers of Jesus who have been a real blessing to the church and the world. So, what happened? How did they get caught up in sexual sins, or gambling addictions, or episodes of rage?
I’m sure there are many reasons but one, I think, is that they were soul-weary and lacked the strength to resist temptation. The word translated “weary” here is frequently used of someone who is ill. It is the same word St. James used when he wrote: “Is any sick (that’s it) among you? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him…” (James 5:13). Whenever we are going through prolonged difficulty, we are at risk of contracting soul-sickness.
The Greek word the NIV translates as “lose heart” means something like, “come loose” or “come untied.” It pictures a person who is coming apart at the seams. What keeps the seams from unraveling is a person’s soul. The soul integrates thoughts, feelings, will, and body into one whole person. But if the soul gets sick, that integration begins to fail. The body won’t be able to carry out the heart’s decisions and the heart’s decisions will be made over the mind’s objections. When the mind and heart and body are out of sync, life falls apart. Soul-sickness is always a possibility, but especially in extended times of difficulty – like right now.
Our author wants his readers to understand the dynamics of prolonged hardship and the dangers that accompany it, so he lays out some things people need to know to successfully navigate hard times. We’ll look at those from Hebrews 12 and add one from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
It will help you, whenever you encounter hardship – whether sudden trial or prolonged difficulty – to know the five truths we are about to look at. But knowing them in the abstract will not be enough. You actually need to remember them and think about how they apply. Otherwise, you will be less likely to do the things that help people endure hardship but more likely to do the things that cause people to come apart at the seams.
The first thing you need to know is that trials will come and they will hurt. A lot. Somehow, we have got the idea that hardship is an outlier and pain an aberration while ease is normal and comfort is our right. Some people (like Buddhists and Christian Scientists) teach that suffering is an illusion while others (like the prosperity gospelers) teach that suffering, though real, is shameful and unnecessary.
That is not what Jesus, his apostles, the prophets, or the evangelists taught. St. Peter, for example, wrote: “…do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12). When his friends in Thessalonica were going through distress, St. Paul sent his surrogate Timothy “so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.” Then he added: “You know quite well that we were destined for them.” (1 Thess. 3:3). Among the sure promises of Jesus is one we don’t like: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). He said similar things time and time again. Suffering is woven into the fabric of a world that is out of sync with its Creator.
The staff at the Bridger Wilderness Area in Wyoming posted some of the comment cards they have received. Here is a sampling: “Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.” (Bridger is in the heart of the Teton mountains.) “Too many bugs and spiderwebs. Please spray the wilderness. . .” “Escalators would help on steep uphill sections.” “Too many rocks in the mountains.” “The coyotes made too much noise last night … Please eradicate these animals.” And finally, “A MacDonald’s would be nice at the trailhead.” Those people don’t seem to understand what a wilderness is. Bugs, rocks, coyotes, and steep climbs come with the territory. The author of Hebrews is telling us that suffering comes with the territory, and people are not exempt, just because they follow Jesus Christ.
Trials will come and they will hurt. A lot. In Hebrews 12:4, the author writes: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” They hadn’t but they might, and many people do (as the previous chapter made abundantly clear). In verse 2 of this chapter, we are reminded that even the author and perfecter of the faith himself, the Man of Sorrows, endured suffering and shame.
It would be a mistake to think that pain was unavoidable in the past but we’ve moved beyond that now. In our day, people around the world are enduring hardship just like they did when this letter was written. Last December the British Foreign Secretary reported that in parts of the world, the persecution of Christians is at near “genocide” (his word) levels. No one said this was a picnic.
Life is hard and it always has been. Isaac Watts, the Chris Tomlin of his day, a guy who wrote something like 750 hymns, was born into a time of political turmoil. England had just come through civil war and was about to go through a second revolution and begin two generations of a divided kingdom. There were flagrant injustices. Watts himself was not permitted to attend England’s top tier universities simply because he wasn’t an Anglican.
In 1721, a year of instability and intrigues, Watts wrote this hymn: “Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb, and shall I fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His name? Must I be carried to the skies on flow’ry beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas?”
Isaac Watts knew better. So did the author of Hebrews. He wrote in verse 8: “Everyone undergoes discipline.” Not some people: everyone. No one is exempted.
The first thing to know and to remember in hardship is that trials will come and they will hurt. A lot.
The second thing to know is that we can choose how we will go through hardship. (This is from verse 7.) We’ll go into this in more detail next week, when we look at what to do and what not to do in hardship, but for now it is enough to know we have a choice in the matter. We have no choice about whether we will endure hardship but we do have a choice about how we will endure it—a choice that makes a real difference.
Next thing we need to know: God knows. He knows the course marked out for us (that was verse 1). He knows where the obstacles are and he knows how to get through them.
God not only knows the course marked out for us (what lies before us), he knows us (what lies within us). He knows what we can handle and what we cannot and he will not allow us to undergo trials that are too much for us.
Over the last few years, our church has seen a number of young people join the Marine Corps. When they got to Parris Island, they met their Drill Instructor, who is called that because he drills recruits on proper social etiquette, how to enunciate clearly, how to fold a napkin properly, how to extend the pinky finger when drinking tea.
No, that’s not what they found. The D.I. was merciless. The drills unbearable. They and their fellow-recruits were pushed to their limits. Why? Because those Drill Instructors had come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and they knew it might take everything these young men and women had – and more – to survive and keep their fellow Marine alive. They knew what their recruits could handle even before the recruits themselves knew it.
God knows what’s coming, knows what you can handle and, as St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians, he “is faithful; he will not let you be tempted” (or tried) “beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13). If we don’t know this, we will not trust God when hardship comes, and trust is the only vaccine that can immunize against the soul-sickness that causes people to come apart at the seams. Hardship will not make you fall apart unless there is a comorbidity; that is, unless you are soul-sick. Trust in God is the only antidote.
Another truth we need to know: Our Father God allows suffering because it performs an important function for which there exists no easier means. Suffering is a road no one wants to take, but it leads to a place no other road can go: to holiness. That is verse 10: “God disciplines us … that we may share in his holiness.”
If you say, “I don’t care about holiness—I’m no monk or priest. I just want to be happy,” then you don’t understand holiness. Holiness is the state where joy and peace are located. Holiness is like clean air after smog, like light after dark. God wants us to share in his holiness; in fact, he insists on it, in part, because our happiness depends on it. “Without holiness,” verse 14, “no one will see the Lord.” Holiness is the state of healthiness and flourishing.
Holiness is so important that God will use insecurity, grief, and pain to produce it in us. It’s not that he inflicts such things on us – he’s not like that. But, when such things come, he will not hesitate to use them for our great and lasting good. The real question is whether we will use them for our good.
A fifth thing, which is itself a summary of all the others, is found in verse 10: “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God” – our Father in heaven – “disciplines us for our good.” Included among the goods produced by God’s discipline are the priceless treasures of verse 11: a harvest of righteousness (that is, right relationships with God and people) and the blessing of peace.
Now, a word about that word “discipline.” In the home in which I grew up, discipline meant one thing: the belt. I got “disciplined” when I did something selfish or malicious or willfully disobedient. “Discipline” was to be avoided by any means – including hiding, evading, and lying.
The word translated “discipline” in verse 10 and elsewhere in this passage doesn’t mean that. It means training, not whipping. This is the word that would be used of training a child to tie his shoes or a young man to tie a tie. It is a word that would fit spring training in baseball, or a training regimen in the gym. Training always has a purpose. People who undergo it and make use of it can do more after being trained than they could before. Training can help us achieve when trying – even earnest, strenuous trying – fails.
Listen and do not forget: our good is never out of God’s mind. Never. But we will think it is when we go through hard times, if we think our good is our ease or the preservation of our routine, or our so-called possessions.
We are like a tourist at Bridger Wilderness Area for whom a cell signal is the only good he cares about because he wants to play Fortnite with his friends. He misses the awe-inspiring Grand Tetons, the turquoise lakes, the singing of the mountain streams, the moose, and the grizzly. He thinks his good depends entirely on a connection to a cellular network.
We’re not so different. We think our good depends entirely on keeping a connection to our money, our health, or our reputation. We so lack imagination. The good we can envision, to which we cling like a selfish child, is a trinket compared to the awful good, the glorious good, the thrilling good God has planned for us.
The promises of the Bible regarding us are breathtaking. The earth we live in will be transformed; a metamorphosis; an eco-resurrection. No more decay, no more death, no more Second Law of Thermodynamics. The most out-there science fiction plot you’ve ever read doesn’t even come close to the biblical promises.
We will be changed. Fear will be gone. Can you imagine – no fear? Joy will be full and overflowing. We will be immortals – glorious, shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father. The Genesis 1 work of subduing and ruling the earth, which we have bungled so completely, was, I expect, just a training exercise for subduing and ruling the universe … in love.
I appreciate Dallas Willard’s shorthand for what awaits us: we will belong – what a beautiful word – we will belong to (here’s Willard) “A community of unspeakably magnificent personal beings of boundless love, knowledge and power.” That is, we will share in the joyful life of the Trinity itself.
Two notes. One: this is only possible because of the love of God and the sacrifice of Christ. We didn’t make this happen and we cannot earn it. It is all grace. And two: we must not give in or give up on so great a future because of current hardships, whatever they are. How to avoid giving in is the subject of next week’s message from Hebrews 12.