Very rarely does anyone hear about the teaching discipline of God through hardship any more. Certainly there is a good scriptural emphasis based on the first part of the book of Job that it’s impossible for an outsider, however well intentioned, to connect the afflictions of someone else as a judgment of God to specific sins in that person’s life. Yet there does not seem to be much remembrance of the teaching of the book of Job through Elihu, that God teaches through affliction.
In the schema of creation, afflictions and difficulties came through the introduction of sin into the world. Many times people do suffer because of sin, and sin and sin, in terms of moral evil does dishonor God, but it is not victorious over him. The almighty and all-wise God can and does bring good out of afflictions and hardships for his people, even where these difficulties can be called circumstantial evil. Through God’s wisdom and power, in what theologians call overruling providence, he can bring eternal good into the lives of his people from the evil intentions, actions, events and consequences.
The unknown author of Psalm 119 found this unexpected result from his own experience of great hardship and rejection: “It was good for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71). Throughout the Psalm he tells of his experiences with scorn, contempt and injustice through the religious leaders of his people. It meant great sorrow to him, and continual weeping, for his own difficulty, but even more for the honor of the God he loved, whose Law was being violated.
Believers in Jesus Christ today, the people of the God of the Bible, are imperfect sinners living among imperfect, sinful people also. Those around us may have a religious facade, but may subject us to betrayal and rejection as well. Life in an imperfect world also brings constant irritations and devastating heartaches. Yet God can bring great blessing out of these circumstantial evil into our lives.
The Biblical teaching is that the primary good that God brings out of the afflictions in our earthly lives is holiness. The true holiness of the scriptures is not legalistic negatives and stuffiness. Rather, it is the moral likeness to the moral purity of God himself, being like Christ in righteousness and love. Again, this comes through learning to practice the Bible, the written Word of God, the only true learning of the Word ultimately.
The Psalmist experienced this when he found that his afflictions brought him to an obedience to God’s Word which he hadn’t had before: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your Word” (Psalm 119:67). The unknown writer of the letter to the Hebrews explained that this is what God does for all who are his children through faith in Christ: “. . . 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” (Hebrews 12:10-11). The apostle Paul went on to write, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son . . . “ Thus, the teaching of the scriptures on the discipline of God demonstrates his concern is not so much with our present comfort and satisfaction as with our holiness, or, to put it in other words, our Christlikeness. God’s intention, then, is that our obedience to his will become the settled habit of our lives despite our outward circumstances.
Even more, the good which comes out of difficulties enable us to minister to others in the body of Christ. The good does not stop with us! It is as Paul also wrote: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (II Corinthians 1:3). This then results in the special sympathy and ability those who have been through the school of hardship have to those who are going through the times of trouble. They can give something of what God has already given to them. And this is something that does not come from the proud whitewashers of their sins and problems, who administer cold, canned answers in their attempts at comfort.
Finally, God brings goodness out of our afflictions because they draw up into deeper fellowship with him. Our rejection by others, which often may be a great part of the pain of our troubles, draws us to trust in the eternally loving, gentle and caring God of all comfort. It is like Isaiah called to his fellow Israelites: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10). This brings out such reactions as the remark J. I. Packer recounted from the friend of his who had been clashing with church dignitaries over fundamental truths of the gospel: “But it doesn’t matter, for I’ve known God and they haven’t.” It can lead to reactions like that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was stripped of his Marxism and found God through his experience of prison camp: “Bless you, prison camp!”
Yet scripture also has another theme on suffering, that goodness ceases to come from earthly suffering when they are endured obstinately and impenitently. This is the final futility of the earthly suffering of those who do not let suffering drive them from the sins they love to the God who loves them more. This is the kind of suffering that the Israelite prophet Amos found, when he told how God had brought famine, pestilence, drought and war to an unrepentant Israel. Each mention came back to the sad refrain, “ . . . yet you have not returned to me.” It’s the kind of horrible suffering mentioned in Revelation 16:8-11, where the people on earth are scorched with heart and plunged into darkness, but still refused to repent and cursed God instead.
Whenever you are undergoing trials and difficulties, the, cultivate your fellowship with God and your knowledge of his Word. Build your spiritual foundations in the easy time to last through the hard times. Use the relaxed times not for selfish indulgence but rather for devoted following after the God who has saved us, who has called us through Christ to be his people, and who will receive us to himself for the eternal enjoyment of his unmixed goodness.
Finally, there’s also a disclaimer to be added here. The Bible gives the entire responsibility for the teaching of hardship to God himself. No one in the church and especially not in church leadership has the right to abuse another believer with the excuse that he or she is acting in accord with the discipline of God. That’s just another abusive excuse for ungodly behavior. Rather, the person who abuses another believer in any form needs to deal with another part of scripture, that God himself will be the defender and vindicator of the abused ( Romans 12:19, I Thessalonians 4:6-8), not the abuser. In this case the abuser needs to understand that he or she is rather putting himself or herself in the path of the discipline of God for his or her abusive conduct.
All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.