If you’re not experiencing the Lord’s discipline, you’re not his child. That’s how blunt Hebrews is about it:
“Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:5-11)
The author of Hebrews compares the way we human fathers discipline our children to the way God disciplines us. Human fathers discipline their children “as it seems best to us.” We’re trying to shape our children, to make them into godly people. So when our children step out of line, exhibit bad character traits, or fail to demonstrate godliness, we intervene. We discipline our children. We don’t let the bad behavior or attitude slide. We love our children too much to allow those bad behaviors to harden into their character. So we do our best to discipline our kids in such a way that they see the consequences of their actions and learn to desire the good.
In the same way, God disciplines us. None of us is making it through life without sin. So if you find yourself without discipline, that doesn’t mean you’re doing fine. It just means you don’t belong to God. When you exhibit bad behavior or poor character or some form of godlessness, God will discipline you in order to shape you—unless you don’t belong to him. Discipline isn’t fun, but if it’s not there, you can be sure you don’t belong to God. God disciplines his children because he loves them.
But here is an essential point: discipline is different than punishment. God doesn’t punish his children. He disciplines us.
As a father, I try not to punish my children. When they disobey, my response is not designed to make them “pay” for what they’ve done. I’m not trying to get them back or wrong them for wronging me. My goal is not to inflict pain or shame; I don’t want to put my children down. All of that would fall under the heading of punishment: you messed up, so here’s your punishment.
By contrast, I’m actually trying to discipline my daughters. I confront their disobedience and help them see and feel that what they did is not okay. But I’m trying to form godly character in them. I want them to learn, not hurt. Not feel embarrassed. I’m not trying to make myself feel better, I’m taking my responsibility to help shape their character seriously. I’m trying to help them grow through the experience. I have no desire to inflict pain on my children. (When I became a father, I was surprised to learn that my parents’ insistence that “this will hurt me more than it hurts you” was actually true.)
Sometimes when we sin, we wait for God to punish us. To take something we love. To make us hurt in some way. And sin often does lead to complex and prolonged pain. But Hebrews assures us that God is not punishing us in these moments. He disciplines his children. He doesn’t punish us. When God disciplines us, pain is not the goal. Discipline is not fun, but it’s designed to shape us, to grow us, to make us into the people God wants us to be.
So if you are experiencing God’s discipline, take heart. It shows that you belong to him as a child to a father. And it means that his work in you is not done, it is taking place even in the midst of the pain you’re experiencing.