It seems to me that Christians ask the wrong sorts of questions when they encounter extremely difficult, trying, and stressful situations.
We typically focus on the source and purpose of the stress. Did this come from God? If so, why is he doing this? What’s he trying to tell me? Have I done something wrong and he’s punishing me? Or, if he didn’t cause it directly, did he allow this trouble to overtake me? For what reason did he do this? What’s he trying to teach me?
These are the wrong questions, sending us on quests for answers we’ll never find and exposing faulty thinking about God and his relationship to the world. I’ll have to leave those larger issues for another time, but for now I want to note the connection the writer of Hebrews makes between suffering and God’s “training” of his children (the Greek term he uses is paideia).
The Scriptures do indeed connect suffering with God’s training, as indicated by the quotation of Prov. 3:11-12 in Heb. 12:5-6.
But he proceeds to put the responsibility on his readers to endure their suffering so that it might become God’s training.
The writer does not say that God has brought suffering into their lives for the purpose of teaching them some specific lesson.
Rather, in v. 7, he exhorts them to endure, to persevere through their difficulties, so that their suffering might be transformed into God’s training of them. They are to “endure hardship as training.”
They must take the initiative to persevere in faithfulness through their suffering and stress so that God’s grace might be activated among them and their endurance become the Father’s training.
Alternatively, they could respond to their hardships destructively.
They could grow discouraged, lose heart, and give up on persevering in faithfulness. In this case, their hardship would not be God’s training but would become the cause of their departure from the faith, their falling away.
The writer returns to the need for the readers to take initiative in v. 9b. He notes that earthly fathers train their children for their good, so they ought to submit to God as their Father because the good results of that will be so much greater—it will bring about their participation in the coming world.
Again, in v. 11, he says: “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.”
All of this is to say that throughout this passage on suffering and training (Heb. 12:5-11), the writer emphasizes their need to take the initiative and transform their hardship into God’s training. They can do so by obeying his commands throughout the letter.
They’re being tempted to abandon the community of faith, but they must strengthen their commitment to it. They’re being pressured to return to an old way of life, but they must press ahead in faithfulness to Jesus.
As they renew their efforts to follow Jesus in the midst of suffering, God will empower them and train them as children, preparing them for blessed participation in the eschatological order of rest (Heb. 4:1-11).
This is, after all, precisely Jesus’ experience. He, too, received his exalted position in the coming world by persevering in faithfulness through suffering:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission, even though he was a Son. He learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:7-10).
So then, the readers of this letter have the opportunity to be assured of the Father’s love and tender affection for them. But the responsibility lies with them. They must take the initiative to persevere in faithfulness.
Their hardship can become either the Father’s training or a cause of stumbling.
Turning back to our day, this text ought to shape the sort of questions we ask when we encounter suffering and hardships. We ought to ask, How can I respond to this hardship so that it is transformed into the Father’s training? How can I persevere in such a way that it becomes something that God uses to clear the way for my full participation in the coming heavenly city?