Suffering as God’s Training

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?

8 thoughts on “Suffering as God’s Training

  1. Brian Fulthorp

    I need to hear this. we have been through a lot of suffering in the last year or so and while I haven’t given up yet, i have been discouraged lately and need to not lose my focus. I admit I haven’t always allowed it to be training but have often grumbled like the Israelites in the wilderness. Thanks for the post.

  2. zteam6

    Encouraging words in your post. Any chance to hear your views of redemptive suffering as Paul mentions in Col 1:24? Peace.

    1. timgombis

      There are so many facets and rich dynamics associated with suffering, especially as mentioned in Col. 1.24. What that text holds in common with Hebrews, though, is that the manner in which one suffers determines the spiritual empowerment available during the suffering and the redemptive work accomplished while suffering.

      It really is up to us to make the most of these kinds of situations so that our suffering (or other hardships, frankly) puts us in the stream of God’s power and becomes that which fuels our perseverance along the pathway of grace to final vindication.

      What’s amazing about Paul’s suffering in Col. 1.24, though is how it organically relates to Christ, to Christ’s sufferings, and to the Colossians themselves. So, in one sense, suffering propels us along toward the day of salvation. In another, though, it becomes God’s grace in the lives of others and connects us (and them) ever-more-vitally to Christ. It seems that all of this is made possible by our existence in Christ–our corporate inhabiting of Christ by the Spirit, and our being vitally connected to one another by the Spirit.

      1. zteam6

        Thanks for your thoughts Tim. I appreciate the time/energy you’ve allocated over the years to develop your mind as a theologian. The reality of God utlilizing suffering, a consequence of sin, to be a weapon against the power of sin itself is the ultimate example of him “using all things for good for those love him”. We have a saying in the Catholic world when faced with suffering…”offer it up”. Peace be with you.

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  4. Craig Baugh

    So, so much to comment on. I would really like for you to expand at a later time on the “larger issues” as you call them. Could you also give your thoughts on the meaning or nuances of meaning in the word “paideia”. Over the years, I have dealt with people using the KJV and locking onto the idea of “discipline” to explain away any and every bad thing that might happen to someone, i.e. “maybe the accident happened because the Lord is disciplining you”. My understanding of paideia does not include this idea of discipline and punishment. I have been struggling through my own individual suffering for years, but more so in the past six months. At this point, I am hanging on by my finger tips. What if the suffering that one endures clouds an individual’s reasoning to the point that he or she cannot choose the “right” perspective on the suffering. It sounds like the responsibility rests completely on the indivdual to make the correct interpretation. If that is the case, then I am doomed. Does it all depend on an individual “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Does God’s grace only kick in once I’ve come to the proper interpertation of suffering?

    1. timgombis

      Cheers, Craig.

      Paideia has much more to do with training or moral shaping rather than discipline as we understand it in the modern sense. So, God’s desire for us is that we grow in the capacity to wisely navigate life for our good and others’ good–all of that is to God’s glory.

      The notion of ‘discipline’ isn’t entirely helpful, given modern notions of it. Paideia doesn’t have so much to do with punishment or anything negative. And the context of Hebrews does not have to do with anything that resembles that sentiment of ‘God’s doing this to discipline you’. It isn’t at all that God is doing this to the readers of that letter and we shouldn’t understand God as doing this or that to us. By appropriation, we can say that ‘life happens; trouble comes upon us; let’s respond to it rightly so that the situation shapes us and causes growth in us; and God will enable us by his Spirit to actually see that this process takes place’.

      Also, sadly, in our context we hear the individualistic tones in this, which is unfortunate. For the Hebrews, this was to be a holistic community response and they were to look out for one another to see that this all happened as God desired.

      It’s not that God’ grace only kicks in once we respond to it rightly. Rather, we can either draw upon God’s grace to grow through a difficulty or we can fight it and end up kicking into gear destructive dynamics that will have negative consequences.

      Sadly, Craig, this is one of those passages that has been wrongly read to inform a vision of God that is capricious and terribly unkind.

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