In Hebrews 12:6 we find a citation of Proverbs 3:11,12: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” The author then elaborates the point (verses 10-11), “For they [earthly fathers] 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.”
Yet the question of discipline can divide Christians. Some promote discipline as a lifestyle of true godly devotion; and others discover discipline in God’s love, as it may be needed. Some make it an end in itself: the stuff of a strong faith. Others see it as God’s initiative: his pruning shears that ensure more fruit in a growing faith.
The two camps have separate motives and outcomes—revealing two different types of faith and spirituality. One relies on proper training and the self-moved will. The other looks to love as the basis for all of life—it is a heart based lifestyle.
But before we say more we need to address a notion that may get in the way. Some would hold that any elevation of love and heart over the mind and the will in our spiritual life is mistaken. They argue that in a proper faith we need to be objective rather than subjective: a life of determination rather than a life of desire.
Yet this is an unwitting Stoicism being imposed on Christ. And we need to remember that Zeno, Seneca and other Stoics were pagans rather than Christians; and their system is actually anti-gospel. Paul faced Stoic philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:18) but did nothing to affirm their views. Yet Christian Stoics—including many who don’t realize the Greek source of their views—still press ahead in the pursuit of spiritual “apatheia”: i.e. the self-disciplined life of Stoic tradition. This sort of discipline comes by seeking proper knowledge (now assimilated in the church as rigorous Christian training) and proper disciplines (found in the church as Christian duties).
Sadly, the fruit of a Stoic faith is apathy towards Christ. Why? Because the Stoic gaze is self-focused and joyless rather than Christ-focused and captivated by his glory. The proper gaze of spirituality is always to be towards our Triune God who “is love” and whose love is revealed in Christ. That much is clear in Scriptures.
Now to our point. The Spirit of Christ himself births a proper spirituality. And with his abiding presence there will always be the fruit of self-control (Galatians 5:23). The principle of new life in Christ is that he comes to us and dwells in us by his Spirit. This union with Christ brings a new heart—a living affection for him in place of our old disaffected heart of stone. Faith is moved by this new, lively love (Galatians 5:6).
The question we come to—raised in the Hebrews text, above—is what the author meant by asserting that “those who have been trained by [discipline]” are real children of God. Is faith meant to be a training regime—something like our experience in preparing for an athletic competition? In my memories of my high school track and field days, for instance, I recall running endless training laps with the awareness that the awards on the weekend would always go—if talents were nearly equal—to the fittest. This was “training” for me.
Yet this is a bad analogy to the degree it treats faith as an independent lifestyle. The proper picture of faith is one of a dependent lifestyle: of living now to please and enjoy the fellowship of the one I love because he first loved me and drew me out of my former self-love. Now apart from him I do nothing that is truly spiritual.
Discipline, then, is not a self-directed lifestyle I bring to God in sheer obedience. Rather it is the lifestyle of a child who loves his father—yet who still has a host of impulses to rush away after this and that while on a walk. The father’s discipline is his call for the son or daughter to stay close. And that may call for the occasional stern word, or more! The point is that a loving father will be sure that we remain on the same pathway and in close relationship with him.
Faith, in sum, is our walk with God—our pleasure of learning to “walk by the Spirit” because we now live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). Discipline speaks of God’s ongoing voice and actions that keep us walking in his way; and this is a discipline easy to enjoy. We just need to keep our eyes on Jesus!