“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” —Proverbs 3:11-12
“For it was fitting for Him…in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.” Hebrews 2:10
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children…God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.” Hebrews 12:7,11
I cut my spiritual teeth on a steady diet of this narrative which suggests that bad things happen to people, not just because life is that way and bad things just happen, but because God intentionally sends hard things into the lives of those whom he loves in order to accomplish some greater good in their lives.
It sounds perfectly healthy on the surface, right? Because of course good fathers discipline their sons. Failing to do so would be a dereliction of duty. People who don’t discipline their children aren’t showing them a love that is mature or healthy.
But this beautiful analogy conceals a darker message. There is something much more sinister and manipulative going on underneath this image, and it doesn’t help anyone for us to ignore it simply because people find the idea beautiful or comforting. Beneath this touching metaphor is an unhealthy message about the nature and value of human life.
It’s For Your Own Good
The writers of the New Testament tell us that even Jesus was disciplined by God. Think about that for a second. Did Jesus ever do anything wrong, according to them? Did he ever do anything that would be deserving of punishment? No, according to them he did not.
And yet he was “disciplined.” But why?
And what sorts of experiences are being interpreted here as “discipline?”
Let’s see. There is loneliness. There is rejection. There is self-starvation for at least 40 days in the wilderness while being toyed with by his enemy. There is misunderstanding. There are threats of violence. Then there is actual violence. There is mockery, slander, abuse, and betrayal. Then finally there is torture and then ultimately death.
All of this, according to the writers of the New Testament, was sent by a loving father. It was not ultimately the actions and choices of people that brought this upon Jesus. No, according to the writers of the Bible, this was God’s doing, and this is what his love looks like in the lives of people for whom he cares.
“They did what [God’s] power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” —Acts 4:28
Imagine what that notion does to a person’s understanding of what love looks like.
Imagine being raised in a subculture which teaches you that God sometimes allows bad things to happen to “good” people (except no one is really good, you maggot). But more than that, he directly sends the worst stuff of all to the people whom he really loves the most. His favorites are the ones who suffer the greatest losses.
Even Jesus suffered, they tell us. And he did so, not because he deserved punishment for having done anything wrong, but because that’s just what God’s love looks like. It sometimes looks like intentionally sending suffering into your life just to advance your spiritual development and maturity. These hardships make you more like Jesus, who evidently had to be disciplined as well.
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience from the things which he suffered.” Hebrews 5:8
All good fathers must at times push their children to grow, right? To reach forward to become more of the people they are capable of becoming? On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this idea.
But looks can be deceiving. And this kind of talk is not healthy. Not healthy at all.
This isn’t just talking about pushing your children to be all that they can be. This is about breaking their wills. This is about subjecting them to treatment that is cruel, and doing so in order to teach them to be obedient, subservient subjects. The language of brokenness seeps in here, only now the breaking is intentional, and orchestrated by a divine hand.
Do not confuse this ancient parenting model for one that is healthy. It is not.
This way of thinking about life is a holdover from a more brutal age, from a time in which kings were seen as authoritarian rulers to be obeyed no matter what, with heads of households acting as kings of their own smaller domains, perhaps on a smaller scale but no less authoritarian and above questioning.
This kind of thinking justifies virtually any kind of treatment. Think about it. If a father can do no wrong, and if even sending terrible things into your life can be “love,” then what exactly would mistreatment look like? Is such a thing even possible under this model?
Related: “Why God Cannot Forsake You“
Whether we’re talking about the heavenly father who is invisible, or the visible ones who are supposed to represent him on earth in our daily lives, this is a dysfunctional way to view fatherhood. And it can be used to rationalize virtually anything at all.
Who Are You to Question?
In reality, of course, I don’t believe what happens to us really happens because a Higher Power is working behind the scenes, secretly orchestrating all the events of the world and of our individual lives to accomplish his purposes. I used to believe that because that’s what I was taught to believe.
From my perspective now, though, things just happen. And they don’t always have much intentionality behind them. Some things that happen are just senseless and unfortunate, and to read divine intentionality into them would be devastating and destructive to our own emotional health.
But that’s exactly what this line of thinking produces. If everything happens for a reason, then even the awful things that happen to you must also be “for a reason.” You may think there is life to be found in that way of thinking, but it’s not life after all. It is not grace, and it sure as hell isn’t love.[Related: “Dear Christians, Stop Saying “Everything Happens for a Reason”]
All this line of thinking accomplishes in the hearts of the people who embrace it is helpless resignation. And I don’t mean the good Buddhist kind of resignation that learns to take life as it comes and learns to let go of always having to be in control. This is similar in feel, but it adds an unnecessary layer of complexity in which our unquestioning trust gets placed somewhere misleading and highly unreliable.
This transference of trust onto an unpredictable Object of Faith might be okay if it weren’t for the fact that it includes in its narrative a belief that you don’t deserve anything good to happen to you anyway, and anything better that comes is a blessing to be received with thanksgiving. You should have gotten worse. That’s what you deserve.
Just think about that extra piece for a second. It was almost a good way to think, at first…until that last bit came in which insists you must think less of yourself. And make no mistake…that piece is there, and it is integral to the whole biblical narrative.
According to this narrative, Jesus suffered, not because he did anything wrong, but because you did. That was your contribution to this mess.
What a terrible way to view human life! Like we are merely subservient subjects in a kingdom run by someone who punishes people, not only for the things they themselves do, but for the things which others do as well. And who are you to question a king?
The apostle Paul could have chosen any number of other metaphors to illustrate the relationship between the divine and human wills, but he chose one in which we are helpless objects created solely for the purpose of utilization by the creator.
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? —Romans 9:19-21
Ultimately what this is saying is that when bad things happen to us, we have no right to question why they happen because that’s God’s business, not ours. We must accept what happens as his will and remember to thank him for not sending us something worse, which we most certainly would deserve.
A Living Sacrifice
Someone recently reminded me of a story I read in a book entitled A Severe Mercy. In the midst of recounting his own moving love story between him and his wife, the author tells of a commitment between the two of them to fight the creeping influence of materialism by taking their brand new car, for which they had scrimped and saved for years, and knocking a big dent in the back fender with a hammer before even driving it off the lot.
An extreme measure to be sure, but kind of romantic, don’t you think? I remember being struck by the idealism of the gesture, even if I did cringe a bit at the intentional depreciation of a vehicle they would one day have to sell again. And of course in the evangelical Christian context in which I lived at the time, we took this story as an apt metaphor toward life in general.
We were taught to see ourselves like that new car, full of shiny things that would tempt us to give glory to something other than God, who was responsible for creating us. We were taught that eventually someone—either God or we ourselves—would have to put a dent in us to be sure that we never fell into the sin of pride for who we are or what we are becoming.
We were taught that any gifts or talents we have can only be used by God if they first undergo a breaking process—a disciplining, if you will—in order to ensure that we remain pliable instruments in his hand. This way, only God himself will get the credit for what we accomplish.
I could take you through the whole Bible and show you just how many times God took someone who had abilities but then did something to make them weaker, on purpose. It’s a recurring theme. But for today I simply want to note this motif running through the biblical narrative, and leave you to find some of those places yourself. It shouldn’t be difficult (the story of Job is a good place to start).
Paul tells Christians they have become living sacrifices (see Rom. 12:1-2) which are continually being given over to death in some way, even if only metaphorically (see also 2 Cor. 4:7-18). Invariably this would entail something good, and something alive, being somehow destroyed for the glory of God. Because then and only then, as we are wasting away, giving up the best of who we are and who we could be, God is the one receiving the glory for anything we do. He prefers to do things this way because he is very very jealous about sharing praise with anyone else besides himself.
And this, we are told, is good.
But it’s not.
It is unhealthy. It is anti-human thinking, and I would like to encourage readers of the Bible to step back and consider what kind of father requires that his children be broken before he can use them? And what kind of picture does this give us about our own strengths and contributions, indeed about the value of our own hopes and dreams as creative beings ourselves?
It is a petty father indeed who feels he must tear down his own children in order to make sure he doesn’t have to share a stage with anyone else. Such a father would not inspire love, but fear.
This isn’t a healthy way to think of ourselves at all. It situates our own stories amidst a larger narrative in which our existence is only valuable to the extent which we refuse taking credit for anything good that we ourselves do. It is a dysfunctional way to live, and in fact keeps us only half alive. Because you see, you can’t actually be a living sacrifice.
Like they say in one of my favorite movies of all time, Shawshank Redemption: “You can either get busy living, or get busy dying.” And like I keep saying over and over again, as a humanist I believe in life before death. Thank you very much.
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