Comfort for Christians

by Arthur W. Pink, 1952


"My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when you are rebuked by Him." (Hebrews 12:5)

It is of first importance that we learn to draw a sharp distinction between Divine punishment and Divine chastisement—important for maintaining the honor and glory of God, and for the peace of mind of the Christian. The distinction is very simple, yet is it often lost sight of. God's people can never by any possibility be punished for their sins, for God has already punished them at the Cross. The Lord Jesus, our Blessed Substitute, suffered the full penalty of all our guilt, hence it is written "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin." Neither the justice nor the love of God will permit Him to again exact payment of what Christ discharged to the full. The difference between punishment and chastisement lies not in the nature of the sufferings of the afflicted—it is most important to bear this in mind. There is a threefold distinction between the two.

First, the character in which God acts. In the former God acts as Judge, in the latter as Father. Sentence of punishment is the act of a judge, a penal sentence passed on those charged with guilt. Punishment can never fall upon the child of God in this judicial sense because his guilt was all transferred to Christ: "Who His own self bore our sins in His own body on the tree."

But while the believer's sins cannot be punished, while the Christian cannot be condemned (Romans 8:3), yet he may be chastised. The Christian occupies an entirely different position from the non-Christian: he is a member of the Family of God. The relationship which now exists between him and God is that of parent and child; and as a son he must be disciplined for wrongdoing. Folly is bound up in the hearts of all God's children, and the rod is necessary to rebuke, to subdue, to humble.

The second distinction between Divine punishment and Divine chastisement lies in the recipients of each. The objects of the former are His enemies. The subjects of the latter are His children. As the Judge of all the earth, God will yet take vengeance on all His foes. As the Father of His family, God maintains discipline over all His children. The one is judicial, the other parental.

A third distinction is seen in the design of each. The one is retributive, the other remedial. The one flows from His anger, the other from His love. Divine punishment is never sent for the good of unrepentant sinners, but for the honoring of God's law and the vindicating of His government. But Divine chastisement is sent for the well-being of His children: "We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness." (Heb. 12:9-10).

The above distinction should at once rebuke the thoughts which are so generally entertained among Christians. When the believer is smarting under the rod let him not say—God is now punishing me for my sins. That can never be. That is most dishonoring to the blood of Christ. God is correcting you in love—not smiting in wrath! Nor should the Christian regard the chastening of the Lord as a sort of necessary evil to which he must bow as submissively as possible. No, it proceeds from God's goodness and faithfulness, and is one of the greatest blessings for which we have to thank Him. Chastisement evidences our Divine sonship. The father of a family does not concern himself with those on the outside: but he guides and disciplines his own children, to make them conform to his will. Chastisement is designed for our good, to promote our highest interests. Look beyond the rod—to the All-wise hand which wields it!

The Hebrew Christians to whom this Epistle was first addressed were passing through a great fight of afflictions, and miserably were they conducting themselves. They were the little remnant out of the Jewish nation who had believed on their Messiah during the days of His public ministry, plus those Jews who had been converted under the preaching of the apostles. It is highly probable that they had expected the Messianic Kingdom would at once be set up on earth and that they would be allotted the chief places of honor in it. But the Millennium had not begun, and their own lot became increasingly bitter. They were not only hated by the Gentiles, but ostracized by their unbelieving brethren, and it became a hard matter for them to make even a bare living. Providence held a frowning face. Many who had made a profession of Christianity, had gone back to Judaism and were prospering temporally. As the afflictions of the believing Jews increased, they too were sorely tempted to turn their back upon the new Faith. Had they been wrong in embracing Christianity? Was high Heaven displeased because they had identified themselves with Jesus of Nazareth? Did not their suffering go to show that God no longer regarded them with favor?

Now it is most instructive and blessed to see how the Apostle met the unbelieving reasoning of their hearts. He appealed to their own Scriptures! He reminded them of an exhortation found in Proverbs 3:11-12, and applied it to their case. Notice, first, the words we place in italics: "You have forgotten the exhortation which speaks unto you." This shows that the exhortations of the Old Testament were not restricted to those who lived under the old covenant: they apply with equal force and directness to those of us living under the new covenant. Let us not forget that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable" (2 Tim. 3:16) The Old Testament equally as much as the New Testament was written for our learning and admonition.

Second, mark the tense of the verb in our opening text: "You have forgotten the exhortation which speaks." The Apostle quoted a sentence of the Word written one thousand years previously, yet he does not say "which has spoken," but "which speaks." The same principle is illustrated in that sevenfold "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says (not "said") unto the churches" of Rev. 2 and 3. The Holy Scriptures are a living Word in which God is speaking today!

Consider now the words "You have forgotten." It was not that these Hebrew Christians were unacquainted with Proverbs 3:11 and 12—but they had let them slip. They had forgotten the Fatherhood of God and their relation of Him as His dear children. In consequence they misinterpreted both the manner and design of God's present dealings with them, they viewed His dispensation not in the light of His Love, but regarded them as signs of His displeasure or as proofs of His forgetfulness. Consequently, instead of cheerful submission, there was despondency and despair. Here is a most important lesson for us—we must interpret the mysterious providences of God not by reason or observation, but by the Word. How often we "forget" the exhortation which speaks unto us as unto children, "My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when you are rebuked of him."

Unhappily there is no word in the English language which is capable of doing justice to the Greek term here. "Paideia" which is rendered "chastening" is only another form of "paidion" which signifies "young children," being the tender word that was employed by the Savior in John 21:5 and Hebrews 2:13. One can see at a glance the direct connection which exists between the words "disciple" and "discipline": equally close in the Greek is the relation between "children" and "chastening." Son-training would be better. It has reference to God's education, nurture and discipline of His children. It is the Father's wise and loving discipline which is in view.

It is true that much chastisement is the rod in the hand of the Father, correcting His erring child. But it is a serious mistake to confine our thoughts to this one aspect of the subject. Chastisement is by no means always the scourging of His refractive sons. Some of the saintliest of God's people, some of the most obedient of His children, have been and are the greatest sufferers. Oftentimes, God's chastenings instead of being retributive are corrective. They are sent to empty us of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness: they are given to discover to us hidden transgressions, and to teach us the plague of our own hearts. Or again, chastisements are sent to strengthen our faith, to raise us to higher levels of experience, to bring us into a condition of usefulness. Still again, Divine chastisement is sent as a preventative, to keep under pride, to save us from being unduly elated over success in God's service. Let us consider, briefly, four entirely different examples.

DAVID. In his case the rod was laid upon him for grievous sins, for open wickedness. His fall was occasioned by self-confidence and self-righteousness. If the reader will diligently compare the two Songs of David recorded in 2 Samuel 22 and 23, the one written near the beginning of his life, the other near the end, he will be struck by the great difference of spirit manifested by the writer in each. Read 2 Samuel 22:22-25 and you will not be surprised that God allowed him to have such a fall. Then turn to chapter 23, and mark the blessed change. At the beginning of verse 5 there is a heart-broken confession of failure. In verses 10-12 there is a God-glorifying confession, attributing victory unto the Lord. The severe scourging of David was not in vain.

JOB. Probably he tasted of every kind of suffering which falls to man's lot: family bereavements, loss of property, grievous bodily afflictions came fast, one on top of another. But God's end in it all was that Job should benefit therefrom, and be a greater partaker of His holiness. There was not a little of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness in Job at the beginning. But at the end, when He was brought face to face with the thrice Holy One, he "abhorred himself" (42:6). In David's case the chastisement was retributive, in Job's corrective.

ABRAHAM. In him we see an illustration of an entirely different aspect of chastening. Most of the trials to which he was subjected were neither because of open sins nor for the correction of inward faults. Rather were they sent for the development of spiritual graces. Abraham was sorely tried in various ways, but it was in order that faith might be strengthened and that patience might have its perfect work in him. Abraham was weaned from the things of this world, that he might enjoy closer fellowship with Jehovah and become the "friend" of God.

PAUL. "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure (2 Cor. 12:7). This "thorn" was sent not because of failure and sin, but as a preventative against pride. Note the "lest" both at the beginning and end of the verse. The result of this "thorn" was that the beloved apostle was made more conscious of his weakness. Thus, chastisement has for one of its main objects the breaking down of self-sufficiency, the bringing us to the end of our selves.

Now in view of these widely different aspects chastenings which are retributive, corrective, educative, and preventative, how incompetent are we to diagnose, and how great is the folly of pronouncing a judgment concerning others! Let us not conclude when we see a fellow-Christian under the rod of God that he is necessarily being taken to task for his sins.

We shall now consider the spirit in which Divine chastisements are to be received. "My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when you are rebuked by Him." (Hebrews 12:5)

Not all chastisement is sanctified to the recipients of it. Some are hardened thereby; others are crushed beneath it. Much depends on the spirit in which afflictions are received. There is no virtue in trials and troubles in themselves; it is only as they are blessed by God that the Christian is profited thereby. As Heb. 12:11 informs us, it is those who are "exercised" under God's rod that bring forth "the peaceable fruit of righteousness." A sensitive conscience and a tender heart are the needed adjuncts. In our text the Christian is warned against two entirely different dangers: despise not, despair not. These are two extremes against which it is ever necessary to keep a sharp look-out. Just as every truth of Scripture has its balancing counterpart, so has every evil its opposite. On the one hand there is a haughty spirit which laughs at the rod, a stubborn will which refuses to be humbled thereby. On the other hand, there is a fainting which utterly sinks beneath it and gives way to despair. Spurgeon said, "The way of righteousness is a difficult pass between two mountains of error, and the great secret of the Christian's life is to wind his way along the narrow valley."

I. Despising the Rod. There are a number of ways in which Christians may "despise" God's chastenings. We mention four of them:

1. By callousness. To be stoical is the policy of carnal wisdom—"make the best of a bad situation." The man of the world knows no better plan than to grit his teeth and brave things out. Having no Divine Comforter, Counselor or Physician, he has to fall back on his own poor resources. It is inexpressibly sad when we see a child of God conducting himself as does a child of the Devil. For a Christian to defy adversities is to "despise" chastisement. Instead of hardening himself to endure stoically, there should be a melting of the heart.

2. By complaining. This is what the Hebrews did in the wilderness; and there are still many mumurers in Israel's camp. A little sickness—and we become so cross that our friends are afraid to come near us. A few days in bed—and we fret and fume like a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke. We peevishly ask, Why this affliction? What have I done to deserve it? We look around with envious eyes, and are discontented because others are carrying a lighter load. Beware, my reader! It goes hard with murmurers! God always chastises twice if we are not humbled by the first. Remind yourself of how much dross there yet is among the gold. View the corruptions of your own heart, and marvel that God has not smitten you twice as severely! "My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord."

3. By criticisms. How often we question the usefulness of chastisement. As Christians we seem to have little more spiritual good sense than we had natural wisdom as children. As boys we thought that the rod was the least necessary thing in the home. It is so with the children of God. When things go as we like them, when some unexpected temporal blessing is bestowed—we have no difficulty in ascribing all to a kind Providence. But when our plans are thwarted, when losses are ours—it is very different. Yet, is it not written, "I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I the Lord do all these things"? (Isaiah 45:7) How often is the thing formed ready to complain, "Why have you made me thus?" We say, "I cannot see how this can possibly profit my soul. If I had better health—I could attend the house of prayer more frequently! If I had been spared those losses in business—I would have more money for the Lord's work! What good can possibly come of this calamity?" Like Jacob, we exclaim: "All these things are against me!" What is this but to "despise" the rod? Shall your ignorance challenge God's wisdom? Shall your shortsightedness arraign omniscience?

4. By carelessness. So many fail to mend their ways. The exhortation of our text is much needed by all of us. There are many who have "despised" the rod, and in consequence they have not profited thereby. Many a Christian has been corrected by God—but in vain! Sickness, reverses, bereavements have come, but they have not been sanctified by prayerful self-examination. Oh brethren and sisters, take heed! If God be chastening you—"consider your ways (Hag. 1:5), "ponder the path of your feet" (Proverbs 4:26). Be assured that there is some reason for the chastening. Many a Christian would not have been chastised half so severely, had he diligently inquired the cause of it.

II. Fainting under God's chastenings. Having been warned against "despising" the rod, now we are admonished not to give way to despair under it. There are at least three ways in which the Christian may "faint" beneath the Lord's rebukes:

1. When he gives up all exertion. This is done when we sink down in despondency. The smitten one concludes that it is more than he can possibly endure. His heart fails him; darkness swallows him up; the sun of hope is eclipsed, and the voice of thanksgiving is silent. To "faint" means rendering ourselves unfit for the discharge of our duties. When a person faints, he is rendered motionless. How many Christians are ready to completely give up the fight when adversity enters their life. How many are rendered quite inert when trouble comes their way. How many, by their attitude, say, God's hand is heavy upon me: I can do nothing. Ah, beloved, "sorrow not, even as others who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). "Faint not when you are rebuked by Him." Go to the Lord about it: recognize His hand in it. Remember, your afflictions are among the "all things" which work together for good.

2. When he questions his sonship. There are not a few Christians who, when the rod descends upon them, conclude that they are not sons of God after all. They forget that it is written "Many are the afflictions of the righteous (Psalm 34:19), and that "we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). One says, "But if I were His child I would not be in this poverty, misery, pain." Listen to verse 8: "If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons." Learn, then, to look upon trials as proofs of God's love purging, pruning, purifying you. The father of a family does not concern himself much about those on the outside of his household: it is his children, whom he guards and guides, nurtures and conforms to his will. So it is with God.

3. When he despairs. Some indulge the fancy that they will never get out of their trouble. One says, "I have prayed and prayed, but the clouds have not lifted!" Then comfort yourself with this reflection: It is always the darkest hour, which precedes the dawn. Therefore, "faint not" when you are rebuked by Him. But, says another, "I have pleaded His promise, and things are no better. I thought He delivered those who called upon Him; I have called, and He has not answered, and I fear He never will." What, child of God, speak of your Father thus! You say He will never leave off smiting because He has smitten so long. Rather say He has now smitten so long—I must soon be delivered. Despise not! Faint not! May Divine grace preserve both writer and reader from either sinful extreme.