I always find it interesting how some words in the English language today have fallen out of usage. Sometimes that’s because we’ve found new phrases, words, or slang that better capture the ideas behind those words. But other times words drop out of circulation because we almost collectively, as a society, don’t even agree with the ideas behind the words themselves anymore.
For instance, the Bible has a commandment (actually two, depending on how you number them) that says, “You shall not covet.” Well, when was the last time you heard someone in your day-to-day life reference coveting? When was the last time you confessed your own coveting? As a pastor, I’ve had many people come to me regretting their mistakes. I have yet to have someone contact me and ask for help and support for his or her coveting problem.
Coveting, by definition, is an inappropriate desire for something you should not have. It can be a real, powerful, destructive, life-consuming problem. But the strange thing is that we live in a world today where we’re told that each individual is free to entertain any desires that he/she would like. These desires are not considered right or wrong, just products of who we are. Consequently, calling a desire “inappropriate” seems like a foreign thought to most modern Americans. We’ve lost the concept of coveting.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is considered something of an instant classic in social science circles. In it, Taylor describes the process of the secularization of the Western world. He says that as we’ve drifted from a God-centric view of the universe to a human-centric view, the meaning of life has shifted from glorifying God to glorifying man, i.e., glorifying self. And this is the reason why in Western civilization we believe the true purpose and meaning of life is our own pleasure, our own comfort, our own happiness. Incidentally, when American Christians reference their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are they channeling a biblical proverb? Nonsense. They’re echoing Western secular rhetoric and ideals. How would this life being about the “pursuit of my happiness” square with Jesus’ repeated encouragements to “take up [your] cross and follow me”(Matthew 10:38)?
Now, very similar to what’s happened with the idea of coveting then is what’s happened to this thing called “chastisement.” Whereas coveting is sort of a pursuit of a comfort we shouldn’t have, chastising is an intentional, loving reduction of our comfort. It’s related to the old English word chasten, which means, “to bring discipline or suffering for the sake of improving character.”
So why don’t you hear people ever using the word chastise today? ANSWER: Because the idea of chastisement is directly at odds with the way modern secular people think.
Sure, we still have the concept of “punishment.” We acknowledge the reality of suffering, the necessity of consequence for bad behavior, and generally perceive it as a form of retribution. But this idea that any pain or discomfort could actually be beneficial, a blessing even to us, that it would come from a place of love, not hate or anger, almost seems so foreign to people today that we’ve all but lost the word from our modern English vocabularies.
Interestingly, in the past 20 to 30 years we’ve also added other words like karma to English vernacular. This unquestionably represents an American sentiment that we need a richer vocabulary to make sense of the chaos and seeming injustices of life. Karma still wouldn’t be a worthy substitute for chastisement though, because although it speaks to cosmic justice, karma is technically completely impersonal. Chastisement is very personal, but loving. Punishment is personal, but retributive. We just can’t get by without that antiquated-soundingchastisement. We need it. In fact, I’d venture to say that it’s impossible to be at peace with God’s operations without having some understanding of chastisement.
Here’s the obstacle for modern thinkers. Many people wonder that if God is a God of grace, forgiveness, and mercy, then why does it constantly seem like we’re paying for our mistakes? If he’s God, then when we screw up, can’t he just give us a nice little 30-minute sermon, explain whatever we did wrong, and then send us on our merry way?
If God really, freely forgives, then why must we endure hardship in life?
But let’s be honest. Who of us has actually ever learned a major life lesson that way? Nobody really changes his/her heart or mind or will just by being told to. Rarely do people ever recognize the horror of their sin simply by being told that they are sinners. We only start to actually appreciate the severity of our sins when we are shownthe damage caused by those sins. We humans just don’t learn much in the way of life lessons by being told. We learn more by being shown.
If that sounds strange, just remember that it works the same way with all of life’s major lessons. Take love, for example. Nobody ever concluded how incredibly loved they were merely by being told they were loved. It only comes when they are shown great love. If you only ever told a little child, “I love you,” but then you never fed the child or provided warmth or cleaned or protected or cared for the child, he/she would never really experience love and therefore would never learn/know love.
I’m not suggesting that words are useless. I’m suggesting that they can be fairly cheap and therefore not fully transformative. This, by the way, is spelled out in Scripture when it comes to Christ’s love also. In John’s first New Testament letter, he doesn’t say, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus told us how much he loved us.” Nope. Rather, he says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Though he told us, he didn’t just tell us. He showed us.
The same is true with our sinfulness. As hard as it is for us, we really do have to experience the ugliness of our sins before we’re compelled to turn from them. That’s not punishment; it’s chastisement. On the surface, this might look like retribution on God’s part. Punishment and chastisement often feel the same. The difference really lies in the motive from which it comes.
Granted, from our perspective, it’s hard (sometimes impossible) to discern why the difficulties of life show up. Whenever we experience some suffering, believers often immediately start to think: What caused this? What did I do to deserve this? Interestingly, the Bible offers no “pat answers” here. You read through Scripture’s wisdom literature and the response is remarkably nuanced. Read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and you get the impression that suffering is mostly self-inflicted, i.e., we reap what we sow. But then you read through Job and you realize that much suffering in life is mysteriously unrelated to any particular sin.
The bottom line, however, is this: whenever experiencing any suffering, we get a heightened sense of our own frailty, our weakness, our dependency on God, and yes, our sinfulness. And in the spectrum of life’s grief, though we can’t always pinpoint it, there is some chastisement from God. Is this a bad thing? Not if it saves your soul, it’s not! It can be uncomfortable, but it’s healthy.
The writer to the Hebrews says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 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” (Hebrews 12:7,11). The words I want you to appreciate the most there are the words father and children. You know what the difference between chastisement and punishment is? Loving relationship.
When an employee screws up at the office, if it’s a bad enough offense, he gets fired by his boss and sent away from the building. But when a son screws up at home, he gets disciplined by his father, perhaps grounded, and stays at home. That’s the difference! If God is a boss, then when you mess up, he punishes you by pushing you away as far from him as he can. But if God is a Father, then when you mess up, he grabs you and pulls you as close to him as possible. Both may initially feel like rejection. But one is coming from a place of love.
Don’t be upset about God’s chastisement in your life; praise him for it as a loving Father who’s doing a difficult thing.
Finally, you know why we’re able to call ourselves children of God in the first place? It’s because the one true child of God, Jesus Christ, got punished, not chastised, in our place, for our sins. On the cross, the Father disowned Jesus, which is why Jesus cried out in agony not, “My Father,” but, “My God, why have you forsaken me?!” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus constantly refers to God as “My Father” throughout the gospels. Why not here on the cross? Because here he couldn’t call him Father. At that moment he’d been cast out of the family. Why? So that we might switch places with him. The real Son got fired so that we, the unfaithful employees, might be accepted into the family and treated as children in God’s house.
Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, can kick you out of God’s household. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve screwed up in this lifetime. And we’ve all done things we sorely regret, things for which there are painful consequences in this life, things for which we humbly and patiently accept chastising. But for the sake of Jesus Christ, our status as God’s dearly loved children will never, ever, ever be put into jeopardy. Our home, our place in heaven, has been secured.
Praise God even in the chastising. Because he’s a loving Father, and that’s what a loving Father does.