A Theological and Pastoral Response to Discipline/Suffering

Don Carson responds to a question about how we are to understand “discipline” (Heb. 12:6-7), and how that relates to retribution, suffering, sin, etc. Carson’s response not only provides an excellent theology of “discipline/suffering” but also an excellent model of a pastoral response:

As we look to the Bible, Carson notes that it is easy to think of passages of Scripture in which . . .

  • “God sends catastrophic judgment in a purely retributive way, without an ounce of cleansing discipline (e.g., the destruction and death of Saul, for whom Samuel was ordered to cease praying).”
  • “a human being experiences years of suffering entirely unconnected to any immediate human sin (e.g., the man born blind in John 9)”
  • “long-term suffering (e.g., the man paralyzed for 38 years, John 5) and even death (1 Cor 11) is the direct result, not of the entailments of the Fall, but of particular sins.”
  • “suffering is clearly not deserved for any direct offense, and where the only "explanation" given is not so much an explanation as a powerful appeal to trust the living God whose power and knowledge are infinitely greater than ours (Job).”

From these Scriptures addressing various reasons and purposes of discipline/suffering , Carson draws “three important inferences with substantial pastoral implications.”

First, we are likely to make exegetical and theological mistakes when we take any one of these passages and treat it as if it explains all suffering.

Second, in any suffering, or in any other event for that matter, God is doubtless doing many things, perhaps thousands of things, millions of things, even if we can only detect two or three or a handful.

Third, it follows that when we face suffering of any kind, we should use the occasion for self-examination. God may be speaking to us in the language of a wise heavenly Father who chastens those he loves.

Carson's conclusion contains a great deal of wisdom.

We sometimes observe that hard cases make bad theology. But easy, formulaic answers to questions of suffering are invariably reductionistic---and they make bad theology, too.

I encourage you to read Carson’s response in full. It is one you will want to ponder and pray through, not only for your own life but also for those to and with whom you will give pastoral care. And make sure to file it away because until we are in glory we will need it again, as will someone else.

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