Why God’s tests and discipline scared me to death and what I’ve discovered through the gospel

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If there’s one thing I’ve heard repeatedly in my Christian journey has been this, God tests and disciplines using tragedies and calamities to teach us lessons—to strengthen us, make us wiser, and better. For somebody averse to doctor’s appointments, police station visits to apply for a police clearance certificate, the sight of traffic police on the road, visa interviews, exams, etc., hearing that God tests and disciplines using tragedies and calamities sent chills down my spine. I hated the idea that God tests and disciplines us in such a manner, therefore; I didn’t take it well when I suffered a tragedy. And even worse, when they attributed my father’s death to the fact that he had been disobedient, he had failed God’s tests. Imagine a thirteen year old being told God killed their father because he disobeyed. 

Honestly, I think this is where my aversion to tests began—the idea that my father didn’t pass the test and God punished him. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that this God who claimed to be good was also a rule-keeping and point-scoring God whose sole interest was to deal harshly with us when we fail. And yet I stayed a Christian? I’ve always wondered why I didn’t turn against the Christian faith and become an atheist or just an outward rebel. I think God held on to me.

I’ve listened to all manner of ideas on God’s testing and God’s disciplining.

You have this disease because God is testing or disciplining you.

You are poor and uneducated because God is testing or disciplining you.

You are not yet married because God is testing or disciplining you.

You lost your job because God is testing or disciplining you.

Your children are wayward because God is testing or disciplining you.

You lost your marriage because God is testing or disciplining you.

Your child died because God is testing or disciplining you.

Even though you are in an abusive marriage, job, ministry, relationship, etc., God is testing or disciplining you.

Coronavirus has infected you because God is testing or disciplining you.

And those who somewhat ‘pass the test’ God promotes them to the next level or come out of it with a deeper understanding of why they went through that ordeal. And so, most Christians are eager to pass the test or accept God’s discipline to get to the next level. This ‘pass the test’ idea has created a meritocracy. Those who ‘pass the tests’ are considered  spiritual and afforded titles and positions, while those who fail are relegated to the back of the line. And so, like crabs in a bucket, Christians try their utmost best to get to the top.

Do you see how this stream of thought poses a problem to any rational human being—whether Christian or non-Christian? 

I will tell you in my many conversations with people who believe that God tests and disciplines us with tragedies and calamities, none of them give me any answers to these questions—If you are sick because God is testing or disciplining you, why do you go to a doctor? If you are poor and uneducated because God is testing or disciplining you, why do you go to school, get a job, or start a business to be successful and provide for your family? If you are in an abusive situation, say a marriage, why do you go to the courts to get a restraining order? Aren’t you failing God’s tests or discipline? Aren’t you making doctors and teachers co-conspirators to your rebellion? Aren’t hospitals, schools, companies, and courts haven for rebels? Finally, I ask them, if you had a child and wanted to test your child, would you take your child to a driveway, make your child lie down and reverse the car and break his legs, all the while telling your child, “I am teaching you a lesson on healing. Ok”. And in the event your child dies, what would your child have learned? Won’t secular godless governments jail you for child abuse? And yet, we are leveling the same charge on God? That God tests and disciplines us with tragedies and calamities? 

One thing I’ve noticed through the years is their responses are very situational. For example, one would reply and say they would not stay in a marriage where there is abuse, and another would tell me they’d stay, but the staying depends on the level of abuse. And then the other person who would exit an abusive marriage looks at the one who would stay with disgust. Yet both of them still believe God tests people in such cases. Absurd!

If you read the Old Testament through a neophyte’s eyes, you will see verses like this… There he gave them a law and an order, testing them; Exodus 15:25. Read Deuteronomy 28:15-68 and Leviticus 26:14-39. And many neophytes, even though they have been Christians for many years, raise their fists and thunder that this is what God does because this is who he is. They say, “Can’t you see God wrote it in the Bible”. And because we are living in the age of unbridled autonomy or self-law, they say to you, “What makes you think your interpretation of those verses is the only right interpretation? God also speaks and shows me uncommon things”. Most times, actually all the time, they interpolate their unpleasant life experiences and wrong teachings to their understanding of tests and discipline and end up in more confusion.

Let me try to explain what God’s tests and disciplines mean. 

Does God test us? Does God discipline us? Yes, and yes.

From the onset let me be clear, testing in the Old Testament differs from testing in the New Testament.

Testing

The Hebrew word for testing is nasa, which means to prove, tempt, try. Now, think of nasa as an exam [i]. Nasa is to test you, to pass or fail you. 

Exodus 15:26 uses the Hebrew word nasa. There he gave them a law and an order, testing (nasa) them. In simple plain English, God gave them an exam—a test. What was the test for? God designed the test to bring them to the end of themselves—to reveal to them that as sinners; they could not keep that law. But they thought they could. They went like, “Oh, we can pass the test. Bring it on”. And later when they failed the test, yes, God brought those diseases on them. The children of Israel kept on flunking these tests, and God kept on allowing tragedies and calamities to befall them. Why? That was the basis of the relationship they had. If you disobey, I will curse you. If you obey, I will be less you. 

This testing—the giving of the law culminates with the big 10—the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and was the basis of the relationship between Israel and Yahweh. In the Old Testament, whenever Israel broke God’s law, when they failed the test, the natural results were tragedies and calamities. Think of it this way. If you are in university and fail your exams, you will get a bad final average and that will affect your job prospects. You will suffer the tragedy and calamity of unemployment because your relationship with your future employer was based on how well you performed in university. If you got good grades, you got a job. If you failed, you are unemployable.

Schulter, what should have been there response when God gave this test and every other test?

After hearing this law in Exodus 15:26, the Israelites should have prostrated themselves before God and said, “God we won’t be able to keep the law. We are sinners. We are rebels. We will break the law, and you will have to punish us. Be Jehovah Raphah our Healer on account of your grace and not our performance. Heal us because you love us and not because we have followed the rules”. This is what they should have done. Instead, they thumped their chests, straightened their backs, and told God, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded”. (Exodus 19:8, 24:3)

So Christian when you read this 

1 Peter 1:6-7
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Or 

1 Peter 4:12
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed

Consider the context. The context defines the interpretation of these verses and in both cases. What are these various trials and fiery trials? This is an intense opposition that comes from non-Christians. Peter alludes to persecution from non-Christians and not tragedies and calamities from God.

Non-Christians will persecute you, but God uses that persecution like a goldsmith uses fire to burn off any impurities and make the metal strong, so various trials make your faith genuine and result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Again, to be clear, tragedies, and calamities such as sicknesses, COVID-19 are not tests.

These are what Paul calls groanings because of God’s curse. 

Romans 8:22-23
Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

And how did Jesus deal with the brokenness in this world?

Everyone who came to Jesus, who needed healing, received his healing. Jesus did not send them away telling them, “You know I’m leaving that sickness in you to test your faith, to teach you a lesson. When you get healed, if you get healed, you will learn this and that”. Or to the poor, he didn’t say to them, “Oh you know what I’m testing you with this poverty. This is a test you should pass. When you pass, if you pass, I’ll make you rich”. Jesus healed them all, the bible records (Matthew 8:16, 14:14, 19:2, 21:1412:15Mark 3:10, 6:56, Luke 4:40, 5:17, 6:19, 9:1, 11 and John 14:12). Jesus became poor so we could be rich, Paul thunders. (2 Corinthians 8:9)

I wish the thirteen year old me would have been told that your dad made some costly mistakes and those mistakes cost him his life. That God didn’t test him and he didn’t fail the test. That for me, would have been a great lesson on how to make decisions, and the impact your decisions have on your kids. I would have lived with that. To tell me that this good God killed my dad for his disobedience left an indellible mark. Fortunately, that mark is slowly being erased by the gospel of grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in reminding me what Jesus has done for me. But every now and then, I can’t help but think, “Oh man, God is testing me or that guy is in dire straits because he failed God’s tests”. These thoughts still cross my mind. 

God’s discipline

The Hebrew word for discipline is yasar, which means to instruct [ii]. Its Greek equivalent is paideia, which means instruction that trains someone to reach full development (maturity) [iii]. In Hebrews 12:5-7, it appears five times. Paideia is the Greek word from which we get our English word pediatrician or pediatrics. 

From paideia’s definition, when God disciplines you, he uses instructions to train you to reach full development (maturity). God doesn’t use tragedies and calamities to discipline you, God uses instructions. Think of it this way. As much as your child disobeys you, you don’t disown them and do them harm. What do you do? You actually draw them close. Mums are good at this. Mums draw the child near and try their uttermost best to explain how things should be. This is how God disciplines us. 

That is why the role of the Holy Spirit is to teach and remind us of the gospel of grace. (John 14:26, 1 John 2:27) When we sin, the Holy Spirit comes to us and reminds us of what Jesus has done for us. Don’t think that being reminded of the gospel of grace is just a breeze. For the word of God is alive and powerful, sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. (Hebrews 4:12) When the gospel cuts deep, the enemy of your soul will whisper that these things are happening to you because you have been disobedient. Satan will want you to doubt God’s goodness and hate God. Reject his whispers. Know this, your irrational emotions are a reaction to God’s discipline. God uses instructions to discipline you and God disciplines us for our good—to reach full development (maturity).

Revelation 3:19 NLT
I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference.

The Greek word paideuo is used here. The same word as paideia. Because God loves you, He will give you instruction that trains you to reach full development (maturity). He corrects us by instruction. Here the work of the Holy Spirit comes to play. He is the one with us to instruct us to reach full development (maturity)

This is what God’s discipline looks like. 

It is vital and even lifesaving, in fact, to know this truth so that when you go through persecution and fiery trails you don’t get angry at God or you don’t feel as if God has abandoned you. 

Conclusion

In the New Testament, our relationship with God has changed because of Jesus and his work for us. In the New Testament, we have the New Covenant. God’s relationship with us is based on the New Covenant.  

This is how it works

God came in the form of a human being and lived a perfect life. He obeyed and fulfilled the law and passed every test. (Matthew 4:1-11, 5:17). Where Adam and Eve (gentiles), Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the priests, judges, kings, prophets, and the nation of Israel failed in keeping the law, Jesus succeeded. His success was then imputed to us, and our sins were imputed to him (2 Corinthians 5:21) Therefore, there are no more tests for the Christian because Jesus took all the tests, passed and his success was credited to us. And this is the basis of our relationship with God. God now sees us in his son, and he sees us as if we always passed the test. This is what righteousness by faith is, what grace is.

We are no longer under the law—if you obey, I will bless you, if you disobey I will curse you—but under grace—I will bless you on account of Jesus’ obedience, and when you fail, God will forgive you because he judged your sins in the body of Jesus. This is grace. 

We are no longer under the law—if you obey, I will bless you, if you disobey I will curse you—but under grace—I will bless you on account of Jesus’ obedience, and when you fail, God will forgive you because he judged your sins in the body of Jesus. This is grace. 

I was (and still in certain areas of me) a very angry and harsh person because I believed God was angry and harsh towards me. I was also terrified of failure. I believed failure was a mark of weakness, and yet failed badly all the time. I was also very unreasonable in the name of being ‘principled’ and believed everyone should be like me, a black and white person, the no grey areas type. I was never open to new ideas. I could never just relax around people. I was always uptight and suspicious around people—even when these people wanted to befriend me and learn from me. Jeremiah 17:6 described me—and shall not see when good comes. My relationships were very transactional—always about what’s in it for me. I always had a heavy spirit, depressed, and constantly tired. Why? How can you be free and joyful if you believe God is testing you and waits for you to fail so he could unleash tragedies and calamities on you? 

Hey, I am not out of the woods just yet. Jenny would tell you that once in a while vestiges of my old self pop up. My friends would tell you the same. But hey, through the years, as I have immersed myself in the gospel of grace, I now see—the scales are falling off my eyes and I’m seeing Jesus for who he really is. I am seeing his glory and I’m being transformed into the same image from glory to glory. (2 Corinthians 3:18) While in the past I would shudder at the thought of God’s tests, now, the Holy Spirit keeps reminding me to look away from my own perfomance and look to Jesus and his perfomance for me. And that every time tragedies and calamities happen, God does his utmost to save and rescue me. I also understand God’s discipline (instruction that trains someone to reach full development) proceeds out of his love for me. 

Christian, if you believe what I just wrote, you will sense a freedom and joy like no other. 

Non-Christian don’t you wish this to be true? It is true. 

That’s what grace looks like

[i] Nasa from Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon

[ii] Yasar from Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon

[iii] https://biblehub.com/greek/3809.htm

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