The Spiritual Battle, Warnings and Discipline
The Spiritual Battle
As God’s people, as we learn to live for Him, we will find ourselves in a battle against three adversaries – the world, which hates us and seeks our allegiance (1 John 3:13 and 2:15-17) our flesh (sinful nature), which opposes the leading of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:17) and Satan, who, through deception, endeavours to deviate us from God’s purpose for us.
The Battle With the World
We may find it hard to see the world (Greek: kosmos) as an enemy. It is what we are most familiar with. We were born into it and because we experience it every day it does not seem a threat to our spiritual journey. For many this world can be the source of happiness, comfort and purpose without any acknowledgement of God. It can give us the impression that all is well, but it is an illusion for the Bible reveals the world as we know it is passing away. The world is a spiritual entity which seeks our affection to the detriment of our love for God:
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).
Behind what we see is a system, a spiritual order overseen by Satan who is called the ruler of this world and the god of this age (John 12:31 and 2 Corinthians 4:4). The institutions of the world: governments, education, science, the arts, the media, etc are not morally neutral but are a part of this world system overseen by Satan and used to his end. They are, for the most part, operated by unregenerate men and women with darkened understanding, independently of God. We are therefore in occupied territory and need God’s protection, strength and wisdom.
Jesus said the world will hate us:
If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you (John 15:19).
Increasingly we see today greater hostility towards Christians, whether it be from hostile followers of a religion such as Islam, atheistic humanism or even secular governments in the name of political correctness. Our allegiance to the kingdom of God and His ways will come under greater testing as the time of the end approaches.
This is why we are said to be in the world but not of it. (John 17:14). Yet we are not to remove ourselves from the world through isolating ourselves from it, but by overcoming it. We should not make the mistake of separating ourselves physically from the world through monastic living as some have done. Our separation is done spiritually not physically. We achieve this through cultivating an attitude of detachment, setting our minds on the things above not on the things on earth (Colossians 3:2). And we are able to do this because of Christ’s death on the cross:
But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).
Note the separation is in two ways: the world to us and us to the world. What was true for the apostle Paul should also be true for us.
And we maintain this separation through faith in Jesus:
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith (1 John 5:4).
The Bible also speaks of this world as this age, (Greek: aion) and as an adversary.
And do not be conformed to this world (age), but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away (1 Corinthians 2:6).
Note it is our thinking that needs to change. So much of what we think is wise is in fact the wisdom of this world. This is why we need to constantly feed on God’s word.
In what ways can the world exert its influence on us?
Idolatry is something we don’t normally acknowledge in western countries but an idol can be anything or anyone we love more than God. Love for this world amounts to unfaithfulness as James warns us:
You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).
So much thought, time and money are spent on all manner of material things which bring us pleasure and comfort such as houses, cars, clothing, entertainment (music, TV, movies and the many other forms of electronic technology) and even food. Through electronic media such as TV, movies and the Internet the world comes to us.
Though not necessarily sinful in themselves they exert a powerful influence on our minds and thinking. We can use them, even enjoy them, but they must never be allowed to take hold of us. They may bring us comfort and pleasure but at best they are temporary and one day they will all be gone.
Jesus told us of the danger of how the love for possessions and riches can quench our love for God and His kingdom. This is particularly bought out in the account of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Luke 18. Here a young man, who when faced with a choice of following Jesus or keeping his riches, chose the latter. So we should ask ourselves: What am I we living for – this world or the kingdom of God?
People such as movie stars, political leaders, sports heroes, singers, musicians and even Christian leaders also can become idols, snares, if they preoccupy are thoughts, desires and love.
The key is learning to be content with what we have, being generous in giving, having self-control and through faith in Christ we can resist the pull and overcome this world. We need to rely on the wisdom that is from God, not that of the world. Every day we are bombarded through the media to buy the latest new thing, without which we are told our lives are deficient. Yet all these things never bring lasting joy or peace. People pursue them, but the pleasure they bring is so fleeting. This is why Jesus said we are to seek treasure in heaven, not on earth (Luke 12:33-34).
Above all, when our delight and love is in God and His kingdom, then the things of this world will have no hold on us.
Money is a necessary means by which we live in this world but we are warned against the love of money:
Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
Jesus castigated the Pharisees because they were ‘lovers of money’ (Luke 16:13-15). They prided themselves because they did not worship idols but they had made money their god. He warned of the danger that riches bought (Matthew 19:23-24).
Yet it is not a sin to have wealth and money but we need to ensure they do not have us. We must be generous and always put our hope in God. As Paul instructs Timothy:
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Jesus said if we seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness our needs will be provided (Matthew 6:33). Can we be content with what God has provided, with just food and covering? (1 Timothy 6:6-8) And when we give to other’s needs, generously from the heart, we experience two things: joy and a greater detachment from the things of this world.
Yet the way to overcome the world is not necessarily through adopting an austere lifestyle but through having our love, joy, peace and hope, not in the things of this world but in the world to come. We need to set our minds on the things above not on the things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2) and see ourselves as pilgrims, strangers, temporary residents in a world which is not our home. Often we will feel pulled in two directions – between the things of this world and the kingdom of God. To overcome love for the world we must love God’s kingdom more.
We should take encouragement from the ‘cloud of witnesses’ in Hebrews 11 who:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:13).
3. Worldly attitudes and thinking
The world also exerts its influence on us by trying to shape our attitudes and thinking. For example, the relationship between men and women (by distorting God created roles), children and the elderly (regarding them as a burden) and servant hood (e.g. it is better to be served than to serve). Such attitudes prevail in the world but should never be in a follower of Christ. And there’s the pride of life. In more and more ways what the world values is not what God values. The desire to be popular, to seek the praise of other men and to have power and control; such things sap our love for God and for His kingdom.
The key to overcoming the world, again, is in Christ; for He has overcome the world (John 16:33). As we remain in Him, in faith loving what He loves and doing what He commands we too will overcome the world.
Finally, I want to emphasise again that our separation from the world is spiritual not physical. Jesus told us we are light in the world and we are not to hide but show that light through moral purity and good deeds, so bringing glory to God (Philippians 2:15 and Matthew 5:14-16). We are a light to the nations, bringing the knowledge of God’s salvation (Acts 13:47). Therefore we need to be both seen and heard. This will mean active and sacrificial involvement in the world, not reclusive separation. As God Himself so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (the world here meaning mankind).
The Battle With the Flesh
‘The flesh’ (Greek: sarx), while sometimes referring to the soft parts of our body (as distinguished from bone), in New Testament usage mostly refers to our sinful nature. It is said to be weak, prone to temptation, corruption, the source of sinful passions, opposed to the leading of the Holy Spirit and is what we inherited from Adam. While in this body we will have to contend with the desires of the flesh but the good news is that in Christ the flesh no longer has power over us and so we are able to resist its desires (see The Cross – the End and the Beginning).
The battle against the flesh is won through our being united with Christ in His death and resurrection.
Our old self (or man) has been crucified with Christ, the body of sin made powerless (Romans 6:6) and our flesh removed (literally ‘circumcised’) in Christ when we were baptised into Him and His death:
and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12).
And through His resurrection we were forgiven our sins and raised to life:
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).
Now, because in Christ we have died, been buried, raised up and received His life, sin no longer has power over us and we are no longer its slave. Therefore we are able, by God’s power, to resist the desires of the flesh through faith in Him. Though our ‘old man or self’ and flesh has been crucified, its power destroyed, the old ways and habits of thinking still remain. These old habits of thought need to change and we do this through setting our thinking on things of the Spirit and by renewing our minds (Romans 8:5 and 12:2). This we do through the word of God.
Our body can be used either to serve God or sin (Romans 6:13). The body itself is not sinful but responds to desires and thoughts from our mind and sinful nature. Though we have been ‘born again’ and have a ‘new self’ (lit ‘man’) a new creature created in the image of God (Ephesians 4:24 Colossians 3:10) we are urged to ‘put off” or ‘lay aside’, put to death, make no provision for and to cleanse ourselves from the flesh and its deeds. Because of our inherited habits of thinking, this will not be easy, and at times difficult. It will necessitate self discipline, self denial and especially, taking control of our thoughts. As Paul urges us:
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24 ESV).
It is our new self in Christ which is now our true and living identity initiated and maintained through faith in Him. While in this body we will experience an ongoing struggle between the flesh and the new self in Christ. But victory is assured through what Christ has already done for us at the cross. And remember this: the old self is crucified, dead and buried but the new self is alive, created after the image of God and being renewed day by day. And on the day of Christ, our corruptible body of flesh will be transformed into one which can never be corrupted. Then our battle with the flesh will have ended. Therefore we can have great confidence and hope.
Satan is the unseen spiritual adversary of every child of God. He is said to be the ruler of this world and the god of this age, the devil, the deceiver, the tempter, the father of lies and accuser of the brethren.
At one time he was one of the chief angels of God (known then as Lucifer) but fell through pride. Since the beginning he has continually sought to thwart God’s purpose. With 6000 years of experience with mankind we should not think we can defeat him in our own strength or wisdom. We are told to resist him (1 Peter 5:8-9) in the knowledge we are no longer in bondage to him through the salvation that is in Christ.
While we have been delivered from Satan’s authority he can deceive us through his lies (2 Corinthians 11:3), tempt (1 Thessalonians 3:5) and ensnare us in sin (1 Timothy 3:7). Satan’s lies can be presented in the guise of an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). That is they may appear and sound good, have a form of righteousness but are not of God. Such lies are the substance of false religions and cults. Obvious temptations we may readily recognise, but when truth is twisted and mixed with error we need spiritual discernment (Hebrews 5:14). It is a battle between two words – the word of God versus the lies of the devil. This is why it is crucial we feed constantly upon and know God’s word.
God will protect us from Satan (2 Thessalonians 3:3 and 1 John 5:18) but we need to submit ourselves to God, obey His word, stand firm, resist the devil and not give him an opportunity (either by thought or action) through putting on the full armour of God, especially the shield of faith (Ephesians 4:27, 6:11,16).
Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7)
If we diligently do these things we will not be deceived.
The Spiritual Battle and How To Wage It
The greatest battle will not come through an obvious temptation to sin or even persecution but through deception in a religious guise. Jesus tells us that at the end time satanic deception will be at its zenith, deceiving, if it were possible even the elect (Matthew 24:24). This is why it is essential we know God’s word through reading the Bible and having personal communion with Him in prayer. This requires an active mind-set, for a passive mind is fertile ground for deception.
Paul tells us the nature of this battle and how to wage it:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armour of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:10-12).
Our battle is ultimately against unseen spiritual powers, not against fellow humans. He tells us to put on truth and righteousness, to be ready with the gospel of peace, with faith as a shield, assured by the knowledge of our salvation and God’s word, and to pray at all times in the Spirit (6:13-18). And as Jesus said “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
This battle against the world, the flesh and the devil requires our constant diligence and discipline and will be with us as long as we live in this world. Yet it is in God’s strength we do battle, not our own.
The horse is prepared for the day of battle, But victory belongs to the LORD (Proverbs 21:31).
Since sin begins with a thought we need to guard our thoughts before they become an act. As James warns of how desire progresses to sin:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:13-15).
How do we counteract Satan’s promptings? With God’s word – like Jesus did in His time of temptation (Matthew 4:1-10). We can say with full authority: “Satan – you have no authority over me, when Christ died I died and I belong to Him.” Disciplining our thoughts, taking them captive and obedient to Christ, will take time and perseverance.
Temptations rarely come in an obviously evil form but rather they will come in a way which seems nice, pleasant, gratifying and pleasing to our old nature, but contrary to God’s word. This is the deceptive nature of sin. As it was in the garden of Eden when Eve was tempted, it seemed good but was contrary to what God had said.
Sin has its root in an attitude of wanting our own way or to please man rather than God. Therefore we should not blame circumstances, other people and especially God! (James 1:13-15). When we blame God, or are angry with Him, we are in danger of developing a hardened and bitter heart. This is not to say we may, at times, struggle in our understanding of God’s ways when we are deeply hurt or disappointed. Though we may not understand why such has happened it is crucial our faith in Him remain.
Nor should we trifle with temptation thinking we can later confess and ask forgiveness. To do such is putting God to the test (1 Corinthians 10:9). If we believe there is no eternal consequence to sin our will has little defence to temptation (for more on this theme see Are We ‘Once Saved Always Saved’?).
We may at times face despair and it seem all hope is lost. Yet faith in God and obedience will see us through. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane faced His greatest trial. Unlike the modern day super-heroes portrayed on the screen as unflinching in the face of danger or defeat, Jesus showed true human weakness. He prayed that He not have to endure the suffering of the cross, yet submitted His will to the Father’s. He remained faithful and obedient even when separated from His Father, in agony crying out “My God, My God why have You forsaken Me?”
The greatest battles we face may not be the ones we consider great but living and being faithful to Christ in the daily grind of life – in our homes and workplaces which we are most familiar with. It is in these places we need a Christ-like attitude – a servant rather than self-serving attitude and to be content within our circumstances of life be they humble or not.
The path of victory is always through faith in Christ as we put off the deeds of our old self and put on the new self created by God. We put off hate and put on love, replace unforgiveness with forgiveness, judgement with mercy, words of malice with words of grace, pride with humility, lies with speaking the truth, impatience with patience, lust with purity, indifference with compassion, abuse with kindness, selfishness with generosity, greed with self-control, doubt with faith, conflict with peace and depression with hope.
Above all we need a sincere knowledge and an implicit trust in God’s word, the Bible, without which we will be like ships without a rudder or anchor.
We need to pray. If Jesus, the Son of God, needed to pray in His time of testing, then how much more do we? It has been said ‘As air is to our body so prayer is to our spirit’. Prayer shows our dependence as a child on our Father in heaven. We are encouraged not to be anxious, but to give thanks and make our requests known to God (Philippians 4:6). In Paul’s instruction to put on the armour of God we are urged to pray at all times in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:10-18) – not just when we feel like it.
In the same way it can be said we need to praise and give thanks to God. 100 times in the Psalms we are exhorted to praise God for what He has done and what He will do. Like David, praise should be the natural outflow of a heart of gratitude and love for God:
I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).
While prayer shows our dependence on God praise shows our gratitude. We should praise God as part of prayer and through song. Praise should be the natural response to His salvation:
The LORD is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation; This is my God, and I will praise Him; My father’s God, and I will extol Him (Exodus 15:2).
We should note that Paul’s encouragement to be ‘filled with the Spirit’ is in the context of ‘singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord’ and ‘giving thanks always for all things to God’ (Ephesians 5:18-20). When we are at the end of our own strength God’s strength will sustain us.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:26).
To know God’s will we need to know what He is saying to us. Therefore if we have a Bible we need to read it. It is our indispensable, infallible guide and reference. As the Psalmist says:
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1-2).
How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word (Psalm 119:9).
If reading the Bible seems difficult and dry, persist until it becomes a delight. Renewing our minds takes time and perseverance.
By God’s word we are able to discern truth and error. Through the Scriptures we are corrected and trained in righteousness so that we will be equipped and prepared to do every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Clearly the Bible has a very practical purpose and not for mere intellectual curiosity or gratification.
We also need to hear God’s word spoken through fellow Christians. This is why we are encouraged not to neglect meeting regularly with other Christians in church and home settings. Like the Berean Christians (Acts 17:11) we need to check what we have heard from others against God’s word as revealed in the Bible to ensure that it is the truth.
So if we neglect to do these we are in danger of deception, unable to test and discern false teaching – from men or from the spirit realm. I believe the greatest danger in this day is not from a false religion such as Islam, but in a counterfeit Christianity, which has the form of but lacks the substance and power of the true faith. Such may selectively quote Scripture (and so did Satan) but inevitably fails to declare the whole counsel of God. It may sound good, logical and appealing but is a distortion of the truth, a half truth which is more dangerous than an outright lie. False ways find receptive ground in those who know something of God’s word, but not enough to discern error. The Psalmist says:
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105).
As the writer to Hebrews encourages us, we need to feed on the solid food of God’s word, the word of righteousness, not just the milk, if we are to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).
Shepherds of the flock have a particular responsibility to teach the whole counsel of God impartially and will be held to account by Jesus on the day of judgement. It is a serious neglect to not teach truthfully parts of scripture for fear of offending people.
We Need to Persevere
We need to persevere. Forgiveness of our sins and justification occur in a moment but growth in holiness takes time. New habits need to be learned moment by moment and require perseverance. If we fall, we need to get up, repent and keep going.
One of Satan’s strategies is to discourage us and cause us to lose hope. Like soldiers on active service and athletes in a race we need to exercise self-discipline and keep our goal in mind. As Paul says ‘Run in such a way that you may win’ (1 Corinthians 9:24). An athlete trains both his body and mind to win. He knows only one can win, but that does not deter him. His goal is to win. And so with us. Though we may fail at times, we must get up and continue with the intention to finish the race and win in the knowledge God’s strength will sustain us.
Faith is inspired and energised by the example of others in the faith – like the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11. This is why reading biographies of others who have endured much for the sake of Christ can be so encouraging.
Salvation belongs to the Lord. So be on guard against any thought of pride like “I have overcome sin by my strength”. For if we repent, it is because God has given us the opportunity. If we are forgiven, it is only by the precious blood of Christ. If we are saved from the penalty and power of sin, it is through the cross of Christ. Through His resurrection He has given us life. We have His word as a light to guide us, brothers and sisters to help bear our load and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us. Therefore we should always give the credit to God, not ourselves.
Warnings About Departing From God
We need to give some attention to this subject as it is one I believe tends to be neglected and deserves more serious thought than is commonly practised.
This subject may be difficult but we need to face honestly and take to heart some of the warnings of Scripture – those which, plainly stated, show how we can depart from God and not enter into His final rest if not heeded. While they may make us feel uncomfortable, we should not avoid or neglect them. They are written for our good, so we will be forewarned and prepared, since there are potential snares and by-ways which can cause us to depart from the road to life.
Israel, through faith, were saved from Pharaoh and Egypt (Hebrews 11:29) by passing through the Red Sea. Yet most did not enter the Promised Land because they did not continue in faith and obedience. This serves as an example and a warning to us today as we read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “the people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall (1 Corinthians 10:6-12).
We should note also that Israel did not take possession of the Promised Land without having to conquer seven enemies, residents in the land. This serves as an example of the spiritual battle we face before we inherit God’s kingdom. Therefore, though we have believed and become God’s people we cannot be complacent.
Jude reminds us also with the example of Israel:
Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe (Jude 1:5).
And Paul, also, cautions the church in Rome of being self confident, again giving the example of Israel:
Quite right, they (Israel) were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again (Romans 11:20-23).
We need to take to heart both the kindness and severity of God since we can be cut off should we not continue in God’s grace through faith and obedience.
And the writer to the Hebrews gives a similar warning not to be complacent:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it (Hebrews 4:1) and to be diligent to enter that rest (4:11).
Further warnings from the parables of Jesus and the book of Hebrews on this subject will be considered later.
It is not God’s will that any perish and He saves us by His grace, through faith, so we can enter His kingdom and final rest. We should never think, though, our efforts in any way merit His grace. Yet our gratitude and willing obedience are the proper, humble response to God’s grace.
It may be asked “How far can I go away from God before I will be cut off?” Scripture doesn’t explicitly say. God only knows. It is a bit like asking “How close can I get to the edge of a cliff without falling over?” It is a question we shouldn’t ask since we should want to keep as far away as we can. It should be the same with sin.
Throughout Scripture we are warned of the consequences of unrighteous behaviour. Such warnings are for our good so that we do not become complacent or deceived:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9,10).
We find similar warnings also in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. Those who practice unrighteous behaviour have no inheritance in God’s kingdom (Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5).
And as John cautions us:
No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother (1 John 3:6-10).
God Disciplines His People
Just as a loving parent disciplines their child for their own good so they will grow to be responsible and caring adults, so God lovingly disciplines His children that they might learn to be like Him – holy and righteous. Discipline is never pleasant and God disciplines us through trials which test and grow our faith and obedience.
Through physical training we can grow physically stronger. Likewise we grow spiritually stronger through circumstances which require us to use the divine abilities we were given when God saved us. God’s discipline is always redemptive in purpose, to draw us back or closer to Him and to make us like Jesus. We should not misunderstand it as punishment. However, if we knowingly continue in sin, God may cause sickness or some other misfortune to come on us with the purpose of bringing us to repentance (e.g. Revelation 2:21-23).
Suffering and persecution might seem to some as though we have earned God’s disfavour, yet if we suffer for doing right we find favour with God. Through such times of suffering we learn to first trust God, since He intends that all things work for good for those who love Him. We learn patience, endurance and to love and forgive those who cause suffering to us.
We have many examples of suffering in the Bible where people of God, not only endured, but maintained a positive witness throughout. Joseph suffered treachery at the hand of His own brothers, from his master and forgotten by another whom he had helped. Yet though wrongly enslaved and imprisoned he did not entertain self-pity but resolved to serve as best he could those who were over him. As a result God blessed him and he became the means of saving his family through a time of severe famine. So we too, when faced with injustice, should not indulge in self-pity or take revenge, but resolve to serve God and do good even to those who don’t deserve it.
Jesus gave us the ultimate example of suffering – unjustly accused, crucified and laying down his own life that we might live. He remained faithful to His Father while on the cross and separated from Him. When Jesus said “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” it was a time of ultimate testing. We too might have times in our lives when all seems lost, God is distant or absent and our prayers unheard. Yet these are the times when our faith is tested and when we have come through it we will find ourselves stronger and better people for it. As the writer to the Hebrews encourages us, we are disciplined for our good so we might share God’s holiness:
For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “my son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.”
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:3-11).
Discipline, suffering and trials can come in many forms – through other people, sickness, accidents, financial hardship and even natural disasters. It is through such trials that God forms the character of Jesus in us. It can be said God forges our being in the fires of affliction. As Peter encourages us:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation (1 Peter 4:12,13).
So don’t be discouraged in such times and think God is punishing us or has rejected us. As God tells Jeremiah:
For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness. For He does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men (Lamentations 3:31-33).
God disciplines those He loves. We should, though, first ask ourselves “Is there sin in my life that I need to repent of?” If our conscience is clear then we should ask “What is God teaching me through this trial?” When we trust God in such times His peace and joy will sustain us (John 16:33). As the Proverb says:
A wise son accepts his father’s discipline but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke (Proverbs 13:1).
A true son loves his father, obeys him and wants to be like him. And a son does not resent his father’s discipline.
As God’s sons and daughters we can expect hostility from the world:
Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you (1 John 3:13).
And we can expect to be persecuted when we live for Christ:
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (1 Timothy 3:12 ESV).
Persecution is a sure indication that we belong to Jesus. Why? The world hates us because our hope and loyalty are in God’s kingdom, not in this world. So if we find ourselves in persecution we should not despair. Knowing our goal and the amazing promises of God will keep our hope and faith alive so we will be able to endure. With this in mind we can truly give thanks and praise to God. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned they sang hymns of praise to God (Acts 16:25). Song is a source of strength as Paul tells us:
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).
We can be encouraged with these words:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
And when we humbly acknowledge our weakness God’s power can work in us. Like Paul, we should have this attitude:
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9,10).
God does not expect of us what we are not able to do. By His grace He provides us with the power and strength to do His will. Therefore as we prepare for the spiritual battle, heed God’s warnings and submit to His discipline we will find in God’s word every encouragement to endure suffering, trials and persecution so that we will grow strong in faith and not fall:
that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:9-13 ESV).