In this day of our journey deeper and deeper into the Father’s Heart, let’s look at how much we’re influenced by the fear of punishment. Does the discipline of a good father always mean punishment? Could it be that we wrongly interpret the pain of discipline as a bad thing?
Do we want to hide from God when he disciplines us? Or do we run to him with thanksgiving because he has taught us something valuable?
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined — and everyone undergoes discipline — then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, 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 spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 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 NIV)
Very early in life I realized that if I learned from other people’s mistakes, I could avoid getting into trouble with my parents. When my brother or sister got punished, I observed what they had done wrong and determined not to do the same thing. This didn’t protect me from making my own mistakes and erring in other ways, but it did set me on a life-long course of making it a top priority to learn the easy way how to do what’s right.
During my childhood, this earned me the reputation of being a “goodie-goodie” amongst my friends. Sometimes even “holier than thou” because I also prayed a lot and thought everyone should do likewise. It puzzled me why people used these nicknames as if they were insulting me. I didn’t know it yet, but they were mocking the divine calling, which we all have, to become saints.
Somewhere along the way of maturing into an adult, avoiding the punishment of my dad grew into the desire to do only what God the Father wants me to do — “nothing more and nothing less” (as I say in my morning prayers) — even when it doesn’t make sense or when it goes against my personal inclinations. My plan is to keep getting better and better at this (with the Holy Spirit’s help).
“Do whatever he tells you” (from John 2:5) was the theme of a conference that Ralph and I attended in 1993. It beckoned us in giant letters painted across a wide banner above the stage. As we would later find out, this was the first clue that God was going to send us to Florida to become founders of Good News Ministries of Tampa Bay. But we had to go through a formation process — one that Abba himself designed.
The key skills of holy living are listening to, waiting for, and discovering God’s Divine Will. This process requires a lot of time, the humility of self-doubt, plenty of mistakes and a desire to learn from our mistakes. Therefore, we should be forgiving and patient with ourselves when we err. Abba-Father is — but not forever; we all arrive at the day of reckoning when we discover that our unrepented sins have become “what you reap is what you sow”:
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8 NIV).
Why is obedience so difficult at times? Why do we rebel? The answer lies in the question of what motivates our obedience: Is it the fear of punishment? Or a genuine love for God? If it’s the fear of punishment, of course we want to rebel from that kind of Father! If it’s love, we want to please our Father just like any child who wants to do good deeds for a parent out of sheer appreciation.
If it’s love, our obedience is grounded in the confidence that God knows what’s best for us. But do our decisions always show this confidence?
Every teaching of Jesus, every law that Jesus came to fulfill, every command that Jesus gave is not a restriction of our fun and our free will but a protection against evil.
But the righteous live forever, / and their reward is with the Lord; / the Most High takes care of them. / Therefore they will receive a glorious crown / and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord, / because with his right hand he will cover them, / and with his arm he will shield them. (Wisdom 5:15-16 NRSV)
The Father always has our best interests at heart. He only wants to bless us and to bless others through us. The teachings of Christ are an embrace by Abba-Father’s love, and it is felt by those who want to be holy, that is, unless we’ve been made numb by the fear of punishment doled out from a Father upon whom we’ve projected human traits.
Have you thought that perhaps the disease you suffer or the lack of healing despite many prayers is God’s punishment for sin? Or that his disapproval was revealed through a car accident, or the fire that burned down the house, or the loss of a job, or any other hardship?
Terrible things happen merely because we are living on Earth instead of in Heaven, not because God is punishing us. But sometimes what we suffer is a reaping of what we’ve sown, like the knee pain caused by being overweight, or like the absence of friends caused by lying to them. In effect, we are punishing ourselves — and God permits this because he knows that good can come from it and he won’t over-ride our free will decisions even though he knows the consequences that we will face. This might sound unloving, but wait till you see the good that comes from it!
The role of repentance in discipline
When we think of God as The Punisher, our natural inclination is to live in self-protection mode. We convince ourselves and others that what we’re doing that feels wrong is really not wrong. To avoid punishment (or so we think), we choose to believe that sin is not sin — which is the heresy of moral relativism. When we sin we justify ourselves, blame others for our mistakes and hide from our need to repent.
The word “repent” usually carries with it the idea that we are bad, and so we prefer to believe that we are okay no matter what we’ve done. But “repent” actually means “to change direction” after realizing that where we’ve been going (or what we’ve been doing) is wrong.
In other words (and it’s healing to know this) it’s the direction we’re headed in that’s bad, not us.
God made each of us good! Yes, even you and even the worst person in the world. Holiness is our core nature, our true nature. On the sixth day of creation, God said, “Let us make humans next — in our image, in our likeness.” God’s traits are at the core of our nature! He looked over everything he had created — including you — and declared it “very good”. (See Genesis 1:26-31.)
Sin — even when we don’t believe it’s a sin — interrupts our goodness. It interrupts our relationship with our Good Father, so he sent Jesus the Savior to redirect us away from the path to Hell and toward the path to Heaven. Jesus took our sins upon his sinless self and nailed them to the cross with his body. He conquered sin for us by letting our sins destroy him, dying for us. Then he overcame this destruction through his resurrection. When we embrace this truth, we are set free to be who we really are (made in the image of our Father).
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2 NIV)
We are saints who still need a lot of purification, but we are not bad people. We are cherished children of a caring Father. “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline,” he says. “So be earnest and repent.” (Revelation 3:19 NIV)
Most of us tend to think that the word “discipline” is a synonym for “punishment”. But the discipline of Abba-Father is best described as “formation” — like a potter shaping a beautiful clay vase that will someday hold sweet-smelling flowers.
Indeed we have sinned, “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. / We are the clay, you are the potter; / we are all the work of your hand”. (Isaiah 64:8 NIV)
But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him” (Jeremiah 18:4 NIV).
Our Loving Father reshapes our lives in order to bring our best selves out from within.
There are three phases in the disciplinary process. First, marred by our own sins, we suffer the consequences of wrong decisions. For example, a man who is attached to the things of this world — his house, his car, his books, his plans — suffers greatly when he loses them. In this phase, it’s all about what we want. We want the suffering to end and our prayers are meant to convince God to fix things.
What God does, however, is hold in his hands our brokenness and all of our potential for what we could become. While he waits for us to surrender to his potter’s wheel, he lets us continue to damage ourselves until we decide we are willing to enter the second phase.
Now it becomes all about what God wants. We seek the face of God. And he smiles as he accepts from us the gift of misshapen clay that came from our poor decisions, our woundedness and our rebellions. Our prayers are meant to serve God.
This is when the man in our example decides that he really doesn’t need all of his worldly stuff. More than anything else, he wants to have an intimate relationship with God as a personal friend and a caring Father. Now the Father is free to reshape the man’s life into something more useful, something that looks different than before.
There is one more stage. The third stage is when the new life — the reshaped pot — benefits others. It becomes all about the sufferings of others and what we can do to help. Our prayers are meant to detach us from everything self-centered. We seek to be the hands and face of God. (We will cover this in more depth in a later chapter.)
The real meaning of discipline
My dad was the family disciplinarian. He often told us that Mom was the one who understood the psychology of children and he only understood that he was elected to mete out the punishment. “Wait till your father gets home” is the way many mothers get their kids to behave if she can’t do it with reasoning and rewards (unless the father no longer lives in the home; we’ll cover this later, too). And so, when my dad came through the front door ready to relax after a long day of work and he was greeted by the need to discipline children, you can guess why I formed an image of the Father as short-tempered, unhappy, and tired of his children’s stupid disobedience.
We all learned as children that upsetting the Father usually results in punishment.
Indeed, God’s discipline sometimes is very punishing. But not because God is quick-tempered and tired of our sinfulness. Scripture tells us, “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13 ESV).
Discipline feels punishing due to our own attitude, not God’s. How reluctant are we to change? Do we hate our broken lives yet continue in our old ways despite how miserable we feel? Or are we willing to learn what Abba-Father is teaching us through it?
The word “discipline” actually means “train” or “prepare by instruction” as in teaching one how to do a task or get something done. It comes from the Latin word disciplina¸ which means instruction or knowledge. It shares the same root as discipulus from which we get the word “disciple”.
During the Middle English years (c. 1100 – c. 1500), the word “discipline” became associated with mortification by scourging yourself as penance for sins. It’s a perversion of what discipline is meant to be. And it still lingers: Instead of feeling good that we have learned something through discipline, we feel guilty. We are not gracious and merciful to ourselves. Even after going to Confession and hearing Jesus say, through the priest, “Your sins are forgiven,” we beat ourselves up for what we did wrong.
Abba as Potter does not smash the sinner to reshape him. That would be unloving. To appreciate the discipline of Abba-Father, we must first focus on his merciful love instead of seeing him as a chastiser who never forgets how we erred. This change in our thinking isn’t easy because we’ve been trained to chastise ourselves. (“Catholic guilt” is what I’ve heard it called.) And it’s not easy because we realize that God is all-knowing and therefore it’s impossible for him to forget our sins. Right? Therefore, we should not forget ourselves either. Do you have a problem forgiving yourself? If so, this is probably why.
One day I asked God if he really could forget our sins after we’ve repented and reconciled with him in the Sacrament of Confession. He replied, “Do you remember being born?”
“No, of course not,” I said.
“But you know you were born.”
“Yes, of course.”
“In the same way, I know all the ways you have sinned, but I do not remember any of it since you repented and asked for My forgiveness. I have not dealt with you according to your sins or repaid you according to your iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is My loving devotion to you. As far as the east is from the west, that’s how far I have removed your transgressions from you. As a father has compassion on his children, so I have compassion on you. For I know how I formed you. I remember that you are weak, like dust.” (See Psalm 103:10-14.)
Before moving forward from here, let me interject a question that I’m often asked: “HOW do you have conversations like that with him? How do you get him to answer your questions like a human being would?” I used to ask others the same question.
Hearing Abba-Father conversationally comes from many years of clearing out my misconceptions about him while learning to trust him more and more. It comes from being “baptized in” or anointed by the Holy Spirit through the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, for this makes all the difference between trying to succeed on my own and receiving supernatural help.
It also comes from my imagination. I ask the Holy Spirit to anoint my imagination every time I do a visual meditation or ask God a question. Then I trust that my submissive willingness to learn the truth is all that the Father needs to reach my heart with his words. His voice has my permission to reach the ears of my soul.
And it comes from scriptures too. Notice that his answer to my question above came from Psalm 103. I don’t have the Bible memorized; I merely have read it enough and listened to it proclaimed in Sunday and daily Mass for many years. The idea or principle of a scripture comes to mind, not the chapter and verse. Later, I research it and find the scriptures that help answer my question.
The whole conversation takes place, usually, over the course of days and sometimes months. At first I hear the short answer in my heart or soul or imagination (whichever you want to call it). This begins a process of continued reflection about it. More is revealed through a book I’m reading, or a comment made by my husband or a friend, or a hawk flying by, or anything that God in his infinite creativity chooses.
As long as what we hear during prayer does not contradict the Bible and the teachings of the Catholic Church, we can trust that it is God’s voice and not the devil’s.
And if it requires us to be submissive to the Father and we’re willing for our minds to be changed, and if it comes with a sense of peace and joy (the kind that comes from the “aha!” feeling of discovering a wonderful revelation) even if it proves that we had been wrong about something, with no self-defensiveness or self-justification tainting the message, we can trust that it is God’s voice and not our own.
When the conversation feels like I’m the clay and the Divine Potter is reshaping me into becoming more like him, I know I can trust what I’m hearing.
Anyone who has entered the first phase of disciplinary growth, as described earlier in this chapter, has jumped onto the potter’s wheel. Proverbs 3:32 (NASB) says, “For the devious are an abomination to the LORD; / But he is intimate with the upright.” The devious are those who don’t seek God at all. They plot and plan everything without him, making themselves to be like a god as if they can decide what is sin and what is not a sin.
The upright are those who seek God and want to embrace Divine Will — no matter how perfectly the person obeys him. Period. Saintliness is not about avoiding all sins. It’s about accepting the Father’s discipline like the clay pot accepts the potter’s hands. We want him to lovingly (and yes, gently) reshape of our own will so that it looks more and more like his.
It’s a life-long purification. It’s an intimacy with the Potter who can make wonderful and beautiful treasures out of broken pieces.
Every rebuke from Abba-Father is a blessing. We know that he does everything for our good, but do we fully believe it? Not usually. During hardships, we demand that he quickly bring a stop to everything that’s painful. We seek his helping hand and, if we can’t see it, we feel abandoned or punished.
In truth, he never abandons us. Even when we are unfaithful to God, he remains faithful to us, because he cannot forsake himself. It’s impossible for him to stop loving us. He is always good and can never do evil (see 2 Timothy 2:13).
Saint John of the Cross explained it this way: “God sustains every soul and dwells in it substantially, even though it be that of the greatest sinner in the world, and this union is natural. The supernatural union exists when God’s will and the soul’s will are in conformity. Therefore, the soul rests transformed in God through love.”
A very common question raised by hardships is, “Why me? Why do I have to suffer this?” There’s an old cliché that contributes to the pain of this: “There but for the grace of God go I.” We think it when we see someone else suffer. I wish I could erase this saying from the planet! For me and for many others it implies that God did not give his grace to that person who is suffering. With this possibility in the back of our minds, we could easily conclude that when it’s our turn to say “Why me?” it’s because God has withdrawn his grace from us.
Let’s change the cliché to: “By the grace of God, he/she can get through this. I wonder if I can help.” And change the “Why me?” to: “By the grace of God, I can get through this. I look forward to finding out how he will help me.”
Not everything bad that happens is a punishment. But all — everything — is used by our loving Abba-Father to teach us something.
One of the lessons that he teaches has for its notebook the sins we commit. “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent” (Revelation 3:19 NIV). We learn from the troubles we caused when we gave into temptations.
The second type of lesson comes after making wrong decisions. We seek God’s guidance but interpret it incorrectly. This is not a sin; it’s a mistake. But mistakes can be as destructive as sins. We hate to admit our mistakes as much as we hate to admit that we’ve sinned. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 NIV).
And the third kind of lesson comes from being hurt by the sins and mistakes of others. God protects us, but not always in the way we want. He makes us stronger and teaches us to love our enemies. “I will make you a wall to this people, a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue and save you” (Jeremiah 15:20 NIV).
In each case, we benefit because we learn something valuable.
Today’s Exercise: Find the Mercy in God’s Discipline
One day I requested the prayers of a man (I’ll call him “Luke”) whose ministry was to help Christians discover new levels of freedom in their faith journeys. I hoped he would become a prayer partner for my work in Good News Ministries. However, Luke did not understand the purpose of our prayer sessions. He treated me as if I personally needed the same kind of help that everyone else came to get. He used a prayer formula he had learned and blamed me for the lack of results.
When our one-hour session timed out, I left feeling cut off, unserved and unheard. Frustrated and hurt, the little girl in me who had felt unheard by her daddy wanted to cry. Before starting my car to drive home, I turned to Abba. “Bless what just happened, Father! Make good come from it. What do you want me to learn from it?”
Was Luke right about anything that I had rejected during our meeting? “No,” came the answer. But there were three lessons to learn.
One: I had committed the sin of arrogance. I had not humbled myself before the Lord to ask whether or not I should even go to Luke in the first place. Lesson learned: Remember to pray about every decision, even ones that seem obvious; God knows far more than I do about it.
Two: I had made a non-sinful wrong assumption about Luke. Lesson learned: See the first lesson above.
Three: Luke was doing a ministry that requires supernatural faith. By that I mean relying on the gifts of the Holy Spirit that come from what many call the “Baptism of the Spirit”. During our session, I sensed the absence of the Holy Spirit. It was all too human. Too by-the-book. Too much reliance on formulas. But I had dismissed it as my imagination, hoping to be wrong. After all, Luke supposedly knew what to do. And I was determined to find the help that I had requested.
Lesson learned: Look for the personal relationship with the Holy Spirit others have before getting involved with them in ministry. The more inspired by the Spirit they are, the freer I can be with them and the more I’ll be able to accomplish with them.
Abba-Father disciplined me well. I did not feel condemned by him. I felt stronger. It would take me a while before I could fully forgive Luke because the little girl in me cried about his disappointing and surprising lack of hearing me and understanding my needs.
When bad things happen to you, remember that you are being trained and reshaped, like an athlete in training. Ask yourself: How is the experience making me stronger?
Next, ask where the mercy is. Abba-Father’s discipline always — definitely always — includes mercy. If we think we’re being punished unmercifully, we’re believing a lie that Satan is using to make us feel miserable and to falsify the image of God’s fatherhood. It’s the devil, not God, who punishes his victims unmercifully.
When we look for and identify where God’s mercy is making good come from bad, we find the smiling face of our dear Abba-Father.
What is troubling you most right now? Describe it in a sentence or two, writing it down. Then make a list of what you have learned from this trouble so far. How is it making you stronger? How is God reshaping you?
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© 2020 by Terry A. Modica
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