When you hear the word "discipline", what thoughts come to your mind? Do you think about the concept of practicing personal disciplines like eating healthy foods and getting exercise? Do you think about incorporating the spiritual disciples of prayer and the reading of Scripture into your daily routine? Or do you primarily associate the word "discipline" with the word "punishment"?
When you were a child, it's likely that you didn't get too excited about your parents disciplining you. Likewise, if you're a parent, I can just about guarantee that some of the most unpleasant moments of your experience with raising children have involved discipline. But the truth is, when you're seeking to shepherd a young life, the enforcement of discipline is actually evidence of love.
That's something we see playing out in Jeremiah 25. The Lord loved the people of Judah, but because of their lack of faith and stubborn disobedience, He disciplined them with the long-term goal that His act of discipline would convince them of His love and encourage them to repent.
1. A loving God disciplines His children when they don't listen to His counsel
Growing up, I had a good friend that I used to spend a lot of time with. I went over his house several times each week, wandered the streets of our town with him, and we regularly got in trouble together. As we got older, I noticed something curious about how his parents responded to his behavior. It seemed to me that they let him get away with just about everything, and as a result, the nature of the trouble he got into escalated. I also noticed that the way he interacted with others displayed a high degree of insecurity. In time, I became convinced that his insecurity was tied to the lack of boundaries in his life. His parents leniency in regard to disciplining him may have actually had the unintended effect of making him feel unloved.
God loves His children too much to allow them to continue to ignore His counsel. In this portion of Scripture, we're told that at this point, Jeremiah had been preaching to the people of Judah for twenty-three years. And interestingly, he wasn't the only prophet the Lord had sent to these people to instruct them. But the people, stubbornly, refused to listen. They went their own way. They embraced idols and worshipped false gods. They devoted the work of their hands to rebellion against the Lord, and their lack of faith produced widespread disobedience.
How does a loving God respond to something like this taking place in the lives of those He has set apart as His own? It's true that the Lord is patient, and it's also true that humanity seems adept at testing His patience in every way possible. But just as the Lord is patient and kind, He is also perfectly just and loving. It grieves His heart to see people who could enjoy the blessings and benefits of walking closely with Him, choosing to go their own way and rejecting His involvement in their lives. Knowing that this situation wasn't going to improve on its own, the Lord intervened with some loving and uncomfortable discipline.
How adept are we at listening to God's voice? How long has He been trying to get our attention? How far have we attempted to stretch His patience? Has He shown us patience for so long that instead of listening to Him when He speaks, we've grown complacent with His grace?
When Jesus called us unto Himself, He told us that His desire for us was that we would listen to, and joyfully obey, His teaching.
Jesus desires that we practice His instruction in our day-to-day living and He reminds us that He is present with us to empower us and to keep our consciences sensitive to the reality that when we sin against Him, we aren't sinning against someone who is distant and remote. We're sinning against someone who is right here in our presence watching over our lives.
2. By nature, discipline doesn't feel pleasant
Through Jeremiah, the people of Judah were being told that life as they knew it was about to change drastically. They were about to experience the direct discipline of the Lord, and it wasn't going to feel pleasant. The truth is, by nature, discipline doesn't feel pleasant. It jostles us out of the unhealthy patterns or routines we've adopted, and forces us to walk in a new direction.
During the course of the year, there are certain milestones we've become used to. There are various holidays we celebrate. There are specific times of year when we intentionally get together with our families and close friends. We attend weddings and other celebrations. Just the other day, in fact, I was talking to my sisters about the next time we intend to get our families together. At these times of celebration, we enjoy food, conversation, take pictures, tell jokes, and probably make a little too much noise. But it's nice, and it's a welcomed break to our typical routine.
Imagine, however, if all of this was taken away from us. That's what the Lord was telling the people of Judah to expect. That's what He was revealing to them was about to become their reality. He was about to use foreigners as His instrument of correction upon this group of people. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, was going to be brought against the people. He would invade the land, make its leaders and people subject to him, and take many of the people back to Babylon as captives. For the people of Judah, the sounds of wedding celebrations, conversational joy, and grinding their grain in freedom would be replaced by a season of darkness and gloom. They had abused their freedom and would now become slaves.
Understandably, this would have been devastating for the people living at the time. But God is sovereign and was still at work among them. This discipline wouldn't feel pleasant, but it would serve it's divinely ordained purpose.
Which do you think you would prefer; for God to discipline your life or for God to ignore you? As uncomfortable as discipline certainly is, it has a purpose. The Lord uses it to strip away our idols of distraction. He uses it to foster the fruit of Christ-like righteousness in our lives. In fact, the discipline of the Lord is a protective force in our lives that is often intended to preserve our lives.
The Lord loves us enough to discipline us, and as our walk with Christ matures, we're likely to notice a pattern at work within us. We're likely to notice the harmful presence of sin in our lives before we give it a foothold. As we do so, we're also likely to confess it to the Lord and joyfully repent of it before it becomes necessary for Him to intervene with uncomfortable discipline.
3. God's discipline only lasts for a season
This portion of Scripture references a time span of seventy years. What do you think about a period of time like that? Does seventy years sound like a long period of time or a short period of time to you? If you were told that the roof on your house was guaranteed to last for seventy years, would you consider that good or bad? If you were told that you were going to live to be seventy, would that seem too long or too short? If you were told that you were going to prison for seventy years, would that seem like a long or a short time?
The people of Judah were told that they were about to spend seventy years living as captives in Babylon. I don't know if they believed this information when they first heard it because they had a tendency of ignoring and questioning Jeremiah's preaching, but nonetheless, that was exactly what happened to them.
There's multiple ways to look at something like this. In one sense, it seems tragic. In another sense, it seems punitive. And in another sense, it seems merciful. This generation of people embraced idolatry, stopped listening to the Lord, and modeled their lack of faith to their children. Now the Lord was going to take them out of their land for seven decades. In that time, this generation would die off. The idols they worshipped would be stripped from them.
The good news is that just as is the case with our earthly fathers, the discipline from our Heavenly Father only lasts for a season.
Once the time of exile was complete, the Lord allowed the children and grandchildren of this generation to return to Judah, rebuild the temple, rebuild Jerusalem, rediscover His word, and a spiritual revival broke out among them. They were hurt for a season, but later experienced healing and restoration.
I'm friends with a man who is a relatively new pastor. The church he began serving died years ago, but apparently no one told the seventeen people that were left. The church was unspiritual, ineffective, and had no meaningful witness in the community. If you asked this church if it's best days were ahead of it or behind it, they would have said behind. It seemed like the Lord's presence and blessing had left that church a long time ago and now they were simply wasting away, waiting for the last church member to finally lock the doors. The new pastor wasn't necessarily convinced that the people that were left were even believers in Christ.
Over the past year, he has been waking up at 3:00am each morning. He believes that the Lord has been waking him up at that time to pray, so he walks across the street to the church and prays in the building, then comes home and goes back to bed. Recently, another man from the church who learned of this has started to join him for prayer. The pastor has also had to lovingly confront some areas of sin in the church as well. I saw him the other day and he told me that in the past few months, the congregation has more than doubled in size and a revival of faith has been developing in the congregation as the Lord has been jostling people out of their unspiritual funk.
If you've ever experienced a season of the Lord's discipline, what were your impressions of it? Were you able to see it as evidence of His love or did you despise Him for interrupting your comfort? Looking back on it now, can you thank Him for blessing you with His intervention and care?
For many of us, we can testify to the fact that a season of divine discipline was precisely what has convinced our hearts that we truly need Jesus. We need His power, comfort, and presence just as much today as we ever did. Sometimes it takes a jolt or a God-ordained season of pruning to help us recognize that truth.
© John Stange, 2018