How Discipline Helps Us Remain Faithful

(2008) An exposition of Deuteronomy 8:2-3
(Extracted from Ajith Fernando’s forthcoming commentary on Deuteronomy to be published by Crossway Books)

Moses explains here that the difficult forty year period of wandering in the dreary wilderness was a time which God used to show many important truths to the people which will help them to remain faithful to God. It was not a terrible waste of time necessitated by the sins of the people. The sovereign Lord worked through this situation to extract some great good from it. It was the rebellion following the incident of the twelve spies the people that necessitated this discipline. But we know that after that the people returned to being faithful to God (see 2:1-3 and our discussion there), giving God and opportunity to bless them. Moses said, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (8:5).

 Humbling (8:2). Verses 2-6 tell us that the whole forty year journey was one of leading and provision by God. First Moses says it was a time of humbling: “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you” (8:2a). That God used the wilderness wanderings to humble them is mentioned three times in this chapter (8:2, 3, 16). The humbling is closely related to the disciplining process which was the reason for these wanderings (see 8:5).

One of the intended outcomes of discipline is developing humility. Biblical humility is a positive value that is part of the life of joy. Usually discipline produces humiliation which is very different to biblical humility. In fact many people come out of discipline angry over the humiliation not with biblical humility which is associated with joy. People usually do not know how to respond to their friends who have been disciplined. Often they say painful things quite unintentionally. Sometimes because they do not know what to say they avoid the disciplined person. And that increases the pain. The Bible is aware of this, and Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant.” However, that verse goes on to say, “…but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Only “those who have been trained by it” come out of discipline with “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” One aspect of this fruit is humility.

It is through exposure to God’s grace that this training takes place. Let see how this happens. Those being disciplined are aware that the discipline is because of sin. They are sorry for the sin. They see no merit in themselves. But that makes them open to grace. They are hurt and lonely as they feel no one understands them. That makes them cling to God for comfort. God ministers to them with his comfort, and they are deeply grateful that he has restored them and is ready to use them again. Now their focus is on God not on themselves and how worthy they are. This means pride and arrogance is gone, and instead they have the beautiful character of humility. Humility is essentially not a quality we achieve through hard work. It is the natural reaction to being overwhelmed by grace. When we realise that all our good is a gift of God, we can’t help but be humble. We are also filled with gratitude which in turn becomes the trigger of a great joy.

Discipline also helps in producing humility by taking away the human props which we can be proud of. Last night I was working on trying to restore information on my computer till 4.00 a.m. I had lost everything on the computer and was reloading using my backups, but some of my backups did not install. I lost many years of photos. I do a lot of study while travelling, and my key reference works are in the computer. My computer was one of my sources of pride and security. When studying this passage I realised that God had permitted this crash so that he may wean me of finding security in the wrong things. Having lost confidence in earthly props of which I could be proud. I am driven to trust in God alone. I hope that will produce humility.

             Humility of course is essential for spiritual growth. The Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Paul said, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). When people are proud they are no longer connected with God. They have already fallen in their hearts. Now they are vulnerable to a bigger public fall.

 Testing (8:2). Moses goes on to say that the wilderness experience was also a test: “…testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (8:2). God wanted them to prove their commitment to him through obedience. The great American missionary to India E. Stanley Jones used to say that circumstances don’t make a person; they reveal a person. Of course, in the process, as happens when metals are tested, they are refined. As James said, “…the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (Jas. 1:3). Testing does the work of both revealing and refining. Difficult circumstances will reveal whether people follow God with their heart. If they followed him just in order to get some temporal blessings, the difficult circumstance could reveal their counterfeit faith as they move away from God, or it could refine their mixed-motive faith and help them develop a more genuine faith.

None of us come to Christ out of completely pure motives. We usually come initially because we see that Christ could meet some felt need of ours. But then we enter into a beautiful love-relationship with God and begin to experience the wonders of the eternal salvation he gives. Gradually we transition from an exclusively need-based faith to a faith of which the primary ingredient is a relationship with God.

Difficult circumstances may serve to force us to reorient our lives to become what they should be. Then, while many would leave Christ because his sayings are too hard for them to swallow, we would stick on, saying like Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Such faith was exhibited by Job who cried, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face” (Job 13:15).

 Hunger (8:3a). Next Moses talks about another learning tool that God used: hunger. He says, “And he humbled you and let you hunger.” God is preparing them to live with plenty. But prosperity brings with it so many dangers. As Jesus says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25). One way to prepare the people for prosperity is to send them through an experience where they have nothing. For when they have nothing they are forced to look to God and discover the most important thing in life, faith. They will see that even though they do not have all that they want they are happy. They will find God giving them just what they need each day, sometimes miraculously. This experience makes them realise that the greatest wealth is living with a trustworthy God. Then earthly wealth loses its lure and they are able to handle the temptations what come with wealth.

Adam Clarke says, “In earthly prosperity men are apt to forget heavenly things. While the animal senses have every thing they can wish, it is difficult for the soul to urge its way to heaven; the animal man is happy, and the desires of the soul are absorbed in those of the flesh.” Prosperity makes us imagine that we don’t need God. So, says Clarke, God, in his love for us, sometimes takes away our prosperity: “God knows this well; and therefore, in his love to man, makes comparative poverty and frequent affliction his general lot.” Clarke then gives the consequence of this discipline: “‘Before I was afflicted,’ says David, ‘I went astray;’ and had it not been for poverty and affliction, as instruments in the hands of God’s grace, multitudes of souls now happy in heaven would have been wretched in hell.”

This is what God does to the Israelites. He brings them to the end of themselves, so that they would acknowledge their helplessness. Then they can look to him and avail themselves of his help, and that, it turn, will give them an attitude which makes obedience to the commands possible. This is why Martin Luther said that affliction is the best book in his library.

Obedience and holiness are primary ambitions of a healthy Christian. Certainly that was the primary focus of Paul’s teaching. In a statistical study I did of Paul’s Epistles some years ago, I discovered that 1400 of the 2005 verses in his Epistles, that is, about 70% of the verses, had something to say about godliness. If godliness is so important and affliction helps along the path to it, then affliction would be viewed as a blessing. Many people can’t think of affliction in this way is because holiness is not the priority it should be in their lives.

Today holiness does not have such a high priority in our preaching. We are concentrating so much on meeting the felt needs of people that we are neglecting their most important needs which they may not immediately feel. We may use felt needs in our preaching as a means of gaining the interest of people. But soon that must give way to the needs they may not acknowledge as important but which are most important from God’s perspective. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) said, “Those who make comfort the great subject of their preaching seem to mistake the end of their ministry. Holiness is the great end. There must be a struggle and trial here. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordials from morning to night.”

Let’s start looking at discipline and affliction as tools God uses to make us more holy.