The Discipline of God

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Let me tell you about John – which is not his real name. John passed through Newcastle as a student years ago. He arrived from a Christian home, got stuck into JPC and seemed to make a good start. But then halfway through term he went completely off the radar and I didn't see him for a month or more, despite trying to. And then he got in touch and asked to meet up. And when we did, he told me he'd just taken the worst moral fall of his life: he'd had some bad news from home, gone out and got drunk, and ended up in bed for a one night stand with a girl whose name he couldn't even remember the next day. And he said, 'I can't put into words how ashamed I feel. And I haven't been able to face God or other Christians since.'

Well, Psalm 38 was written by someone in that kind of situation – under real conviction of sin – to help us when we're in that kind of situation. Now to get into a Psalm, two good questions to ask are these:

  • What situation was this Psalm written in?
  • And how does it help us in facing the same situation?

So look down at the title of Psalm 38: A Psalm of David [which I take it is the David we read about in 1 and 2 Samuel] for the memorial offering. Now I don't know why the ESV translates it that like that ('for the memorial offering'), because literally it says, 'to bring to remembrance'. And it looks like David, having taken a major moral fall, felt like God had just left him under conviction of sin and forgotten him – and that this Psalm is his way of saying, 'Hey Lord, remember me? How long are you going to leave me feeling like this?' And here's how he felt (verses 1-4):

"O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me."

That is he felt like John, that student, did – and not just like John the day after the one night stand, but John a month and two and three months after. Because these things take a long time to work through our spiritual systems, don't they?

So what use is this Psalm going to be to us? Well, for some of us, this is exactly where we are. Your conscience may be very raw about some similar, major moral fall. But then for all of us, this is where we could well be, at some time or other. And the more you think, 'No, it won't be me – I'd never fall like that,' the closer you are to it being you. But this Psalm isn't just for what I'm calling the major moral falls. It also applies to what you might call the 'normal sinfulness' of daily life – the regular ways we fail the Lord Jesus even when trying our best to please him. Which means that even on our best days we have to deal with being conscious of sin and convicted of sin – which is what Psalm 38 is all about. And then the other big way this Psalm is going to be of use is in getting us ready to help our fellow-Christians when they're feeling like that student John. Because look down to verse 11 – one of the saddest verses of the Psalm:

"My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off."

That is they were no help at all, and left David to struggle spiritually on his own, which is the opposite of what God means church life to be like. So here are four lessons from Psalm 38:

1. Recognise the Lord's Discipline, and Bear With It (vv1-8)
Let me re-read from verse 1:

"O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart."

So he's clearly conscious of some major moral fall. So, at the end of verse 3, the way he feels is "because of my sin". Then in verse 4 he says, "For my iniquities [another word for sins] have gone over my head". And, end of verse 5 he is where he is "because of my foolishness", which – especially in the book of Proverbs – has the idea of wilfully, consciously ignoring God. So he's thinking, 'What an idiot I've been…' So he's conscious of a major moral fall, but even more conscious of what the Lord thinks of it. So in verse 1 he's conscious of the Lord's 'anger' or 'wrath' against sin – even the sin of a believer. In fact, especially the sin of a believer, because in verse 3 he talks about the Lord's 'indignation.' And indignation is when you can hardly believe that that particular person has done that particular thing to you. And here is David – I guess king of Israel by now – massively privileged in spiritual upbringing and position, with a long-standing faith and experience of God's goodness to him. And he senses the Lord saying, 'David, you of all people should have known better.' And he knows, verse 1, that God is rebuking and disciplining him by leaving him under conviction of sin, so that he learns the seriousness of sin more and learns to turn away from it more – in a way we simply don't learn by just reading the Bible.

Now in another Psalm like this, David talked about his bones being crushed. And he didn't mean it literally – it was metaphorical for a crushed conscience. And some people say that the language of Psalm 38 could also be just metaphorical throughout. But I doubt it. It looks like the other thing going on was that God had allowed David to get sick in some way. And whether or not that was a direct consequence of his sin, David sensed that he should interpret it as part of what the Lord was doing to humble him and rebuke him and discipline him.

Now we've got to be careful not to misinterpret our experience. A lot of illness has no direct cause-and-effect link to particular sin. But some illness clearly does. And I guess, as well, that for many of us who've experienced a period of conviction of sin like this, there has been some physical side to it – at least the total lack of energy David describes; and maybe deeper physiological depression and other symptoms. So, that was the situation. Now, what did David actually pray in this first bit of the Psalm? Well, he prayed in verse 1:

"O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!"

Now David knew we need the Lord's discipline, so that we see the seriousness of sin and turn away from it more. So he wasn't asking the Lord never to discipline him. He was asking the Lord to stop – or at least lessen – the discipline that he'd obviously been under for some time, because he felt that the lesson had now gone home.

But we have to accept that only the Lord knows how his lessons are really going. And while we may want to move on more quickly and recover a complete sense of peace with God, the Lord knows that sometimes it takes a lengthy period of conviction for us to learn what we need to. For example, one time in my own life which this Psalm brings to mind is a broken engagement a long time back. It was my fault – it was me who broke it off, causing great hurt. And in hindsight, I should never have got us engaged. And it left me, like David here, feeling very humbled and rebuked and disciplined. And soon after it happened I remember saying to one of the ministers at my church, 'I wonder how long it will take to get over this.' And without hesitation he said, 'A long time.' And over the next months and year or two, I was really thankful for that wise realism. Because there was no quick-fix return to spiritual normality. Instead there was a long period when I had to deal with conviction of sin, and learn what the Lord wanted me to learn. So that's the first lesson here: recognise the Lord's discipline, and bear with it. The next lesson is:

2. Don't Misinterpret the Lord's Discipline – He's Still For You and With You (vv9-10)

You could read verses 1-8 and think David believed God had turned against him and abandoned him. But David didn't misinterpret the Lord's discipline like that, because look how he prayed in verse 9:

"O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you."

So he didn't think the Lord had abandoned him. He trusted that the Lord was still watching over him and with him – and that the Lord's discipline did not mean the Lord had stopped loving him. And that's just what it says in a crucial verse from Proverbs (3.11-12):

"My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline
or be weary of his rebuke,
for the LORD rebukes him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights."

So that's saying: the Lord's discipline doesn't mean he's stopped loving you. Because discipline isn't the opposite of love; discipline is part of love. So, for example, when one of my children hits one of the others, I discipline them (and for the most serious things the discipline is still a smack). And they don't like that. And in that moment, they don't feel like I'm loving them, the way they do feel I'm loving them when I buy them an ice-cream. But I am loving them whenever I discipline them. Because the most unloving thing I could do is to be indifferent to their sin – and so train them to be indifferent to sin as well. And if that's true of human parenthood, how much more true is it of God.

Here's C.S. Lewis talking about this in his book The Problem of Pain:

"Love is something more stern ... than mere kindness...There is kindness in Love: but... when kindness is separated from the other elements of Love, it can involve a certain... indifference to its object... [For example,] we have all met people whose kindness to animals leads them to kill animals lest they should suffer. Mere kindness... cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.

It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms. But with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer... than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked... and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most memorable sense."

And that's what the Lord was doing here with David – leaving him for this time under conviction of sin. And that's what the Lord often does with us. So don't misinterpret the Lord's discipline – he's still for you and with you – because discipline isn't the opposite of love, it's part of love. Onto the next lesson here:

3. Know That in Times of Discipline, Other People May Be No Help – Or Worse (v11-14)
Look on to verse 11, where David says:

"My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off."

Why was that? Well, maybe it was because they felt they ought to show their disapproval of what he'd done and stand clearly in judgment on it. Have you ever had people do that to you in the Psalm 38 situation? I think, for example, of that broken engagement I mentioned, when someone close to me, and obviously very disappointed in me, said very bluntly, 'Well I hope you'll never forget this.' In total ignorance of how I felt, he obviously thought, 'Maybe he's not taking this seriously enough, so I'll just rub his nose in it to make sure.' Or I think of someone I know who, sadly, had an abortion under pressure from her family. And then some of them turned against her and wouldn't even speak to her – partly, I guess, to try to distance themselves from their part in it.

The thing to learn is that if a fellow-Christian is under conviction of sin like in Psalm 38, they don't need you to say how bad and wrong and foolish what they've done is – they know that. They're learning that from the Lord far better than you could ever teach them. What they need you to do is to love them as before – so they don't feel they've sinned themselves onto a different planet from everyone else – and to reassure them that there is forgiveness for everything, and that even a major moral fall doesn't mean you're not a Christian after all. Or maybe these friends and family members backed off David because that was just easier. It carried no risk of catching whatever sickness he had, or of being drawn into the time-consuming business of helping someone who's spiritually wounded. Self-protection always says, 'Don't get involved.'

After that broken engagement, I largely owe my spiritual recovery to a friend called Ashley. He's a pastor who was over here from America doing a PhD. And he got involved in the church I was in. And looking back, under the pressure of a PhD, I'm sure he needed a time-consuming case like me like a hole in the head. But he spent two years helping me get back on my feet spiritually. I remember another pastor saying, 'The measure of a ministry is how it looks after the wounded.' And as we seek to grow as a church and go multi-site and reach more people, we need to remember that. So looking at verse 11 here, you're tempted to think, 'With friends like that, who needs enemies?' But look on to verse 12, and you find David had those as well:

"Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin
and meditate treachery all day long."

Now Psalm 38 doesn't tell us what moral fall David had taken, or who these enemies were. But it's possible that the background is the whole fallout of when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then orchestrated her husband's death to try to cover it up. Because after that, as part of his discipline, the Lord allowed David's family life to spiral down so that in the end his son, Absolom, tried to take the throne from him. And verse 12 would fit with Absolom's smear campaign that his father was no longer fit for office. Well, whether it was that, or another occasion, how does David respond? Verses 13-14:

"But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear,
like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
I have become like a man who does not hear,
and in whose mouth are no rebukes."

That is, he doesn't answer by saying, 'Hit me when I'm down and I'll hit you back.' He looks to the Lord to answer his trouble, verses 15-16:

"But for you, O LORD, do I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
For I said [i.e., I've been praying],
"Only let them not rejoice over me,
who boast against me when my foot slips!" [i.e., 'don't let me fall into their hands.']."

And what's striking here is how David still prays with confidence.
And that's the last lesson:

4. Even In Times of Discipline, Pray with Confidence, Knowing We Come to God on the Basis of the Cross (vv15-22)

Why was David still confident that the Lord was on his side and would hear and answer him? After all, he knows how badly he's sinned. So he can hardly pray, 'Lord, save me and bring down these conspirators – because I'm squeaky clean and they're evil.' But the point is: none of us can pray on the basis of being squeaky clean. None of us can pray, 'Lord, please answer me because I've been such a good boy or good girl recently.' At least if you do pray on that basis, you'll soon give up praying, if you're honest about your goodness levels. No, here's the verse that says what basis we pray on:

"Therefore… since we have confidence to enter the holy place [i.e., God's presence] by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith" (Hebrews 10.19-22)

So that's saying: what's needed in us, to draw near to God in prayer, is a sincere heart. That doesn't mean a sinless one – which is impossible this side of heaven – but a sincere one, which admits its sin and doesn't just superficially want to be forgiven its sin, but also genuinely wants to turn away from its sin. Which is exactly what you see in David in verse 18:

"I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin."

Only 'sorry' is a bit of a weak translation. Do you remember in the Wind in the Willows when Toad gets a new car and goes racing around until he crashes and is jailed for speeding? And his friends Ratty and Mole go to visit him, and find him in his cell crying his eyes out. And knowing him as they do, they say, 'Toad, are you really sorry?' And Toad looks up, stops crying and says, 'No it was glorious.' So you could better translate the word in verse 18 as 'troubled', or 'distressed', which gets across how David has begun to see his sin as God sees it – so that he's not just sorry enough to cry about it (which can just be self-pity, which is a me-centred thing); he's sorry enough to want to turn from it (which is repentance, which is a God-centred thing). That's sincerity.

But we don't come on the basis of our sincerity. God doesn't forgive us because we're sorry or 'sorry enough'. Sincerity is necessary for approaching God. But it's not the basis we come on, it's not what we trust in for forgiveness. The basis we come on, what we trust in for forgiveness, is the cross. Hebrews 10.19 again: the basis we come on is that

"... we have confidence to enter [God's presence] by the blood of Jesus…"

That is we come on the basis of his death which paid for all our sins, past and future – even the ones we're most appalled by, and think most unforgivable.

So you may be a Christian in the Psalm 38 situation right now – very conscious of your sin and of the Lord's discipline. But it's still as true for you as it is for me that the only basis on which God accepts us, and on which we come to him in prayer, is the cross. So come to him in prayer. Don't stay away from him. And if you're not yet a Christian, and that's because you think you're unforgivable, then know that there is nothing you can confess to God that can't be forgiven through what Jesus did on the cross. So come to him for the first time, if that's you. And if you need to know how to do that, please take one of these Why Jesus? booklets from the Welcome Desk. Just look down to verses 21-22 to end with:

"Do not forsake me, O LORD!
O my God, be not far from me!
Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!"

So does that mean that, when all was said, David did still worry that the Lord might forsake him – might still decide his moral fall was just too big to forgive? No. Just turn back to Psalm 37, verse 28 – which we did two weeks ago – which says:

"For the LORD loves justice;
He will not forsake his saints." [i.e., those who have sincere hearts and trust in him]

So at the end of Psalm 38, David is just asking the LORD to do what he's promised. And if you have a sincere heart and are trusting in Jesus' death, his promise is that he will never forsake you. Under conviction of sin and discipline for sin, it can feel like the Lord has forsaken us. But if you have a sincere heart and are trusting in Jesus' death, that consequence of your sin – being forsaken by God as you deserve to be – will never come your way. Because, as we'll remember in communion, on the cross Jesus took the God-forsakenness you deserve. That's why he said, as he died there,

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15.34)

And that's why when people with a sincere heart who are trusting in Jesus' death pray, 'Do not forsake me', the answer is: 'I haven't. And I never will.'

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