Hebrews 12 is perhaps the most well known passage related to God’s spiritual discipline of his children. Notice all the things that the writer of Hebrews says about God and discipline in that passage:
- God will reprove his people (vv. 5-6 [3x]).
- God loves the people he disciplines (v. 6a).
- His discipline may involve “scourging” (v. 6b), a word alluding to a beating with a whip. It certainly contains the idea of corporal punishment that is as severe as necessary to accomplish his purposes.
- God’s discipline of his people is fatherly (v. 7; compare that verse with Matt 7:7-11).
- If God does not discipline someone it is because that one is not his son (v. 8).
- God’s discipline is merciful and gracious and life giving (v. 9).
- God’s discipline is not punitive, but is to produce good in us — specifically, holiness and righteousness (vv. 10-11).
The end result of that discipline sounds good to us — we want holiness and righteousness, but while we are in the process, the discipline and correction is not easy and doesn’t seem joyful (v. 11).
David knew that reality as well, and he penned at least one psalm about the corrective, scourging discipline of God — Psalm 30. In that psalm, David recounts that he nearly died and that he believed his physical suffering to be direct discipline from the Lord for some sin of his. As we look at this psalm, we are not saying that every incident of physical suffering is corrective discipline from the Lord for unrepentant sin; but it is worth examining whether or not our sin has led to some form of discipline from God. David’s experience reminds us that God will correct his children to make them holy and joyful. And it is wise to help our counselees make that same kind of examination if they or we think they might be experiencing the discipline of God.
As you read David’s song, notice four stages in God’s discipline. These will be helpful for us as we counsel, reminding wayward and sinning counselees of the danger they are facing if they do not repent, and encouraging repentant counselees of the benefit and hope derived from God’s discipline. David begins by identifying the nature of discipline (v. 5).
Remember the Nature of Discipline
As David reflects on the discipline he received from the Lord, he reminds the singers of this song of some basic tenets of God’s discipline. First of all, “His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime” (v. 5a). For the follower of God, his discipline is not eternal, but only momentary; however, his favor (his gracious pleasure and acceptance) is “for the duration of a lifetime” — it is infinite and unending. In the midst of corrective discipline, it often seems to be overwhelming and unending. David reminds us that it is only seasonal and it will end before long. And in comparison to the duration of eternity, it certainly is short. Remind your afflicted counselee that the discipline will end before too long, if he repents, but that without repentance he faces an eternally unending affliction.
Then David uses a parallel statement to say, “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy [comes] in the morning” (v. 5b). The sorrow of discipline is like a traveler who lodges at one’s home temporarily — for a night — but the song of joy replaces that visitor in the morning. The trouble in the dark of night is replaced by the joyful song of the bright new day. Our counselees need to be reminded of the joy that comes on the other side of discipline. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, regardless of the pain and sorrow of God’s discipline for sin, it is light in comparison to glory of God’s forgiveness as it produces peace and righteousness (Heb 12:11).
But be sure to remind your counselee that while God’s anger is brief and temporary, that is only true if he is a follower of God and a believer in Christ. David believed in Christ by believing that God would provide the Messiah to rule for eternity. And we believe in Christ by trusting that when he died on the cross, he willingly absorbed the eternal wrath of God against our sin and that his death satisfied God’s anger. If the counselee rejects Christ and says his death was unnecessary and that he does not need him, then Christ did not absorb God’s wrath against the counselee and God is still angry with counselee. And if he does not repent of his sin of prideful self-righteousness, then God will stay angry with him for eternity (Rev 14:10 is a sobering reminder of that eternal wrath).
As the counselor ministers to his counselee, he is intentional in reminding his suffering counselee of the nature of the rod of God’s correction. It is for good for the believer and will be short (no longer than his time on earth). And it is for judgment against the unbeliever and will be long (all this life and into and for all eternity).
Not only does David remind the worshipping singers of the nature of God’s discipline, but he also helps them recognize the need for discipline (vv. 6-7), demonstrating the appropriateness of God’s discipline, even when David was the recipient of it.
Recognize the Need for Discipline (vv. 6-7)
God disciplined David, but was it really necessary? What did the “man after God’s own heart” do to warrant God’s discipline? David tells us. It was while he was “in my prosperity” (v. 6) that God afflicted him. At some point in his life, David considered his status and the nation’s status and attributed his wealth and influence to his own work (Some think that this is a reference to the poll he took in 2 Chron 21.). His arrogance is so great that he said, “I will never be moved.” David believed he was secure in his achievements: Things would always be as they were then (Jas 4:13ff; Lk 12:13ff). He pridefully believed he was self-sufficient.
Pride is often called the greatest sin, or the root sin of all other sins. As one writer has noted, that is because “other sins lead the sinner further away from God, but pride is particularly heinous in that it attempts to elevate the sinner above God” [Jason Meyer, in Killjoys]. This is exactly what David says he has done. But God will have no contenders for his throne; he opposes every manifestation of pride (1 Pet 5:5).
So simply, because of his self-exalting pride, because of his attempt to bypass the power and authority of God and his throne, David invites the discipline of God.
And God’s opposition to David was dramatic and clear. In contrast to what David pridefully thought in his sin, the truth of David’s situation is that God “made my mountain to stand strong” (v. 7). It was God’s grace that gave David his position in Israel. If he could stand as firmly as a mountain it was only because God decreed it. But when David attempted to usurp that honor, he says, “You hid Your face” (v. 7b). That phrase is a reference to God withholding his grace and favor. The communion that David had enjoyed with the Lord was removed. He experienced in this psalm what he didn’t want to experience in Psalm 27:8-9. His sin has left him outside the will of God and “abandoned” by God. God is withholding his blessing from David.
Because God hid himself from David, David says he became “dismayed;” he is “disturbed, horrified” (Ps 48:5). To be outside the blessing of God is a terrible situation. That’s what sin did to David for a time, and that’s what sin will do to us — even as believers. God will not bless the rebellious, self-willed man. He may be saved, but he cannot expect God’s favor on his life.
So when David identifies his sin, he reminds the reader that God did not act capriciously. God’s discipline was warranted, right, and necessary. Remind your counselee that when God acts, even when it appears harsh to our frail and subjective perspective, God is always acting in full accordance with his perfect holiness. His discipline is never harsh, never wrong, and never disproportionate or unbalanced. It is right in every way. So what should the counselee do? Do what David did, when he confessed his sin (vv. 8-10).
Offer a Plea in the Midst of Discipline (vv. 8-10)
Seeing his sin for what it was David “called to the Lord.” He “called,” that is, he cried out repeatedly. He was pleading with anguish. And even more specifically, he says, “I made supplication.” This word for prayer has the idea of imploring the favor of God — it is an appeal to God’s grace. Even as he acknowledged his sin in the previous verses, now he is beginning his confession.
This prayer of confession is an encouragement that no matter the depth and magnitude of our sin, we can always appeal to God’s grace and be confident that when we confess he will never say, “No, I’ve given all the grace I have to give and I will give no more.” No, it is the nature of God to be gracious. “He is abounding in lovingkindness” (grace, Ex 34:6). He is a forgiving God. It is not only the nature of God to forgive, but it is even the way that the fame of his name spreads to the nations (Ps 79:9; Dan 9:19; 1 Jn 2:12).
As you lead your counselees to examine their lives and confess their sins, notice the content of David’s prayer and use his petition as a template for your counselee’s prayer.
In verse 9 he provides the reason for appealing for God’s forgiveness. When he asks, “Will dust praise you?” he is acknowledging that once he dies, he will no longer be able to give testimony to God on earth. Dead men don’t praise God. By this, notice David’s concern: He is not asking for his own life, but he is asking for the worship of God. David was motivated by self-exaltation and self-glorification (v. 6), but now he is motivated by desire to honor God’s reputation alone (v. 4). His sin was that he wanted pre-eminence; in repentance, he wanted God’s pre-eminence. Your counselee’s confession (and all confession) should begin with a desire for the exaltation of God’s name (see Ps 27:4; 26:8; 84:10).
Then help your counselee to see David’s appeal for God’s forgiveness (v. 10). “Be gracious to me” is an appeal to the God who is gracious to grant his grace to David. The same word that David uses here — “be gracious” — is the way God often describes himself (Ps 86:15; 111:4; 116:5) — he is loyal to fulfill his promises and he is kind to grant what is not deserved to the penitent sinner (which he can do only on the basis of Christ’s death). And here David appeals to grace as the reason for his forgiveness. David can appeal for forgiveness because God is gracious. If God were not gracious, it would be futile to appeal to his grace. But because he is gracious, it is appropriate to appeal to him — and we can know that he will answer.
Then, by asking God to be his “helper” David is appealing to God, who is his creator, to restore him (see Ps 86:17; Isa 41:10, 13-14; 44:2). He is no longer attempting self-sufficiency (v. 7); he is appealing to God by acknowledging his need. He is not independent; He is God-dependent.
This is David’s appeal for forgiveness: A humble acknowledgement of his sin, a desire for God’s exaltation through forgiveness, and a recognition of his complete dependence on God for forgiveness and all things. That serves as a fitting pattern for your counselee to follow as he formulates his own confession.
And there is good news of restoration and forgiveness for the one who is faithful in confession, as David reminds his readers (vv. 11-12).
Be Hopeful for a Renewal After Discipline
These verses are something like the first four verses in this psalm — David appears to be looking backward in time at the events of his sin and repentance and then at the moment of God’s forgiveness of his sin. As he looks back he says that after his confession, God did the “impossible” — God “turned mourning to dancing” (v. 11a). There has been a total reversal. I’ve been to many funerals, and I have buried loved ones. I’ve conducted a funeral for a child that was abducted and murdered. But I’ve never come home after a funeral and said to my wife, “let’s go dancing.” Yet the turn from grief to joy is just that abrupt for David. The sorrow and heartache of his sin has been transformed by the magnitude of grace and forgiveness.
David further emphasizes that reversal by saying a second time, “you have loosed my sackcloth” (v. 11b). That is, God has taken off the garments of grieving and replaced them with “party” clothes. And in both these clauses in v. 11 it is important to note that David didn’t make this decision himself by ignoring his conscience; this is God’s work to replace grief for sin with gladness for a redeemer. This is what Jesus said would happen (Matt 5:3ff; cf. also Jas 4:6-8).
David’s joy with God’s forgiveness is so overwhelming that he does the very thing he called the people to do in vv. 4-5 — he sings praises to God. In fact, he would “not be silent” (v. 12). In other words, “don’t try to stop me from singing God’s praises … I have a song of gratitude to sing and I will sing!” And David’s praise and gratitude is eternal — “forever” (v. 12). Someone has rightly said, “Praise, to be adequate, must be lifelong.”
What should we help our counselees (and ourselves!) see in these verses? We should be grieved by our sin. We should be humbled. We should confess. And having confessed, we should be joyful. With forgiveness, God has renewed and restored and we should (must) delight in that restoration. [As a homework assignment, you might have them reflect on the joy of forgiveness in Ps 53:6; Isa 61:10; Lk 1:47; 2 Cor 7:9; 13:11; Heb 12:11.] A perpetual “down-in-the-mouth” Christian is not honoring to the Lord. If a believer has sinned — even to the point of experiencing the discipline of God — let him confess that sin and humble himself before the Lord and follow him in obedience and then be glad in him!
Like most parents, we have some “interesting” discipline stories. But my favorite remembrance of disciplining the girls is that when we were done, we would always embrace, hug, and affirm our love for them. And after only a few times of making those embraces our practice, as soon as we finished spanking the girls, they would, on their own, quickly sit up, turn to us, and throw their arms around us. The hand that disciplined became the hand that loved and held and upheld. And that is what the Lord does for us. When we go through his discipline, it is so that we might turn to him and find him to sustain and keep and love us. By his discipline, God makes us holy and then he makes us happy in him.
Editor’s note: This post is the second in a series titled “Songs of the Heart” by Terry Enns on the Psalms and Biblical Counseling. Other posts in this series include “Songs of the Heart: One Thing – Part 1” & “Songs of the Heart: One Thing – Part 2.”
Terry Enns is the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury Texas. He has over twenty years of pastoral counseling experience, and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC). In addition to his preaching and pastoral duties at Grace, Terry maintains an active blog at Words of Grace.
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