That’ll teach you…!

Time and time again, I’ve heard Christians wonder, “What is God trying to teach me?” To me, the phrase conjures vague images of a strict parent imposing harsh discipline on a child for some infraction of the rules. “That’ll teach you a lesson,” the parent says triumphantly, as if the matter was settled right then and there.

But from the child’s point of view, it’s not clear that any real lesson has been learned — or at least, not the one the parent may have intended. On the surface, of course, what the parent wants is obedience. But just below the surface, other lessons may be communicated through the parent’s actions, body language, and tone of voice:

  • You are a bad person to have broken the rule.
  • I won’t love you if you don’t obey me.
  • Fear me, because I will cause you pain if you step out of line.

Never mind that children break parental rules for a host of reasons: defiance and limit-testing, yes, but also ignorance, misunderstanding, and impulsiveness. If the truth be told, much of what parents call “discipline” — remember, the root of the word is the same as for “discipleship” — isn’t really about a child’s learning and growth but the parent’s anger at being disobeyed, and it comes out as retaliation.

That’s why I’m not comfortable with the question “What is God trying to teach me?” even when the question itself is well-meant. On the one hand, we always have things to learn; we’re never done growing in Christ. Every situation, good or bad, provides an opportunity to respond with godly intentions and behaviors.

On the other hand, the question tends to be raised only when there’s trouble. If we find ourselves asking that in an automatic fashion, then we might also want to ask, “Am I assuming that things are supposed to go well, and if they aren’t, that I’m doing something wrong? Do I really believe that, or is that just a habit of thought that I usually don’t notice because it’s so ingrained?”

. . .

This is one of the things we learn from the Psalms: life doesn’t always go well, and it’s not because we’ve messed up somehow. Recently, we’ve seen this in Psalm 59, where the psalmist complains that people are wanting to kill him even though he’s done nothing wrong: “Powerful people are attacking me, LORD — but not because of any error or sin of mine. They run and take their stand — but not because of any fault of mine” (vss. 3b-4a, CEB).

Or take Psalm 60. The psalmist laments that God has rejected his people by not going out with them to battle, with disastrous results. The language suggests that the people have somehow been disobedient, and are suffering God’s anger. But nowhere in the psalm does the psalmist include words of repentance, or a promise to do better. He simply calls upon God to save his people, to rescue the people he loves (vs. 5).

Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, I’m not saying that the psalmist and the people didn’t have something to learn; one would assume that there had to be some kind of repentance, even if the psalmist didn’t write it into the song. And I’m not saying that God never disciplines us for our own good. The book of Hebrews makes that clear:

Bear hardship for the sake of discipline. God is treating you like sons and daughters! What child isn’t disciplined by his or her father? But if you don’t experience discipline, which happens to all children, then you are illegitimate and not real sons and daughters. What’s more, we had human parents who disciplined us, and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live? Our human parents disciplined us for a little while, as it seemed best to them, but God does it for our benefit so that we can share his holiness. No discipline is fun while it lasts, but it seems painful at the time. Later, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:7-11)

My concern, rather, is that we sometimes default to the question “What is God trying to teach me?” because to some extent we’re assuming that if we learn what God wants us to learn, the suffering will stop. There may be times in which that’s true, but there will be other times in which it isn’t.

Life is hard, not simply because of our individual sinfulness or stupidity, but because the world is broken. To groan under the burden of our suffering is a normal part of the Christian life (cf. Rom 8:22-26). We don’t groan as people without hope, but we groan nevertheless.

So if God is trying to teach us something, maybe it’s this: it’s not about figuring out how to end our suffering by discovering some new aspect of faithfulness, but how to endure our suffering by deepening the faith we already have.