Suffering as an Education in Christian Life
Suffering. Into every life a little must fall…even Christian lives. Some think that shouldn’t be the case. Have you heard of the “Health, Wealth, and Prosperity Gospel”? It’s the notion some Protestant preachers put forth that being a Christian makes you exempt from such things. God is the best Father and gives the best gifts. He wants to bless his children…and blessings don’t include suffering and trials. What kind of father would that be?
However, this week’s second reading, Hebrews 12:5–7, 11–13, offers a different perspective: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by Him. For the Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.”
Wait a minute. Disciplined? Punished? Chastised? Does that sound like a loving Father? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
The passage cited above is a quotation from Proverbs 3:11-12. Now, before you start talking about how the Old Testament God is different from the New Testament God, just stop. That’s not a thing. Besides, this is quoted and held up as explanation in the New Testament.
To understand this passage, we must do a little digging into ancient world culture. The Greek word translated as “discipline” in this passage is “paideia.” It refers to the educational system in ancient Greece and Rome…but it’s more than simply school as we know it. Paideia included the modern elements of the liberal arts (rhetoric, grammar, philosophy) but also sciences like arithmetic and medicine, as well as athletics and the arts. Paideia was only for the children of aristocrats. It was training for leaders, a vehicle for raising the perfect, well-rounded members of society. Paideia molded youth with a sense of excellence similar to the upbringing of medieval knights or English gentlemen.
Paideia wasn’t always sunshine and roses. St. Augustine, the bright son of a Roman nobleman, said he often didn’t study unless forced. A slave, his pedagogue, was assigned to make sure he did his lessons and sometimes that involved punishments. The ferula, or “master’s rod,” was the symbol of the pedagogue’s authority. He was present 24/7 to protect and care for his charge…and occasionally chastise when behavior called for it.
This “spare the rod, spoil the child” attitude isn’t vogue today. However, the point is still valid. The student in paideia was meant for excellence. Mediocrity wasn’t an option, and sometimes that required a firm nudging in the right direction or a correction in attitude. When we think of God in these terms, a different kind of father emerges. Not one willing to spoil us by indulging every whim, but one who sees our great potential and desires to bring it out. God’s discipline is not vengeful and pitiless, it’s paideia—education in excellence. God is an affectionate, yet firm, father who raises children to be the best they can be. This might involve divine teaching methods such as suffering and corrective chastisement that educate us and correct our paths.
I learned something about this when I joined the Navy. I went to Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS), a fourteen-week officer boot camp for Navy pilots. Each class had a Marine Corps drill instructor, and ours was Gunnery Sergeant Massey. He yelled more than he spoke and wove a tapestry of curse words that could almost be classified as art. During our first week, which was the hardest part of the whole program, a senior candidate about to graduate told us the drill instructors didn’t do things randomly. Everything had a reason. “Gunnery Sergeant Massey knows the program,” he said. That meant all the harsh words, ridiculous commands, and encouraging words were calculated for a certain effect. The fourteen weeks were planned out to make us the combat pilots we wanted and needed to be. “Gunny knows the program” became our mantra when things got hard and we were discouraged. Looking back, we could see that senior candidate was right. Massey had drilled things into us that seemed useless at the time, but later proved to be valuable skills.
Sometimes, when life is hard and I’m feeling discouraged, I think about my experience at AOCS. I realize that God is like a drill instructor—the perfect drill instructor. Everything he does is planned to make me the saint I want and need to be. My part is to trust completely that God “knows the program,” and whatever happens in my life is happening for that reason.
“God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7). Not just anyone went to paideia. The father in ancient Rome didn’t send a slave or an illegitimate child. He sent the son who bore his name. The special one. His chosen. “For the moment all discipline [paideia or education] seems painful rather than pleasant,” the author of Hebrews says, but later it gives way to “the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). If you can think of the Christian life is a paideia, spiritual training, you’ll be a much happier Christian. God is not an overly indulgent father, but one who wants the best for his children. He wants them to grow to spiritual maturity and perfection in the likeness of the Son, Jesus. How can we expect not to suffer when Jesus himself did? So, take heart! Don’t be discouraged! You are not an illegitimate child the Father won’t bother to educate. He treats you as true sons and daughters in the Son by giving paideia, discipline, so you are worthy to bear his name.
Marc Cardaronella is Director of the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation.