“My dad will never punish me,” 9 year old Daniel insisted. He was the son of a friend of mine who was a professor at Dallas Seminary and a seminar speaker on family life. Eva and I happened to be in a small group with this boy’s teacher. He was a good natured child with a terribly mischievous streak. After several infractions, his young teacher told him that she was writing a note to his Dad and that his dad was going to punish him. No, Daniel maintained adamantly, “My dad has never punished me and he never will.” His teacher said, “I don’t understand Daniel—I know your dad and of course he’ll punish you.” Then you don’t really understand my dad,” Daniel replied. “My dad never punishes me—He only disciplines me.” And apparently, Daniel’s dad disciplined him frequently.
The great part of this true story is that Daniel’s dad helped him learn that a loving father will never behave punitively towards him, paying him back for bad behavior. That’s what punishment is. Rather, his dad would only discipline him for his good. The goal of discipline is bring improvement. The good news for us is that is exactly how God treats us—He allows us to experience the wilderness, not to hurt us but to help us.
In Deuteronomy 8, at the end of 40 years of wilderness wanderings, the Lord revealed His purposes for the wilderness experience of the people of Israel. And they are the very same reasons the Lord Jesus allows us to undergo wilderness conditions in our lives. Recently, many of us may have experienced desert days, with financial losses, or physical illnesses, or spiritual dryness, or even the pain of losing a loved one, or just flat out Covid fatigue. Why does God bring us into the wilderness? In recent weeks, these blogposts have looked at three purposes for the wilderness: First, God uses the wilderness to humble us, or to teach us God-reliance instead of self-reliance. And second, God designs the wilderness to test our motives and obedience. His third purpose is to teach us to find spiritual nourishment from God’s Word. In this blogpost, we’ll take a look at God’s fourth purpose for the wilderness. Listen to Deuteronomy 8:5-6: “Keep in mind that the Lord your God has been disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. So keep the commands of the Lord your God by walking in His ways and fearing Him.” God brings us to the wilderness to discipline us.
The Hebrew word for discipline has two ideas embedded in it. First of all, it has the concept of correction. What that means is that when we fall or have failings, God will use the painful circumstances we find ourselves in, to correct us. Israel had a massive failure. All the people ignored the faithful words of Joshua and Caleb and instead believed the fearful words of the other ten spies. They said Israel could never take the promised land and the Israelites agreed. The consequence for that was 40 years in the wilderness. And the purpose of their wanderings wasn’t divine payback but fatherly correction.
My friend went to serve as a missionary in a nation across the globe. One aspect of the culture he was in that surprised him was that the people there never disciplined their kids. They were beyond tolerant, looking the other way no matter how badly their children acted. At least for a time. Finally, a dad might become so upset by his child’s misbehavior that he would erupt in an explosion of anger. The people of that culture thought my friend was crazy because he would discipline his young boys calmly, letting them know the consequences for their behavior. In that culture, this was considered strange, even weird. My friend was constantly trying to explain that the goal of disciplinary correction was redemptive. It was designed to teach proper behavior to his kids not to cower in fear of their parents. So it is with God sending Israel and us into the wilderness—He may very well have found some aspect of our lives that needs correcting and He will use the wilderness to correct us and make us more apt to “keep the commands of the Lord your God by walking in His ways and fearing Him.”
The second nuance of Hebrew word for discipline refers to instruction. God uses the wilderness to instruct in righteous behavior. All discipline is not correction for wrongdoing but can be instruction for doing what is right. God used the wilderness to teach all those kids born in the desert how they were to live in obedience in the promised land.
When my son was in high school, I’d wake him every morning and he’d hop out of bed and we’d lift weights for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, he’d shower while I made coffee. Then, he’d dress and join me in the kitchen while we read the Bible together for about 15 minutes. This daily discipline wasn’t about correcting him. No, it was instructional. God may have some of us in the wilderness today, not to correct some wrongdoing but to instruct in righteous behavior. God uses discipline to develop our godliness.
According to Deuteronomy 8:5, God disciplines us with a wilderness experience as a father disciplines a child. It may be because there’s some disobedience or rebellious attitudes and he’ll use the wilderness to teach obedience to Him. Or it may be that God is not correcting but instructing. He knows the future and the wilderness experience may be just what we need to be more obedient in the future.
A friend of mine has been struggling with the wilderness of illness lately and has found the words of C. S. Lewis’ encouraging: “Why now? Because God is forcing him on, or up to a higher level; putting him into situations where he will have to be much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us, all so unnecessary but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make us” (Mere Christianity, [MacMillan, 1952], 174). God uses the wilderness to discipline us. And His discipline can sometimes be corrective or sometimes instructive but it will always be an expression of His love.