DISCIPLINE IN THE SCHOOL OF GOD: ITS NATURE AND EFFECT J. B. Stoney
No subject can be more deeply interesting to the saint than the nature and effect of that discipline which our God, in the plenitude of His love and wisdom, administers to His people.
Interesting as the subject is, and one so necessary to the secret exercises of the soul, yet it is little understood ; and the dealings of God are either counted strange, or wanting in any just or useful solution.
I propose, therefore, with the Lord's help, to present, in a series of papers, the peculiar discipline-its object and its effect, detailed to us, respecting each distinguished witness for God on earth.
I am induced to do this, in order to lead the minds of saints to study more a subject which of all others connects us most with the secret, loving thoughts of our God about us.
I accordingly begin with Adam. Though not properly heading the life of faith, yet he was the subject of severe discipline, and a remarkable illustration of its effects. Adam at one time needed no discipline-a state unknown to any since. When he fell, the day of discipline began. He who was made in the image of God, who approached nearer to God than any creature, even he, is now imbued with a spirit and a nature so adverse to God, that if he would live for God he must learn to renounce his own will, under the training of the mighty hand of God. To Adam this must have been a strange contrast to the once easy acquiescence of his mind with the will of God. Consequently he must have felt it the more ; and as the rebellion of his heart was being subdued, he must have contrasted the rule of God with the powerlessness of innocence. As innocent, he fell ; as fallen, the hand of God exalts him not ignorantly nor passively, but in all the activity of anxious conviction. Innocence with him was a weak thing; the power of God subduing his nature no longer innocent was a great and mighty thing. He never would have sought the innocent state again, for he knew how weak it was. He knew now that he was able to do more with the power of God in a fallen state, than in unassisted innocence he ever could aspire to. As innocent, he had no sense of the value of life ; as fallen, yet believing in the revelation of God, he could now name the only creature he had yet named, the mother of all living. Under the sentence of death, he could speak of life, while as innocent, his penalty (if disobedient) was the loss of life. Innocence could have had no charm for him now. True, it was a moment of wondrous bliss; but it was a condition in which he could not stand; and under God's discipline, he stands morally higher, though conditionally lower. Adam was not deceived, but he was influenced. He early discovers the sensibilities of nature, which eventually led to his fall. Neither the world nor its glory, nor any class of the inferior creatures, can supply the craving of the sociable heart of Adam: for him there was not found an helpmeet, and it was " not good for him to be alone." The instincts of his nature were not satisfied; but when the one who satisfied them was deceived, he yields to her influence, as he himself admits: " She gave unto me, and I did eat." The first man disclosed this secret of his heart, that he was dependent on another; so that when Satan would not venture to beguile him, the object of his affections successfully influenced him. Now they have discovered themselves to be estranged from God, and they hide from His presence ; but now it is that the first lessons of His grace are propounded to them.
In discipline there is properly conviction of sin, as well as correction. Chastening or correction while there is suffering for sin is to make me a partaker of holiness. It is not to improve my nature, but so to convince me of its utter helplessness that I may be devoted unto God, which is the true and distinct meaning of sanctification, " without which no man shall see the Lord." There is exceeding pain in being convicted of sin : and if there be not a strong sense of the grace of God when we are convicted, there will be great depression, and a tendency to give up all in despair. Hence the exhortation, " Faint not when thou art convicted [Greek] of him." God does not convict hastily. He likes that, through the action of His word on our conscience, we may be the first to convict ourselves. It is very little use to tell a vain man of his faults ; it generally only urges him the better to conceal or extenuate them. It is very difficult to induce a person in ill-health and unconvinced of it, to adopt the necessary regimen; the more you remonstrate with such a one, the more strenuously will he endeavour to prove you mistaken, and you exasperate the malady you would assuage, but the really sin-convicted soul, like the patient tremblingly alive to his danger, is ready to receive every true correction and remedy that is offered.
When Adam had perfected the devices of his estranged and corrupted heart, when the aprons of fig-leaves are on and he hiding behind the trees, the voice of God searches him, although he seeks to escape from it. This is ever the tendency when light from the word first reaches us; we prepare to evade it, like the Pharisees leaving the presence of the Lord ; and therefore we are continually allowed to run to the end of our own plans, in order to learn how futile they are. Many a weary hour and long day is squandered in the execution of plans which, when tested by the searching word of God, must be entirely abandoned. What is the nature of such plans? Are they to distance and conceal you from God, or are they to bring you nigh unto Him, and to unfold to Him the minutest secrets of your heart? This question tests them. Adam's were to cloak himself to escape the eye of God, and God allowed him to complete his schemes. Oh, how well each of us knows what this is! The poor prodigal tries the far country, but returns to his father's house a really humbled man. The many intentions are well tested and found to be as husks, and then the soul listens to the gracious tones of that voice from which it would fain have escaped. It is a terrible thing to have to answer the question, " Where art thou? " when you find out the insufficiency of all expedients to screen your conscience from the action of God's word. Did the prodigal like to answer it when feeding the swine? Did Peter like to answer it when enjoying the cheer of his Master's foes, in warming himself at their fire? Did Adam like it when he remembered the position which he occupied in contrast with the one which he had forfeited? The answer to the question, " Where art thou? " reveals the state of the conscience. The voice of God searches it, and if it has not learned that it is with God it has to do, the history of it must be, " I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." Concealment is the first effort of a suffering conscience. You neither like to see yourself, nor that any one else should see you, as you are ; and at the sound of God's voice you hide yourself, while concealment betrays distance as well as evasion. There must be some activity in the conscience when concealment is resorted to, especially when no penalty but the fact of your guilt being known is attached to it. Concealment is, in fact, resorted to in order that we may appear better than we are. If we were willing that every one should see us as we are, there would be no concealment. A disguise was never yet adopted but for self exaltation. A lie was never maintained but to gain credit for what is not deserved. When God deals with us, we learn that " all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do." The Word (see Heb. 4) acts on our conscience, " piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart " ; but it conducts to God. It is with Him that 64 we have to do." The voice of the Lord penetrated the soul of Adam; and though girded with fig-leaves, which satisfied his own standard of morality, yet when the Word came, it tried him, and he was afraid, because he was naked-naked before God-and he hid himself.
It is important to study those two actions of the conscience ; for they give rise to much exercise and trouble in the soul, from being confounded. When a man has satisfied his own conscience, has adopted some system which conceals from himself and from others the real state of his soul, he floats for a while on peaceful waters ; but no sooner is the voice of the Lord heard, than all the elements seem to him involved in a mighty tornado. His sleep is broken; he is the convicted Peter of Luke 5: 8: he is " afraid." The fact that he is naked and opened before God flashes fearfully before him, and so much the more because he had deceived himself, and his reputation with another had helped it on. The action of the Word of God would be desperate and overwhelming to the soul if we had not a " great High Priest passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God." He having been " tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin," supports us with His sympathy as soon as we are, through the action of the word, apart from the SIN, and His atonement, in full effect before God, sets the convicted conscience at rest at the throne of grace, there to receive the grace and mercy it needs. This is just what Adam had to learn; consequently the voice pursues him to his hiding-place. It is in vain that we seek to escape the eye of God when He determines that it shall search us. If we " take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea," even there He will reach us! Oh, how the conscience that seeks escape from God overshadows itself within the foliage of this world 1 It engrosses itself with man's leading and most ambitious pursuits, but in vain. The " watchers " will cry aloud, " Hew down the tree, and cut off his branches, and shake off his leaves." The refuge of lies shall be exposed, and the soul must have its account with God. It must answer the question, " WHERE ART THOU? " and all the answer needed is a tale of the plain and simple facts, " I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." The moment the soul of the saint is in full confession, he is in the region of forgiveness and restoration, and the Spirit expostulates with it as friend would with friend. Adam had tried his own expedients, and they were vain and found to be profitless ; now he will listen to the grace that tells of a sure and perfect remedy. But mark 1 he first discloses the true and full condition of his soul; he confesses his fear-his nakedness-his effort to hide himself. Discipline had effected this. Now God instructs him. Adam is " meek," and God will teach him His way. He has learned that innocence was no protection against an undue influence, and that the absence of evil motive is no guarantee for true moral action. He alone knew what innocence was, and yet it had been no safeguard. He was tempted, and he yielded to it. Conscious, indeed, that innocence was gone, and that evil motive could rule, he still trusts to himself to screen and rectify his disgrace. The expedient he adopted satisfied his own moral sense, and, what was infinitely more delusive, the moral sense of the one whose good opinion he loved to secure, and whose satisfaction was a bulwark to his own. This is a snare that few, even godly men, escape. It is, in other words, the reputation with one's friends, pressed on the conscience, as the verdict of the last court of appeal, and conclusive to it, on any recurrence of anxious inquiry. There is a reciprocity in this kind of reputation. What you admit for me, I in return admit for you. If a girdle of fig-leaves measures the demand of your moral sense, and you accept it as sufficient for me, I in return do the same for you. This is the essence and true character of all human and religious reputation. But the voice of God is heard, and Adam is troubled in his false and fallen position. That voice probes the entire condition, and at last he finds himself "naked and open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do." He confesses all, and he is now on the uppermost form for instruction, with an humble and a contrite spirit. To the divine challenge he admits, though with an excuse and mitigation, that he was tempted and had eaten. His justification lowers him morally, more than the charge he seeks to justify himself from. Yet it is a confession, and it is accepted as such ; and our God enters on the gracious work of unfolding His counsels.
To each actor in this wondrous scene is now meted the judgment due to the part he has played in it. Satan's sentence is first Pronounced, and while his doom is fixed, deliverance from his power and the eternal remedy of the gospel is declared to the listening and convicted Adam. It is the divine way, in restoring a soul, to establish it first in the power of God and in His grace. The draught of the fishes and the words of Jesus taught this to Peter; Luke 5. It is the groundwork for all godly recovery. When the heart is established, as David's was when Nathan said, " The Lord has taken away thy sin," then it can bear to hear what is the discipline necessary to correct that in it, which sin could act on. It is important to bear in mind the process by which the Lord reveals to the soul the discipline which He will impose. Whatever has provoked our failure is denounced, not in general terms, but in the proportion, and in the order too, of its guilt; and at the same time the true mode of deliverance is announced. Satan is not only sentenced, but the effect of his malice on man will be his own irremediable retribution. Man shall be avenged of his enemy. The serpent is not only assigned, as a signal judgment, to crawl and to eat dust, in perpetual hostility to the Seed of the woman, but his " violent dealing shall come down on his own pate his head shall be bruised.
The next brought up for judgment is the woman. She was the proximate cause of Adam's failure; but as the principal had received his sentence, she must now hear hers. She is condemned to times of great sorrow on every addition to the human family which she has been instrumental in subjecting to the power of death, with unconditional subjection to her husband, the want of which bore its first-fruits in her own fall, and led to Adam's also. Each transgressor is not only sentenced to a penalty corresponding to his guilt, but the relation in which that guilt has affected Adam is also markedly repaired. God's servant must not be touched with impunity, but he must not err himself. The righteous God will avenge his cause, but only in righteousness. He cannot overlook the frailty of his servant, though he will rescue him when the unmitigated sentence is executed. When God enters into judgment, even-handed justice is dispensed. But acts are criminal in a greater or lesser degree: that which draws God's witness into distance from Him being more criminal in His sight, than the failure which the witness exposes by being drawn into distance. The one who misleads another comes under a severer penalty than he who is misled ; though the latter is not exempted because he betrays moral feebleness. The infliction of penalties is not necessarily for correction. There was no hope of amending Satan, but yet severe penalties are inflicted on him because Adam had suffered through him. Man was God's representative on earth; injury to him was treason against God. Hence in divine discipline there is always a correction of the evil principle of nature, and also retribution for the trespass we may have committed on our fellow man. This is exemplified in the sentence on Adam. His sin was yielding to his wife's request in opposition to the word of God. Probably he did not do so with intent; that is, with deliberation. But the word was not hid in his heart, and did not control him; for if it had he would not have hearkened to the voice of his wife. But having surrendered his place, he has to bear the penalty of it, and to become the great slave and labourer on that earth of which he was the ruler and prince. Everything on it would bear indications of in subjection to its rightful master. To assuage the trial he must spend his life in toil in order to five; but in the end he must return to dust, as dust he was. There is deeply instructive teaching in all this ; even that if we surrender the position in which God places us in any relation, the one we retire to will inevitably notify to us, in fearful reminiscences, what has been our forfeiture. The smallest thorn and briar reminded Adam that he had surrendered his lordship in hearkening to the voice of his wife. If David retire from the duties of the king (2 Sam. i i : i), he must surrender, in a painful way, the honours of one; 2 Sam. 15, etc. He is reminded how lightly he regarded them, by the successful rebellion of his own son. " Cursed be he who doeth the work of the Lord negligently." All the influence of Barnabas would not induce Paul to take Mark who had returned from Pamphylia. The refusal of the apostle reminded him how he trifled with, and abandoned the post once his, but which was easier lost than regained. This is the nature of Adam's discipline. He is reminded by everything of that which he had surrendered, and the less carefully and diligently he laboured to subdue the numerous reminiscences of his failure, the more they increased, and the less able was he to sustain himself against them. By the sweat of his brow he mitigated his position for his own need. David returned, after a severe chastisement, to the throne. Mark was " profitable for the ministry " after the discipline had produced its effect. Faith always walks above discipline, though learning from it. Adam hears the sentence on all, and in faith consenting to it,, rises above it, and calls his wife's name Eve, because she is the " mother of all living." Faith reaches unto God, therefore it can submit to the position which judicially falls on an erring soul, and it can look to God for His own time and mode of deliverance. It accepts the punishment of its iniquity, not merely as retribution for it, but as correction. Discipline has in fact produced its greatest effect, when the soul submits to it, as trusting in God. Adam shews this, for in thus naming his wife he makes amends to her for his former reproaches; and what was, in unsubdued nature, the agent of harm to him, is now, in the eye of faith, the channel of life. As disciplined and walking in faith, God clothes Adam, yet discipline must not be arrested nor reprieved. God drives him out and sends him to till the ground from whence he was taken, to find out what sort of a man he was, and to learn how his faith would sustain him.
It is in our immediate relations of life in the innermost circle, where there is least reserve, that we most truly disclose ourselves. A man who cannot rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God? Power is more effective applied at home than at a distance. If Adam is learning from discipline, it ought to be seen in his power to avoid the evil for which he was suffering. It does not appear that he does; for Eve assumes the place of naming his eldest son, again losing sight of her own place, and doubtless filling her first-born (which his name itself would suggest) with aspirations which led to his fearful contradiction of God's promise, while it was the painful evidence of her own misapprehension of it. There was the devastation of death where life was expected ; the fact that one child was murdered and the other the murderer, and that, the one in whom their hopes centred, must have been a trial to Adam which we can little conceive, but it was a discipline which produced its effects; for though it is said thatEve named Seth in the first instance, yet it is also written that Adam called his name Seth, shewing, as it appears to me, that he at length had learned what the discipline was sent to teach him; namely, to act for God, above all influence, and not to allow anything to distract him from the path of faith. He appears to have learned this in the last recorded act of his life; a very pleasing consummation, showing the effect of discipline, and a very fit and happy finale to his history.
To sum up. We learn from this history that innocence or absence of evil motive is no safeguard against influence ; that satisfying our own moral sense, or the moral sense of any one else, is no proof that we can answer, or have answered, to God's claim on us ; that if we cease to maintain our divinely appointed place we are sure to fall, and the word of God, which would have preserved us in our place, does not act on the heart outside that place ; but that in learning what it has been to follow our inclinations, our discipline will always be of a character to correct our failure, and to remind us, in very minute ways, as did the thorns to Adam, what our frailty has reduced us to.