Fatherhood, the dark valley and the spiritual life
What does the love of a father have to do with God’s love? What does our experience growing up as children reveal about life in the spirit? Today we explore these two questions.
Backdrop: Hebrews Chapters 11 and 12
Todays’ discussion will be set against the backdrop of Hebrews, Chapters 11 and 12. I want to give a brief sketch of these chapters, by way of overview, then turn to a few verses that address our theme.
In Chapter 11, Paul paints a moving portrait of our forebears in faith. From Abel to Noah, from Abraham to Jacob, from Moses to Rahab: he shows how the people of Israel were always pressing forward toward a promise and a kingdom which to them was invisible. But which they ever sought with ardent and faithful hearts.
Paul is trying to draw us, to invite us, to urge us forward in our own journey of faith. He says we also are on a journey – a journey to “the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22). A journey to the day when we can stand before the living God, a God who is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29).
This is not a hum drum journey. This is an epic adventure. The terrain is the interior life. Paul wants to inspire us to make the trek. That’s the thrust of Chapter 12.
The Dark Valley
But to get to the theme of today’s post, we need to turn to Hebrews 12:5-13. There’s a concept in here that I find illuminating. I want to unpack it.
The gist is this: if we are to journey to the city of the living God, we will be stepping into a new way of living and being. For that, we must be prepared and shaped; we must be educated. We must be formed in our minds and our souls.
But how can that happen? Paul gives us a clue in these verses. It will require that we pass through difficult roads. Even, as Paul puts it, “to the point of shedding blood” (Heb. 12:4) Here he is alluding, no doubt, to the cross that Jesus and Paul teach will be a part of the Christian life. Or as Psalm 23 describes it: the dark valley.
Paul describes the journey of the soul through dark valleys by way of an analogy to parenting.
Let me set it up this way. Have you ever gone through a time in your life – maybe the loss of a job, a loved one, a severe illness, a broken marriage, persecution of some sort, or the serious illness of a child? Have you had the experience when the light of faith seemed to go out? This is the dark valley. A time when things seem so dark you come to conclude that either God does not care, that he has abandoned you, or that there just is no such thing as a God of love who has a guiding hand in our lives.
If you’ve known such a time, take a close look at these next lines. Paul is speaking to his audience about the journey they need to make to the holy city and the dark valleys they will encounter along the way. But those valleys are not completely dark. In Paul’s telling, there is a presence and a reality we should try to understand.
Let’s look at our verses. (Please note I have changed the word “son” to “child,” as Paul would do if he were writing today).
“You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children:
‘My child, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;
he chastises every child he acknowledges.’ (Heb 12:5)
Paul mentions an exhortation in the first line. He is speaking of Proverbs 3:11-12. In fact, he is directly quoting that passage here. But conventional translations hide the full meaning of this passage and the coming verses. If we just look at the English translation “discipline” we will miss a deeper shade of meaning. Let me explain.
The Fathering of God
The original Greek word, translated here as discipline, is “paideia.” It’s a word with several layers of meaning and which resonates with several important, related words. Let’s take a closer look.
We define paideia (pronounced pie-day-uh) in the context of 3 related words, all with the root “paid-.”
Paidion (pronounced pie-dee-on) is a very young child, an infant. We get the word pediatric from this word.
Paidagogos, from which we get the word pedagogue and pedagogy, means one who leads a child, a custodian, one whose duty it was to lead a child to and from school and to oversee their conduct.
Paideia, our word, here translated as discipline, denotes more generally upbringing of a child; the training, instruction and education of a child. This includes the training of the body, the fostering of virtue and the cultivation of the soul. Discipline and correction are part of this but only as a part of a broader meaning.
Paideuo (pie-dyu-o) is the verb form of paideia. It means to bring up, to train, to educate, to form body, character and mind, to cultivate the soul. It includes to correct, to chastise, to discipline. But all as part of a human formation imparted in benevolence to a child.
So we have, with these four words, a swirl of associated meanings. They help to clarify that paideia denotes the upbringing of a child, its formation in body, mind and soul. Paideia is the way a father raises his children. It contains discipline, reproof, correction, but those elements must be seen in the context of a benevolent fatherly upbringing and formation. That is the overarching truth of the dynamic Paul finds in Proverbs and holds forth to his readers.
You’ll recall that I said earlier Paul wants us to make a journey. A journey to the city of the living God. He wants us to be formed so that we are able to stand in the presence, to love and worship God, who is a consuming fire. To get there, we need to be formed, educated, prepared. And that is what Paul is getting at here. He is describing the way God forms his children through the prism of what the father of a family does for his children.
As we move through the coming verses, I want to make a suggestion then. One that sets these lines and the coming verses in their context.
It’s this: the best translation for the word paideia is simply the word paideia; because it holds all the meanings I have just noted. But if we must translate it, I suggest we use the word fathering. Where, by ‘fathering,’ I mean: forming, educating, transmitting life, fostering virtue, correcting, disciplining (where needed), preparing one’s child to flourish in life, preparing them for deep human happiness.
Persevere in your paideia; persevere through the dark valley
With that arrow in our quiver, let us return to our text. Restated and rephrased in the way a father might address his children:
Dear ones, you have forgotten the exhortation the Father addressed to you as his children:
“My child, do not regard lightly the fathering of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he fathers;
he chastens every child he acknowledges.” (Heb 12:5)
Paul continues and, again, I re-translate:
“Persevere under God’s fathering (paideia); God treats you as his children. For what child is there whom his father does not father (paideuo)?” (Heb 12:6)
Let me flesh out a little bit what Paul is doing with this analogy to human fathering. He is telling us that as a child encounters difficulty, discipline, reproof, so the soul will know the dark valley in our Christian journey to the city of the living God. We will struggle, sometimes, in bearing up under setbacks, suffering and difficulties. But rather then resist such experiences, disdaining them, recoiling from them, he urges us to regard them as part of God’s mysterious paideia, part of the way he fathers us. Part of the way he forms our souls and strengthens our virtue and readies us for the faith journey we have to make.
Here the meaning of discipline and chastisement for the child stands forth as the cross, the dark valley for the soul. We will know difficulties on our road. But Paul want us to understand these struggles are part of God’s mysteriouis paideia, part of his fathering.
To wish for it to be otherwise, to wish to avoid God’s paideia, with its shades of challenges and loss – these experiences that form and strengthen and deepen our souls – is to desire something Paul regards as shocking. It is to desire to be outside of the Father’s family:
“If you are without paideia, in which all have shared, you are not sons but children born out of wedlock.” Hebrew 12:8
Paul actually uses a shocking term here. He uses a word that can just as accurately be translated as “bastard,” but I have softened it. Thus we might hear him saying this:
If you are without God’s paideia, you are not a child of the father, you are a bastard. A child born outside the intimacy of the Father’s family. God’s paideia – including his discipline, including the cross, including the dark valleys – is an integral part of being a member of his family.
The Father of Spirits
Paul concludes these thoughts, moving from the example of earthly fathers to the Father in heaven.
We see the value of respecting the fatherhood and discipline of our earthly fathers, he says: Should we not therefore submit all the more to the Father of spirits? (Heb. 12:9)
For our fathers father us (paideuo) for a short time, but God, the Father of spirits fathers us in order that we might share in his holiness.
I love this line: God the Father of spirits fathers us (paideuo) in order that we might share in his holiness. This precisely echoes what we said in the beginning. Paul wants us to make the journey of faith that Abraham and Moses made, the journey to the city of the living God, where we will stand and worship in the presence of God. But to reach this destination, we must be fathered, we must be led, formed, guided, educated, molded. God’s paideia prepares us for this journey. Prepares us that we might one day share in his holiness.
Paul concludes with this wise summary – can we not all relate?
“At the time, all discipline (paideia, dark valleys) seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” (Heb 12:11)
Paul’s has a grand vision for his readers. He wants them to become men and women who “offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe . . .” to God who is a “consuming fire” (Heb 12: 28-29). The road to get there he calls the road to life. (12:9). On this road, we are but children, paidioi. Yet we have a Father who fathers us (paideuo) on the road, sometimes through dark valleys, the analogue of reproofs and discipline. Yet through it all there is this paideia, this fathering of God that forms our bodies, our character and souls toward the day when we can stand before him in “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” among the spirits of the just made perfect,” in the presence of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb 12:22-23).
I confess this journey Paul points us toward can seem a mountain too high to climb. But we are children along this road. And we have a Father who fathers us, who draws us into his divine pedagogy, who leads us where he desires that we go, giving us experiences that impart to our souls the traits we need on our journey.
This is the fruit of God’s paideia, God’s fathering. He gives us light and dark valleys to form in us the habits of soul we need to journey to the city of the living God.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, you dwell in communion with the Father. To Phillip, you said “Who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). Help me to know the Father and to trust in his fathering, even when I am in the dark valley. Jesus, I place my trust in you. Have mercy on me, a sinner.