This weekend I will am scheduled to speak at a church retreat near Knoxville, Tennessee. My topic is “Growing the Church from the Inside Out,” and my focus will be on the role of spiritual formation in building the church, both in maturity and, secondarily, in numbers. I give frequent talks on the spiritual disciplines and the concept of training for godliness (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and 1 Tim. 4:7-8). This is a recurrent theme in Scripture, yet somehow it is a foreign concept to many evangelicals these days. So I am always eager to speak on the subject, especially since I can count on a strongly positive response from audiences. Given the moral decay in the contemporary church, there is a deep need here, and judging by people’s responses, it is also a felt need.
One of the biblical themes I emphasize is the notion that we must be intentional about learning to obey, hence the critical role of such disciplines as fasting and sacrifice in order to build self-control. I also highlight the role of suffering, unpleasant as it is, to discipline us and make us more obedient. Regarding this latter theme, I have been revisiting one of the more fascinating (and cryptic) passages in the New Testament, Hebrews 5:8-9, which says regarding Jesus that “although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” Now what does this mean? Before venturing a positive answer, let’s first get clear on what it doesn’t mean. It can’t mean that Jesus was ever disobedient or morally corrupt and that his suffering somehow brought him out of this condition. Jesus neither had a sinful nature (because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit) nor did he ever perform sinful actions.
So what does this passage mean? In what sense might a God-man “learn obedience”? A few possibilities come to mind. First, though morally impeccable, Jesus still might have had to develop the skill of obedience in diverse contexts. One can only become proficient at resisting certain kinds of temptation when one has actually been tempted in those ways. And such virtues as self-control and humility become fully formed only when one has had to display them in a variety of circumstances. Second, Jesus’ moral perfection would not rule out the need to practice obedience in the face of increasing degrees of difficulty. Given his mission to be publicly humiliated and die an excruciating death, before ultimately conquering death through his resurrection, the suffering he experienced throughout his life no doubt prepared him to endure his torturous final hours.
Perhaps there are other ways to make sense of this passage, but one thing is clear: suffering played a constructive role in helping even the God-man to grow in obedience. And if suffering served Jesus’ moral development in this way, then how much more must we suffer in order to grow morally?