Chastening refers to the process of “inflicting suffering for the purpose of moral improvement.”
The idea that God chastens humans is unpleasant. We would rather be perfected instantly by our contact with Jesus and by entering into His atonement. Nevertheless, the Bible is very clear that we learn, in part, by trial and error; or more accurately, error then trial.
If we speak of a human father who has chastised his child, the implication is that the father has disciplined his child to help the child learn and grow. The classic example given to illustrate the loving nature of chastening is where a 2-year-old child is found playing with an electrical cord and touching the outlet. The dad then teaches the child that this is dangerous and inflicts suffering in order to keep the child safe.
The form of the discipline can be mild or severe depending on the circumstance. Immaturity is treated differently than deliberate sin. In the case of the young human child innocently playing with a dangerous electrical cord, the father may merely pull away her hand and say “no”. He may move quickly and in his alarm may frighten the child, but the motive is love. The idea is that the father is applying this discipline for the child’s sake, not because he is angry, and will use the minimum correction needed to bring change.
Should the daughter persist in playing with electrical cords, the father may become more severe in the applied affliction. He may spank her, or if she is older, he may give her a “time out.” The chastening is as severe as needed to teach the lesson.
Likewise, God tells us that He chastens those He loves. For example, in Hebrews it says that “those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom the father does not discipline?”
It is important to realize that both innocent childlike behavior and persistent deep sin can result in chastening. A new Christian may, for example, exercise zeal without wisdom and correct an authority in an inappropriate fashion. Assuming that this unwise act was intended for good and that the young Christian meant no disrespect, then the chastening could be light and would easily accomplish correction. A mere word of reproof from God could suffice to train the person.
On the other hand, a young Christian man may have a habit of correcting authority that stems from pride or rebellion related to childhood conflict with his natural father. This Christian may ignore the conviction of the Holy Spirit or the instruction of the word and display a “problem” in the area of submission to authority. This sort of correction might require a more severe or sustained chastening. The good news is this: God won’t chasten us more severely than is needed to gain the benefit of correction. It is for our holiness that He disciplines us.
God will judge sin in every person, whether a person is a believer or not. In the case of the sincere believer though, that is, in the case of the person who loves God, His judgment will be sent to in order to correct the person and help him get free from his sin. It will be carefully measured and timed just right to bring correction and growth and purification. The more tender hearted we are, the more teachable we are, the less we will need to be chastened by circumstances. We can learn to “judge ourselves lest we be judged” but even if we don’t and we end up being chastened by God, His judgment will be lovingly applied for our good and redemption.
Several forms of judgment go beyond mere chastening. For example, when King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and murdered her husband, God confronted him. Even after David showed repentance God brought judgment. Several consequences followed despite a “broken and contrite heart.” First, the child conceived in Bathsheba died shortly after birth. Second, sexual sin entered into David’s family; one of his sons committed incest, raping his half sister. Third, murder entered into his family when another brother revenged his sister’s rape by killing the perpetrator. Worse yet, one of David’s sons tried to form a coup and take over the kingdom, causing a war and many deaths. All of these events caused David public shame and everyone knew that God was judging David. These forms of judgment that bring justice and warn others can be thought of as part of chastening. In these monkipedia essays, however, the term chastening will be confined to “inflicting suffering for the purpose of moral improvement.” For a discussion of the concepts that are closely related to chastening see the essays on punishment, persecution, trials and breaking.