Pondering Punishment in the Light of Love

Consider this text from the Prophet Amos.  He has God speaking of some rather strong punishments coming Israel’s way due to her lack of repentance. God says the strong shall be brought low and the swift shall not escape! There is also a vivid line in the psalm that read: Consider this, you who forget God, lest I rend you and there be no one to rescue you. He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me; and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God (Ps 50:22-23)

We have become rather “soft” in modern times (at least in the Western World). We have been taught in the “God is Love” school,  which is not wrong but has often understood that love in sentimental and simplistic ways. Modern notions of love are usually soft, permissive and non-directive. Love is often thought to be exclusively “supportive” and “affirming.” The understanding that love could or should include setting limits, correction, admonishments or punishments is usually downplayed if not explicitly rejected as pertaining to love. For this reason parenting in our culture has been severely undermined.

God too has largely been relegated to being essentially an affirmer. He is the one who “understands.”

One man recently told me that God didn’t care if he went to Church or not. When I quoted the 3rd Commandment and another scriptural passage he just brushed it aside and said, “God understands my heart.”

A couple divorcing once told me that God was OK with them divorcing since God “wouldn’t want them to be unhappy.” When I read scriptures that indicated that God wasn’t too impressed with divorce, they just brushed it aside and indicated that God wouldn’t want them to go on suffering, since they were both in love with other people.

Homosexuals often insist that, since God is about love, he has no problem with any two people loving each other. Scriptural quotes as usual have no impact on such as these. They, like many others, have chosen to define God, inconvenient Scriptures and God’s actual words, not withstanding.

So in the end it would seem that God’s main job is to affirm us in whatever we want to do. This reinvented “God” just want us to be emotionally happy and have plenty of self esteem.

Of course in this climate, the notion of God not merely disapproving of something we do but actually punishing us for it seems an outrageous and untenable position. And yet over and over again Scripture is filled with God sending forth punishments on those who persist in sin. It is true many passages speak of his patience but there comes a time when, after warning through the prophets and others, that God does punish. Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments are filled with warnings of punishment and also its execution.

Now it remains true that God is Love. But he is true and real Love. His love is strong and rooted in what is actually best for us, both as individuals and as a community. Hence when God punishes it is a manifestation of his love.

We also have to recapture a proper understanding of punishment and its purpose. Too many people today think that punishment is the same as vengeance. Hence the one who punishes is merely exactly revenge or getting back at some one for what they have done. Perhaps too many think of punishment as merely a way for the more powerful to vent their anger on the less powerful. It is true that sometimes a parent may punish with mixed motives. Perhaps they are at times venting their anger as they punish a child. But they are imperfect parents. God however, is a perfect Father and when he punishes it is not admixed with these sinful qualities. But distorted notions of punishment as synonymous with revenge or a mere venting of anger are common today. Thus a proper notion of punishment must be recovered.

What then is the proper understanding and purpose of punishment? In effect the purpose of punishment is allow the one punished to experience the negative effects of bad behavior in a small way, so that they do not experience the bad effects in a far worse way.

Consider a child who has been commanded by his parents not to cross the busy street without an older person to escort him. This warning is issued in love. The parents are not trying to take away his fun or merely limit his freedom to no purpose. They are trying to protect him from grave harm. But what if the child does cross the street unescorted and the parents discover it? Likely they will, or should, punish him. Perhaps his father will have him stay in his room for three hours alone as a punishment.

Now notice what is happening here. A smaller injury is inflicted to avoid a much worse injury. After all which is worse, a three hour “time out” in a boring room, or being struck by a car and possibly paralyzed or killed? It is clear that the purpose of punishment is to allow a small amount of pain to avoid a much worse situation.

And thus when God punishes he is often acting in the same manner. He will allow pain or inflict it so that we will avoid far worse pain eternally in Hell, or also pain here as our bad behavior spirals downward into far worse and dangerous matters. Punishment when properly applied (and it always is so, by God) is salutary. It helps to bring an end to bad and ultimately hurtful behavior and usually issues forth in good and constructive behavior.

Hence punishment is integral to love. But love here must be understood as the strong and vigorous love that speaks the truth and insists upon it for us as the only basis for real and lasting fulfillment.

The Letter to the Hebrews has a remarkable passage that spells out the true contours of punishment and discipline rooted in God the Father’s true and vigorous love for us:

My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not (then) submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness. At the time, all discipline 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. So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed. (Heb 12:5-13)

As a final observation note that this passage says that those who are without discipline are called “bastards.” It is interesting that this word, which originally refers simply to child that does not have a father in his life, has come to mean some one who is obnoxious self centered, or incorrigible. When a child grows up without the discipline of a father they often become a “bastard” in both the ancient and modern sense of the word. In our use of this rather impolite word we are connecting what happens to a person who does not know discipline.

It is a true fact that many children today have not known proper discipline and this leads to any number of ills: bad and self destructive behavior, arrogance, disrespectful attitudes, incorrigibility, hostility, selfishness, greed, insensitivity, lack of self-control and many other sociopathic  tendencies.

We need to rediscover that punishment is part of love. It is not love to leave a child undisciplined. We are not helping them in any way when we fail to discipline. Surely discipline must be rooted in love and when it is it leads to many good effects. God too shows us his love in disciplining us and punishing. I have quoted these words of St. Thomas before and it is good to finish with them: [F]raternal correction properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well. (II, IIae, 33.1).

In this video “Fr.” Bing Crosby warns the young men of the school of what comes from bad behavior.