Pondering Punishment as an Act of Love

In the first reading from today’s Mass (Wednesday of the fourth week of the year) came this admonition:

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.

In our times, we have tended to set love and punishment in opposition; we also set mercy and punishment in opposition. But this is wrong. It is possible, at least with human beings, that a certain punishment can be excessive. But of itself, punishment (often called chastisement in the Bible) is a work of love and mercy.

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of “fraternal correction” under his treatise on Charity. It is a great work of mercy to preserve someone from the greater consequences of sin through the lesser consequences of a controlled punishment. And the greatest work of mercy is to help people stay out of Hell.

So we need 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 thought to be merely exacting revenge or getting back at someone for what he has 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 parents may punish with mixed motives. Perhaps they are at times venting their anger as they punish their child. But this is because they are imperfect parents. God, however, is a perfect Father. And when He punishes it is not mixed with these sinful qualities.

Since distorted notions of punishment as synonymous with revenge or venting of anger are common today, 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 to allow the one punished to experience the negative effects of bad behavior in a small way, so that he does 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 limit his freedom for no reason. They are trying to protect him from grave harm. But what if the child does cross the street unescorted and the parents find out about it? Likely they will, or should, punish him. Perhaps his father will have him stay in his room alone for three hours as punishment.

Now notice what is happening here. A smaller injury is inflicted to avoid a much more serious one. 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 in order to avoid a much worse situation in the future.

When God punishes, He is often acting in the same manner. He will allow or inflict pain so that we avoid the pain caused by our bad behavior spiraling downward into far more serious matters, and the far worse pain of eternal Hell. Punishment, when properly applied (and it always is so, when applied by God), is salutary. It helps bring an end to bad and ultimately hurtful behavior, and usually results 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 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).

Note that those who are without discipline are provocatively called “bastards.” It is interesting that this word, which originally referred simply to a child without a father in his life, has come to mean someone who is obnoxious, self-centered, or incorrigible. When a child grows up without the discipline of a father, he often becomes a “bastard” in both the ancient and modern senses of the word. In our use of this rather impolite word, we are connecting what happens to a person who does not know discipline.

Many children today have not known proper discipline. 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.

Sirach 30 says,

Whoever loves a son will chastise him often,
that he may be his joy when he grows up.
Whoever disciplines a son will benefit from him,
and boast of him among acquaintances…
Whoever spoils a son will have wounds to bandage,
and will suffer heartache at every cry.
An untamed horse turns out stubborn;
and a son left to himself grows up unruly.
Pamper a child and he will be a terror for you,
indulge him, and he will bring you grief….
Do not give him his own way in his youth,
and do not ignore his follies.
Bow down his head in his youth,
beat his sides while he is still young,
Lest he become stubborn and disobey you,
and leave you disconsolate.

We need to rediscover the fact that punishment is part of love. It is not love to leave a child undisciplined. We are not helping the child in any way when we fail to discipline him. Surely discipline must be rooted in love, and when it is, it leads to many positive effects. God, too, shows us His love in disciplining and punishing us. I mentioned these words of St. Thomas before, and I think 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, “Father” Bing Crosby warns the young students about what comes from bad behavior.

3 Replies to “Pondering Punishment as an Act of Love”

  1. When clicking on the video associated with this post, the message appears, “This video does not exist.” Probably one advantage of having children is that one sees in one’s children how much one needs discipline oneself.

    1. Ah, yes, remember the gypsy in “The Way;” something along the lines of “…our children are the best and the worst of us.”


  2. In many instances, modern man has adopted an overly romantic view of love . . . love “happily ever after” . . . that is more rooted in the fancy of being in love, the feeling of love.

    This false notion hides from the reality of love, that love is deeply rooted in the concern for the well-being of those we love, which continuously calls for discipline and re-formation toward God’s will.

    This romantic sentiment of love is well represented by the line from the 1970s, “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” perhaps one of the most stupid and foolish things said during a very stupid and foolish decade.

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