Pondering Punishment In the Light of God’s Love

The first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Amos 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. A homosexual “couple” recently insisted that since God is about love he has no problem with any two people loving each other. Scriptural quotes as usual had no impact on these men who simply said, “God is not a homophobe.”

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 surely 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 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.

30 Replies to “Pondering Punishment In the Light of God’s Love”

  1. Would you consider compiling all these reflections into a book? I have already printed out many to share with my children …

    In our current times, God doesn’t need to punish us because we have done some terrible things and so now are suffering the consequences. I’m thinking about no-fault divorce, legalizing abortion, mercy-killing … and it goes on.

    I think of all the wrong things I did in my youth, particularly premarital sex and contraception, and am so grateful that God didn’t punish me by not giving me children when I finally did come to my senses. But there are consequences. We cannot have more children. I have some health problems (don’t know whether they are due to the pill — the Drs. say not, but how can I believe them when they call bad things good?). But now I put my faith in God, who is always good and right and just.

    1. Dear Msgr. Pope,
      Thats a lovely suggestion above, it would be good to have a book of all your reflections so that we can refer to topics whenever required.

    2. Well, I am working on soemthing I can make available a little more immediately and will be converting these to a PDF Format that is easily downloaded and printed. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. Msgr Pope,

    So good to get “the whole counsel of God.” I was wondering what a good perspective might be on eternal punishment… i.e. I hear many Catholics (personal heroes, indeed) say that God does not directly people in hell, but “eternal punishment” is an indirect consequence of their choosing sin instead of Life. This seems a bit wishy washy to me in light of many Scripture passages, yet seems very integral to CCC #1035 “… the *chief punishment* of hell is eternal seperation from God…” Any help would be very appreciated. Love your reflections so much! Thank you Msgr! Vencit omnia Veritas~ Doug

    1. I’m reminded of the Lenten antiphon: “Nolo mortem peccatoris sed ut magis convertatur et vivat” “I do not wish the death of the sinner but rather that he be converted and live”

      God (or anyone, actually) cannot directly will an evil but only a good, since good is the proper object of the will. When evil is committed by man, he always wills it under the aspect of some good (for instance, a man might commit adultery because of the beauty of the woman – itself, a good thing – but altogether, it is an evil act). Even a man who commits suicide wants to do it for some good reason – the world would be a better place without him, to end the pain, to ease the burden on his family, etc… All faulty reasons but they appear as good to the man.

      Likewise, when God sends someone to Hell, he wills justice and the person is damned as a consequence. I think that is what you mean by “indirect consequence”.

      But perhaps your question was “Do people send themselves to Hell?” In other words, who is it that damns, man or God? I would answer, both, but in different ways. Man provides the cause, God provides the means. The formal cause of damnation is sin which originates solely from man and not from God. However, God, in willing justice, damns certain men because of their sins.

      Does that make any sense?

      1. Your position makes perfect sense, Curtis. The question was indeed, “Do people send themselves to hell?” I greatly appreciated your answer of “both.” The Lenten antiphon was beautiful. I believe it comes from Ezekiel.
        Great insights. Thanks :o)

  3. PS… I know that my question is not connected to God’s love, but still is asked to help me better reflect on the pains of hell to move me to a greater share with all the saints in God’s Good Love… blessings~ Doug

  4. The other extreme view on punishment is best espoused by the “Great Chastisement” movement: They believe punishment is unavoidable, extremely severe (example: Holocaust), and at times demonic (example: the Left Behind series portrayal of Armageddon).

    This movement is fueled by false apparitions and prophets, as well as persons who justify committing false witness against saints for the sake of God by putting prophecies in their mouths (such as the so-called “three days of darkness prophecy of Saint Padre Pio”).

    Thank goodness for Sacred Scripture and Tradition! And may more Catholics learn the Church’s teachings!

  5. I guess that I’ve always assumed that punishment was a direct result of sin and not a direct result of God doing harm to us. In other words, when you turn away from God, you turn away from love and you therefore forfiet the right to be treated kindly. It doesn’t mean that God wishes evil things to happen to you (which is against His nature) but that once you accept evil into your life, the same evil turns on you. God only punishes indirectly by allowing people to experience the consequence of their actions.

    1. Well there are bad things that come from Bad choices and they are punishments of a sort. However, I am conisdering the kind of punishments directly sent by God. To a certain extent the Hebrews text is saying that if you are punished, you are a son, but if you are not you are without a father and have been handed over to the full consequnces of your sin. Thus, God’s punishment is more merciful than simply expereincing the full impact of our sins as its own punishment.

  6. Msgr., once again you expressed my sentiments. Punishment is never mentioned and as long as it feels good, that’s all OK. Sure we are loved and forgiven, but there is so much more to be considered.
    Today I am the first on this list of replies. I look forward to read what the others say later.

  7. For me, becoming a parent has definitely helped me understand God’s love much better. My son is a good boy. He is still young, but he is not a problem child outside of the normal things kids do. Currently, he is exploring EVERYTHING. When I tell him no it is because he is going to get hurt. I am firm and strong to get the point across that his behavior is unacceptable and displeases me because I love him and do not want to see him get hurt as well as basic right and wrong. It is “for his own good” as my parents used to say. He is not at the point yet BUT I will let him know that brushing aside my rules will not be tolerated. I know better at this point and even though it feels good for the moment, the immediate gratification is nothing compared to the amount of suffering he will endure. But through it all I LOVE HIM and will always love him. I know it is impossible, at least in this life, to understand the full scope of God’s love and mercy but I would say being a parent gives you some good insight. Perhaps, that’s why society as a whole is struggling in the area of discipline? Not just with children, but look at how the justice system seems so unbelievably lenient in some cases. Marriage and childbearing seems to be at an all time low, while divorce remains high. So maybe we have lost a connection to the Father and it is not only effecting us in the home but society as a whole? Maybe this is one of the reasons he stresses family so much? In addition to bringing forth life, it brings us, ultimately, closer to him and gives us greater understanding of why he asks us to live life a certain way. God bless you Father for another insightful post.

  8. St. John Bosco’s system does away with punishment. But when it is absolutely necessary, he uses dignified ways. He taught that simply ignoring a boy can have the same effect as slapping him if the boy thinks highly of the educator. In his words, “Punishment is whatever is meant as punishment.”

    But the educator has failed at the point because, if there is a need to punish then there must have been sin involved. And God has been offended already. So, he tries to prevent sin. That is his charism.

    If you go to this blog http://www.divine-ripples.blogspot.com/ and at the search box at the bottom do a search on Preventive System, St. John Bosco, education, Salesian Spirituality, you can read more details about this unique educational and pedagogic gift that God has blessed the Catholic Church.

  9. I went through a phase in my life, I think it was in my twenties when I thought that the Good Lord was punishing me for everything, yes everything I ever did. I could not come away from this thought. I mentioned it to my confessor and he literally shouted at me. saying in his loudest Italian. “And who do you think God, is a Terrorist?! In an instant, I realised and came into myself, the Holy Spirit moved me and I was confounded and I realised the error of my way and never again do I think such demeaning thoughts again. I received, there and then a great grace. God is all LOVE and Only LOVE.

    Lord may your kingdom come!

    1. Well perhaps both truths are necessary here. God is love and God does punish though not in the terrorist manner you may have perceived. It would seem that once repentance is effected the need for on-going or added punishment would be unecessary. THis would surely unite the fact that God is Love and that God does punish for salutary reasons.

  10. Those who are faithful are punished when the Church welcomes those who are unfaithful to them. It is profoundly unjust. We will have to wait till our death to see how this all plays out. But, considering that at my best I am unworthy, perhaps the injustice that the Church, knowingly, engenders will both lead to its punishment and my salvation?

    1. Yes, there can be consequences to leaving the sinner unpunished, There are some scriptures that tell the church to vigorously remove obsitinate sinners (eg 1 cor 5) and others that tell her to let them grow together till the harvest There are judgements to be made in each case as to what must be done but I think a case can be made that the Church is too relaxed today in insisting on proper disciplne (eg Clergy scandal).

  11. 1. For a parent’s punishment of his/her child to be an act of love, it must meet at least 2 conditions: (1) it must be used as an educational tool (and not as an expression of anger), and (2) it must not be excessive (it must be proportional to the child’s ability to learn and to the gravity of the transgression). Likewise, for punishment inflicted by the State on its citizens to be just, It must meet similar conditions: (1) it must be used as a deterrent or tool of rehabilitation, and (2) it must not be excessive (it must be proportional to the gravity of the crime and the degree of wickedness of the criminal).

    2. But the most serious form of punishment God is said to inflict on sinful man — eternal damnation — does not meet these 2 conditions, and therefore cannot be the act of a loving God. First, It cannot be educational because once you are dead, it is too late for you to learn anything and amend your ways. And second, it is excessive. Imagine a parent who wants his child to suffer the most horrible torments possible, both physical and psychological. No matter what the child has done, that is not the attitude of a loving parent. But we are taught that God wants sinners to suffer torments that are infinitely more horrible than these human ones, and do so eternally. If that is not the attitude of a loving parent, it is not the attitude of a loving God. I know that over the centuries theologians have tried to justify eternal damnation — an injury to God is infinitely serious, and therefore the punishment must be infinite, and so on — but these pathetic arguments simply try to justify the unjustifiable.

    3. But let’s move from eternal damnation to the punishments God inflicts on us in our present life. At least, they have the the potential of getting us to amend our ways. But who among us can say that God punishes us in this life? Is my recent illness God’s punishment for my sins? Is the death of a loved one punishment for my sins? Is my failure to get the job I wanted punishment for my sins? Is the failure of a sports team to win the championship punishment for their sins? or for the sins of their fans? Was the earthquake in Haiti punishment for their sins? We have absolutely no grounds for saying that any of these misfortunes are punishment for sin. And Jesus agrees with this when he says that the blindness of the man born blind is not due to his sins or those of his parents. So what good is an “educational” justification of punishment when we have no certain knowledge of any instances of such punishment in our life?

    4. We should avoid using examples from the Old Testament to try to establish that divine punishment is the act of a loving God because the OT has an incomplete — and therefore defective — conception of God: in spite of all the assertions to the contrary, God in the OT is often cruel. The whole people of Israel are sent into exile because of their sins. But the young children have not sinned and they are punished just as much as the adults. That is not an act of love. Whole groups and tribes — men, women and chidren — are slaughtered as punishment for their sins, but what transgression deserves such a fate? If the daughter of a strict Hindu or Muslim family chooses to marry someone the family disapproves of or adopt Western ways, she will be killed by her male kin because she dishonored the family. Is that an act of love? Nor is it an act of love when God in the OT kills people for their sins. (And, by the way, what is the educational value of such punishment? Once the people are dead they can no longer amend their ways.) The God of the OT is a “jealous God” who punishes transgressions to the third and fourth generation. How do the grandchildren and great-grandchildren deserve to be punished for their ancestors’ sins? Is that an act of love? When David had Uriah killed in order to get his hands on Uriah’s wife, how did God punish David? By causing the son born of David’s adultery to die. How did that innocent infant deserve to die? Is that an act of love? Imagine a grandfather who is so offended by his son’s transgression that he punishes his son by killing his son’s new-born child. That is not an act of love, but an act of cruelty. And that is true of many instances of divine punishment in the OT.

    And one should not reply that these human examples are irrelevant because God is totally different from us. On the contrary, our only direct experience of love is that of other people, especially the fierce love of parents for their children. We can only understand God’s love for us by analogy with the love of parents for their children. If an instance of divine punishment in the OT would be considered an act of cruely if it were inflicted by a human parent on his/her child, then we have only 2 options: either God is cruel or God really does not punish the way he is often depicted as doing in the OT. To argue instead that God’s punishments in the OT are acts of love in a “mysterious” way too lofty for us to understand is the last desparate move of an apologist with his back to the wall.

    1. Sed contra: Hell has to be since Hell flows from the respect God has for our decison to prefer not to live in his kingdom. I written on this aspect here: http://blog.adw.org/2009/10/hell-has-to-be/

      Further, your position cannot be true because it violates both Scripture and the teaching of the Church. It is not just an OT proclamation. Jesus taught and warned extensively of Hell along with Paul and others.

  12. Just a thought upon the David/Uriah incidence, if this helps a little. I believe that God was punishing David (only) for the fact that his son, born from adultery, died. I do not believe that in that instance, the child was punished for David’s sin since David said “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). This suggests that the child did not suffer at all and only went to Heaven, rather it was David who suffered the grief. David repented over his sin and was saved (i.e. he did go to Heaven, hence “I will go to him”) but the infant could not return. The infant did not suffer at all.

    God does say that we are sinners from the time we are conceived (Psalm 51:5) and therefore I would not swing to the other extreme and say that infants are innocent (you do not have to teach a child to do wrong – it seems to come naturally). However, I do believe that God will not unjustly punish infants for sin not directly their own. Jesus showed kindness and compassion to little children. Parents have a responsibilty to bring their children up in the right way (to tell them about salvation through Jesus alone, and the necessity of believing in Him, instruct them, and live by example). However Christians believe in a soveriegn God who is in control of all things so we should not be overwhelmed by worry. God has told us not to worry but to cast all our burdens upon Him. We should pray to God concerning the salvation of our children since we do not know the outcome. Our own responibilty is to live our own lives right before Him, to pray and to trust God who is fair and loving and has a bigger heart for our own children than we can ever have (hard to imagine, but it’s true).

  13. God should not punish us single lonely men looking for a good woman to settle down with, especially when God said that man shouldn’t be Alone.

      1. But the sad thing for us innocent men out there is that we keep meeting Very Nasty Women instead of a real good one, and since many of them are Gay today that will certainly add to our problem.

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