But the apparent contradiction is rooted in the premise that punishment is the same as vengeance. This premise holds that the one who punishes is merely exacting revenge for some offense, or that the punishment is merely a way for the more powerful to vent their anger on the less powerful. It is true that parents sometimes punish their children with mixed motives; at times they may be venting their anger as they punish. 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.
A proper understanding of punishment is that it allows the one punished to experience the negative effects of his bad behavior in a small way, so that he does not experience far worse effects.
Consider a young boy 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; they are trying to protect him from harm. But what if the boy does cross the street unescorted and his parents find out about it? Likely they will, and should, punish him. Perhaps as punishment the boy is confined to his room to three hours.
Notice what is happening in this example. A smaller injury is inflicted in order to avoid a much more serious one. After all, which is worse, a three hour “time out” or being struck by a car? It is clear that the purpose of the punishment is to allow a small amount of pain in order to avoid a much worse situation.
When God punishes, He is often acting in the same manner. He will allow or inflict pain so that we avoid the pain that would be caused if our bad behavior spiraled downward into more serious matters and ended in the far worse pain of eternal Hell. When properly applied (and it always is so when applied by God), punishment 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 mercy and 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 born out of wedlock, 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 describing 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, a disrespectful attitude, incorrigibility, hostility, selfishness, greed, insensitivity, lack of self-control, and many other sociopathic tendencies.
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 (Sirach 30).
We need to rediscover the fact that punishment is part of love and is an act of mercy. 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. When it is, it leads to many positive effects. God, too, shows us His love in disciplining and punishing us.
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, [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 (Summa Theologica II, IIae, 33.1).
Mirror image – Up until now we have considered God’s punishment as a positive, if paradoxical, quality of His mercy and love. But now let’s consider a more negative approach that ponders what happens when God withdraws his merciful punishment.
It is indeed frightening that at some point God ceases to directly punish certain hardened sinners, be they individuals or nations. He no longer restrains them by His hand. Scripture speaks to this reality by saying, “God gave them up” to their sinful ways. Here are just a few such texts:
- And be not like your fathers, and like your brethren, who trespassed against the
LORD God of their fathers, who therefore gave them up to desolation (2 Chon 30:7).
- But my people did not hearken to my voice, and Israel did not love me. So I gave them up unto the hardness of their heart, and they walked in their own counsels. Oh, if my people would hearken unto me and Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies (Ps 81:12-14).
- Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves …. For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done … (Romans 1:24,26-28).
It would seem that this is God’s last-ditch effort to bring about conversion. St. Alphonsus teaches, [God] deprives them of his abundant graces and leaves them [only] with sufficient grace with which they can, but [likely] will not, save their souls (Considerations on the Eternal Maxims 17.2).
It has gotten so bad that only this last thing remains for God: to hand them over to the full experience of their sins. St. Alphonsus quotes Isaiah 5:5: I shall take away the hedge thereof and it shall be wasted. For indeed, gone is the hedge of holy fear, which brought divine protection.
While sinners may seem to have escaped unscathed for a while, the worst day of their life was the day when the Lord said to the sinner (or to the sinful nation), “Thy will, O sinner, be done.”
For indeed, to be punished no longer by the Lord is the worst punishment of all. Why? God punishes with mercy, but the sinner punishes himself without mercy. As King David once said, Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man (1 Chron 21:13). Further, it has been said that God forgives but nature does not. One cannot act contrary to the nature of things and expect to thrive in this world. Sooner or later, the consequences come—and without mercy. There is no greater suffering than when sin itself is the punishment for sin.
St. Alphonsus also notes,
God appears not to be enraged against certain sinners, “My jealousy will depart from you and I will cease to be angry” (Ez 16:42). He appears to allow them all they desire in this life. “I let them go according to the desires of their heart” (Ps 80:13). “Why”, says Jeremiah, “does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jer 12:1) He then answers, “Gather them as sheep for the sacrifice” (Jer 12:3). There is no punishment great than when God … permits a sinner to add sin upon sin.
For their sake, one can only hope that the earthly consequences of their sin will stir them to final conversion. But if they do not, St. Alphonsus imagines that God will say to the finally unrepentant, “I will place before your eyes the mercies I have shown you, and will make these very mercies judge and condemn you” (Ibid, 17.3).
And thus in this negative way, we see that God’s punishments are far more merciful than any punishment the sinner will cause himself, or which nature or Satan will mete out.
Therefore, God’s punishments are an aspect of his mercy. Without them, the worst will surely befall us. Keep us in your mercy, O Lord, even a mercy that punishes. For it is far better to suffer blows from your hand than to suffer at the hands of men or nature. Mercy, Lord, mercy!