At the men’s group I attend this morning, we read the Sunday readings for the Catholic church–the one from Hebrews about God disciplining his children because he loves them. And then the Gospel where Jesus talked about how his people will have to enter through the narrow gate because many will knock at his door, and he will tell them he never knew them, then the wailing and gnashing of teeth occur.
The question we considered was about how harsh God is, in respect to the readings.
My answer was thus:
- I’ve been alive a lot of years and I can’t think of a single time when God disciplined me. I remember the time when I was functionally unemployed for the better part of two years. I remember the year when my health suddenly went the crapper for no reason while I worked on a project from hell and my boss died of brain cancer. I remember a lot of bad things. But bad things happen. I don’t think God was standing up in heaven thinking it was time to drop me a notch or two.
- And with regard to knocking at the door, Jesus also told a parable about a person who needed a loaf of bread and persisted at knocking at the door, even though the master of the house said to depart from him. And eventually the master got up and gave the guy bread because he persisted in asking.
In summary, I disagree with the concept of God punishing use here or in the hereafter. I don’t think there was a guy named Job whose life got blown up because God made a bar bet with Satan. And I think while some people may wind up spending eternity in hell, that’s a choice, not a punishment.
We’re made in the image and likeness of God. And that includes our free agency. God isn’t in the business of smacking the crap out of us if we make the wrong decision. I know that runs counter to a lot of things in the Bible, but the Bible was written by people trying to make sense of big things that happen. We still do it. What’s God’s plan? Why does God allow cancer and war and this year’s players weekend jerseys in Major League Baseball if he loves us so much?
This isn’t a satisfying answer, but he allows it because he allows our free will. His direct interceding to eliminate all the bad things would be a violation of that free will. And he’s God, not Santa Clause.
As a parent, I remember when I became really angry with my children–and those weren’t my best parenting moments. I think I spanked my daughter once–and I remember it clearly. She bit her cousin when she was old enough to know better. I picked her up, paddled her, put her on the bed and said that if her eyes moved from the wall, I’d do it again. It was wrath, baby–Khan-style. And it was one of my worst moments as a parent.
I also remember when I calmly sat down with them and said that if behavior X continued, there were natural consequences to that behavior–not punishments from me or their mom–just things that naturally happen. And it would be better if they didn’t. That was much better parenting.
And although we use the parental metaphor with God, He’s like nothing we can possibly understand. Look how wrong the Israelites got Jesus. They were expecting a incredible general to lead the Jews in some righteous ass-kicking of everyone around them. But Jesus wasn’t Patton. He was a guy who gave up Godhood to come be with us.
Finally, what of justice? How can God not punish us for our sins? As a kind-of Catholic, I believe in what’s basically purgatory. In other words, I think before you can enter into the presence of God, you have to face your decisions–and that the moment, you’ll understand the gap between what you were and what you could’ve been. I’ve had times like that here. To quote the great Christopher Walken, that ain’t any kind of fun. And if your gap is huge, that full understanding will be worse than any hell God can impose. But in my mind, He’s gonna be right there while we go through that, waiting on the other side, should we choose to move forward.
If not, God’s a gentleman and will honor that choice.
If God is love, then God gives us license to hurt him. But because God is perfect love, he doesn’t lash out in his hurt, or build a wall, like we would do. Instead, he waits and lets us choose. He runs to us and takes in his arms, like the Prodigal Father. And welcomes us home. .