Tag Archives: Punishment

Lovingly Tough

Even if Bowe Bergdahl is found guilty of desertion, it is unlikely he would be executed.  But that has been the customary punishment for those who desert the military during war.  Why such a tough punishment?  Two reasons: In such dangerous and unpredictable conditions, without enforcing strict discipline, the disobedience of a few could threaten the survival of everyone else.  Secondly, the stakes of failure are very high.  In wartime, rules are strictly imposed and punishments for violating the rules are exceedingly tough.

Some people look at the strict rules and harsh penalties of the Old Testament and conclude that the Old Testament God is not the same as the God Who teaches forgiveness and love in the New Testament.  Why, for example, does God require the death penalty for someone who curses his parents?  Surely adultery is a serious offense and worthy of punishment – but death by stoning?  How could these be the commands of the God of love, joy, peace, patience, etc.?

The answer lies in the dangerous conditions faced by the people to whom He gave those laws, and the extremely high stakes involved.  What were the conditions?

Imagine a few hundred thousand people who had known only slavery for 400 years (as far back as the Mayflower!), people who had no need to govern themselves and had a resentment toward those who did.  Take this people, release them suddenly from slavery, put them out into a desert wilderness without adequate food and water, and try to lead them toward a new homeland, passing through the territory of hostile tribes.  Can you see the need for some pretty strict rules?  Now, consider that this whole enterprise was God’s first step toward rescuing the whole world from destruction! (See Sourdough Theology)  The stakes could not have been higher.  Without severe penalties imposed, the laws would have been ignored.  Rebellion would have been widespread.

But when you read through those tough laws, you can clearly see God’s deep desire to keep His people safe, well nourished, healthy and secure.  To see this, zoom through the whole book of Leviticus at about the speed of a crop duster, just looking for broad sweeping themes.  You will see laws pertaining to their health and safety and laws designed to keep order and laws to prevent disputes from getting out of hand.  Many of the laws show this ignorant people how to relate to a God they did not know, how to worship Him and how to take care of the sins that would otherwise keep them separated.  Are the laws tough?  Yes they are.  Are the punishments severe?  Yes, that too.  But the goal of them all is for God to get them safely settled in the Promised Land, and to bless them.  He said:

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands,I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.“ ‘I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove savage beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country.You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you.Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.“ ‘I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you.You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new.I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you.I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. (Leviticus 26:3-12)

The Trouble with Penguins

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.  (1 John 4:18)

The “Blues Brothers'” concept of Jesus was filtered through memories of a vicious nun (“The Penguin”) who beat them with a ruler.  Funny movie, but it too closely resembled how many people think of Jesus.  Which is also why many people don’t think of Jesus.

But Jesus said:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  (John 3:17)

Jesus openly received the worst sinners with love and acceptance.   He had harsh criticism for the “Penguins” of His day.  It’s not that He doesn’t care when we sin, but that He knows why we do, how helpless we are and how much we are hurting ourselves.  And He came to rescue us.

Remember the stray puppy you found, the one that cowered when you reached out to pet it?  Somebody had been beating that dog… You needed  a lot of patience to win his trust, even more to gradually rinse away his tendency to flinch at any sudden movement.  But now, when that pup sees you coming, he comes to life, wagging his whole body, bounding over and jumping up to greet you with great joy.  That’s because “perfect love drives out fear.”  And,  “Fear has to do with punishment.”

Jesus has to do with love.

And rescue.

He is patient.

Keep the Faith – Good Question

Somebody who has been reading these posts on faith asked a good question: “What if my suffering is God punishing me?” When we are tempted to turn back from our faith, is it always because we are experiencing some kind of attack? What if God is doing it to us? Let’s sort this out.

The last post, about keeping our eye on Jesus (See “Keep the Faith – Part 5“) did not go far enough. Here’s the next line from Hebrews:

Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12:3)

Much of the suffering one experiences in following Jesus, comes from opposition from sinful men. Jesus clearly said:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. (John 15:18)

But there is another Source of some of the hardship we face as followers of Jesus. Some of it comes from God. But it’s not punishment, it’s discipline. Punishment is a penalty that is due for something wrong. Jesus took the punishment for all our sins; there is no further punishment due. Discipline, on the other hand, is correction for a tendency we have formed that is wrong. Discipline shapes us and steers us in a positive direction.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:5-6)

Discipline is given to encourage us because we are loved. True, he uses the word, punishes, in that quote from Proverbs, but does so with the meaning of working to produce good in us. This whole passage is well worth chewing over, but here is another quote from it that makes the same point:

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10-11)

See the difference? Hope that helps. My sense is that this is a question we all ask ourselves from time to time and it is good to get the truth of it, stated clearly, right from Scripture.

On the Other Hand, God Really Is Angry

Worker termite

Worker termite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the termite guy, there is only one colony of those nasty things that exists in my town, but it was centered right under my house. When he heard my address, he started making pessimistic noises. I hate that, when some repair guy takes his hat off, rubs his forehead and says, “Oh man…. Oh man…”

I looked under the porch of my house one day, shone a light in under there, and discovered that termites were tearing my house down and eating it! I asked them nicely to knock it off, but they ignored me. I sprayed them with water, and then cans of nasty aerosol stuff I had sitting around. It made sitting on the porch pretty unpleasant, but it didn’t faze those termites a bit. They didn’t even notice. They just kept on working in an organized way, with whole work teams (tiny little hard hats and lunch boxes…), harvesting my home!

Once I knew they were down there, it seemed like, no matter what I was doing, I could hear them, chomping and chewing, destroying the place. That house wasn’t the nicest one in the neighborhood, but I was pretty attached to it and all. It didn’t take long before I’d had enough. It may have seemed unreasonable to the termites, but eventually they experienced my wrath. I called in the termite guy and he knew what to do. He had a special suit, some big drills and special squirtem stuff. He wasn’t fooling around.

God’s anger is partly about trying to keep us safe (See: Why Does God Seem so Angry?). But there is another side to God’s wrath, the part where He zips up His hazmat suit, adjusts His goggles and becomes the “Termite Guy.” When God cannot get us to stop wrecking His garden, destroying His home, so to speak, eventually He puts a stop to it. He has been doing this in measured ways since the beginning – always with warnings, so folks have a chance to turn around. But eventually, He will clean house for good. You have to understand that final day is coming; it may seem unreasonable, but it’s not pretend. Jesus warned His disciples that God’s wrath would be terrifying (See: Matthew 24). But He offered a way out, for anyone who would believe in Him.

God made up a story to try to explain His wrath and the “why” of it. It’s found in the 5th chapter of Isaiah. Read the whole thing if you can. I’ll spend more than one post on it. But start with this: Listen to God as He pours out His heart…

The Song of the Vineyard

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Isaiah 5:1-7 (NIV)

The Riddle and a Hint

There is something in the Bible that doesn’t seem to make sense.  Consider: We were designed by our Creator, to be connected to Him, by His Spirit, in an interactive way, much like a cell phone is connected to the cell signal. However, because of rebellion and sin, we are disconnected from God’s Spirit. We are spiritually dead; in cell phone lingo, we have no bars (See: Dead Man Walking).  God desires to connect us again, and said He will do so for those who are receptive – the lowly and contrite. He said He will forgive, heal, restore and revive them. But God also said He does not leave the guilty unpunished. This is the riddle of the Bible, set forth in Exodus 34:6-7 and not solved until the New Testament. But God gave Isaiah big hints. Before considering some of those hints, let’s clarify the problem.

Justice demands that the guilty be punished. We know that in our bones. For example, suppose a drunk driver killed your toddler daughter. He’s arrested and goes to trial. During the trial, he breaks down in heartfelt tears of remorse, acknowledging to the judge that he is guilty and that he can never bring your daughter back to life but that he has committed himself to a life of complete sobriety. He is sincere. How would you feel if the judge said, “Because you are sorry, I’m going to let you off and clear your record. Case dismissed!”?   Frustrated?     Angry? Sure, because justice was not served. Justice demands the guilty be punished. Perfect justice demands that the punishment be balanced to the crime. Too light a punishment makes a mockery of justice.

God is just and God is perfect. According to what He showed Moses in Exodus 34:6, He is loving and forgiving but He also will not leave the guilty unpunished. Question: What should be the just punishment for something that causes death? I’m not talking about something that causes physical death, which merely shortens the span of a lifetime, but an act that causes spiritual death, which has eternal consequences?  Death, right?

Jesus said to the most religious people of His day, that, without some significant intervention and change, they would die in their sins.

But he continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:23-24)

Sin, separates us from our spiritual connection to God, and causes death – spiritually, eternally. Justice demands a full punishment.   But Jesus said, “…if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.”    Who did He claim to be?    Why would that make a difference?

Let’s begin with a hint, given by God to Isaiah, 700 years before Jesus:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 )

The “Child” would be born. The “Son” would be given – literally given over.   He would be called Mighty God.   Jesus said, “… if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will die in your sins.”

Chew on that…