When tragedy strikes, Christ-followers often seek to process our pain by viewing the tragedy as a punishment directed at us by God. In an earlier post, I tried to make the case that we need not view tragedy in this way, because this is not consistent with God’s character. Unfortunately, the idea that God punishes through tragedy is ingrained in many people and has become a bedrock principle underlying their understanding of who God is and what He is like. I’d like to explore that mindset in this post.
If we choose to view God as the author of suffering through tragedy, those of us who feel guilty over our sins and shortcomings can easily find something that we need to be punished for – and so we readily accept the pain as being appropriately sent by God. Others of us search our own actions and our own hearts and find nothing there worthy of so severe a punishment, and so we become bitter and resentful toward God for having punished us unfairly. Sometimes, we swing back & forth between these two states – a guilt combined with sullen acceptance, or a bitterness always ready to lash out in anger.
Lessons from Parenting
Our experiences with parenting can often help us toward a clearer understanding of the character and nature of our heavenly Father, and of our relationship with Him. When a child is punished, he/she will invariably yield to the punishment and accept it, provided that two conditions are met:
- she knows she is guilty of the wrongdoing of which she has been accused; and
- from her perspective, the punishment fits the crime
When these conditions are met, the child submits to the punishment willingly and accepts any verbal correction that accompanies the punishment with meekness and humility.
However, if either of the above conditions are not met, her reaction is very different! I’m sure all parents have heard the protest “It’s not fair!” or “It wasn’t me!” at some point. To be wrongly accused means that any resulting punishment would be unfair, by definition. And, punishment that is out of proportion to the wrong that was committed produces resentment. When we as parents get it wrong, there is an immediate and obvious difference in the way our child reacts. But when we get it right, there is great opportunity for teaching and actual deepening of relationship.
Please do not misunderstand – I’m not saying that God ever gets his punishments wrong! (As with any analogy, we can only take this one so far.) But I do want to go a little deeper with the parenting illustration, to see if we can get at some truths about God. Consider two scenarios:
The “Tyrant” Scenario
Imagine a scenario where a father abruptly puts his young son over his knee and angrily administers a spanking. The son begins to cry, and the father sternly sends him to bed. No explanation is forthcoming as to why the child was spanked, and the little boy cries himself to sleep wondering what he did wrong. Next day, the father again provides no explanation and the incident is not mentioned. What are the likely results of this situation? We can imagine that at times the child will feel guilty, although he will not know why he feels that way since he can’t remember doing anything wrong. “But surely Dad wouldn’t have spanked me for no reason – right”? We can also imagine that at other times, the child may even feel a certain bitterness over the whole incident – almost a loss of trust in his father’s character. “Why would Dad punish me and then not even explain what I was being punished for”?
The “Training” Scenario
Now imagine a different scenario – same father, same son. This time, the son has been playing with his mother’s car keys, even though he has been told many times to NEVER touch those keys. Sure enough, the boy was soon distracted in his play, misplaced the keys, and was unable to find where they were. When Dad comes home, Mom is frantic and the boy is upset. Dad calmly sits junior down on the couch and explains that losing Mom’s keys is serious, but even more serious is that he had disobeyed his parents’ rules. Dad puts the tearful boy over his knee, administers a spanking, and sends him to bed. Later, Dad goes upstairs to tuck his son in for the night, sits down beside him on the bed, and explains that he loves him and wants him to grow up to be a man who understands right from wrong. “Now get some sleep, and first thing in the morning I’ll help you find those keys!” What are the likely results of this scene? The boy can go to sleep, knowing two important truths:
- that his disobedience has been rightly and fittingly dealt with (justice has been done)
- that his father loves him and wants what is best for him
Drawing Some Conclusions
Given these two scenarios, it’s easy to see which one produces beneficial results. Only the “Training” scenario actually teaches the child responsibility and obedience, reinforces the bond between father and son, and calls the son forward into hope for the days to come. The “Tyrant” scenario does just the opposite – it leaves the child confused and forlorn, with a rift between him and his father that can only grow wider. Now if, with our limited human sense of fairness and justice, and limited human capacity for love, we can see which scenario is best, why is it that we actually construct our response to tragedy by placing God in the role of the father in the “Tyrant” scenario? This statement from Jesus illustrates the underlying principle, even though it is given in a different context:
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
– Matthew 7:9-11
How much more does our Father know about how to correct us than we do? Is it right for us to portray him as a tyrant who punishes without just cause or explanation?
- God is not a tyrant: He does not punish randomly, without cause
- God is not a tyrant: He does not punish without explanation, leaving us guessing why we were punished
- God is not a tyrant: He does not punish out of proportion to our wrongdoing
That last item – how God’s pruning/chastening is not the same thing as destruction – is one I want to follow up on in some depth, so I’ll save that for another post!