Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.

What Must I Do

What must I do?

This question is often asked by someone who is trying to earn something or be allowed something. In the context of a classroom setting, the question is usually asked by a student when speaking with the teacher of a course in an attempt to determine how to achieve a certain grade. If the question is asked in a work setting, the employee may be wanting a pay raise or a promotion. When the question is raised in a faith setting, the one asking is usually seeking favor or a reward from a deity. An example of this is found in the Gospel of Mark.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:17

This approach is based on the understanding that works earn favor with God and thus rewards. Humans have come to believe that rewards and punishments meted out by a deity or deities is the way to understand how life is experienced. If you have done something pleasing for (fill in here the name of a god or gods of your choice) then you will be rewarded in such ways as a bountiful crop, wealth, fame, good health, a supportive spouse, a wonderful house, and the list can go on based on desires. Naturally, the opposite is true. If you cause displeasure then you will be punished with natural disasters, poverty, hunger, illness, hatred, abandonment, and again the list can grow. This provides answers to two questions, “How did that person acquire that?” and “Why did this happen to me?” The viewpoint is reinforced by our encounters with other humans and their responses to us.

In theology this viewpoint is often summarized in the phrase, works-based faith. Throughout the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures this was the guiding force which led to rules being implemented to aid individuals in navigating away from displeasing the gods and toward bringing pleasure to the gods.

Faith alone

Jesus in his teachings gave us a new understanding which the Apostle Paul would spend most of his life trying to help people understand. This new understanding is that finding favor with God has NOTHING to do with our works but instead with our belief in the relationship we have with God.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Mark 10:27

Jesus was responding to the question quoted above. After Jesus gave the man a task which he was unwilling to complete, the man went away feeling defeated and unable to gain the reward which he sought. Seeing and hearing the interaction between the man and Jesus, the disciples also felt it would be impossible for them to receive salvation. Jesus’ response basically says that they are correct in their observation yet adds the “but” which changes the perspective and upends a whole way of thinking.

The first thing to note here is that the “doer” has changed here. Instead of the person doing what it takes to make something possible, God is the one who makes something possible. In this particular situation it is salvation. Now the focus is on God and not on the person.

The truth is that no one has to earn God’s favor. Every person already has God’s favor. Both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Testament of the New Covenant, the reader/hearer is told of the love which God has for each creature that God created. This love was present even before the person came into existence. Our works, positive or negative, cannot take this love, this favor away from us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Works are not the way we receive God’s love and favor because they have already been freely given to us. (This is the concept of grace which I will discuss in a future post.) We need to change the way in which we think. Instead of thinking about how I can achieve the reward of God, I need to realize that I already have it because God has already given to it to me. I need to believe this is true. As Paul states the idea:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

A different way to live

Living by faith changes what we do and why we do it. We are no longer living a performance-based life. Our worth, our success, our purpose is not based on the work that we do. (Sorry to those with a true Puritan background.) Instead, all these items find their basis in the fact that we are favored, loved, by God. We live in a manner which shows we believe this fact.

Our belief in this fact leads us to respond, a response of gratitude. Living a life of gratitude obtained by our faith directs our actions. We care for the well-being of other individuals not because it will earn us anything from God but a way is available for us to express our gratitude to God. We give of our time, money, and skills not because it earns us anything but because the giving is an act of gratitude. We strive to follow Jesus’ teachings and to learn more about them as an expression of gratitude not to gain some reward.

The answer

I hope that by now you have gained understanding into the first question which started this post. The answer is NOTHING. There is nothing you must do. You already have the favor of God and all the rewards which God’s love provides. Anything which you do you are doing as a response to living in God’s favor.