Punishment

Matt and I were chatting with an atheist friend of ours who grew up in the church and is now done with God. It was a really good conversation even though he didn’t decide to convert at the end. One of the things he said got me thinking though – that IF there were a God (which he denies), he is either not all-knowing or a jerk. Our friend didn’t say jerk, but it was a four-letter word that ends in k.

God’s a jerk, he says, because he gave humans free will knowing we’d mess it up, and then he punished us for messing up.

A few months ago, Matt and I had a great conversation with friends of ours about God’s sovereignty and free will, and whether it’s possible for them to coexist, or whether one has to be a lie… We didn’t come to any conclusions, but I thought of it the other night when our friend talked about how much of a – jerk – God would be if he existed. Because I think maybe punishment is the link between God’s sovereignty and human free will that allows them both to be complete.

I memorized Hebrews 12 last year – it is full of great stuff including “God disciplines those he loves” and “for the moment discipline is painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” I don’t think that punishment is just God being angry with us for messing up like he knew we would – it is meant to be corrective. My parents tried this line on me a couple times when I got in trouble as a kid: “we are punishing you because we love you. If we didn’t care then we would let you be rude and misbehaved, but we care, so go to your room.”

God’s discipline is even wiser and more effective than that of good earthly parents! John Eldredge talks about this in Desire, that futility and failure, loneliness and heartache are included in God’s curses on Adam and Eve not as a vindictive slap in the face to disobedient children but as limits to earthly happiness that will leave them longing for the Paradise he wants to give them.

It is hard to talk about God’s punishment because a lot of painful things happen in the world, and it’s not always something from God. Sometimes it’s pure evil; sometimes it’s just flying debris from the world’s brokenness and nothing supernatural is to blame. Nothing is beyond God’s redemption though, and everything on earth that falls short of glory just emphasizes how great God’s promises will be when they are fulfilled. The hard things that do come from God as punishment when we sin are designed to train us and shape us to be more Christ-like so that our free will will not conflict with God’s will.

God’s not a jerk. He loves us (human beings) so much that he thinks we’re worth the whole effort of human history, and he has invested his entire self in the redemption he knew we’d need from before the beginning. Such love!

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