I witnessed something that struck a chord somewhere very deep inside of me. To give a broad picture, it was a very emotional unveiling of challenges that an old couple are facing. It brought up some thoughts that were the topic of a conversation I had with my sister a couple of days ago- which is the topic of this post. As I write this, I have no definite answer, or opinion. I’ll just explore what I believe to be facts and take it from there.
Before I go on, let me make it clear that my views are generally what I would call “absolutist” and “extremist”. The latter I use with a bit of caution- in the sense that I don’t mean extremist I-want-to-blow-up-something, but extremist there-are-no-greys-only-black-and-white.
Let me start with what I consider to be the facts:
1. God is irrefutable and unquestionable (Job 38)
2. God is loving (Psalm 118, I John 4:16)
3. God is good (Psalm 34:8,Mark 10:18)
4. God is just (Deuteronomy 32:4, Romans 3:5)
5. People mess up (Isaiah 53:6, Romans 3:23)
Now, just looking at the abovementioned facts, I think you would agree with me that there is some apparent conflict. This conflict, the average non-believer will home in on and exploit straightaway. If God is loving, He is therefore, forgiving, merciful, and full of grace. So, when you err, and ask for forgiveness, He will overlook it and all is well in the world (Psalm 51:1 actually points to this. But I don’t think it quite applies. The Psalm was written by David after his murderous mistake, and the consequences did not pass him by. I guess it was just a plea on his part).
On to my scriptural context: Exodus 20:5, 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9-10; Deuteronomy 28; Ezekiel 18; Romans 3:22-26. Please, take time to read though them, and share any more you discover.
At this point, I want to do a bit of disambiguation. When I say punishment, I mean someone does something wrong (knowingly or not) by a particular set of standards, and therefore has to face some (usually unfavourable) events. I could call these events consequences, but I am wary of doing that. Why? I want to separate the notion of punishment from that of consequence. Consequence, here, being an outcome that is a direct result of an event or set of events. What is the exact relationship between punishment and consequences? Are they the same thing? Hold the thoughts. Here, I move on to laws. Stay with me.
I will consider laws of nature and the justice law of man (referring to courts, judges and that whole system generally). Starting with nature, there are certain irrefutable laws of nature: gravity, motion laws, and the rest. Take this scenario: I push something off a cliff. What happens? It falls off. Not that that is the automatic conclusion; because it could be that it was something very heavy, and my push wasn’t hard enough, so it doesn’t budge, or my foot slips and I fall off instead; a variety of possibilities really (an interesting read on this is Ted Dekker’s book, Blink). But let us assume that it falls off. Supporting this outcome are the law of gravity, and Newton’s first law of motion. Now, I will call the fall of the object a consequence. But take as an instance, that the object was very precious to me, and is now lost to me forever. Is its fall a punishment for my act of pushing? Let me bring in the “knowingly or not” clause here. Let me make a proposal here. If the push was intentional, then the fall can be called a punishment; and if it was a mistake of some kind, it can be called a consequence?
Which brings me to the justice law of man (I couldn’t quite figure out what to call it). In the law, ignorance is no excuse. I think this is the general stand of all justice courts worldwide (not a 100% sure, correct me if I’m wrong). So, if I do something, whether I know it is wrong or not, as long as it is wrong according to their standards and regulations, I am liable to receive the maximum sentence applicable. Now, I go back to the scenario, I push something of a cliff. It was not intentional. Pause. Here, I would like to further categorise the types of ‘not intentional’. It could be unintentional, in the sense that, I am aware I pushed it but I did not mean to push it. Or, it could be that I was not even aware that I pushed it, but something in my actions caused it to be pushed. No matter the precedent, I acted, and because of my actions the object fell off the cliff. According to the justice law, I am liable for punishment if there is anything in the law saying pushing things off cliffs is wrong. Another example of this is the relatively new hand ball rule in football/soccer. Hand ball (trying to control the ball with your hands) is a foul in the sport. The rule pretty much says that whether you intentionally try to manipulate the ball with your hands, or the ball happens to hit your hand in the course of play (hand-to-ball or ball-to-hand), in both instances, you have committed a foul.
From all said, I would now like to highlight three separate consequence/punishment situations.
1. I know I did something but did not know it was wrong
2. I did something but did not realise it, but what I did caused something else
3. I knew full well the import of my action, but did it anyway
All situations will lead to consequences. It is the law of nature, the law of man, and I also believe it is the law of God (Ezekiel 16:58). What I’m still not sure about is if these consequences should be called punishments or it they are just natural outcomes arising from events.
Here, I will propose two categories of consequences:
• Consequences governed by the laws of nature: These will (almost) always happen, there is little we can do about them
• Consequences imposed and regulated by an authority: The authority can be man or God, the consequences will vary, and can change.
So what exactly can I label as punishment? Let me evaluate another instance. A child does something wrong, and his/her parent decides to take a toy away from the child. Let me call the seizing of the toy a punishment. This punishment is not a consequence arising from natural laws. It a consequence created and imposed by the parent. A natural consequence may be the child grows up spoilt, and thus has no friends (just assuming). The seizing of the toy as a punishment is in response to the parent’s standard of wrong, and is measured out by what the parent considers to be equal in magnitude. This also the manner in which the justice law of man runs. Similar also is the way I believe God doles out His ‘punishment’- according to His standards, and in a measure He deems fit. The difference is, God’s standards and measures are perfect.
Now, let me make this personal. I was facing a particular issue, and I was convinced the deal was done, and my ‘punishment’ was at hand. In fact, I was resigned to it. I try to fight hard not to deceive myself and pull wool over my eyes. I shared it with my sister (this is the conversation I was referring to), and she said, “No, no, no, that’s the enemy talking.” In my reasoning, it’s very simple. As much as God is loving, the way I see it, there are consequences to every action, and as much as you have been forgiven, and your slate wiped clean, you will still have to live with those consequences. (I can already hear someone objecting)
To be frank, taking this view, can be very depressing. Because sometimes, this view on situations will create a feeling of hopelessness. I’ve been there (and back, thank God). And in stark contrast to this, God is NOT a God of hopelessness. Another fact (Psalm 65:5, Romans 5:2). So, in this, as in all things, God expects us to do the balancing act- to understand that we have to bear consequences, but that we also have exceeding great hope in Jesus, our Lord.
Before I wrap this up, I would like to address a regularly flogged topic which arose in my mind while writing this: the issue of bad things happening to good people, and bad people going scot-free. I take a slightly different view on this one (see Job 34:5- in fact, his whole story in general). First of all, on what basis and by whose standards are we qualifying these things and people as bad or good? But let’s leave that, it’s a separate topic for another day. What I’d really like to point out is that those supposedly good people, aren’t in actual fact ‘good’ for nothing. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” So, should it not follow, that a small mistake on a ‘bad’ person’s part would be considered a grave error when done by a ‘good’ person? After all, if s/he is good, s/he should know better. So s/he’s error will attract graver consequences in contrast to a bad person’s ‘punishment’ for doing the same thing (although I think it, even that is a hard pill for me to swallow). But Job’s story pretty much sinks this line of thought, God himself said Job was blameless (Job 1:8). Nevertheless, I still think my argument may still be valid in some instances. The thing is, God does not work according to formulas. No two situations and individuals are the same. No matter how small, there will always be nuances, hints, and whispers that will alter outcomes.
I am not God, so I cannot say for sure, but this is my opinion. Paul comes in and scatters my argument in Romans 3:25, claiming that some sins were left unpunished previously. But please read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations and all the damning prophecies regarding the people of Israel- I would not call that sins going unpunished. No doubt, he was talking on some level that right now escapes my understanding. Feel free to help me step it up. Besides, in those same books (especially Ezekiel), The Lord Almighty proclaims their restoration.
The one conclusion I can come up with now is taken from the example of the great King David. After he had committed the adultery, after he had murdered the husband, after Nathan declared his punishment, after the love child died, He got up and went on with his life (2 Samuel 12:18-23).
My recommendation: what’s done is done, look up and move on.
And to encourage you, here’s some great music: