Sunday, 3 May 2009

On a Punishing God

Several years ago, during a catechesis session, inquirers were asked what they thought of God’s unconditional love. It will surprise many readers that the answer to that question still rankles a lot of faithful believers. Even for some members of the clergy it can be difficult to imagine a God who does not punish us for our sins or wrong doings. Many individuals prefer to believe in a God who demands retribution and punishment. These beliefs are often based on faulty interpretations of scripture and fear based religious teachings. For others God’s love never seems to exceed the level of love they received through parents, friends, teachers or relatives. Many of us have fallen in the trap of believing in a legalistic God who keeps a record of all our faults and wrong doings. Thus when the day of reckoning approaches God will present us with a balance sheet that will determine our final fate. Nothing could be further from the Truth. While the road to hell, with its heavy tolls, may be paved with false intentions it exists only here on earth and no where else. We have become experts in creating our own hell. Its basis is easily found in our false self – better known as the ego. The road to heaven, on the other hand, is paved with love – God’s unconditional love. And, its totally free! It resides deep in our hearts and has been called our True Self.

I am reminded of a close friend who who presented me with a list of at least fifty or more biblical references showing an angry and vengeful God. The God I spoke of according to my friend. was much too loving! If we continue to believe in a punishing deity we will have failed to understand God’s gift of salvation,the need to forgive and his desire to transform pain and suffering into a life to be lived in the full here on earth.

Recently I was once again reminded by one of my favourite teachers, just how we are to understand God’s eternal and unconditional love. From his book
Near Occasions of Grace, Richard Rohr makes to following observation:

How do I join in the liberation of the executioners and the victims?
The good news of the resurrection is not that the poor victims of this world will finally triumph over the executioners, while the executioners will be fittingly punished. That is our petty notion of justification. At that point God’s love is not yet truly creative, new, or worthy of God. It is merely our finite projection.
If the resurrection is truly God’s great answer and God’s good news, then God is telling us that Jesus died and rose not only for the victims but also for the executioners. God is not just liberating the liberated and saving the saved. The new righteousness, the good news that is too good, is that God is somehow seeking to free the executioners too.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

An incredible example of this understanding was shown in the following prayer, composed by a Jewish woman who died at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. It was written on wrapping paper and found next to a dead child:

Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will but also those of ill will. But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought thanks to this suffering—our comrade­ship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.
"If a Jewish woman can pray this for the worst of my German relatives, is not God at least as loving as she? If we recall those who love us the most, we will dis­cover a God who is at least as loving as the best of us."

So writes the Linn family in their book ‘Simple Ways to Pray for Healing’. Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn are among the most gifted and compassionate writers I have ever come across. Their book ‘Good Goats – Healing our Image of God’ is a must for anyone who still struggle with the concept of a punishing and vengeful God.

Could it be that our struggle with this negative image reflects our own insistence for revenge and to punish those who have caused us harm or pain? No wonder then that is to difficult for us to understand Jesus, when he said, ‘do not judge’ and seek forgiveness at all times’.

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