Punished for or by Our Sins?

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr in his provocative book entitled The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for and Believe says that “humans are punished by their sins more than for their sins.” This astute observation has several important implications.

*Tragically, an astonishing number of sermons over the centuries has been preached which focus on the punishment of sin by God along with the ultimate threat of everlasting hell. In spite of John 3:17 (“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”), we still have preachers who have narrow and contradictory concepts of grace and who continue to see God as the ultimate punisher of humankind. Grace is “not getting what we deserve” for our sins. (Think about that sentence for a minute.) The only people I see Jesus “judging” are those religious and political leaders who were so sure of themselves as being “in” and so sure of others who were “out,” at least according to their criteria. God is not in the condemning business. God is in the “judging” business as in the prophet’s admonition to their rulers to “judge the poor and the orphan.” “To judge” in that context is to “deliver” from what ever oppression others may suffer.

The poor, the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants suffer because of the sin of others and not as a punishment from God.

*Then what about all those passages which talk about God punishing people and nations? Most of the Bible comes from people who at times assumed that whatever happened was the direct result of God’s actions and will. Many people in the church still believe this today. However, even in the Bible we are presented a fuller and more authentic picture. The poor, the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants suffer because of the sin of others and not as a punishment from God. We have, in parts of the Bible, the idea that if you are righteous, obedient, and faithful to God, you will be rewarded with a long life, enviable health, and great wealth. If you are not righteous, obedient, and faithful to God you will suffer God’s wrath and will have a short life, terrible health, and devastating poverty. Such reasoning is found in Deuteronomy. But we also have passages and whole books (Job) which question such simplistic logic. According to the prophets, people are poor and mistreated not because of their sin but because of the greed, arrogance, and violence of others.

There is a moral trajectory within creation. God has created the world in such a way that eventually evil and injustice self-destruct.

*We can, however, say that God is indirectly responsible for some of the punishment and calamity which befalls humankind. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, while paraphrasing abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is a moral trajectory within creation. God has created the world in such a way that eventually evil and injustice self-destruct. Unfortunately (or perhaps mercifully for the sake of those who are evil and unjust), the consequences of sin can be a long time coming. It took over 250 years before slavery was outlawed in the United States (even longer when you include the First Nations people who became the first slaves in the American colonies). Many a slaveholder never had to face their sin in this life. However, I think we can assume that the souls of many a slaveholder were shriveled and twisted by their sin. And the souls of racists in our society continue to be shriveled and twisted by their racism. Others suffer because of their evil deeds and attitudes, but they also suffer at the deepest level of their being.

Ultimately, evil self-destructs. And evil empires self-destruct. There is not a single exception to that rule—a lesson the United States, which is an empire (and in many ways an evil empire) should take most seriously. God does not directly punish humans, but God has created a universe where eventually evil self-destructs. And this truth is seen at both the individual and corporate level.

People who live self-centered, bigoted, greedy, judgmental, condemning, or mean-spirited lives usually end up lonely, depressed, angry, and conflicted.

*If we are punished by and not for our sins, then what we are experiencing are the consequences of our choices in life. We are punishing ourselves. As a pastor, I saw many cases of this self-punishment. People who live self-centered, bigoted, greedy, judgmental, condemning, or mean-spirited lives usually end up lonely, depressed, angry, and conflicted. Their choices eventually bear rotten and bitter fruit. I cannot believe that God takes any joy or pleasure in such a tragic outcome. What I can believe is that God is eager for such people to embrace a grace that can even redeem and transform them. Such grace must be accepted along with the recognition that repentance is the natural and authentic response. Such repentance is not browbeating sorrow and rivers of tears or endless expressions of regret and guilt. It is simply a change of heart motivated by love and compassion. It’s what we see in Zacchaeus who joyfully reoriented his whole life to be defined by the grace he experienced sitting at table with Jesus who loved him as he was. Tragically (at least in this dimension of existence) too few individuals ever avail themselves of this opportunity. And so they die alone and usually leave behind family members who are wounded and alienated from each other.

Years ago I knew a very wealthy woman who was arrogant and judgmental of anyone who did not live as she thought they should. She lived into her 90s. Toward the end of her life she told one of the people who had catered to her every whim that she did not know if anyone loved her. They loved her money, but she doubted that a single soul on this earth loved her. She died alone—or perhaps she died in the arms of a God who could see beyond her sin and who was eager to allow her as many chances as possible to find joy, love, and purpose. I certainly hope this is true. But what I and many others witnessed was decades of self-centered living which brought no joy, love, and noble purpose. She was punished by her sins.

God cannot not love. Love is the eternal nature and character of God.

*Rohr calls this punishment by our sins a form of karma. Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but I’m not fond of the word or concept of karma. I prefer the word consequences. I also prefer to believe that God’s grace is greater than our sin. Ultimately there is no place for karma with a God of grace. As I wrote above, grace is not getting what we deserve. We may have to suffer some of the consequences of our sin, but our God is not a tit-for-tat God. Simon Peter once asked Jesus how many times we should forgive others. Jesus’ answer basically said that forgiveness is a way of life for his followers and cannot be calculated in such a manner that at some point we can choose not to forgive. The kind of forgiveness Jesus was talking about is the kind of forgiveness he saw in the God he called Abba. And as the psalmist and prophets tell us, such love both forgives and forgets. As I have said many times (mostly to remind myself), God cannot not love. Love is the eternal nature and character of God. In I Corinthians 13 Paul reveals the true nature of the love he found in Christ and which he commends to the Corinthian Christians. If God is love (as I John tells us), then it’s helpful to substitute the word “God” for the word “love” in that famous chapter of Scriptures.

“God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on God’s own way; God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God (love) never ends.”

I do not believe that karma ultimately has any place with such a love and such a God. Grace as presented and understood in the New Testament is one of the distinctive and unique contributions of the Christian faith. As Paul says, grace is greater than our sin. I’m betting my life that such is true. When I breathe my last breath, I know that such grace is my only hope—and if my faith has any integrity, I cannot begrudge such grace for anyone else.

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