03 July 2013

Follow up Questions for "Our God is not One Who Punishes Evil"

[[Dear Sister, while I appreciate some of what you have written about moving from fear to love and that God does not punish evil it seems to me the Church herself teaches the importance of fear and also says that God punishes evil. What do we do with the Act of Contrition if that is not true? Remember how it goes? "O my God,  I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen." Shouldn't we truly fear that God will find us unworthy of heaven and cast us into the tortures of hell? Otherwise we will sin with impunity, literally, without fear of punishment..]]

LOL! I do indeed remember how it goes! However, I think the lesson it embodies is the one I have been writing about. (cf Notes From Stillsong: Ours is not a God Who Punishes Evil) It does NOT convey a spirituality of fear nor does it teach that God punishes sin. Let's look at it. First it refers to dreading the loss of heaven (that is the loss of life with, of, and in God) and the pains of hell (again, the pain of losing the life we are made for --- life with, of, and in God). The gravity of such a loss is literally dreadful and we SHOULD experience this. However, this is not the same as living our lives in fear, and especially not fear of God.  Significantly, a reference to hell makes no mention of torture nor of God as torturer; the pains of hell are the pains of losing our place in God's own life through the choices we make for something less ultimate and less fulfilling.

It is important to note that God is never mentioned as the agent of punishment nor is his justice seen a retributive here. Evil and our choice of that which is truly unworthy of being chosen has consequences. Quite often in the OT literature, a People struggling to move beyond the notion of retributive justice while also finding ways to affirm the sovereignty of God, speaks of the consequences of evil and the choice of evil as divine punishment. It is really only when the tremendous paradox of a God who demonstrates absolute sovereignty in self-emptying and love is revealed on and through the Cross of Christ that the tension between these two tendencies is resolved in an unexpected and literally scandalous way. Jews find this a stumbling block. Greeks find it foolishness. But here we have a God who submits to evil in order to transform and redeem it. Sovereignty is revealed in kenosis. Loving into wholeness is the way God asserts his rights over (does justice to) a broken creation. Punishment, much less a divine punisher, have no place in this picture.

Secondly, however, look how the prayer proceeds; let me paraphrase it: I detest my sins because I dread the loss of my real destiny with you and might have to" live" (be dead) without you (without love) for the whole of eternity but here is the most serious thing for me: I detest my sins because they offend against your love, you who are all-good and deserving of my wholehearted loving response! This prayer moves from a motivation which is less adequate, less worthy of God to one which is far more worthy. It moves from a motivation which is self-centered to one which is truly God-centered. The prayer itself recognizes a legitimate feeling of dread but counters with something which is even more compelling, namely, the love of God (the God who IS love-in-act) and which or who is meant to be our real focus and motivation. It moves from imperfect to perfect (or at least more perfect) contrition. Thus it reprises the very same movement I mentioned in the post mentioned above, and invites us to the same purification Genesis 18 reflected. (Again, cf Notes From Stillsong: Ours is not a God Who Punishes Evil.)

You make a good point in fearing that people will act with impunity if we do away with the element of fear. I think the idea of consequences, however, is far more helpful than the idea of punishment --- which necessarily requires a punisher. We should certainly revere and be in awe of God, but personally I think it is ALWAYS destructive of genuine faith to fear God in any way whatsoever. I simply don't see how the profound trust which is the heart of genuine faith can co-exist with fear. Fear simply distorts everything it touches. This is one reason Jesus' gift of peace often accompanies the directive, "Be not afraid" or "Fear not!". So, we need to educate people about the consequences of sin -- including the ultimate consequence of rejecting God's love which we call hell --- but at the same time we need help them move beyond an ethics driven by concern of consequences to a life which responds generously and selflessly to the God who offers himself and life with and in himself as the fulfillment of our truest selves. This movement, this growth in one's spiritual life and so, in one's capacity to love, is precisely what is reflected in the act of contrition.