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Is Punishment a Gift from God?

Does God punish us? If so, can that punishment be called “good”? Or can a God who “punishes” in such a way ever be called “good?”

My Dear One,

It’s not every day that you get to witness two people having a deep, honest, enlightened discussion about the nature of suffering and gratitude, … but that’s just what I came across this week from a somewhat surprising source.

There is a moving moment in a recent interview Anderson Cooper did with Stephen Colbert (link below, watched over 9 million times this week already) where they discuss how Stephen dealt with the sudden death of his father and two brothers when he was 10 years old. Following the recent death of Anderson’s mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, Stephen apparently wrote him a letter that led to this interview. Gloria’s death from cancer was obviously on Anderson’s mind as he choked back tears to ask Stephen this question:

“You told an interviewer that you have learned to ‘love the thing that I most wish had not happened.’ You went on to say ‘what punishments of God are not gifts?’ Do you really believe that?”

After a moment’s pause, Colbert smiled and said,

“Yes … It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There's no escaping that. And I guess I’m either a Catholic or a Buddhist when I say those things because I’ve heard those from both traditions.”

I’m neither Catholic nor Buddhist myself but I’ve certainly read what Stephen is referring to and he’s not wrong about that much. Much of traditional Catholic teaching emphasizes the redemptive nature of suffering, that enduring hardship is holy work, as we emulate a life patterned on the crucified Christ. Buddhist teaching about suffering does not say it is redemptive or necessary, but the question of suffering and the means of escaping it are absolutely at the heart of Buddhist philosophy.

Though I appreciated what Stephen was offering in his response, I have to say something within me chafed at his first word, “Yes,” that he said yes God punishes us as a gift.

This kind of thinking about God (which is all theology is), is deeply, deeply rooted in scripture. God punishes us to correct us and/or improve us. From being cast out of the Garden of Eden, to the people of Israel wandering the wilderness for 40 years, to Jonah in the belly of the great fish, to the exile in Babylon, the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are filled with stories of God punishing people for their disobedience of God’s commands. And as I have walked with people I have heard this thinking alive a well deep within the recesses of human consciousness when we ask questions like:

Why did God do this to me?

Why would God allow this to happen?

Why did God take my loved one?

All of this presumes that God has seen fit to punish or to act in a way that seems something other than loving.

Now, I will acknowledge that any good parent punishes a child for their own benefit. As a father of two sons, I have (on rare occasions) had to remind them that bad choices do have consequences. But the problem I still have with this thinking about God is twofold:

First, often it is not clear what we are being “punished” for. We can go back and think of times we messed up and wonder if that’s why this or that bad thing has happened but that just seems like fishing for a reason. For punishment to be effective, it should immediately follow disobedience and with clear connection. It would not be fair of me to walk into a room and ground my son from his video games for three weeks because he once back-talked me years ago. No, fairness demands that we punish people when they commit the crime (or at least when they are found out and proven guilty of the crime), not arbitrarily out of the blue years later.

Second, too often the “punishment” does not fit the crime. I remember after 9/11 several preachers saying the attack was God’s punishment on America for (fill in the blank). Bullshit. It is not right to take the lives of innocent people to prove a point, not if you are some hate-filled man walking into Wal-Mart in El Paso with a gun and not if you are God in New York City in 2001. And, likewise, I could not worship a God who gives people cancer or kills people for their mistakes/sins or the mistakes of others. God does not kill your child to teach you a lesson or prove some point (The Book of Job be damned. It is a parable, and a flawed one at that.)

But when Stephen Colbert said where he got this notion from, “What punishments of God are not gifts?,” when I heard its source, it immediately made sense to me.

He is paraphrasing J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings and a devout Catholic. Stephen Colbert is a disciple of Tolkien as much as he is of Jesus Christ (which he clearly is). Tolkien himself became an orphan at an early age and saw horrific things in battle in World War I. He wrote his stories as a way of working out his faith. In an unsent draft of a letter later published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, he once wrote:

“A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift,’ if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”

It is the word “punishment” that is the problem. What Tolkien means by “punishment,” which he himself puts in quotes, is clarified in his parenthetical aside: that is changes of design.

Does God exact untimely or unusually cruel punishment upon us for our mistakes? I cannot imagine a loving, forgiving God doing such a thing. But, does God “change the plan” in order to bring about good from the bad things we do or the bad that happen to us? Absolutely. That is the central claim at the very heart of the faith that I affirm. It is the message of the cross and resurrection.

Stephen went on in this interview to add:

“I didn’t learn that I was grateful for the thing I most wished hadn’t happened, I realized it …If you are going to be grateful for some of life you have to be grateful for all of it.”

And this rings true to me on every level, even though it pushes me too. Really, all of it? Can’t I be grateful for the parts I like and ungrateful for the parts I don’t like? No, I don’t think I can be. Not that I want those bad parts to have happened, I don’t. If I could take them away, all the suffering they caused me and people I love, I most certainly would. “I don’t want it to have happened, I want it not to have happened,” as Stephen said. But my life is all of a piece. I have to take the good with the bad, it is all connected. Sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes. Sometimes bad things get redeemed to good outcomes. And everything leads to everything else.

We cannot pick and choose life that way. Life instead picks and chooses us.

I am who I am because of it all, the good and the bad, and I am deeply grateful for my life.

In the end of the interview, Stephen affirms what I too have learned from my own suffering: the gift in it is that it allows you to relate to others through your common suffering. If I had not suffered, I would not be able to understand something of the suffering of those around me. I would not be able to reach out in love to them during their time of pain in the same way I can now. It is what led Stephen to write that letter to Anderson in the first place. His father didn’t die of cancer as Anderson’s mother did. But he does know what it’s like to lose someone you love.

You can become grateful that you have suffered because it allows you to love others more deeply. In this way, it allows you to more fully inhabit the continuing Body of Christ. As Anderson remembered his mom saying, “I don’t ask ‘why me,’ I say ‘why not me?’” Whatever happens to us, it’s part of the human experience and that is what we are called to be, fully human.

Earlier this evening I went to a funeral visitation for a member of the church I just finished serving. She was a wonderful person, always full of joy, cheer, and gratitude, three traits I want to embody more often. And she was 49. In the middle of battling cancer, she developed a heart condition that proved fatal. Her death struck me in a way I wasn’t prepared for and don’t yet fully understand. As I was standing in line to greet her husband, her daughter, her mom, her brother, to walk up to the casket and look in at her one last time, a face just a few years older than my own, now drained from all the life and joy it once possessed, no longer smiling as it always had, I started crying and could not stop. It’s not fair, I kept thinking to myself. It’s not fair.

And it’s not. Life is not fair in innumerable ways. But that doesn’t mean God is the one who decided Cammie would die this week. Cammie died because the cancer and her treatment was more than her heart could bear. God didn’t take Cammie’s life away from her. Cancer did. And cancer is a part of life. Death is a part of life.

Life is not fair. But it is still good. And for that we can and rightly should be grateful, for all of it, the good and the bad, because we cannot separate the two, not in this life.

Life doesn’t always make sense. Maybe we should stop trying to find ways to make it make sense. Let’s be grateful for what we have.

God does not punish, at least not unfairly. But God does redeem and for that, today, I am grateful.

following The Way,


“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain....Still, if we want to avoid the suffering, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.” ― Henri Nouwen


Loving God with all Our Mind

This week’s practice

What unfair tragedy befell your life in a way that once caused or continues to cause you discomfort, to cause you to question suffering, question life, question God?

Spend some time in quiet reflection or prayer around that this week.

Don’t worry about making it make sense. Don’t ascribe it to some kind of preconceived “plan” of God’s. Simply ask, “how did God change the plan to accommodate for this having happened in my life?”

Can you think of a time it allowed you to have more compassion, to show more love to someone else?

Can you find a way to be grateful for at least that much?

Has or could this lead to you being able to “love the thing you most wish had not happened”?

1 Comment

Thanks again.

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