Is God Punishing?

I keep running into a view of God here in Mississippi that I frankly have a hard time wrapping my head around.  It is a view that I heard in Connecticut but never so intensely.  This is the notion that God is a punishing God.  The notion that God will strike you with some punishment if you are not living right or more specifically if you are not living right according to my wishes and desires. 

Back in the early 1980’s and into the 1990’s,  a belief went across America that AIDS was a punishment from God for being Gay.  Young men were being thrown out of their congregations because they had this disease.  It was a painful experience on top of having a fatal disease.  The one place one could turn to for a message of comfort turned its back on young men who were diagnosed with AIDS.   When babies began being born with HIV/AIDS, I heard the argument that God was punishing the parents for their sins by giving them a baby with this disease.  What sort of cruel god do these people believe in that an innocent child should have to suffer for the sins of its parents?  They had to state it was the parents sins because even they could not wrap their heads around the possibility that a new born was worthy of god’s punishment.  This merely affirms the ludicrousness of their punishment argument.

In my work with people living with HIV/AIDS I spent a lot of time counseling these individuals that fear is not something God instills in people of faith.  God was not punishing them.  That image of God was an Old Testament image when people had no notion of how diseases and illnesses operated, or other forces of nature for that matter. 

Yet, this notion of a punishing God is very prevalent here in Mississippi.  I meet educated people who truly believe that their illness is a punishment from God for some alleged sin.   I meet people who believe that if they are wronged by their relatives or their friends that when something bad happens to their relatives and friends that God is punishing them for that wrong.  I’m serious. 

Now people in my circles tended to laugh when we heard the late Rev. Falwell state that the actions of gays, lesbians, feminists and the ACLU resulted in God lifting a veil of protection over America and God punishing America with the events of 9/11.   And we rolled our eyes when Rev. Haggee (friend of Senator McCain’s by the way,  since America is currently big on beliefs by association) stated that Hurricane Katrina was sent by God to clean up New Orleans of its sodomites. And not to be outdone, we have Rev. Phelps stating that soldiers dying in Iraq is God’s punishment on America for not getting rid of gays.  

But there are people who actually believe this stuff in Mississippi (and throughout the Bible belt of the South).  I have met people who actually believe that God will punish America for allowing undocumented residents to live here.  Or that God will punish America for allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children.   And when something bad happens to an undocumented resident or a gay person, that is seen as proof that God is punishing. 

I simply do not understand.  What could a person possibly do that would be so heinous as to receive the grief of a miscarriage or a terminal illness as punishment?  And why would one person receive such punishment and not another?   O I have heard the argument that god is showing his infinite mercy in the hopes that that person would see the consequences of such grievous sins committed and repent before such punishment befalls them as well.  This is pure BS.  If god is impartial in his judgment then his mercy on me over someone else doing the same sin shows favoritism not impartiality. This has been seen as proof of being among the elect of god.  God loved Jacob but hated Esau; Calvin’s predestination of the elect and all of that talk.  What it shows is that god is a capricious sob that acts more like an animal than any supreme being because the righteous, by our standards anyway, are punished by the same acts of god.   Hurricane Katrina destroyed the homes of “the wicked” and “the righteous.”  The airplanes that became bombs on 9/11 killed the righteous and the wicked.   If god was angry at gays and feminists as Rev. Falwell and Rev. Robertson claimed, then couldn’t god have been a bit more specific in his aim?   Why kill the righteous when he could have just killed the offending party? 

A member of one of my congregations once reported that someone refused to stand next to him during a thunderstorm in case god decided to strike my congregant dead.  His response was ‘where was his faith? Did he think god’s aim wasn’t good?’  Joking aside the point is made.  If god is so PO’d at the wicked, then why is he impotent on dealing with the wicked that he takes the righteous too?   I know, blasphemy. 

The notion of Universalism states that all are loved and precious in god’s sight.  All of creation is blessed and good.  We live in a world where there are natural forces.  Hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, tsunami’s, birth and death are all natural forces.  We live in an ecosytem that is interdependent for its survival.  That means that bacteria , viruses, amoebas, algae, insects, plants, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals are dependent on each other for survival.   Remove any one of them and life on this planet is diminished or placed out of balance.  [We are beginning seeing the results of our actions towards the earth being placed out of balance.] This means that things will happen in this world.  Some things will be filled with pleasure and joy like sunshine causing rainbows after a thunderstorm.  Some things will be filled with pain and sorrow like miscarriages and HIV/AIDS.    But neither the rainbow nor the miscarriage is a result of our righteousness nor our wickedness.  They just are. 

Humankind is perhaps the only species on this earth that seeks to place meaning on events.  I think we try too hard to make sense of it all which in turn increases our pain and suffering.  My dear friend James posted a song on his blog that I think sums it all up… “Let the Mystery Be.”    Take a listen to it. Blessings. 

Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 4:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Great post. The “gentler” version of this thought process is, “God is giving you this, so that you can learn and grow.” I have heard versions of this, not only in my Christian seminary, but in my UU home church.

    My daughter was diagnosed with cancer at 7 months old. She’s almost three now, and we go in for surgery Thursday to see if the cancer has returned. Really, this is so that all the rest of us can learn lessons through the sacrifice of her? As you succinctly put it, what an SOB!

    I always come back, as you mention, to the issue of consistency. Parents who are far better people than I am, and certainly have more devout faith, have lost their children to this disease.

    And as a friend of mine said — a friend who lost her child to leukemia — “There is no lesson I learned that was important enough to justify his death.”

  2. Lizard Eater: My heart goes out to your family! I don’t buy the we are here to ‘learn lessons to prepare us for the next life or whatever we are being prepared for’ line either. Life is life and I choose to suck the marrow out of it in appreciation of it all. Enjoy your daughter! Enjoy being there with her in her laughing and crying moments with the fullness of love in your heart. Embrace it all and let the mystery be.

    I know that I got emotional in this post and it is because I can only see pain in this kind of thinking for those who accept this concept of a punishing god as truth. And the same goes for your example of the “gentler” version. Faith, in my opinion, should be something that transcends our experiences and liberates us to embrace life in its fullness.

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