So About God’s Punishment and Wrath: A Mega-Post On Theology That Bothers Us

abbybethh asked a question:

Hello, do you have any posts/ thoughts on God’s punishment? It’s been a topic I’ve been really confused on. Thank you for all that you do & congratulations on your engagement!!

Hey dear friend, thank you so much for your kind words.  I want to kindly share with you three different angles on God’s punishment to consider.  As always, please feel free to skip around on this post.

1) God’s punishment is His burning anger and wrath set against our sin and it’s often correlated to each act of disobedience.

2) God’s punishment is actually His grieving heart for our active disconnection from Him, so He allows us to have what we want and for the consequences to unroll.

3) God’s punishment is an outdated term from the Bible that has been misinterpreted, and is simply language that describes the continuing effects of sin in our world.

So we could say God’s punishment is 1) God’s wrath, 2) our consequences, or 3) the effects of sin.

For the most part, Christians have put these views in a boxing ring to duke it out.  Augustinian and Calvinist theology would say it’s all God’s wrath.  Emergent or mystical theology would call it natural consequences.  The New Perspective on Paul might call it the effects of sin.  [You don’t have to know any of that stuff, by the way, to love Jesus.]  Westerners don’t like “wrath” and Easterners would say that of course God is vengeful.

I tend to think it’s a combination of all three views, but I also confess that I’m too limited in my imagination.  We’re each hamstrung by our own cultural ideas about God, and we need to admit our weakness before beginning to grasp Him.  We must occasionally dare to have God confront us and contradict us with the uncomfortable, especially with the stuff we don’t find pleasant about Him.

We need to be careful about our own preconceived biases.

The thing is, most Westerners hate the idea that God could punish anyone.  Even the idea of “guilt” is too much.  Most of us have been Pavlovian-conditioned by the Enlightenment to consider God as either a grandfather or a clockmaker, so we’re offended by things like the cross and we enjoy images of haloed sheep-holding Jesus.

But in the East, the idea of an anthropomorphic loving God is absolutely horrifying and insulting.  That God could “forgive” and be “personal” is to put God at the level of a pigeon.  And ideas like “wrath” and “vengeance” already make sense in an honor-and-shame culture.

So it depends on who you’re talking to. Simply distilling theological thoughts about God into tiny culturalized categories can hardly explain God to a tiny 3 lb. human brain.

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Releasing Expectations, Letting Go Control.

We often demand of people what only God can give us — encouragement, affirmation, strength, motivation — and we end up wringing them dry. It’s okay to expect some things from people, so long as you know they’re just human beings who thirst like you. They need an Infinite Well as much as you do. If you drink deeply of Him first, you’ll be less controlled (and controlling) by your expectations, and you’ll actually seek others not to squeeze from them but to encourage them by your overflow.

When you can let go of the idols of relationships, wealth, intellect, success, beauty, and career: you can actually enjoy them for what they are. You don’t expect salvation or redemption from them. You don’t crush them with expectations or demand them to serve your every whim. You instead see them as gifts, as privileges, as an honor to respect and to cherish. Treat the earthly as divine and you will lose both; treat the divine as your treasure and the earth will be just as beautiful.

— J.S. from The Christianese Dating Culture