Does God Punish Disobedience?

We all disobey God, but are the consequences always delivered in a one-to-one ratio?

Good people get good stuff. Bad people get bad stuff. Or as the Beatles sang with their last gasp on Abbey Road, “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Now I love John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but I take issue with them here, and I know I am in the minority. After all, the world runs on retribution. “This for that” comes as naturally to us as breathing. While no one can deny that our actions have consequences—that if you put your finger in a light socket you will “reap” a shock—we do God (and ourselves!) a great disservice when we project this false schema onto Him.

when you and I insist on that all-too-comfortable paradigm of cosmic score keeping, we stop talking about Christianity and in fact adopt a Westernized form of Hinduism.

That is, when we moralize our suffering and that of others. The lab test results come back positive, and we interpret it as some sort of punishment. Or your loved ones interpret it that way. Your marriage falls apart, and you assume God is meting out His judgment on your indiscretions. Most of us—not all, I’m afraid—would stop short of blaming the citizens of New Orleans for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but that doesn’t mean we don’t moralize our suffering in other, more subtle ways.

Christians believe that Jesus severed the link between suffering and deserving once for all on Calvary. God put the ledgers away and settled the accounts. But when you and I insist on that all-too-comfortable paradigm of cosmic score keeping, we stop talking about Christianity and in fact adopt a Westernized form of Hinduism.

We are talking about karma. If you are a bad person and things are going well for you, it is only a matter of time before karma catches up with you and “you get yours.” If you are good person, the inverse is true: just be patient and your good deeds will come back to you. This is a simplification of the complex Hindu understanding of history as determined by the past lives of others: that we are all stuck in an eternal cycle of suffering perpetuated by reincarnation.

The problem in this worldview comes, as it always does, when we flip it around. If you are suffering, you have done something to merit it. Pain is proof.

These ideas are echoed in the “prosperity gospel”—characterized by the belief that God wants to bless His people, that He wants to give us tangible rewards such as riches and success and that we claim these rewards by exercising our faith in obedience. The side effect of this belief is that it implies if you experience suffering in some way, it’s a result of either a lack of faith or some hidden sin.

Perhaps you erected some barrier that keeps God from working in your life. You do not believe enough, or you do not live well enough. In all cases, the emphasis is firmly on the believer and his or her abilities (or lack thereof).

Whenever our ears pick up an “if-then” statement, we can reliably assume we are in the arena of the law. “If you want to live, then you will obey the Lord’s commands.” “If you meet my standard of (beauty, wealth, intelligence), then I’ll love you.” The Gospel, on the other hand, says, “I’ll love you despite the fact that you may not meet My standards or obey My commands.”

The Christian tradition is full of those who have suffered death and persecution as a result of their faith and, in some cases, for no discernible reason whatsoever.

Grace fundamentally rejects the circularity of karma.

Sadly, this “new evangelical theology”—the prosperity gospel—has left a legacy of spiritual wreckage in the lives of countless believers who simply desired to love and obey God. The prosperity gospel does not answer why bad things happen; it merely encourages us to focus on how to live in the present. It tells us that God is a good God, who gives only good things to His children. Which is about as classic a half-truth as you could possibly find.

Unfortunately, Christians are never, ever promised in the Bible that God will rescue us from our suffering—never. It is extremely difficult to study the book of Job or the letters of Paul and still believe in the teachings of the prosperity theology.

In fact, the Bible is replete with examples of faithful men and women who suffer, Jesus being the most obvious example. The Christian tradition is full of those who have suffered death and persecution as a result of their faith and, in some cases, for no discernible reason whatsoever. Roman Catholics call them saints!

C. S. Lewis put it more eloquently than I ever could: “We were … promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told ‘Blessed are they that mourn.’”

As much as we might wish it weren’t so, biblical faith ultimately eschews such conditionality. You simply cannot look at the cross and see the suffering of Jesus on behalf of rebellious sinners like you and me without also accepting that God sometimes ordains pain. This is not to say that suffering is never the result of something you or I have done, that it can’t be related to some form of deserving. Rather, it just means that there is no longer a one-to-one correlation. In fact, there may not be any correlation at all!

So while the prosperity gospel pays lip service to the God of the Bible, it worships a God who waits for the suffering person to snap out of it and claim victory. In other words, it posits a God who is powerless to save sinners.

Jesus Himself tackles the topic of karma head-on. In the ninth chapter of John, Jesus and His disciples come across a blind man. His disciples asked him,

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:2–3).

I’m not sure how Jesus could be any clearer! Something else was going on in this man’s suffering than a this-for-that retributive exchange. The man’s affliction was not evidence of a curse or punishment. In fact, God was somehow present in it. The works of God displayed in infirmity and weakness, rather than health
and strength? Perhaps it is no coincidence that the man who spoke these words would do more than voice them. He would live and die them.

Excerpted from chapter 4 of Glorious Ruin (David C. Cook, October 2012) by Tullian Tchividjian.

25 Comments

Steve Olson

3

Steve Olson commented…

"Unfortunately, Christians are never, ever promised in the Bible that God will rescue us from our sufferingnever. It is extremely difficult to study the book of Job or the letters of Paul and still believe in the teachings of the prosperity theology."
Perhaps that is why there isn't a lot of "preaching" from these texts amongst the PG self-help guru's. Or if there is, say Taking Romans 1 without the denouement in Romans 2, so that the Scripture is narrowed to be a if then propositon. Luther struggled mightily in his own day against the interpretation set out by the Holy Catholic Church that works now can save you, or a loved one. The trappings are different but a power structure existed interested mainly in maintaining it's power. The Osteen's are nothing more than Catholicism Redux, but prettied up with a pearly smile and a praticed sincerity over and against the dour demeanor and inchoherent Latin of the 16th Century Popes.

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ricky commented…

I am always reminded that the "sowing and reaping" principle are in play. But I want to be reminded that God's satisfaction with me isn't based on whether I work hard enough or not..do enough good or not...its based ONLY on the Gospel and the complete work of Christ. That God would continue to hang around, lead me, love me, grow me and use me only does one thing to me: it humbles me, draws me to Him, allows me to know Him and then love Him and chances become greater that I obey Him for the purpose of giving Him the glory which is what He desires. I get to be part of the story and enjoy the journey.

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Lauriemo commented…

I am curious as to how Paul's statement in 2 Cor. 10 fits into this discussion: "We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every though captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete." If Paul is ready punish disobedience, I would presume he believes this to be God's will and therefore a godly thing to do. How could this be if God does not punish disobedience?

Also, where would Ananias & Sapphira fit? Are we to presume they were not really Christians?

Please note that I am in no way being argumentative. I am truly seeking understanding.

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Anonymous commented…

Help me wrap my brain around this. I understand the point that there are consequences of being in a fallen world, and that suffering is not always punishment....but God does punish, does He not? Think of the minor Prophets...God coming against Nineveh in Nahum. There is still wrath? Just trying to help people figure out...is there a difference is the event, or can the same (bad) event be punishment/wrath for a unbeliever, but merely a trial for a believer? Does the relationship define it?

Steve Olson

3

Steve Olson commented…

A wonderful person once put the "groaning of the earth" in perspective when he asked us to consider what the effect of Abel's blood was as it poured onto the soil. ALL of God's Creation groans under the weight of sin. It is not God's punishment but our punishment upon ourselves that has created this place of both beauty and danger. As you say, there are consequences to being in a fallen world.
I'm not sure what the significance of God's wrath being vented on Nineveh has to do in light of the Cross. Either we agree that the Cross ended the discussion of God's wrath once and for all or we do not. In which case we are in good company with both Peter and Paul who argued over the application of the Law to Gentiles and indeed whether Gentiles were entitled to the Gift at all.
Instead of focusing on Christ's First Command which was to Love God and to Love each other, we focus on who is worthy. To judge worthiness we must apply rules and since we have a handbook close by with a bunch of rules we gravitate to that and use our adherence as our ticket to the Promised Land. Our natural impulse is to question our own worthiness and to try and rationalize WHY God would do something so unbelieveable as instant commutation of the death sentence. If we can't believe it for ourselves how much more are we willing to disbelieve it for others. So we measure our worth, we take the rule book and say "well we do this and this, but it isn't as bad as she, who is doing this this and this."
As far as punishment for the unbeliever and soul stretching for the believer, well we have aGod causes it to rain on the just and the unjust." Does that get us anywhere other than back to the idea that S..t happens?Who is a believer, those who follow the rules in Deuteronomy to a tee or those who accept Grace for what it is; Undeserved and universal pardon?
There is one other option, God saying, :"You know that whole Me dying so you don't have to, Me taking the entirety of the world's Sin onto my back and through my hands and feet once and for ALL? Well I was just kidding."
In which case why would we worship that?

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