God and punishment

In Sunday's service, we were looking at the words about Jesus calling the disciples his friends, and the teaching that if we have seen Jesus we have seen the Father.  In other words, God is our friend. God likes us.

It raises the question of punishment by God. So much in the Bible seems to have God punishing people.  In my sermon, I addressed this with a story about my dad.

I learned something about God from my dad. When I was way too small, I climbed up into the rafters of the barn and pulled down the rifle. I'd been doing this for a while, while dad was away, learning out to aim it, and squeezing the trigger. But this day, I dug out the bolt and the ammunition from the other end of the shed, and put three rounds clear through the grain silo.

I strongly suggest you don't do this, because the evidence can't be hidden. A few days later, when I had almost begun to relax, Dad noticed the new decorations above the hammer mill. When I bounced into the kitchen that afternoon, there was a certain grave chill in the air. Of course I denied it all. What are you going to do when you're 10 or 11, and you've just shot holes in the grain silo!? There was some wondering about how it might have happened then, if it had not been me, and I did my best impression of bemusement as I agreed with my parents about the strangeness of it all. To my surprise, Dad appeared to buy it, shrugging his shoulders about the oddness of the world, and expressing his gladness that he could trust me— crikey… you can imagine how I felt about that!

"You do understand just how dangerous that thing is?" he said. "If you're going shooting you need to treat rifles with absolute respect. They kill people."

I thought I was off the hook. He didn't punish me. I just carried my own disappointment at lying to my dad for something like 15 years. Until I hit the end of my rope, like we do in a life crisis every so often. And then I rang up my folks for help from the other side of the country, and suddenly, in the middle of that, found myself blubbing out about lying to Dad about shooting holes in the grain silo all those years before.

And you know what? —  he was so happy for me! And I was a bit staggered that something I'd forgotten for over a decade, had been there the whole time. And I was surprised at just how heavy it had been.

God simply wants good for us. God does not punish us. We punish ourselves. And we… punish those around us, not God.

In other words, although some folk find this really hard to imagine, the stuff about God punishing people, is the writers 'putting the words into God's mouth' as they sought to express their developing understanding of God. We have imagined that God hates the people we hate. And since we live with self-hatred, we imagine God hates us. But God is our friend, and actually likes us and wants good for us.

There are a couple of interesting sidelines to this story.

 I think even then, I knew in part of me I didn't care to examine too closely, that Dad knew it was me. And if I'd been paying attention, I might have I might have noticed how, in our story telling family, the frequency of bad gun stories— how people who had leaned guns on fences ended up killing themselves, or their friends—I might have noticed the frequency of these stories increased a little.

But when I announced that I needed the rifle to go rabbit shooting for a school science project a year or two later, Dad simply said, "Sure. Just remember to shoot away from the house. Keep the business end pointing away from you." That's all. God gives us freedom.

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