The Mystery of Punishment and Suffering
By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 26, 2022
“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” (Wis. 1:13) How do we explain God’s wrath and innocent suffering? Some view God’s “wrath” as “poetry,” with strong metaphors of disapproval. Many become atheists because they cannot bear the thought of innocent suffering. “How can a good God permit so much evil and suffering in the world?”
Punishment is behavior-related. The purposes of painful retribution are to change behavior, balance the scales of justice, vindicate injustice, cause suffering, or inflict profound cruelty. Punishment responds to actions that violate the will of a superior agent. The agents of afflictions include man, nature, demons, and in response to sin, God.
Parents encourage righteousness as they discipline their children for misbehavior. Society arrests and imprisons criminals to protect society and set the scales of justice right. Good nations wage war to protect vital national interests in compliance with just-war principles. But there is always an admixture of evil in every human corrective endeavor. So St. Paul warns: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom. 12:19)
Nature punishes more subtly to protect and reestablish the natural created order. Wounded as we are by sin, much of our behavior is self-destructive. As we violate human nature in ignorance or sin, human nature responds with suffering (substance abuse, STDs, etc.). Behavior-related transgressions result in suffering that incites us to change our behavior. Sometimes it doesn’t take much. A finger blister—not total incineration—is all that’s necessary to prevent a disobedient child from touching a hot stove again.
However, the pain of disrupting nature does not reflect the full gravity of sin. The Ten Commandments are the central precepts of Natural Law. The first three Commandments—worship the one God—form the primary message of the Old Testament. False worship, such as placing idols on Catholic altars for ecumenical purposes—may not feel like a terrible violation. But there are many examples in the Scriptures where idol worship ignites God’s wrath. The guilt of maliciously violating God’s law, as God’s wrath reveals, calls for punishment that exceeds the pain inflicted by nature (and explains our need for partial and plenary indulgences).
Some suffering is innocent, the mysterious result of Original Sin. God allows suffering to test us; we cannot rule out demonic activity with innocent suffering. The Book of Job is a story of Satan attempting to provoke Job to sin, and failing. As we pray for the protection of the angels and saints from experiencing various evils in suffering, we also cannot categorically deny diabolical hatred in “punishing” us for violating the demonic will. Demonic, hateful cruelty expands a “solidarity of evil” with our cooperation. Think of the gratuitous suffering inflicted by the totalitarian states of the 20th century.
God usually intervenes in history with the subtlety of grace. He lavishes grace upon us in the Sacraments, honoring our God-given freedom, and directing us, especially with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. In rare instances, His interventions are bold and astonishing. He miraculously heals us, and the Church often credits the intercession of saints for the favor. We can also expect His rare and mysterious intervention in dramatic acts of Divine wrath.
God demonstrates His sovereignty by dispensing His justice. God did not punish before the Fall because there was no need to change good behavior. The disobedience of Adam and Eve introduced sinful patterns (sinful inclinations and personal sin), mysteriously inflicting innocent suffering and the pain of correction. Punishment—or its prospect—helps change bad behavior. God’s chastisement of the Israelites and others in the Old Testament testifies to punishment as an individual and communal warning, sparing the just from ultimate condemnation.
God’s punishment is terrible but purposeful. “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Dt. 32:39) God gives life, and He destroys it. He extinguishes entire armies that threaten His Chosen People. His agent—Elijah the Prophet—slashes the throats of apostate prophets with impunity. God’s violence is brutal and illustrates, by contrast, the even greater horror of sin and disobedience to His will.
The wrath of God in the Old Testament prepares the way for the mercy of Jesus the Redeemer, Who forgives the repentant and saves us from the eternal fires of hell. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn. 3:17) Jesus took upon himself the totality of eternal punishment for our sins: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:2) But He didn’t take upon himself the totality of the temporal punishment for our sins: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24)
We cannot ignore God’s wrath in the Scriptures by emphasizing the one-sided mercy of Jesus. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Is. 55:8) God is supreme, and St. Paul says: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Gal. 6:7) His expressions of wrath express His perfect justice and Divine will. He need not persuade us of its appropriateness.
The suffering of an innocent child is heartbreaking and mysterious; so is the torment of Innocence Incarnate on the Cross. Most disturbing is the prospect of eternal damnation. God’s just temporal punishments heighten our awareness of His sovereignty, the horror of sin, and our need to encounter Jesus in the Sacraments for forgiveness.
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