Why am I being punished?

After a retreat healing service in which I had assisted, I met a divorced grandmother I’ll call Ann. Ann was distraught because she believed that the marriage of one of her daughters was “in serious trouble”. Ann told me she was afraid that a divorce was becoming more and more likely, in spite of her best efforts to gently “counsel” the couple. She did not want her daughter and son-in-law to go through all the pain she had endured in her own divorce. Ann still grieved the fact that her children had been so young and impressionable at the time of her own divorce. She had begun to wonder if the increasingly likely painful divorce of this daughter (as well as the divorce of one of her sons a few years earlier) was somehow a punishment of God because, in spite of her best efforts, she had been unable to do enough to save her own marriage.

More people than you might think who experience great pain, such that of going through the unravelling in divorce of one’s marriage in spite of one’s best efforts to salvage it, wonder if their great pain is somehow a punishment of God. While almost no one judges herself or himself as perfect, the vast majority of people judge that they do not deserve a catastrophic punishment such as the deep pain they experience in the tragic ending of one’s marriage. While it is true that everyone should expect painful consequences of one’s poor personal choices, most people judge that the devastating end of their marriage (often with collateral damage to one’s children and other loved ones) is out of proportion to the normal mistakes and poor personal decisions made during any marriage. And rightly so. It is very difficult to understand how the vast majority of people could ever deserve the painful end of their marriage.

First of all, we need to took at the ancient religious belief, found in several religious traditions, in a punishing God. We can see a common belief in human free will crossing many religious traditions, including the Jewish and Christian traditions. In fact, in the Jewish and Christian faith traditions, human free will is seen as the essential gift of god to human beings in creation. It is what essentially separates human beings from the rest of creation. Thus, consequences of one’s poor personal choices are not punishments. They are just (sometimes very painful) consequences. What about all the other painful events which are part of human living such as accidental injuries or debilitating illness of oneself or loved ones, or the death of loved one (not to mention devastating natural disasters which are not the direct (proportionate) consequence of personal poor choices and decisions?

While there are many stories in the Christian Bible (especially the Old Testament part) which describe an angry and punishing God, our core Christian belief (based on the assurance of Jesus in the Gospels) is that God loves us unconditionally in the face of our personal weakness, brokenness, and even sin. While God may not spare us from the painful consequences of our poor personal choices and decisions, the Abba (Father) God of Jesus does not send us pain out of anger or to punish us or to discipline us! Painful events and life conditions are part of every human life, whether one is virtuous or wicked or anywhere in between. Our Christian belief, again rooted in the assurance of Jesus as well as the letters of Paul to the first Christian communities, is that somehow all human suffering and dying are joined to Jesus’, and that our God is somehow with us (whether one is aware of it or not) in the midst of@LLhuman suffering and dying!

In our conversation, I assured Ann that while there may always be more that could have been done by either spouse in any failing marriage, in the end, it takes two to save a marriage. And, many marriages fail in spite of the best efforts of both spouses. She may judge herself guilty for not doing more to salvage her marriage, but there is truly no real basis for her wondering if somehow God was punishing her for not doing more. And, in any case she cannot assume the whole burden for her marriage ending in divorce. Ann responded that she saw she needed some time to process in her mind and heart all I had told her. I told her appreciated her openness and courage to begin re-thinking her long-held belief (and fear) of the punishing God she had grown up hearing about.