June 8, 2014

God’s punishment? or God’s comfort?

“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

At first read, the rod and staff seem more like a club and a spanking paddle, but they are not. God’s correction is not punishment. It is a loving desire to correct us for our own sakes, that we might be all we can be. I find it difficult to understand correction is love, for when I do wrong, I expect punishment.

Many years ago, I heard that expecting punishment and getting it completes a cycle, creating almost a sense of satisfaction. If the person who did wrong is not punished, they are far more agitated by guilt than they are if they get what they think they deserve.

At that time, I was not a Christian and had a problem. My first husband had a habit of making a stop on the way home from work. He was always late for supper and I always spoke angrily to him when he did arrive. Then I heard about this expected punishment theory and decided to try a new tactic. The next time, I fed myself and the children on time. When he finally showed up, I reheated his supper without saying a word and acted as if nothing happened. To my utter astonishment, he never was late again.

This idea of expecting punishment is how most of us operate with God too. We sin and expect Him to swack us down, but God is not like that, at least not with His children. Instead, He loves us and will patiently do whatever is needed to correct the way we are behaving. His actions are never about punishment and all about changing our hearts. Because of that, when I sin and but do not get what I expect or deserve, I am astonished and humbled, even deeply inclined to never do it again.

What kinds of things does God correct? Some of them are found in this familiar passage . . .

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:5–12)

God wants my faith in Him, not in me. He lets my ideas fail if that will help me trust Him more. He wants me to look to Him, and if I don’t, then my paths become difficult and I feel a need for His help. He wants me to not trust myself but respect Him and turn away from evil. When I do the opposite, evil is apt to overwhelm me to the point that I realize I cannot trust myself.

All of this is to bring healing and refreshment. When I honor God with all I possess, He gives me more. This shows me that trust and obedience is good for me as well. In my saner moments, I wonder why I choose sin or want to trust myself instead of Him. His kindness surely does lead me to repentance (Romans 2:4), far greater than my actions worked in that late-for-supper thing to change my ex-husbands bad habit.

For God, this is a loving and consistent response to our waywardness. As His people, we are not so consistent. For instance, Paul and Barnabas had a dispute over a co-worker named John Mark. He had withdrawn from their ministry team and for that reason Paul didn’t want him with them. Barnabas was more forgiving, “and there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed . . .” (Acts 15:36–41). Later, Paul changed his mind. When he wrote to Timothy near the end of his days on earth, he said, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:9–11)

I am not as good about wanting the best for me or others as God is, but He never gives up. His rod and staff no longer seem like punishment as much as they once did. Instead, His correction is becoming a comfort to me, just as He intends for all His wayward sheep.

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