And I said “Help me, help me, help me, help me–
Thank you! I’d no idea that you were there.”1

A few weeks ago, when things were worst, I was having one of those very anguished prayer times where you are yelling so loudly for help that it’s hard to notice when it comes. I finally asked: “Just tell me something, Lord; tell me something I need to hear, and I’ll try to be quiet so I can hear it.”

So he said, “This is not a punishment.”

Which you wouldn’t think he would have to tell somebody like me who (allegedly) believes that God is loving and merciful. But we do sometimes get ourselves all twisted up.

My dear friend R. was telling me recently about something called the “Just World Bias”: we innately believe that the world is fair, so when we see somebody undergoing horrific suffering, if we’re unable to help them, we will often seek comfort by saying to ourselves, consciously or unconsciously: They had it coming, they brought it on themselves.

We do this because it’s easier to swallow the idea that all suffering is some sort of comeuppance than to swallow the idea that inexplicably horrific things happen to innocent people.2

And those of us who are predisposed to self-loathing tend to apply this damning logic to ourselves. We say: God is just, God is loving, and therefore the only conceivable reason I would feel like this way is that I’ve done something horrible. So I must thinkandthinkandthink until I figure out what it is.

But it ain’t so. The mystery of suffering is a mystery because there aren’t simple answers. And it’s important to remember that God is not only merciful (which I tend to think of in very abstract terms), but also very nice (which is much easier to wrap my head around), so he is quite aware of our blindness, even when it is wilful, and doesn’t ask us to put ourselves on the rack.

That is to say: even supposing that God would be quite within His rights to put us on the rack — or on the cross!3 — that is simply not the sort of thing he does.

Like Calvin says to Hobbes after breaking his father’s binoculars: “There’s no situation so bad that it can’t be made worse by adding guilt.” And the converse is true: when you remove the guilt, ordinary pain becomes tolerable.

Because really, there are things much worse than pain.

1 Paul Simon — “Rewrite”, from the surprisingly good (if understated and somewhat mawkishly titled) album So Beautiful Or So What.
2 Conversely, someone else has answered the age-old question (“Why do bad things happen to good people?”) by saying: There are no good people. This is true, strictly speaking (cf. Romans 3:10 and Psalm 14:1), but since it is true in a way that is too high for most of us to understand most of the time, it is not particularly helpful to think about when you are thrashing around in pain. In fact, if you meditate on this truth during such times, you are guaranteed to misunderstand it. So cut it out.
3 Is this, maybe possibly, what the Cross means? Because we really do deserve much worse than we think we deserve, but at the same time we’re incapable of realizing it?

8 thoughts on “Not a Punishment

  1. ARM

    I like your friend’s phrase, “just world bias.” One of the first things we read in my college theology program was the Book of Job – I think the point was to break us of the bias as far as possible before we went on. Most of the book consists of Job’s friends repeating that sufferings must be deserved since God is just; then at the end God comes in and blasts them for it. The degree of His anger implies that what they’ve been saying amounts to blasphemy.

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      I’m sure it does, but it’s an awfully common sort of blasphemy. I think the view is sort of baked into all of us — anyway, it is/was into me. I think I’m finally starting to unlearn it.

      Reply
  2. Karyn

    I was thinking the same thing as ARM. It made me think of Peter Kreeft’s comments on the Book of Job–”Job’s friends talk about God, but Job talks to God.” That’s what makes his suffering bearable. I think your friend is right–we tend to be more like Job’s friends, even to ourselves.

    Reply
  3. Aaron

    Steve,
    Just got out of the hospital after a week of no food and now am looking at a month of being fed by iv. So as you can guess I needed this post. I thought I would write in case you thought you were writing for just yourself.
    God Bless
    Aaron

    Reply
  4. Melissa

    And again, how the heck do you know what’s going through my head? Thank you for sharing your insights. I nearly always find that what you write about is what I’m going through too. And I don’t have SSA…so yeah. Anyway, thank you.

    Reply
  5. Andiron

    “…so he is quite aware of our blindness, even when it is wilful, and doesn’t ask us to put ourselves on the rack.”

    This would seem to contradict much of what I’ve learned regarding ‘you either accept and carry your cross, or you’re going to hell,’ which itself seems to be a free-will-negating act of duress. Without wishing to argue with you, could you perhaps elaborate on what You meant?

    Thank you.

    Reply

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