Not a Punishment
May 24, 2012
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.