When I was around 7 years old I lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, where my father was stationed for the Air Force. After being told by my mom not to run in the apartment we lived in, I remember slipping and falling, then hitting my head on the sharp corner of a wall. As I lay there looking up toward the ceiling, I saw my mom come into view as I was whimpering. She asked, "were you running in the house after I told you not to?" In a shaky voice I answered, "yes." My mom responded with something that has stuck with me to this day. She said, "See? God punishes!"
It was this understanding of God that was passed on to me from my mother because that was her understanding, or at least that was her way of showing me consequences. And, I would venture a guess and say that many children have had this understanding passed to them. Is God really someone who punishes? Is this pandemic we are enduring a punishment for all the evils we humans have inflicted on the world? Did my mom have it right?
The Church does teach about two specific types of punishment. One is called temporal punishment and the other is called eternal punishment. Temporal punishment is time based. This kind of punishment comes with all sin. I would describe as a reparation for sin. A child who throws a ball through the window of the neighbor's house has committed a sin and as a result, the window has to be repaired. But who should do the repairing? The child who cannot afford to? The parent of the child who could afford it but did not commit the act? The man who may have forgiven the child and should not have to suffer the consequences? Someone has to repair the window and once it is repaired the effects of the breaking of the window are complete. The second is eternal punishment and as the name implies, is permanent. It is a punishment that relegates a person to what we know as hell; that eternal relation-less state of rejection, postmortem, that never ends.
But, does God impose these punishments? Or are they simply consequences? As I write this, the day is Holy Saturday. It is that liminal time when we await the resurrection of Jesus. The tabernacles are empty. We are in that dark time before the light reenters the world. I can't help but think about Jesus' passion story which we read last evening on Good Friday. I can't help but think that Jesus did nothing to deserve the punishment he endured. Did God the Father really impose a punishment on Jesus? I think not. Yes, Jesus was obedient to death, but this obedience was far from a punishment imposed by the Father. It was Jesus recognizing that God can bring good out of evil. To do that, though, God has to show us true love. God has to show us what is known as agape love or a love that is totally self surrendering. God does not want evils nor does God want the effects of those evils. Nevertheless, reparation has to occur otherwise nothing is made right; there is never justice; there is never a time or place or state where all good things come into being.
God does allow the effects of evil. The pandemic and all it's affects are allowed so that good can come from it. St. Paul wrote this in Romans 8:28, “We know that God makes everything work for good for those who love God.” And I believe that includes everything even evil and sin. But in order for evil and sin to work for the good, we have to endure the effects. We have to be repaired and healed. Sometimes we go through great trial and pain and suffering for the reparation to take place. Once we recognize the effects of evil as a kind of medicine or surgery or hard work or heart ache, then we recognize that true happiness and joy can only come from those who love God. It can only come from those who are obedient and accept death, even death on a cross (Phi 2:8).