Undergoing Training In The Divine School

July 9, 2009


St Etheldreda's Roman Catholic Church At Ely

St Etheldreda's Roman Catholic Church At Ely

And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children — “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:5-11

IN THE YEARS FOLLOWING the Second Vatican Council the time when I was coming of age in the church — teachers and preachers of the faith seemed to have an almost allergic reaction to any talk of divine punishment. If someone suggested that a suffering or a misfortune might have come as a punishment from God, he was deemed not only theologically misguided but ethically irresponsible. And there was, it seemed, good reason for this reticence. Didn’t talk of divine punishment reek of a primitive religious consciousness? Didn’t it place us within a more or less pagan framework, where the divine is understood as capricious and cruel? And hadn’t this idea been stupidly and meanly employed over the centuries to assign guilt to those who were, in fact, innocent victims?

Yet the theme of God’s punishment is one that can be found from beginning to end of the Bible — and not as a minor motif, but as a structuring element. Our very human condition, with its struggles, anxieties, and limitations, is understood by the book of Genesis as a chastisement for sin; the confusion of speaking different languages is, furthermore, construed as a punishment for man’s hubris in building the Tower of Babel; the flood at the time of Noah is seen as resulting from the universality of human malice; the enslavement of the children of Israel, as well as their long wandering in the desert, is the bitter fruit of Israel’s misbehavior.

When Israel loses in battle, its defeat is invariably read as divine punishment; Saul’s failure in his civil war against David is due to Saul’s unfaithfulness to God’s command; Eli’s death is the result of his own sins and those of his two wicked Sons; the death of David’s son is the consequence of David’s adulterous dalliance with Bathsheba; the division of Israel into a northern and southern kingdom is God’s punishment, following from Solomon’s infidelity to Yahweh; and the Babylonian captivity is, all the prophets agree, God’s answer to Israel’s disobedience.

Is this manner of theologizing an archaic peculiarity of the Old Testament? Let us consider just a few New Testament examples. Paul tells the Corinthians that many of them are becoming sick and some are dying, precisely because they have not refrained from sacrificing to idols. In the Acts of the Apostles, two people — Ananias and Saphira — are struck dead because they disobey the Apostles’ order and keep their money and property to themselves. And the book of Revelation — the last book of the entire Bible –culminates in a vision of God furiously chastising a sinful world. And these are just a few examples, chosen at random from literally hundreds of others throughout the biblical revelation. While all of these texts are complex and multifaceted, we see from the sheer multiplicity of these citations that it would be deeply unbiblical to marginalize uncritically the category of divine punishment.

A passage from the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews is so clarifying and lucid in regard to the question at hand that it can function as an interpretive key: “My sons, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord nor lose heart when he reproves you; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he receives.” At the heart of this statement is the correlation of the divine punishment first to education and then to love.

What we find so objectionable in pagan accounts is that the gods seem cruel and capricious in their chastisements, as malicious and disproportionate as the worst of earthly tyrants. But the Hebrews passage shows that the biblical perspective is entirely different, God’s punishment is always a disciplining born of love, a type of formation for the recalcitrant soul.

And in the twelfth chapter, we find the perfect analogy for this divine behavior: “Endure your trials as the discipline of God who deals with you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” The governing metaphor for God throughout the Bible is that of parent a good father or a good mother. The prophet Isaiah gives voice to Israel’s deep conviction concerning the compassion of God in these lyrical words: “Would a mother forget her child? Yet even if she should forget, I will never forget you, my people. I have carved you in the palm of my hand.” And Jesus himself addresses God with the endearment “Abba,” a child’s name for his loving father.

Do you know any good parent who does not, from time to time, discipline her child? Wouldn’t it in fact be a sign of neglect or indifference if a parent never chastised, warned, or punished her daughter, never allowed her to feel the effects of her misbehavior, never warned him away from danger with a harsh word or glance? We all know about programs of “tough love,” designed to encourage the parents of those who are in serious trouble with alcohol or drugs or violent behavior to help their children by making them directly experience the consequences of their misdeeds.

Love is not a soft sentiment; it is, as Dostoevsky said, “harsh and dreadful,” precisely because it is the act of willing the good of the other as other. The mother who simply takes in a son mired in drug addiction, painlessly forgives him, and sets him back, without correction, on the path to self-destruction can hardly be described as a loving parent. And the father who allows his son to engage in reckless sexual behavior, never providing any parameters for the young man or imposing any restrictions on him, is caring much more for his own ego than for his son’s well-being. Thus God sometimes loves us in a harsh and dreadful way.

What is true of a single human family is true on a larger scale. The God who is the father of the universe has established, within creation, certain structures that reflect the integrity of his own being. Whenever we successfully move through a geometrical demonstration or conduct a scientific experiment or make a prudential moral decision, we are, at least implicitly, recognizing these structuring elements that God has set in place. If an inexperienced hang-glider willfully ignores the law of gravity, disaster results; and if an architect insufficiently appropriates the laws of geometry and physics, a building may collapse. More to it, the abuse of the body — through overexertion, injury, or stress — results in pain; and the misuse of the psyche leads to depression and anxiety. In none of these cases is the negative consequence the result of God acting arbitrarily; rather it is an indication of God’s lawfulness. Now sin is nothing other than someone consciously contravening this divinely established order at the ethical level and the divine punishment can be read, therefore, as God’s allowing the sinner to experience the natural results of his contradiction of the moral fabric. It can be construed as God’s tough love.

To be sure, those who are enduring God’s chastisement rarely appreciate the contexts we have been suggesting, and the author of the letter to the Hebrews knows it: “At the time it is administered, all discipline seems a cause for grief. …but later it brings forth the fruit of peace and justice to those who are trained in its school.” The great church father Origen of Alexandria spoke often of the schola animarum (the school of souls), whose lessons begin now and reach their fulfillment only in the life to come. Our time on earth is a period of learning, refining, and purifying — something like an extended course or an athletic training program.

Few really savor the day-today grind of education or the sweat and effort of football practice, but only a fool wouldn’t see that pain is the condition for the possibility of progress in either arena. We should not, however, draw the conclusion that any and all suffering can be interpreted as divine chastisement. It is just that sort of simple-minded thinking that has led many to reject the category of God’s punishment altogether. And a careful reading of the book of Job should immediately disabuse us of the idea that suffering is always the result of sin. If we are biblical people, however, we must appreciate that some types of suffering are indeed expressions of the tough love of God and are indeed indications that we are undergoing training in the divine school. 

Emphasis above is mine, the writing is from Fr. Robert Barron in his excellent book of scriptural interpretations titled The Word on Fire. You can find it and more at Fr. Barron’s website wordonfire.org.

I had the audacity the other day to place on forums portions of my recent posts on homosexuality. The outpouring of vitriolic bombast was astonishing but understandable. A large number of people have organized and made making this sinful lifestyle a normative imperative. NAMBLA (The North American Man Boy Love Association) is doing the same thing for pedophilia. The site youporn.com tries to make pornographic sex acts normative. Suggest that any of these things are not true opens one to charges of homophobia or worse with the attendant idea that your prejudices or hatred is what causes the violence. If the Church and others could stop pointing these things out, gays could be happy, pedophiles could be in love and poor young women could continue with their doctorate degrees without the stigma of being porn actresses.

Has not Congressman King with his comments on Michael Jackson been enduring the same trial here? It is so easy to offer up excuses to tell the sinner that what is perversion or sinfulness is perfectly respectable. The gay movement is rooted in this kind of deception and delusion. Michael Jackson is as much a figure of the Civil Rights movement  as sodomy and fist fucking are expressions of love (nice try Reverend Al).

The Church tells the truth. As someone who has received divine punishment and fought it every step of the way, I pray for us all to receive the gift of holiness. The punishment for sin is to become what the sin is. You lie you become a liar, commit the act of adultery you become an adulterer, fist fuck you become a fist fucker. The names are horrible and stain your immortal soul. The Church simply says, in the name of love, please stop.

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One comment

  1. [...] undergo “perhaps resembles passing through something akin to dying.” This is training in the divine school of obedience. [...]

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