Punishment or Consequence

As a teacher and a parent, I struggled with the idea of punishment.  What was its purpose?  When was it appropriate? 

For some it was not enough to correct behavior.  There had to be some way in which the child was punished, meaning that the child had to suffer in some way.  I could never justify that as an end in itself. 

Sometimes individuals, both children and adults, can only “learn the hard way”.  They will not be motivated to change behavior without some experience of suffering.  Those in authority take it upon themselves to provide the experience of suffering all too readily.  Thus we end up talking in terms of crime and punishment.  We have penal codes and institutions that describe and carry out the punishments for behaviors that society will not tolerate.

I have seen teachers and parents who are actually venting their spleens rather than trying to correct the child under their care.  Their actions are governed by their emotions rather than the behavior of the child..

This gets transferred to our ideas about God. We worry about God’s punishment, we build up the idea of hell, we devise ways to punish people for their sins. 

The reality is that what we call God’s punishment is simply the natural consequence of our actions.  If a plague strikes a village because infected rats enter homes, that is a consequence of the actions of the diseased rats, not a punishment because there are heretics in the village. 

So much of our theology was developed centuries ago before we understood the causes of diseases, earthquakes, crop failures, etc.  What science has explained in terms of cause and effect we still tend to think of in terms of God’s punishment.  Our theology, in general, needs to catch up.  So do all institutions that confer authority on one person over others. 

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