Dear Donagh, I heard a diatribe today from a fundamentalist Catholic about God's punishment for our sins. It sounded strange to me, for the first time in my life. I'd like to hear what you have to say on this subject. George L.
Dear George, Thanks for your letter. 'God's punishment' sounds strange to me too, I must say. Some older people have a chilling version of the 'Act of Contrition': it says they are sorry for their sins "because they deserve thy dreadful punishments, because they have crucified my loving Saviour Jesus Christ, but most of all because they offend thy infinite goodness, who art so deserving of all my love…." The dreadful punishments come first in the list, so we can't take seriously that "most of all". And there is something sick in the occurrence of those two words 'punishment' and 'love' in the one sentence. We were being asked to love a God who would condemn us to unimaginable torment for all eternity if we didn’t love him. What a way to twist our emotions! What did such a thought do to people who really took it in when they were children? Most didn’t, I think - judging from the versions of the Act of Contrition I still hear from time to time. Here is a composite of all the odd bits I've heard: "O my God, I am hardly sorry for having offended thee, and I do test my sins above every evil, because they do please thee, my God…. And I firmly dissolve…never more to defend thee, and to end my life." In many cases a misunderstanding is a mercy.
What is at stake is our understanding of God. God is not punishment, God is love. Commenting on St John's statement that "God is love (1 John 4:8)," Meister Eckhart said: "I beg you to mark my words. God loves my soul so much that His life and being depend on His loving me, whether He would or not. To stop God loving my soul would be to deprive Him of His Godhead; for God is as truly love as He is truth; and as truly as He is goodness, He is love. That is the bare truth, as God lives."
What then about punishment for sin? Is there no such reality? There is! But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, this "must not be conceived as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin (n. 1472)." It's a pity that we use the word 'punishment' at all. 'Consequence' would be a better word. The consequence follows the cause as a hangover follows a drinking binge. It is something we do to ourselves rather than something God does to us. I found a very good image for this in a 5th-century Christian mystic, Dionysius the Areopagite. He said sin is an attempt to push God out of one's life: it is like being at sea in your little boat and seeing a great rock in your path. You reach out your oar and try to push it out of your away, but of course you only push yourself and your boat away from the rock. In his own words, “If you are standing in a boat and you try to push away a rock that is in your way, that will not affect the rock, which stands immovable, but will distance you from it; and the more you push, the more you are distanced…." God doesn’t cast us away ("God is love"), but we attempt to cast ourselves away from God.
May I refer you to another question that came in some time ago: you'll find it, with an answer, in the archive as "Geoffrey Pinfield: necessity of suffering."
I hope this short answer is of some use to you.