God’s Punishment is Just, Restorative, and Medicinal

The human heart seeks for love. It is an urge so universal, so profound, so all–absorbing that we must trace its origin to the Creator of man. Again we must recall those words so full of significance and consequence, “Let us make
man to our image and likeness.” From all eternity God contemplates Himself and in that timeless intellectual act generates His Idea of Himself, the Word, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. And the Father and the Son in their mutual knowledge are locked in the mutual embrace whence proceeds the Spirit, the personalized Love of God.

In creating man to His own image and likeness God makes man a being with powers of intellectual knowledge and spiritual love. In raising man to the supernatural order God places those powers on a new level, gives them a new direction, a new objective, a new participation, namely, the ability now to share in the very knowledge and love that God has of Himself in the eternal processes of the Trinity.

The love, then, that man is seeking is primarily the love of God, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . .” This truth is so sublime we tend to underplay it. To give only one example, we speak often of the results of grave sin as though God withdraws His love from the sinner as a form of punishment. This is only partially true. The essence of mortal sin is that we choose something other than God, forbidden to us here and now, and prefer it to God. This is an act of love. We place a higher value on a creature than we do on God. We love that creature more. But God by nature must
love Himself supremely, above all else. As a result, when we raise a creature above God in our scale of values, we have ceased to be Godlike. We ourselves have resisted the current of true love. It is not necessary for God to “withdraw.” We ourselves have destroyed our true supernatural charity or love since we no longer love Him as He loves Himself, namely, in a supreme fashion that can brook no rival.

The secret, then, of our truest, deepest, only perfect love is in being Godlike. And as the second great commandment is like unto the first, it is also the standard, the norm, and the criterion of our
love for our fellow men. It would be impossible to follow out this thought in all its applications and implications. We have taken one such problem, partly because it is so psychological in nature, partly because it is one of the most difficult and most mysterious areas in which we must seek the outward expression of this “being Godlike.” If we can achieve it here, it should be possible in all else.

The mystery of pain in the world has always puzzled even the most submissive of God’s children and the most illuminated by grace. It seems like a contradiction to say that God is omnipotent and that He loves us and at the same time admit that He has created a world in which we suffer so cruelly. And when it comes to the question of being obliged, ourselves, to inflict suffering on others under guise of punishment, we sometimes wonder even more and tend to rebel.

Let us take as an example the problem of punishment. The Christian abhors the concept of pain for pain’s sake, but a look at the world tells him that the surest guarantee of future pain may be its avoidance here and now. The “spoiled” child, overshielded against pain, may be the one who will ultimately suffer the most. The child must be taught that misbehavior, even carelessness, will bring with it pain and suffering. It is the lesson of life, and to have a child pass through the formative period without learning that lesson thoroughly would be a grievous harm. It is the only concrete realization he can get of the terrible effects of sin. On the other hand, punishment mismanaged can do tremendous psychological harm. It tends to increase the distance between the adult and the child, a distance that already terrifies him and increases his insecurity. Applied with a lack of consistency it upsets his nascent ideas of order and justice and leads him to seek devious ways to avoid retribution that seems based rather on the humor of the adult than on any objective moral code.

But punishment that is part of a truly Christian education not only is not harmful but positively beneficial. The condition is, however, that it be truly in accordance with Christian principles. This involves the general background of love that we have just described. It also involves the proper use of punishment itself. That proper use we would sum up as follows: To be as Godlike as possible in administering punishment. When God punishes there are always several factors involved. The first and perhaps most fundamental of these is that the punishment is always objective, that is, based entirely upon the guilt of the offender. This is in direct opposition to the human legal position that obtains in our courts of law to the effect that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and that is necessary lest every criminal escape by a plea of ignorance. Man cannot always “scrutinize the heart.” A good judge tries to take the objective elements into consideration within the limitations of the statutes, but he will be the first to admit that human justice is not always accurate.

But God proceeds differently. His judgment is entirely based upon the personal guilt of the culprit. His punishment is consistent and with knowledge could be foretold. Sentiment, passion, favoritism, none of these factors enter in. And from Him we must learn our lesson. Children do not so much fear punishment as they are upset by injustice or at a loss through inconsistency. From adults whom they trust and in whose love they have complete confidence punishment is not a fearful thing. They themselves know that they are guilty and to what extent. When they know that their parent or teacher is trying to the best of his human ability to assess that guilt and to punish in consequence, they accept quite easily and without psychological disturbance the results of their misdemeanor. But if the adult is not Godlike in his punishment; if his yardstick is the state of his temper, the damage done (perhaps accidentally) to his pet possessions, the person of the culprit, his offended dignity, or some other petty and perhaps sinful consideration, then the child’s resentment, anger, and perhaps his hatred is aroused. St. Paul has
a most pertinent text that Pope Pius XI quoted in his encyclical on Christian Education: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” People who do not think too much on the subject are surprised at the form of that precept. They think that it should be the other way around. But the Apostle knew that greater harm would come by provoking the child to anger because in the child’s soul such wounds are deep and lasting.

Another Godlike characteristic of punishment is His accent in this world on the medicinal aspects of His penalties.
There are three main reasons for punishment. First of all, it seeks to restore a damaged order and hence is called retributive. In the realm of physics there is a principle that “to every force there is a contrary and equal force.” So it is in the moral order. Retribution must follow sooner or later. Punishment, in human affairs, may also be protective in scope. It is with this in mind that we sometimes isolate human beings from their fellows because their continued freedom would constitute a threat to the security of the individual and the State.

Finally, punishment is medicinal. The term itself is sufficiently expressive. It stems from eternal optimism in the face of human frailty. No one need be despaired of; all are within the framework of mercy. In human affairs all these aspects must be present. First, the retributive. The child must be led to realize the effect of his actions upon the moral order. Children must learn that their every action has its effect. The effect in the moral world is like that produced by a stimulus in the neural pathways of the body that jealously preserve its every effect. As James has so well said: “We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or vice leaves its never–so–little scar.”

The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson’s play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying “I won’t count this time!” Well, he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it, but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out.

Punishment in the Christian sense should be presented as a restorative of the moral order that has been damaged. It is something to be accepted willingly, even gladly, in order that the damage may be undone. For this reason it is good to keep the punishment in the line of guilt because there again it is Godlike to make the punishment fit the crime. The protective element of punishment, while less striking, requires understanding. God uses it, although often in mysterious ways. If we could see the divine plan we might have better insight into some of the events that we label as tragedies. A premature death, the incapacitation of a seemingly indispensable person, an enforced separation—how many of these tragedies are perhaps blessings—a punishment, perhaps—but also surely in many cases a protection.

But it is the third aspect, the medicinal, that must be stressed. Christian punishment, outside of eternal damnation, is actually a gesture of confidence. That is a startling truth and one we are seldom brought to realize. God consistently and continuously punishes us for our own good. The Old Testament is a record of the continuous
succession of punishments by which the Almighty kept His chosen people in the line of conduct set for them. Our own lives bear witness to the salutary lessons of Divine Mercy that lie hidden under the unattractive wrapping of pain and suffering. What a different color punishment takes on when we realize that it is really a part of love. When it is brought home that “he does not bother who does not care,” that it is because of an unbounded confidence in our ability to do better that we are feeling a corrective that may sting but that will also heal. But to that end we must really have love and patience. And we must not be afraid to explain. Children will feel this instinctively in an adult who is really motivated by love for them, but that is not enough. It is essential that their realization be made positive and conscious. Then will they feel all the more loved, all the more a part of the community, and punishment instead of being a terror and a psychological disturbance will be a support and an aid to Christian living and Christian understanding of life and the love of God, and of man, His image. “Whom the Lord loveth, He chastizeth.”

Psychology and the Cross Book Cover

The above article is excerpted from Fr. Carter’s Psychology and the Cross, recently republished by Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Angelina Dimitrova on Shutterstock

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Father G. Emmett Carter (1912–2003) was cardinal archbishop of Toronto and an adviser to St. John Paul II. A participant in the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Carter worked to implement its decisions, especially in the areas of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Constitution on Christian Education. A renowned author and Canadian educator, Fr. Carter helped reform the public education system for English-speaking Catholics in Québec.

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