Many religious systems contain some idea of “payback,” or karma—we do something wrong, and the gods, or God, or whatever fates that rule the universe, get us back for doing that thing. And to be sure, it is hard to escape consequences for some actions: “you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.” But much more of life is shaped by the mysteries of complex (and often unfair) consequences, as well as the mysteries of grace. One person smokes his whole life, yet never gets the expected lung cancer; another person lives healthfully, and yet she dies young from cancer. Our lives are far too complex to be able to draw conclusions about naming things as “punishment.”
The Bible does contain stories where God is said to do harmful things to persons or communities. But those stories should not be used to explain our own experiences of pain or abuse. Here are three reasons why:
First, because of how we should read the Bible. Stories need to be read with care; it’s too easy to read our own issues into the text (especially when we’re preoccupied or overwhelmed with issues of our own experience), and ignore the clues the text gives as to the larger purpose for telling the story.
Second, because of the character of God: the most basic message of the Bible is “God is love.” More specifically, from beginning to end God is concerned with “the widow and orphan.” That means people who are particularly vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and silencing. God declares that divine love, God’s grace, is about protecting the defenseless, nurturing the weak, and empowering the vulnerable. This is God’s desire, and every time Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth…”, that is central to what we are praying for.
Jesus himself rejects the idea that God punishes individuals because they sinned (Luke 13.1-5; John 9.1-3). He declares God to be a God of parental love, who gives good gifts of sunshine and rain “to the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5.45)
Finally, because of the action of God: There are Christians who hold that the holiness of God should be seen as an absolute divine intolerance for sin, something that demands a response, demands “punishment.” But if this is so (and it is a debatable point), the Bible is even more clear that Jesus took this on himself, in his death on the cross. This means, no one should ever think that God is punishing him- or herself. This is the heart of the most famous verse in the Bible: this is how God loved the world: God gave his Son, so that everyone who trusts him will not be destroyed.
Abuse happens as the result of someone else’s decision to abuse, not as payback for one’s own actions. God declares divine preference for the vulnerable. Jesus takes on himself, and diverts from the rest of humanity, any and all cause for divine retribution, at the same as he proclaims that the heart of God is love, redemption, and grace.