We hear much from the church about the chastening of the Lord, both individually and nationally. We are often led to believe that God is habitually upset with us and committed to inflicting pain on us as retribution. If we displease God personally or collectively as a nation, God will intervene in our lives and directly cause unpleasant events and circumstances which otherwise would not have happened. This is the mental picture which the church routinely promotes and therefore instills in our cultural thinking.
Now, no one could reasonably deny that unwise behaviors and attitudes often carry painful consequences. The evidence is all around us. At the same time we have the example of Job and our own personal observations to demonstrate that pain and suffering do not occur only in the lives of those we may view as unrighteous. All men, as noted in Ecclesiastes, experience pain.
The view of chastisement that generally accrues from traditional theology is off base in a couple of, perhaps, subtle but important aspects. Number one is the manner in which chastisement is initiated. The church doctrine says that God intervenes to initiate the chastisement. I believe the chastisement happens naturally without any divine intervention. The pain and suffering results from natural laws which govern the physical universe and the realm of human relationships. God has no need to interfere in our lives for us to experience the consequences of our actions and choices.
Secondly, I ponder the reason we as humans endure the pain and suffering we often view as a sign of God's displeasure. Is pain designed by God as a means to express His wrath toward us, as the church message so often implies? Is the pain of chastisement retributive, caused by anger and a demand for justice; or is it instructive and directed toward our individual and collective well being? This is a very significant point for me personally. Pain directly initiated by God because He is angry diminishes the essential image of God. Pain which results from the very nature of human existence and which is ultimately instructive and therefore beneficial is another matter, unpleasant nonetheless but at least conceivable for a God of Love.
The motives and mode of operation of God are the essential questions faced by religion. On the one hand, we have what the traditional church has handed to us. On the other, we have the opportunity, some might say the responsibility, to re-think our inherited God model. The issue of chastisement is a great example of how a slight shift in viewpoint makes the difference between a arbitrary, vindictive deity and one who operates purposefully and relentlessly for the good of all humanity.