Was God Punishing Us?

After snacks, the lights on the plane dimmed and a hush descended. I was left with my emotions. Rather than excitement about going to see family, I felt angst. Worry and grief gradually superseded the guilt of abandoning my students for a week. Mom was not well. 

 I was hopeful that I could provide some respite for my father, and especially my sister, who cared for Mom full-time. In a scenario which remains unclear to this day, my mother had a stroke while driving. She crashed her white Corolla into another car, left the scene, and ran off the side of the highway before being rushed to the hospital. Now that she was home again following the hospitalization, I made a third trip since her initial episode.

It was a challenging year for our family. My mother was ill. My mother-in-law’s health was also failing. My wife Maggie was in seminary, traveling three-hours each way to Boston every week while serving a difficult congregation. I  overworked to make the financial pieces of our life fit together as we traveled to the midwest as individuals or as family to care for our mothers. The children struggled with the fear of losing their grandmothers, adolescence, and stressed out parents. 

And then it got worse.

“Noooooo,” was followed by Isaac’s wild sobs and squeal of pain that will forever pierce me. My cell phone to his ear, Maggie just told him of her mother’s death.

***

“I can’t go through this again,” our daughter Jessie cried. We sat on the bed in the Motel 6 debriefing my mother-in-law’s funeral. Jessie knew my mother’s health was precarious at best. She knew that she might lose another grandmother soon.

***

Back home, the phone rang. While we were away at the funeral, Todd killed himself. The young gay man – my daughter’s friend – could no longer bear it. Death was preferable to life. And so, in less than a week was another funeral.

***

The family scrambled to help Isaac find his cat. We found Trio too easily; she was lifeless in the rural road in front of our house.

***

“Don’t I recognize you?” the smiling rental car clerk said, “Welcome back to St. Louis!” His smile faded when he learned we were back for the third funeral (fourth if you count the cat) in eleven days. My mom had died. 

What did I do wrong?

Our human urge for a pattern to the randomness of life is strong. We want an explanation. When science fails us in life’s deepest questions, if we believe in a Divine presence, we turn to God for that explanation. 

If we perceive God as all-powerful, capricious, and unreliable, we may believe that God punishes us for small or large misdeeds. It is easy to fall into this trap. Some of the early writers of Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament experienced their god in this way. If I believed this, I would be wracking my brain trying to figure out what I did wrong that caused God to kill my mother-in-law, mother, an 18-year-old boy, and my son’s cat. 

That is one harsh image of God! Still, it is not a hard perception to find. Many ancients explained their misfortunes this way. The theology of many of the writers in the Old Testament reflects a reward and punishment mindset. Even in the twenty-first century there are those who picture a capricious and angry god in natural events. The prosperity gospel, in which those who please God become wealthy, is the flip side of this theology. 

But this is just one theology found in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). The Book of Job, for example, raises many questions about the nature of God. An exhaustive exploration of those questions are beyond the scope of this post.

The Book of Job, however, does provide us with a biblical witness of ancient kindred who reject the notion that bad things happen only to bad people. In the narrative, Job is a good man, righteous in God’s sight. Yet, tragic things happen to him.

Was God testing me?

How could God allow the trauma of four deaths in eleven days? To explain the challenges of life, many see God as a testing deity. The problem with this explanation is that it characterizes God as a bully and a taskmaster. We are just pawns of a harsh teacher. 

If we accept this explanation, God tested my teenage daughter’s worthiness by pushing her friend to kill himself. In this view, my son whose maternal grandmother just died, needed to pass another examination. So, God killed his cat! 

One way that many Christians describe the Divine is as a Father. Aside from the patriarchal problems with our neglect of God’s femininity, a good father doesn’t “test” his children by making their lives a living hell. An actively testing god is intertwined with the idea of an all-powerful deity who chooses not to help God’s people. This image of divinity is far from loving.

In the Hebrew Bible, the narrative tells us that despite repeated evil actions, God honors covenant with the Israelites. In Judges, God is rightfully angry with God’s people. The loving God sets hostility aside, honors covenant, and offers undeserved grace because God “could no longer bear to see Israel suffer” (Judges 10: 16b NRSV Read in context).

A testing god is an abusive father and contradicts the primary message of Easter. The Easter narrative in the Christian gospels emphasizes the same undeserved grace reflected in the Hebrew Bible. Though we don’t deserve it, the Divine offers all of humanity grace. 

Sometimes, life just sucks!

Though life is challenging and even traumatic at times, the extravagant love of the One, works through all that happens. The Divine lures us to reflect the Imago Dei (image of God) by responding lovingly in each moment. When we love, we are God in the world.

Less than satisfying to our culturally-ingrained sensibilities, bad things happen to good people. Three human and one feline death in eleven days was a lot for my family to handle a decade ago. I still sometimes weep over my loss. Today was one of those days that my arms ached to hug my mother. 

So, I sobbed as I did so many years ago. 

But in that moment, I felt – again – the abundant love of God that I felt when friends showed up unexpectedly at my mother’s memorial service. I sat on that curb grieving with my brother again; the loving One perched between us. And I recognized my mother within me: the good and the annoying.

God was present then and now. God is not testing. God is not punishing. God  sobs with me. God feels the empty spot within me as surely as I do.

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