He causes his sun to shine on good and bad alike and his rain to fall on the honest and dishonest alike.
The idea that God doesn’t and cannot punish can be very offensive to some people. It challenges a widely accepted idea of justice in which wrongdoers should pay for their crimes and the good be rewarded. It upsets their view of the universe as a morally coherent system in which good and bad are in perpetual conflict. The truth is far more simple than that.
The fault lines among religious people run along this divide. A godly world of reward and punishment reinforces the security of those whose religion plays a big role in their life-insurance policy and need for safety. Everything is clear and simple in this dimension but it comes to depend upon a scaffolding of definitions, rules and rituals to keep this world-view standing. In this dimension, excluding other people on the margins, followers of other faiths, and sexual minorities makes you feel safer. In extremes this kind of religious dimension resolutely blocks out all trace of the free and living Spirit of God – like the Christian faith that blessed apartheid and napalm bombs and turned a blind eye to the holocaust. Shake the scaffolding and it may seem as if the whole building will collapse. If they catch you shaking it, watch out. The vision of God that Jesus embodies, and Lent helps us find, is more challenging but less obviously secure.
I hope that by now you will have failed enough in keeping Lent to be able to see through this two-dimensional state of mind to which we all are at least partially attached. It thinks that God is like us whereas the gospel sees human destiny as becoming like God. There is an important difference in perspective here. To embrace the more challenging reality of a multi-dimensional universe we need to puncture in several places our self-righteousness and confidence of being on the right side. Each puncture, each failure in life is potentially a window onto this more expansive and inclusive view of reality, an escape route from the harsh conditions of the prison of fundamentalism and duality.
But doesn’t the Bible show us a God punishing the wicked (even sometimes a little excessively perhaps)? And doesn’t Jesus also speak on occasions about the bad being cast out into a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth? How to square this circle? Looked at impersonally the universe is a system in which the law of karma rules: good deeds produce good results, bad deeds you pay for. But wake up more, seeing yourself in a universe pervaded by the spiritual dimension, the mind of God. You then see a higher law than karma.
This is the ultimate dimension of love, to which we can – for all our failings, perhaps because of our failings – awaken. Karma and love co-exist but karma dissolves on conscious contact with love. Does the father of the Prodigal Son punish? Can he? We expand into this greater dimension through loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, turning the other cheek. All the idealistic, impossible things that we are incapable of doing, unless we become ‘like God’.
Read other Lent Reflections 2019: Week 1