I had the blessing of teaching the 3rd grade boys Life Group something today that I didn’t learn until I was 30 years old – The difference between punishment and discipline. For 98% of my life, those two words were grossly conflated (actually, the definition of “discipline” was almost completely dropped), and the problem it created was massively screwed up view of God.
See, all the boys in the class know that truth “God hates sin”. I asked them why, and they responded with things like, “God doesn’t like it when we do something He tells us not to.” To which I explained that “Doing what He tells us not to is the definition of sin” and re-asked the question, “Why does God hate sin?” All of their responses were essentially, “God doesn’t like not being obeyed.” It was from this fundamentally flawed (although a commonly flawed) understanding that they related the next known assertion, “God punishes sin (“sin” being a representation of the one sinning – so effectively God punishes the sinner).” In their mind, God doesn’t like it when we disobey Him, so He punishes us. We read through the first few chapters of Amos so they could see how God brought “punishment” on various peoples. To which they rightly deduced the confirmation of the initial assertion that God does in fact hate sin. (Although we had yet to actually establish why.) Then we got to Amos chapter 4. Verse six sums it up nicely,
“I gave you absolutely nothing to eat in all your cities, a shortage of food in all your communities, yet you did not return to Me. This is the Lord’s declaration.”
After reading the entire chapter 4, I asked them what the repeated phrase was throughout. Like drones, they said, “Yet you did not return to Me.” To which I shared the follow truth with them (keep in mind children are able to grasp far more than we give them credit for, by the way):
God wasn’t punishing sinners, God was disciplining sinners. To punish is to exact retribution. Punishment is the way they viewed God’s dealing with sinners at the beginning of class. The imagined a God who was mad, or somewhat pouty, at not being honored and obeyed and therefore dealt out punishment due to His being slighted. But God, repeatedly, said that He was longing for Israel to return. God’s goal is restoration; and restoration isn’t to goal of punishment. Restoration is the goal of discipline.
God isn’t willing that any should perish, but the truth is there will be those who refuse the other option. There will come a time when God judges the world and punishes evil (yes, God still exacts retribution on evil) will be delved out. All those who refuse to flee their hellish master and enter God’s kingdom will be included in that destruction – a destruction that will be dealt by a Judge with a broken heart. A punishment that is dealt on the thing He hates because that very thing is the destruction and contortion of everything that is good and is hell-bent on continuing that destruction. He is heart broken because of the heart rending truth is that there are some who choose to remain sided with evil. Like a man who is so in love with his sinking treasure that he refuses to release it, rather choosing to suffer the same fate as it in the depths of the ocean, so many of God’s creation, who are made in His own image, after having His love expressed for them by His death, will cling to evil and receive the same fate as their heart’s love. Even in this we are given a glimpse that this was never God’s intention as the hell created was for the devil and his angels, never humanity.
“If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”
This is a mirror image of the heart of God. God doesn’t punish us, He disciplines us. He pleads with us to return to Him. And on that day when evil meets is eternal destruction, there will be some who have spurned His love and they will share evil’s fate. But the heart of God will not be joyful at their demise, nor angry that they refused His grace; for He is not willing that any should perish and take absolutely no pleasure in the death of the wicked.