Some people don’t like the idea of God punishing people. That’s understandable. I know I can relate to that every now and then, especially when reading through the Old Testament. It’s hard to read some of the punishments in there and still believe this is the same God who is constantly claiming to be full of grace and mercy.
Oddly enough, one of the places that helps me reconcile God’s punishment with his grace is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
God is preparing to destroy Sodom, but he sends some angels by to warn Lot first. For some reason, as angels are telling him the whole place is going to go up in flames, Lot is reluctant to leave. And it’s not like he had an excuse to doubt. He’d just seen them strike an entire town blind. And then when these guys who clearly have some sort of connection with a higher power tell Lot that God is about to demolish the city, he hesitates.
I’ve always missed what happens next. At this point, I’m usually too caught up in the excitement and suspense. I want Lot to get out of there. I want him to run to safety, but I can also see the wheels turning. It’s his home. He knows the place. He has friends there. Eventually, the angels get tired of Lot’s hesitation, grab him and his family, and physically pull them out of the sinful town. What I always miss is the last phrase of that verse:
When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. (Genesis 19:16, NIV)
Did you see that? God forced them out of their home because he was merciful. I think this is the key to making stories of divine judgment make sense with claims that God is merciful. Granted, in this passage he isn’t raining down judgment on Lot specifically, but what he’s doing to Lot and his family is the same thing he does to any of his children when he disciplines them: he’s steering them away from sin.
That’s what God’s mercy looks like.
What really solidifies this for me is a picture of what God’s wrath looks like. In Romans 1, Paul shows us a picture of God’s wrath that’s a little different from what usually comes to my mind at the mention of the word. Paul says God’s wrath is simply to step back and let humanity sin.
God’s wrath is to let humanity destroy itself. Why go through all the work of fire and brimstone when human beings can do the work for you?
For me, reconciling God’s punishment with his mercy comes down to understanding sin. When God tells us not to sin, he’s not laying out an arbitrary set of rules. He’s telling us how we were designed to live. When we live in sin, we slowly but surely destroy ourselves. The confusion comes when we assume the pain brought by God’s discipline is somehow worse than the destruction brought by sin.