What is God’s worst punishment? Before answering, we have to ask some preliminary questions. When do people normally think God has punished them? Well, when terrible things happen: a serious illness, a car accident, grave failures, the death of a loved one… So many doubts and questions arise. Why has God allowed this to happen to me? Have I done something wrong? Is it my fault? And yet, if our hearts are open, tragic situations like these often somehow open our eyes to deeper realities. A young woman discovers that her illness is not her enemy but her teacher, and she learns the meaning of life. A car accident leads a young man to realize that time is fleeting and he must be responsible for his actions. The death of a loved one pushes a family to ask difficult questions about faith and eternity. Granted, this does not always take place. Sometimes, the opposite reaction occurs: depression, anguish, despair. Tragedies force us to make a decision: life and love, or hatred and death?
Can these events be considered punishments from God? In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read: “Endure your trials as discipline; God treats you as sons” (Hb 12:7). God disciplines us “for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness” (Hb 12:10). The meaning is clear. Accept any suffering God may allow in your life as discipline, trusting that He allows it only for your good, so that you may be holy like He is holy. His “punishments” heal us of our pride and spiritual lethargy.
So what is God’s worst punishment, if He allows us to undergo misfortunes like those listed above for our benefit? You may be smirking to yourself: “Aha! I know! She’s going to say Hell is the worst punishment!” Yes, that’s obvious, but I’m thinking of an earthly punishment. More guesses?
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us an important clue. “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper” (Rm 1:28). What does it mean that God hands them over “to their undiscerning mind”? God allowed them to wallow in their lies, foolishness, and idolatry. He handed them over “to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies,” (v. 24) and “to degrading passions” (v. 26).
What does this mean? God’s worst punishment is not any kind of trial or suffering. His worst punishment is abandoning us to our error and our shameful passions. The most dreadful chastisement He can send us is allowing us to live without Him, without His truth in our minds and without His love in our hearts. And when does He strike us with such disgrace? When we voluntarily reject Him: “although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks” (v. 21).
Now think for a minute. Have you ever secretly envied the lives of celebrities: fame, pleasure, wealth? They seem live as if God didn’t exist, and yet their lives seem perfect. Now you know that there is no reason to be jealous at all. The only feeling they should inspire in you is pity, and perhaps compassion.
The next time you endure a failure, a humiliation, the next time you are discouraged, the next time you have to witness the suffering of a loved one, fall on your knees and give thanks to God for His mercy, or at least ask Him for the grace to do so! Trust that He is a loving father who allows this trial because He wishes to give you an opportunity to “share His holiness” (Hb 12:10).
Thank you to Fr. Carlos Werner, EP, for inspiring this reflection.