I was furious with my dad. I was about eight years old and had acted up a little more than usual. I don’t even remember what I’d done, but it was clear that I was in trouble, because my father had used some unusually strong words to knock some sense into me.
I was shocked because my father usually spoke only uplifting, encouraging words when he talked to my sister and me. He was a loving, kind dad, and it stung to be told off by him. Unable to see past the pain from the scolding, I was mad at him all morning. When he came home from work to eat lunch with the family, I was still licking my wounds and didn’t want to talk to him.
Today, almost 30 years later, I look back at that day with some perspective. My dad is still the soft-spoken, wise and gentle person he was so many years ago, but I’ve had some time to mature and understand my childhood years. I see why my father had to put his foot down from time to time. What’s more, there’s a poetic irony to life because now I have a toddler of my own, and it’s my turn to administer discipline from time to time.
Unsurprisingly, my daughter doesn’t like my corrections one bit. It kills me to punish her, but I know I have to enforce certain rules and boundaries no matter how upset she gets. In contrast with how I felt as a child, I now know that if I don’t correct her, I’m doing her and society a disservice. If I don’t set her straight, I’m not being a loving parent because I’m setting her up for pain, failure and dysfunction in the future. It’s crystal clear to me now that letting bad behaviour slide is not an act of love, but one of parental irresponsibility and neglect. Because I love my daughter, I have to correct her and hold her to a high standard.
The perspective that I now have as a parent about how love and correction work hand-in-hand is by far the clearest picture I have of how another parental relationship works. The Bible speaks of God as our heavenly Father. In this relationship, all of us as humans, regardless of our age, are children. And just as with human parenting, there are painful times when God has to correct us—to set us straight—because, in addition to being a God of love, He’s a God of justice.
We see God’s justice at work several times in the Bible. It’s clear from the start of the human story that God requires complete obedience of His human children. It was, after all, God who warned our first parents, Adam and Eve, that the consequence of something as seemingly innocent as eating fruit from a tree would be death. The Bible is clear that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). It’s the harshest of realities. Seen without a larger perspective, death for eating a piece of fruit can seem like an unduly tough penalty.
Another glimpse of the God of justice comes when He strikes priests Nadab and Abihu dead for the seemingly innocent act of using their own fire in the sanctuary service during the time the Israelites were in the wilderness (Leviticus 10:1, 2; 16:12). It can be really tough emotionally to reconcile the record of a God who strikes people dead for seemingly small infractions with the idea of a loving heavenly Father. Justice and punishment are not easy pills to swallow. Seen in isolation, some of God’s actions can seem overly severe.
Some argue that this tough, seemingly uncompromising God of justice appears only in the Old Testament, not in the Christian era. However, all one has to do is look at the New Testament story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1–11 to see that God never abandons His high standard. This husband and wife were struck dead after they sought to deceive the early church by not delivering the entirety of the proceeds from a sale of land that they had promised to give to God’s work. Verse 11, perhaps unsurprisingly, says that following this incident “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
If we focus exclusively on these examples and others of God punishing people, we can get a distorted view of our heavenly Father. We may paint a mental picture of a harsh, brutal God whom we must fear. But thankfully, there is more to the story.
Just as one way human parents express their love for their children is by holding up a high standard and punishing missteps, so God the Father—on an infinitely grander scale—loves those whom He corrects. He shows His ultimate love for us humans by showing zero tolerance for sin. He does this because sin not only hurts us and our human relationships, it creates separation between Him and us (Isaiah 59:2). Thankfully, the reality is that, above all else, He is a God of love and wants to have a beautiful relationship of reconciliation with His children.
This reconciliation is made possible because of the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus. The Bible makes it clear that the love Jesus showed in dying for us is the same love that God the Father has for us. Jesus said that anyone who has seen Him has seen God (John 14:8, 9). Through His death on the cross, Jesus showed us God’s profound love for the human beings He created.
God the Father made His immense love for us clear to the whole universe when He allowed His only Son, Jesus, to take on the penalty for our sins by sacrificing Himself through this harshest fate of all: an unjust, agonising death on the cross. The intense love God has for us as His children is obvious as we remember that He endured the absolute agony of witnessing Jesus take this punishment for our wrongdoings (Isaiah 53:5, 6, 12; 1 Peter 2:24; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
An illustration of God’s love
If you’ve ever struggled with ideas of a harsh God whose sole function is to punish wrongs, I suggest that you remember that behind His need for justice is a God of love. The well-known story of the prodigal son can teach us a lot about how God sees us when we fall short.
In this story the son takes his father’s love for granted, demands an early inheritance, and then squanders it on wild living. He doesn’t see the error of his ways until he reaps the consequences of his horrible decisions and hits rock bottom. He’s left friendless, penniless and homeless; forced to take an awful job—covered in grime, feeding pigs.
But when he decides to return to his father and beg for a job as a hired hand, the story takes a beautiful turn. Luke 15:20 says that “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Not only did the father show compassion and forgiveness; he treated his erring son with undeserved love, putting a ring on his finger, sending a servant to fetch the family’s best clothing, and throwing a feast in celebration of this son who has returned.
Just as the father of the prodigal son is delighted to embrace his son when he sees the error of his ways and returns home, so God the Father stands eagerly inviting us to accept His great gift of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins (John 3:16). It brings Him no pleasure to see us hit rock bottom and have to endure the pain and suffering that accompany sin. More than anything, He wants us to experience a loving relationship with Him.
On that day when the eight-year-old me seethed at being punished, it took my father suggesting we make peace for me to see the light. It wasn’t until after he took the first step to restore our relationship that I was able to get over my hurt pride and reconcile with him.
Just as my father reached out to me even as I pushed him away with my injured pride, the Bible says that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He did this willingly so that we would see the love of God for us and receive forgiveness as well as everlasting life as a part of His heavenly family.
God the Father stands ready with this open invitation. All we have to do is accept.
Bjorn Karlman is an Adventist freelance writer who travels the world as a “digital nomad”, living in 2-3 countries per year with his wife and toddler.