Liberating a Punitive God

Almost 3 years ago, I worked with a beautiful eight-year old boy who was physically and sexually abused by his father over the course of at least four years. His loving mother was emotionally and physically abused by the same man. Like many survivors of domestic violence, she stayed because she felt he would “change.” She grew up without her father, and did not want her son to experience her narrative.

One night she and I delved into the sacred space of how she was making meaning of all the trauma she and her son specifically had endured throughout the years. She reasoned that God was “punishing” her because she had “shacked up” with her son’s father, had pre-marital sex, and became pregnant out of wedlock. The experience of guilt and shame is very normative for parents who have children who experience abuse. They feel like they should have been there or somehow should have had more insight, in an effort to take more preventative measures. However, much of this mother’s guilt and shame derived from how she perceived God based on her biblical interpretation and what she gleaned through her church community.  

Some sacred text often construct a punitive God. In biblical scripture specifically, we observe God to be the Divine disciplinarian and the first bully. In the levitical codes of the Old Testament I am often captured by the sin and guilt ritual offerings, which the Israelites perceived to foster God’s forgiveness for sins. These rituals were performed so God could continue to maintain presence amongst the people in the Tabernacle.  This particular community understood God to be a deity that is tit for tat, outside of themselves, and easily separated from them based on their behavior.  It is disheartening that so many still hold this perception of the Divine. Often allowing their sacred text to mitigate their relationship with God. God invites us daily to forge our own sacred text, learning and growing from every mountain top and valley experience we encounter.

This is why the way Jesus, Master Teacher, points to and teaches about, is so important. Jesus came to reframe for the Israelites how to be in relationship with God, themselves, and each other. Jesus attempted to raise a consciousness that a relational experience with the Great Mystery supersedes the law. In contemporary times, many Christians back their rebuttals up with, “the Bible says…” The Bible in the hands of many often supersedes God and there is no room for persons to be asked “what does your relationship with God say?”  Many Christians perceive themselves to be in relationship with God, when really they are in relationship with a Biblical text that speaks about God and the way a particular community perceived God.

Within the conversation with the mother, I inquired about how she felt about God being love. She agreed that God is love. I asked her, what would love say to you? I invited her to think more about this God of love she believed in. If love sees the trauma she and her son have endured, would love seek to exacerbate their wounds? Would love seek to pour more punishment on top of all the ways she’s already punished herself through her guilt and shame?

There is so much I want to say about the psychology involved in this construct of a punitive God. I seek not to belabor the point and have you reading pages and pages of commentary so I’ll end here. It is time for many of us to liberate this punitive God. What is love saying to you today? I have a sense that Love invites us daily to forgive ourselves and each other, balanced with holding ourselves and each other accountable. Love aids us in healing through our traumas. Love invites us not to see our bodies as sin. Love invites us to be in healthy sexual and non-sexual relationships (and this is a blog in and of itself ).

Does your sacred text overshadow your relational experience with God? Is it helpful? If this has resonated with you, it may be time to liberate your punitive God. #Liberation

Rev. Kyndra D. Frazier, LMSW, M. Div. Associate Pastor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, FCBC Executive Director, The HOPE Center