Read Hebrews 12:5-13
I once watched a man as he trained his dogs. He would reward them when they did well and punish them when they did not. This seemed to work well with his dogs. I suppose it works well with most animals. It probably works to a certain extent even with children. But can it lead boys and girls to maturity and autonomy, to true loving relationships with their parents? Such children might be well-behaved, just like well-trained dogs. But will they discover insight and learn wisdom?
Too many people believe that God is some sort of animal trainer, rewarding good actions and punishing evil ones. Too many people believe that the bad things that happen to them are sent by God either as a punishment or as a warning. Certainly, this is the way many of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures seemed to think. But after the Holocaust of the Second World War in which six million of God’s chosen people were put to death simply because of one man’s hatred, can we still see God this way? What could God have been punishing them for? What warning could God have been giving that needed six million deaths? Many people became atheists when they learned of this horror. They were probably right to stop believing in such a God.
Such a sadistic God is not the God of Jesus Christ. Jesus never spoke of God as a trainer, but as a father. A true parent wants more than well-behaved children. A true parent wants children who have insight and wisdom. A true parent goes beyond punishment and reward, striving instead to teach and to encourage.
One can read today’s lesson from the perspective of God as a trainer who “corrects” his wayward children by playing on their fears. From such a perspective, one can see poverty as God’s chastisement, or hurricanes as God’s warning, or AIDS as God’s condemnation.
Or one can read today’s lesson from the perspective of God as a parent who “corrects” his wayward children by taking them aside and speaking to their hearts, enlightening them with his Word, giving them a Spirit of strength so that they can find peace and justice.
Only this second perspective can explain how this passage can end with such words of encouragement: “Give strength to faltering hands; Straighten the path so that the lame will not stumble.” These words speak of a loving, encouraging God. This is a God whose “lessons” we will seek, for we know that, in them, we will find insight and wisdom.
These words also invite us to deal with one another in the same way: not with rewards and punishment, but with support, faithfulness and patience. Perhaps this is the way we also need to deal with our children.