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Is God a harsh, punishing judge?

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Let’s go back to Scripture to make sure we have the right image of our Creator.

An all-too-frequent image of God is that of God as a judge. In order to avoid any misunderstandings, it is better to clarify immediately: it’s true, God is a judge (among other things), and we find this statement in Holy Scripture. So, what’s the problem? 

Generally speaking, the main problem is that we apply to God our way of understanding and thinking about justice. For us, justice means above all that “if you make a mistake, you pay.” Guilt is established in a courtroom by a judge who verifies in detail what faults were committed and who is responsible.

This idea is too limited and incomplete with respect to God’s justice, because it’s limited to asking the guilty party to pay for the damage caused. But, is God’s justice really like that? 

The Bible shows us that God’s justice goes beyond that. As Pope Francis has often reminded us, God’s justice is mercy: He doesn’t want you to pay because you’re guilty—He wants to make you just, and free you from guilt, so that you don’t have to pay your debts! It’s a complete reversal of perspective, which is still too uncommon in our churches. With mercy, God defeats the evil that besieges you, i.e. “does justice for you.” We always have the idea that we must repair the error in God’s sight; in reality, when we fall into the web of evil, God is moved and suffers for us, and it is He Himself who intervenes on our behalf “doing justice,” that is, freeing us from imprisonment and slavery. His justice isn’t the simple application of the law (“if you make mistakes, you pay”); it’s the mercy with which He transforms us, making us new creatures. 

Unfortunately, many Christians have instead an image of God that resembles that of a severe and ruthless judge who is only interested in identifying our faults and punishing us if we’re guilty. 

This image of God is inculcated, sometimes unwittingly, especially through misguided religious education received during childhood. Sometimes, unfortunately, in an attempt to educate, reproach or correct, there’s too much emphasis on God’s punishment or on the fact that “God sees everything” and “Jesus is offended” by what we do. Many children, even today, grow up with the idea that they must be perfectly good and can never make mistakes. If this concept of God becomes deep-seated and isn’t corrected by good evangelization, it can easily lead to an unhealthy scrupulosity and unrealistic perfectionism: God doesn’t tolerate me making any mistakes.

In various spiritual conversations, I’ve found that many people come to me seemingly exhausted and inwardly broken.

In various spiritual conversations, I’ve found that many people come to me seemingly exhausted and inwardly broken. Beyond some “external” reasons, the problem is that they constantly put themselves under pressure to give better and better results in other people’s eyes. They often had very demanding parents for whom they always had to demonstrate excellent performance in order to get any attention. They grew up with a fear of making mistakes and with feelings of guilt in the face of their own failings.

Given this starting point, God became for them a judge before whom they had to prove their innocence and their worth every day, in order not to face the threat of punishment. People who have this image of God easily become rigid, perfectionist, and hard on themselves, often sinking into guilt and scruples. 

By returning to the Word of God we can find a way to renew our spirituality and free it from a misunderstood fear of God, so as to rebuild confidence in ourselves, even in the midst of our experiences of failure.

The burning bush before which Moses stands, for example, is an arid place where, despite the barrenness, God’s presence burns. It represents that aspect or situation of our lives which has become dry and withered away, yet in that failure, God is at work with the fire of His presence. In my weakness, God shines forth. I can accept my faults and errors without identifying myself with them and without being terrified of God: my value doesn’t depend on my own successes or failures, but on the fact that God’s presence burns in the dry bush of my life. 

In the parable of the Merciful Father, Jesus shows us that God isn’t a despot to be feared or a judge before whom we must make reparation for the damage we’ve done; He is the Father of every lost child, and He loves unconditionally. While the youngest son reasons according to a human justice—that is, “I can only be readmitted to the Father’s house by apologizing and making reparation for the evil I’ve committed”—God, instead, scans the horizon from afar and, when He sees His son, runs to embrace him without waiting for an apology and without demanding that he pay for what he’s done. 

Faced with the love of God, manifested by Jesus and the Gospel, we realize that a God who is harsh and points his finger at us doesn’t exist. Or, if he does exist, he isn’t Christian. 

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