Reflection: Punishment or Protection?

Have you ever experienced a negative event wondering if it was punishment for your past transgression?

Like when things are going well, and suddenly you’re beset with a decapacitating illness?

Like when you enjoy your work and colleagues and feel like you’re really contributing, and suddenly you’re posted out to a different workplace or job scope?

Like when you feel that you’re in the right ministry, right relationships, right place–it feels like you’re right smack in the centre of God’s will–and suddenly, you hear a call to move out?

I have (though not all of those.)

Because of Judah’s transgressions, God sent Babylon to invade them. A group of Judah aristocracy and skilled craftsmen along with the King of Judah were then taken as captives into Babylon, sent by God into exile. One of them was the young man who would become the great minister and prophet Daniel.

Imagine then you were one of them. The thoughts and emotions which must be surging through your soul. Defeat. Resignation. Guilt. Shame. Doubt about God’s goodness. Doubt about your own actions. What should you have done differently? How could it have been prevented? What would the future hold? How would you live now? What difficulties and suffering would lie ahead?

Then you look at the other people around you. Why are they in their positions of comfort and peace? Why do they deserve it and not you?

So it might have been with the exiles. Then God revealed to Jeremiah (in chapter 24) that actually things aren’t the way they seem to be. God showed Jeremiah two baskets: one of very good figs and one of very bad figs.

Those who had been exiled into Babylon, they were in fact regarded as the very good figs. Those who remained in Judah in seeming peace, they were regarded as very bad figs.

The good fig guys will be protected in exile. God will plant them, build them up, prosper them, and grant them one of the highest blessings possible: “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” – Jeremiah 24:7.

The bad fig guys who remain in the appearance of security back in Jerusalem, God declared: “I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them.” – Jeremiah 24:9.

Things do not always appear as they are. And one of God’s modus operandi seems to be that only after we have been sent into the seemingly negative thing, are we later shown that what we thought was divine punishment is in fact loving protection. Beating turns out to be blessing.

Is this just a coping mechanism? Are we just trying to make meaning of our suffering? Perhaps. But if it is God’s intent and meaning unto us, it does not then discount the validity of such meaning. How then do we know it’s God’s meaning and not self-constructed? Perhaps we may never know for certain. Perhaps we might know. Whether God reveals, it is certain that such revelation can only be possible in contemplative connectedness with God.

Punishment or protection. Beating or blessing. Seek the intent of God to discern between them. Then you will find peace.

(📷: A church in Munich; can’t recall which church this is. St Paul’s? Glockenspiel? Frauenkirche?)

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The Delight of Power – Jeremiah 9:23-24

“Thus says the Lord, let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practises steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, says the Lord.” Jeremiah 9:23-24

Power. Knowledge is power. Strength is power. Wealth is power.

Power is exalted in the world. Few would deny it. Many seek it. We praise those with power. We envy those with power. We delight in power.

We say, that CEO is a Christian, praise God! We say, that Minister professes Christian values, praise God! We say, that pop star said “God”, praise God! We are saying, they have power and we want to be like them.

But this power is nothing. The almighty God judges not by how much power one has. In the verse preceding this, God declares: “Thus declares the LORD, ‘The dead bodies of men shall fall like dung upon the open field, like sheaves after the reaper, and none shall gather them.'” God judged those with much power and sentenced them to a severe penalty. The cinematic scene is vivid. The putrid stench must reach our noses. The closing shot lingers long.

There is only one measure in God’s judgment. That is to understand and know God. To understand and to know His character is not merely head knowledge. It means to internalise His character. It means to become the same as Him. It means to externalise the internalised.

That means to know His steadfast love, His loving kindness, His covenantal faithfulness, His mercy. This is to refrain from exercising power despite entitlement. It is to eschew power to preserve loyalty. It is to exercise power to give others beyond what they deserve.

That means to know His justice. That is to curb power to protect the weak. That is to wield power to enfold those at the margins. That is to exercise power fairly and truthfully.

That means to know His righteousness. That is to live in right relations with every human being and with every creature of the earth and with God. That is to live the good life, not the perverse or corrupt life.

These things–steadfast love, justice and righteousness–are the things God delights in.

What do we delight in? Ice cream after a long day of work? A long awaited sci-fi cult film? The melodies of a favourite artiste? Or the smile of your baby after her intense crying? Or affirmation from one’s employer for a job well done? Do the three things God delights in delight us when we see it in others? Do we delight when we see our brothers and sisters and our children and our friends practise them?

So let us boast only in this. Let us delight in this. That we know God, know His steadfast love, justice and righteousness on earth.