I bought a car about a month ago that ended up having some trouble. I have been going in and out of the car dealership getting it fixed, and while I wait, the super-friendly used car salesman, George, and I have been becoming friends. He invites me into his air-conditioned office and gives me a cold water bottle and shares his Triscuits with me. And then we somehow go into a gospel conversation. This last week when I was back again, I could tell he'd been doing some thinking. Our conversation led to him saying, "Why do you Mormons and Catholics believe that God punishes His people? To me, God is love. He accepts us for who we are and loves us without judging us."
Then, the other night I was watching an excellent movie called "God's Not Dead" (I highly recommend it). In it, the atheist professor admits that he actually hates God (implying he deep down believes He exists) because God had taken everything away from Him. He, along with other non-believers in the movie, indicate that if there was a God, He wouldn't do any harm to His people. He wouldn't let them suffer.
And THEN, I was watching a news cast about some controversy in the Church about how Kate Kelly and John Dehlin have been summoned to participate in a church disciplinary council. And the comments arise, "Who Would Jesus Excommunicate?" implying that He wouldn't excommunicate anyone.
All these people are saying, "A loving God will accept us for who we are, and won't discipline us, judge us, challenge us, or let us suffer."
I could now turn to the Bible and other scripture and spout off verses about how God is a God of chastisement, a God of discipline, and a God who indeed judges us (with so much mercy at the same time). More so than punishment, I view God’s acts of justice as discipline to bring us closer to Him--not punishment to drive us away from Him. But more than that, it's important to understand WHY God disciplines us and even lets us experience some suffering. The answer is exactly what George said. He IS a God of love. Love so deep we sometimes don't comprehend it.
Something I've come to truly love about God is that He has a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. Here's a little table that compares the two:
· Believes intelligence and talent can be developed
· Embrace challenges
· Persists in the face of challenges
· Learns from criticism
· Tries new things, even if they fail at first.
· Believes intelligence and talent are fixed traits
· Avoids challenges
· Gives up easily
· Ignores useful negative feedback
· Will only do things if they are naturally good at it.
If God were to accept us for who we are, coddle us, put us into a little glass case and just admire us for who we are and be happy with whatever we do, He would be keeping us from our greatest potential and essentially our greatest happiness. If He were to have no standards, no commandments, no judging criteria, no consequences for failing to keep his commandments--we would similarly be limited because we're not being stretched to something beyond our natural abilities and comfort zone. Yes, it’s hard to not be selfish sometimes. Yes, it's hard to be completely honest sometimes. Yes, it's hard to do things that God commands, especially if we don't understand why He commands them. But if He weren't to give us hard commandments, He would essentially be saying, "I don't love you enough to help you become your best self."
Fixed mindset people look for friends and a spouse who will put them on a pedestal and admire them for who they are. Growth mindset people seek to be with people who will give them a little prodding, encouragement to go outside their comfort zones, criticism, and sometimes hearing some painful honesty—because that is what leads to progression. A growth mindset God, like ours, knows that chastisement, discipline, and maybe even some pain are what will allow us to truly grow.
For instance, a good husband will love his wife for who she is. He will appreciate her and be content for her to always be the same so she will always love him back with the same surface-level love. A great husband, with deeper love, will encourage his wife to try new, challenging things and develop herself, and will be lovingly honest about her weaknesses so she can improve them. He will be more concerned with her long-term success, happiness, and well-being than he is concerned about her opinion of him. God similarly asks us to keep challenging commandments and follow Him in faith sometimes without us understanding, in order to let us grow, and not stay fixed in our same natural, finite state.
However, in trying to keep those commandments, we often fail. We come short. Every single time we repent, He forgives us. Is it ok to make mistakes? Is it ok to have doubts? Is it ok to have moments of weak faith? Of course. That is what the Church exists for. That is why Christ suffered for us. However, when we deliberately go against God’s commandments in open rebellion, when we give up trying to have faith, or when we try to change His doctrine or lead others to believe something God hasn’t taught Himself, God often disciplines us—in hopes that we will return unto Him, the source of lasting happiness and life. Believing that God should not discipline is likened unto an immature child who balks at his mom or dad when they demand that he obey the rule to wear sunscreen to go swimming or he will be put in time out. Maybe the child doesn’t understand why it’s so important to wear sunscreen. Maybe he doesn’t see any immediate consequences when he doesn’t wear it. Maybe none of his friends’ parents make THEM wear sunscreen. Maybe he feels like he knows lots better than his old-fashioned mom and dad. Maybe he thinks he has the right to do whatever he wants and still reap the same benefits as the obedient children. And so he openly refuses to wear it. And then when he gets put into time out as warned, he thinks his parents do not love him. On the contrary, their love for him is truer than the love that would allow him to do whatever he wants and face the miserable consequences, whether they be sun burns, skin cancer, or living with the belief that it’s not necessary to honor your parents.
I know with all my heart that God loves us. I know that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints we have His true gospel, order, commandments, priesthood, and church organization. I know that, as President Kimball said, “Since He is our Father, He naturally desires to raise us up, not to push us down, to help us live, not to bring about our potential spiritual death.” I know that His chastisement is not to punish us, but to bring us closer to Him. I believe that we are, for now, utterly incapable of understanding the depth of His love. However, that misunderstanding doesn’t have to cause us to reject His love, even when receiving His justice.
In his excellent book, Return unto Me, Kerry Muhlestein (the remarkable professor I had in Jerusalem) explains that what we view as God’s acts of “wrath” are truly acts of great love. For example, the flood in the time of Noah “can be seen as an act of wrath, a heavy-handed sword of justice falling upon a wicked world. Indeed, God Himself said, “My fierce anger is kindled against them,” (Moses 7:34). But when Enoch saw the story of the flood in vision, he also saw God weeping. Enoch asked God how He, an all-powerful being, could weep.” God replied in Moses 7:37, “Should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”
When members go against foundational doctrine or lead others astray, God feels it is just to discipline them. Maybe we don’t understand why. Maybe we disagree that we or someone else should be disciplined. Thankfully, we don’t have to understand everything to have faith in God and follow Him. And we can be sure that our suffering causes God himself to weep. I know with all my heart that God loves us, and all He does is done to show that love.
I believe that God is more merciful than He is just—although He must be just. As J. Reuben Clark says, “I believe that in His justice and mercy He will give us the maximum reward for our acts, give us all that he can give, and in the reverse, I believe that he will impose upon us that minimum penalty which it is possible for him to impose.” - J. Reuben Clark
“My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, neither be weary of his correction.” Proverbs 3:11
“Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth; therefore despise not the chastening of the Almighty.” Job 5:17