I don’t believe that God punishes us. That is, I don’t believe that God ever does anything to us that is not secretly a gift.
From this perspective, when looked at properly, nothing can be called punishment.
To get to this understanding, my book Why Me? takes three steps. First, I tell a story about four rose bushes whose responses to being pruned by the Gardener reinforce their view of the world. That story is found at the beginning of the book, and also on the back of my “Gardener and the Rose” art print/pamphlet:
The Gardener and the Rose
Once there were four rose bushes in a garden. They spent all summer trying to get each branch to grow as long as possible, and produce as many fragrant blossoms as they could. They were very pleased with their efforts, and were sure that the gardener had noticed their success. So they were all shocked at the end of the summer when the gardener came to each of them with pruning shears and chopped away at their long, beautiful branches.
“Oh my God’ner!” the first one cried. “How could you do such a thing after I worked so long and hard to please you all summer? This is unfair! This is evil! I hate you! I will never do anything you want me to do again!”
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry!” cringed the second rose bush. “I don’t know what I did wrong, but I know I must have done something terribly evil to deserve this painful punishment. I promise, I will never do it again!”
The third rose bush was much more philosophical about the experience. “Unfair? Ha! Who said life is fair? Things just happen. Yesterday the gardener watered me, today he chops me to pieces. There is no rhyme or reason behind any of this. You think the gardener knows what he is doing? Shoot—maybe he is drunk, or maybe he takes his orders from someone else. The thing to do is accept your fate and move on.”
The fourth rose bush felt the pain of the shears along with the others, but placed it in the context of an entire summer’s worth of care and nurturing. She knew that the gardener was not evil, nor was his goal punishment. His actions were neither random nor illogical. The question that she had all winter to consider was, “What does the gardener want me to do or learn in response to this painful experience?”
Months went by, and each rose bush developed a plan of action based on its perceptions of its experience.
In the spring, the first rose bush decided that if the gardener wanted flowers, then it would use its energy to grow roots instead. It explored the dark corners of the garden world, and fed on its compost and manure. But with only a handful of leaves above ground to absorb light and carbon dioxide, the bush soon began to wither and die. Anger and rebellion in the face of suffering did not ease the rose bush’s pain.
The second rose bush spent all winter trying to decide what it had done wrong the previous summer to deserve punishment. But the only thing it had done all summer was to grow and blossom. Okay, then, it would not do either of those things. But if a plant does not grow, and a flower does not blossom, then it might as well be dead. Seeing suffering as punishment—and trying to avoid it—did not make the second rose bush any happier or healthier, it only left her paralyzed with inaction.
The third rose bush fared much better. He just did what he had done the year before—sending out a handful of long, scraggly branches with a blossom on the end. Maybe they would get chopped off again, maybe not. It really didn’t matter much. Nothing mattered much. So when beetles and aphids began to munch on his leaves and petals, he didn’t put up much resistance. They just left that much less for the gardener to come chop off at the end of the summer.
The fourth rose bush looked at her experience from a different perspective. “Last summer I grew and blossomed. I know that there was nothing wrong with that. The gardener was pleased with me. I trust his judgement, and I trust his actions. So what is it that I am supposed to do differently this summer?” she thought to herself. “Well, what I was planning on doing was making each of my dozen branches grow another three feet. I wanted to expand on my strengths. But I can’t grow out of the end of a cut branch, so how will I grow?”
For the first time, the rose bush took a really good look at herself. She was amazed to discover that all along each of her truncated branches there were dozens of tiny nodes—each of which were capable of becoming a whole new branch.
Instead of growing a strong bush in twelve ways, she could literally branch out into hundreds of new directions! What a gift the gardener had given her—but only because she was willing to ask the question, “What can I learn from this experience?”
Thinking Like a Rose
Every good parable has a message, and this one is no exception. There are actually three valuable lessons to be learned. First, the rose had to learn to trust the gardener in the face of difficulty. Second, the rose was invited to discover something new about what it means to be a rose bush. Third, learning was only the first step. The rose still had to put forth the extra effort to become the very best rose bush possible.
As humans, we also face tests and difficulties every day. Like the roses, we also have three lessons to learn from them.
First, we are invited to trust the guiding hand of our Creator. No matter how painful or difficult the situation, we will be able to survive and thrive if we have faith in God’s love and care.
Second, growth is the result of self-discovery. Unless we know who and what we are, how can we grow? Until we explore our untapped potential, how can we tap it?
Third, growth takes work and commitment. It is easy to wish for an easy life, but it is hard to become the kind of person for whom difficult situations are easy. We have very little control over the things that happen around us, but we have a great deal of control over our willingness and capacity to respond to them.
These are the three lessons of the rose bush. When you really understand them, you can turn a difficult life into a bed of roses.
Once we understand that every test is an opportunity to grow, but that growth is choice, we can divide our tests into four broad categories: Tests from God vs. tests we create for ourselves, and tests we pass vs. tests we choose to fail.
The above chart includes the word “punishments” so how do we get from here to the claim that God never punishes us? Another excerpt from my book explains:
God never really punishes us.
When making this claim, it is necessary to explain the distinction between “educational punishment” and vengeful punishment. When a parent says “eat your broccoli, or you won’t get to watch TV tonight,” that is educational punishment. Eating broccoli is a good thing that a child perceives as bad, while not watching TV will cause no harm, but is perceived as even worse than eating broccoli. No harm is intended, and no real harm is done. This kind of punishment is a kindness.
Vengeful punishment is when there is a desire to repay disobedience with hurt. “Eat your broccoli or I will beat the livin’ tar out of you!” This is the kind of punishment that some people have intimate experience with, and the kind that can make us fear sources of authority—including God. But God does not engage in this kind of punishment. You will remember that even as Christ was nailed to the cross, He said “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the example of forgiveness that we can all rely on.
You can see that Bahá’ís are not big on “fire and brimstone,” but we do believe that God’s “educational punishment” can be expressed in some very unexpected ways. There is a famous saying that goes, “When God wants to punish us He answers our prayers.” There is an interesting logic behind that perspective.
If a parent allows a willful child to eat an entire gallon of ice cream, the bellyache of an over-stuffed stomach will be an appropriate punishment. Likewise, if God allows a selfish person to distract themselves with money and possessions, then the heartache of an empty soul will be its own punishment. Indeed, what greater punishment can we imagine than to be spiritually empty and forget who we really are?
Indeed shouldst Thou desire to confer blessing upon a servant Thou wouldst blot out from the realm of his heart every mention or disposition except Thine Own mention; and shouldst Thou ordain evil for a servant by reason of that which his hands have unjustly wrought before Thy face, Thou wouldst test him with the benefits of this world and of the next that he might become preoccupied therewith and forget Thy remembrance. The Báb
You might wonder if there were any times when God’s punishment might go beyond our mere perception—when God really did want us to suffer?
Could we do something so bad that God would not forgive us? Would God ever do something so horrible to us that there was no possible way to turn it into a growth experience?
…Thou art the Generous, and verily Thou art the All-Merciful, and verily Thou art the Ever-Forgiving, He to Whom repentance is due, He Who forgiveth even the most grievous of sins. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
When it comes down to the essence of life, the only thing of any value to us in the universe, and I mean the ONLY thing of value to us in the entire UNIVERSE, is our own capacity to reflect the virtues of God within our hearts. These virtues are the essence of our true reality and without them we are nothing. Once God has given us the capacity to manifest His qualities, the only source of harm, pain or punishment in the entire universe is our own free will capacity to ignore those virtues and remain empty. In other words, we are the only ones who can punish ourselves.
Unfortunately, we are very good at it.
O SON OF MAN! Sorrow not save that thou art far from Us. Rejoice not save that thou art drawing near and returning unto Us. Bahá’u’lláh
“And be ye not like those who forget God, and whom He hath therefore caused to forget their own selves.”
True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self. Bahá’u’lláh
O SON OF BEING! Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant. Bahá’u’lláh
A Bahá’í friend once asked me, “But what about the firing squad of 750 soldiers who shot The Báb, (the first of the two Bahá’í Prophets)? They were all killed by an earthquake or executed within three years. Wasn’t that a vengeful punishment?”
Certainly many Bahá’ís believe that this was a sign of God’s vengeance, but I don’t—not because I don’t believe that God was involved, but because I believe that God is beyond vengeance as a motive. So how can I maintain that killing 750 people is not, of necessity, a punishment?
This is a very powerful question—with a very subtle answer. What I am suggesting will only make sense to you if you look at it from a spiritual perspective. If we consider death a punishment, then God punishes saints and sinners alike. But Bahá’ís see death as a transition into the spiritual world—certainly not a punishment. I have known many spiritual people of all religions who are sincerely looking forward to death.
The 750 soldiers who died entered the realm of the spirit. Whether they consider that a blessing or a punishment is up to them. If they were attached to the physical world, then they may be unhappy. If they had not developed their virtues, then they might be helpless. If they realized that they had played a part in the martyrdom of a Prophet of God, then they may spend eternity overwhelmed by remorse and shame. But if they were good, loving people who sincerely believed that they were doing the Will of God, and asked forgiveness when they realized that they were wrong, then I believe that God forgave them and they are progressing spiritually.
So why do the writings of all of the world’s religions talk so much about God’s wrath and punishment?
You have to look at it from a developmental standpoint. The Bahá’í Faith teaches that throughout history, God has always spoken to us in the language that was appropriate for the time. Like a good parent who uses different forms of discipline for children of different ages, God also motivates us with the rewards and punishments that we will understand.
A spiritual person is not afraid of death, but a materially-oriented person is. When God allows 750 people to die after shooting a Prophet, it is not necessarily seen as a punishment for the people who step into the spiritual realm, but it is seen as a punishment by the materially-minded people who are left behind. This “punishment” is then a source of motivation and education for generations to come.
The idea that punishment is relative may be difficult to accept when we are looking at the extreme of death, so lets look at another analogy. Imagine a friend and me in gym class playing baseball. He loves sports, I hate them, but we are in the outfield talking instead of paying attention. Now if the coach threatens to pull us both out of the game, my friend would be upset, but I would be thrilled by that “punishment.” Likewise, if the coach threatens to give us both a “C,” then my friend wouldn’t mind, but I would be terrified and start paying attention. So which is a punishment? Which is a gift? It depends on your perspective.
The “punishments” that God threatens “evil” people with are often the same as the gifts that he blesses spiritual people with. If you don’t have the love of God, then nothing God can give you would ever make you happy, and if you are filled with the love of God, then that love is an inseparable part of you and nothing in the universe can take it away.