“So I gave them up to the stubbornness of their hearts, that they might follow their own purposes” (Psalm 81:12).
Some see God’s act of punishment as active-aggressive. He sends floods, earthquakes and other calamities. In fact, some preachers and politicians, whether serious or not, have used that idea in connection with the recent earthquake and hurricane on the east coast. The Bible gives some reason for seeing God’s punishment as active: Noah’s flood, fire falling on Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt.
But the Bible also questions this idea. Job’s friends assumed God was actively punishing Job for his sins. But they were wrong. The disciples of Jesus thought God must be punishing the man born blind for somebody’s sins (John 9:2). But they were wrong.
Then some parts of the Bible say that God just gives up on us, that God’s punishment is, so to speak, passive-aggressive. Psalm 81:12 says that God just gave up on Israel. He let them give free rein to their stubborn desires. He let them experience the consequences of following their own purposes. Of course, you have to read the whole Bible to know that God didn’t completely let them go.
Luke, in recounting a speech by Paul, in Acts 7:42 says that after the incident with the golden calf, God gave Israel over to pagan worship. He cites some verses from the prophet Amos, but surely he was alluding to the 81st Psalm as well. (see also Romans 1:24 and 26)
Personally, I would rather God actively punish me than to give up on me.
In the last few months I have faced events that you could interpret as the punishment of God. The first was the Joplin tornado. I had lived and worked in Joplin for a year. I cared about the people there. Had those people done something to deserve God’s wrath? Well, of course, we all have. We all owe God a death, as we read in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. But you can’t single out a community. How do we account for the fact that God didn’t send the tornado to Vegas or Amsterdam, for instance. (Sorry, I know the sinful nature of those cities is a stereotype, but I needed concrete examples of cities that would be more likely objects of God’s wrath than Joplin, Missouri.) So I just reject the whole idea that a particular disaster is a singling out of a community for punishment.
What the people who I know in Joplin experienced after the tornado was the presence of God, not his absence.
The other event was that my wife was diagnosed with cancer. We are doing a course of chemo therapy now. Somehow the question always occurs to the human mind: What did I do to deserve this? But, as Clint Eastwood’s character in The Unforgiven says, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” We got loads of support from family, friends, church and medical professionals. We interpret this support as the presence of God.
I guess my point is that if God’s way of punishing is to give up on us then, even when disasters happen to us if we experience God’s presence, we are blessed rather than forsaken and punished.