“What punishments of God are not gifts?”

Bart Ehrman and Stephen Colbert

As a longtime Letterman fan, I was pleased with CBS’s selection of Stephen Colbert to succeed him. First, Colbert has been one of the sharpest wits on TV—original and fearless. He’s also proven to be a first-rate interviewer. Colbert will ensure that in the area of interviews, at least, there will be continuity between his show and Letterman’s old show—at a time when other late-night comedy shows, such as Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, seemingly deemphasize them.

Second, I’ve appreciated that Colbert, a Catholic, has never hidden or downplayed his Christian faith. What other TV personality, on Ash Wednesday, appears on air with ashes on his forehead? I also appreciate that he makes skeptics like Bart Ehrman squirm.

Sgt. Calhoun is "programmed with the most tragic backstory ever."
Sgt. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

In yesterday morning’s sermon, I used clips from the Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph to illustrate biblical truths. In one clip, for example, we learn that video game character Sgt. Calhoun was “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

I then described Colbert’s recent interview in GQ magazine, in which he talked about his own “tragic backstory”: losing his father and his two closest brothers in a plane crash when he was only 10.

In the interview, Colbert described the time that J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from a priest complaining that his novels and short stories weren’t theologically correct because they treated death as a gift, rather than a punishment for sin after the Fall:

“Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”

While we may prefer to speak of the “disciplines of God,” rather than the “punishments,” the fact remains—and scripture loudly affirms—that God uses our tragic backstories for good, to mold us and shape us into the people that he wants us to be.

If this weren’t the case, how do we make sense of Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Recently, however, I analyzed a sermon by a fellow United Methodist pastor who obviously would disagree.

What do you think? Do you agree with Stephen Colbert? Does God turn our “tragic backstories” into gifts?

9 thoughts on ““What punishments of God are not gifts?””

  1. God certainly has a reason for anything of significance that he allows in our lives, and he has our “best interests” at heart. However, I just can’t escape wondering about the role of sin in all these transactions. Are some things that happen just “punishment,” plain and simple? “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” To David, “But, because you have done this….” And what about, to add in the New Testament, the letters to the seven churches?

    Of course, to the extent that we “get it” and change our course when we are “disciplined,” we can probably say “yes” to the question. “For whom God loves, he disciplines. … But to those who are trained by it, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness.” But what if we aren’t “trained”? What we insist on continuing to “bang our heads against the walls?” And what about Ananias and Sapphira? Or poor Uzza? Or those who “slept” because of their misuse of the Lord’s Supper?

    I’m tossing out more questions than answers here. However, I guess my point is that the extent to which we “benefit” from the bad things that happen may be impacted somewhat by the REASON for which those things happen–just “disasters” of nature or relationships or the like on the one hand, or plain old “spankings” on the other (which can either benefit or not); or, indeed, sometimes maybe just God saying, “I’ve had enough.”

    1. I was thinking of it from a Christian perspective. So we “get it”; we repent, if necessary, and grow from it. By all means, I believe we have a “choice” about how we receive this discipline.

  2. I thought of one more example. What about Moses not being able to enter the promised land because he hit the rock? Punishment? A “gift”?

    1. Maybe it’s a false choice, though. It’s both punishment and gift. It was more important for Moses to repent from his sin of disobedience than for him to enter the promised land.

  3. I may be missing something here, but “tragic backstor(ies)” and “punishments” are two different things. Of what, pray, tell, sin would Colbert repent in order to reap the blessing of losing his father and two brothers in an instant?

    Jim Lung

    1. I don’t mean to imply that there’s a particular sin for which someone needs to repent when something tragic happens. I was responding to Tom’s example of Moses. But I do believe that God has used Colbert’s experience for good—that he had a good purpose for allowing it.

  4. I believe Colbert used the Tolstoy quote to express a wider truth. In the face of the awful reality of life in the devastation, the only choice available to us is worship of the one true God.

    Jim Lung

    1. Tolkien, not Tolstoy, but, yes, he was expressing a wider truth. But the choice we face is to believe that this “awful reality” remains nothing more than awful, a meaningless tragic event that we endure; or to believe that God has transformed it, through his providential care, into something for which we can be grateful. Like Joseph, at the end of Genesis, we can say, “You [which in this case might be Satan] intended this for evil, but God intended it for good.”

      So we’re not denying that evil things happen, only that God has the power and will to transform them for us into something we need. Does that make sense?

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