A Punishing God - or a Relational God?

By Searainya Bond-Frojen


The article Mike cited in his thoughtful and humorous blog post is well worth reading. Please consider clicking on the link in his post entitled, “A Viral Message?” for added context and clarity. Upon ingesting the article, I immediately began furiously writing notes about this very subject: God using a catastrophe, like a pandemic, to speak to humans.


In the evangelical circles in which I grew up, it was commonplace to point to various environmental, social, or political issues as billboards for God’s message to shape up. As a teen, I heard people say, “The AIDS epidemic is God’s way of punishing America for the sin of homosexuality.” In my 20s, I heard, “Hurricane Andrew is being used to wipe out sinful cities, filled with corruption and gluttony.” At age 30, believers said God was using the very event Mike referenced, September 11th, as a way of decrying, “He needs our patriotism in order to protect us from Islamic terrorists.”


Now that I am nearing 50 years old, I call B.S. First of all, the idea that God needs our behavior to look any particular way is ridiculous. The precept that God’s blessing is tied up in our righteousness is rooted in Christian narcissism and privilege. (Let’s save that loaded statement for a future conversation.) Secondly, does a pandemic killing my son or my mom or my best friend mean I have sinned and need to change my ways? I think not. I am really not that important. Thirdly, the entire concept is shame-based and it rests on us engaging in “good” behavior in order for good things to happen to us. It discounts the thousands of dear souls with lovely hearts who are drowning in grief right this very moment. To say God was using this pandemic to get them to change is vicious at best  and wicked at worst.


After having the above-stated visceral response to the idea that God is using bad things to curb “bad” behavior, I decided to sit with the concept and search for some deeper meaning. Then I had a thought: what if it’s a message to humanity about intentionality in how we interact with the world? If God, as Bruce Epperly, seminary professor and theologian said, is relational in nature, then perhaps a relational approach could be more useful. In an article from 2008 called “Surprising God,” Epperly said, “We are not puppets of an inexorable divine purpose, but God’s partners in the co-creation of God’s holy adventure.”


So, if we lay aside God as punisher and puppeteer and embrace the Divine as an invitation to join in the dance, how does this impact our view of God during a pandemic? For me, it means seeing God in the elderly couple my wife delivers groceries to every week. It means seeing God in the CNAs at my work, who don their protective gear and do the delicate task of bathing the dying. It means being intentional about how I spend my money (local businesses at risk of closing), and say my words (to my scared friends and colleagues on the front lines), and what I do with my time (write notes of encouragement to isolated souls).


To answer Mike’s question about what I am listening for, it is this: How are God and I going to co-create some good stuff today? Which leads me to ask, how are you interacting with the Divine to experience something beautiful in your life these days? I would really love to hear about your holy adventures. Don’t worry about your narrative sounding wise or sacred. Mine includes coffee with my wife every morning and giving my pigs a marshmallow and a belly scratch every evening. I am creating simple but meaningful rituals. How about you?