Friday, March 1, 2019

Do you fear punishment?

Have you ever been so afraid your heart is pounding right out of your chest, there is a little bit of sweat developing, and the escalation in your rapid breathing can be heard across the room? Yup, been there, done that! I have been hit from behind in my vehicle while stopped at a light, trapped by the cars around me, but seeing that vehicle approaching so rapidly in the rear view mirror and feeling totally helpless. I have felt myself falling rapidly to the ground, unable to right myself by any stretch of the imagination, and praying quickly that I survive without breaking anything! I have heard that 'unknown noise' in the dark of night, laying there awake, listening intently for the next noise to come and imagining all manner of intrusion! You've probably got a few tales of your own, but nothing makes us more fearful deep down inside our hearts than to fear some form of punishment for something we did wrong. As a kid, I know I'd tremble when mom would get close to discovering the broken dish or the missing sweets. I remember pinching a few dollars from the cabinet and then realizing someone had discovered it missing - the panic rose! You been there? Panicked, dreading being 'found out', and fear mounting with all the force of a hurricane within you? Nothing quite deals with fear - real or imagined - like the love of God, though. Nothing!

There is no fear in love. Perfect love puts fear out of our hearts. People have fear when they are afraid of being punished. The man who is afraid does not have perfect love. 1 John 4:18 NLV

Some of the worst fear we can face is that of being unforgiven - of being found guilty and receiving the punishment we deserve. I didn't tell you about the time I was foolish enough to shoplift some candy from the local grocer and then was locked up by the police in a holding cell until my parents could be found. That fear was twofold - I was in trouble with the police AND my parents were going to find out, as well! The thing that caused the most fear to mount was the 'unknown punishment' that awaited me. Yes, I deserved it. Yes, I was guilty. Yes, it was a very foolish thing to do. Yes, I knew my parents would be humiliated to find out about my actions. Yes, I brought this on myself. Nothing prepared me for the level of fear that would mount as that day went on, though. Or the fear that would mount for the next few days until the magistrate would see me before his bench in that hall of justice. The sheer panic mounting each day was almost unbearable. I should have known better - I had been taught better. I should have realized my error - I had already asked Jesus to be my Savior. Yes, even believers make very stupid mistakes!

Punishment is one of our worst fears. Punishment comes in many forms, though. Sometimes the greatest punishment is the lapse of time it takes from 'doing wrong' until we hear the 'verdict' for the wrong we have done! I didn't expect the magistrate to look me in the eye, sound me out to see if I had learned anything from the experience, and then to remand me to the care of my parents. I never expected mercy - but I received it. I never expected forgiveness - but it was given. I never expected trust to be regained - but it came in time. I don't understand all that happened that week, but I do understand something about the grace of God as a result. You see, I think that magistrate was giving me a glimpse into heaven that day. He was helping me to understand God places us in caring and loving relationships, watches over us, and then helps us stay right within those relationships, even when we mess up beyond what some might believe to ever be repaired again. Grace isn't something earned - it is something given when we are incapable of earning it!

I guess one of the biggest lessons I received in that moment came in the form of understanding just how paralyzing the fear of punishment can be - it brings us to a stand-still in life. I wonder if we were to take those moments of 'stand still' and use them to find a clear pathway into the halls of grace if we'd come away just a little fuller and with a sense of restoration that is just not possible to gain elsewhere? Fear paralyzes, if not forever, at least for the moment. It stimulates within us imaginations that may not be well-founded, all the while able to open us up to possibilities not yet realized. Fear can drive us inward, closing us off from what we need most. It can also drive us upward, toward that which meets needs we didn't even know we had. I know modern psychologists will tell us there is more motivation in reward than in punishment. Consider for a moment the power of 'punishment' in our minds and hearts - real or imagined - it carries great potential. It can drive us into hiding, or escalate us into grace's presence. I choose the latter? How about you? Just askin!

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