Punishing ourselves. (Don’t!)

by K.W. Leslie, 06 June 2017

Crack open a dictionary and the first definition you’ll find for penance is often “voluntary self-punishment as an expression of repentance.”

Actually that’s not what penance is supposed to mean. Our word penance comes from the Latin verb pænitere/“be sorry.” That’s all penance means: We regret what we did, we apologize, we ask forgiveness, and we resolve to do better in future. Period. When Christians confess our sins to one another, that’s all penance, penitence, repentance, or whatever word we wanna use for it, ought to consist of.

Problem is, the way Christians have historically demonstrated how sorry we are, is to prove it by making ourselves suffer. By undergoing punishment. Sometimes voluntarily. Sometimes not.

So let me make this absolutely clear: God’s kingdom is about God’s grace. Christians punishing themselves, or punishing one another, is contrary to grace. It’s not a fruit of the Spirit.

I won’t go so far as to call it a work of the flesh. That’s because there’s a time and place for penalties and consequences. But that time and place is only in the context of restitution, and the unrepentant.

When Christians hurt one another, we need to make it right as best we can. If we can’t, grace is gonna have to make up the difference. If the neighbor boy burns your house down, of course he can’t afford you a new house; forgive! But if he swiped your bike, of course he oughta return the bike—and even if he doesn’t, forgive! Mt 5.38-42 Any additional penalties need to be tacked on by parents or the state. Not the Christian; not the church. Christians are only to forgive.

Now sometimes Christians don’t regret their sins. They’d willingly do ’em again if the circumstances repeated themselves—and will even proudly say so. “Of course I hit him for insulting my wife; anyone who goes after me and mine should expect it.” When people are more interested in their rights, their lusts, their vengeance, their will, their flesh, than in following Jesus, these people need to be removed from your church before they harm you. ’Cause they will.

Applying penalties and consequences to Christians who wanna get right with God, means you’re teaching them this is how we get right with God. Not by trusting God to save us, but by striving to save ourselves. Not by grace; by good works. Not by receiving, but by effort. Not by love; by merit.

Nope, it has nothing to do with God. He does not want us to hurt ourselves. If you think God told you to do it, that wasn’t God. Period. Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop it.

There’s enough pain and suffering in the world as it is. God wants to fix it, not create more of it. He doesn’t do abuse. He doesn’t approve of self-abuse. Even though plenty of Christians claim, “God wants us to suffer so we truly understand and share Christ’s suffering,” Pp 3.10 or “God gave me this thorn in the flesh, same as he did Paul,” 2Co 12.7 or “I need to beat my body so I can develop self-discipline.” 1Co 9.27 WEB Obviously they’re pulling those verses out of context. They’re wrong.

Yes, in our messed-up world, Christians suffer. Everybody suffers. Life is suffering. Jn 16.33 But to manufacture our own suffering? To produce more suffering? It’s contrary to the kingdom. It’s devilish.

’Cause we struggle with grace.

The reason Christians are so quick to punish ourselves, whether physically or mentally—

Yes, mentally. It’s one of the more common practices among immature Christians. We feel unworthy when we come to God for forgiveness, and sometimes we psyche ourselves into a prayer mood… and sometimes that prayer mood is harshness towards ourselves. “I’m a sinner; I suck; I hate that I sin so much; I’m not worthy.” We get really down on ourselves. Sometimes because we really are angry at ourselves. And sometimes it’s utter hypocrisy, but we figure it’s what God wants to see in a repentant soul. (Which says all kinds of things about how we unhealthily imagine God.)

Sometimes Christian leaders actually try to make us feel this way. I call it fake guilt, ’cause there’s no reason for us to feel guilty. The only reason they try to engender it in us, is to manipulate us. It’s cultish. But it gives Christians the idea we need to make ourselves feel bad when we repent. Writhe in misery a little.

That’s where the physical stuff originally came in. If you can’t psyche yourself into feeling bad—if you’ve been doing that to yourself for years, and now you’re emotionally drained and can’t really feel it anymore—well, there’s a shortcut. Start whipping yourself with your belt. Start cutting yourself. Wear uncomfortable clothes, like scratchy undergarments or tight shoes. Work till you get blisters, then ignore the blisters, or poke at ’em when you wanna feel pain.

Historically we Christians invented all sorts of ways to hurt ourselves. We’ve gone without food, sleep, comfort, shelter, companionship, bathing, speaking, or given up money and possessions. God has sometimes ordered Christians to give up such things when they tempted us; but in these cases, God ordered no such thing. It was entirely self-punishment.

When we do this, it denies grace. Essentially it’s telling God, “No, you needn’t forgive me; I got this.” It denies him the chance to forgive—not that he hasn’t already forgiven us, which only goes all the more to show how useless and stupid this behavior is.

Even when we do acknowledge God’s forgiveness, when we throw an extra punishment on top of his grace, like a good deed or special prayer, we’ve not fully permitted God to forgive us. Had we fully accepted God’s grace, the only purpose of such things would be (and rightly should be!) thanksgiving. They’d be good deeds of gratitude; they’d be prayers of rejoicing. But that’s not what we see among self-abusing Christians: The prayers aren’t joyful, but mournful. The acts of contrition aren’t done out of love, but done to earn love.

No surprise, our self-punishments never fit the crime. Either we’re too severe or too lenient, outrageously harsh or a slap on the wrist. Even if this were something God’s into, we’d do it wrong.

But I gotta remind you: Works and good deeds never make us right with God. Never did, never will. Only God makes us right with God. Good deeds are for after the fact. Christians obey commands and do good works because we’re already right with God; not to achieve rightness. Not to make up for our own evil.

Repentance without punishment.

How God wants us to repent is simple: Stop sinning! 1Jn 2.1-3 What you did wrong, do no more. “Go, and sin no more,” as Jesus probably put it. Jn 8.11 KJV And when he said this, or anything like it, Jn 5.14 it wasn’t even to repentant, sorrowful people. He forgave ’em already; now he wanted them to quit sinning so there’d be nothing additional to forgive.

What about when Catholic priests instruct Christians to pray a certain number of rote prayers after they confessed sins? When we sin, we obviously aren’t walking in the light which God is, 1Jn 1.5-7 and gotta get back in the light. Rote prayers are a Christian meditation technique, where we pray the prayers and think about everything Jesus does for us. They’re not punishment; they’re self-discipline. They only feel like punishment if you don’t wanna get back in the light—or are mindlessly praying them just to knock ’em out of the way.

There should be plenty of rejoicing in repentance. God hasn’t rejected us! Doesn’t wanna reject us. Gives us second chances, third chances, fourth chances, thousandth chances. God forgives.

Romans 8.31-39 KWL
31 So what’ll we say about this? If God’s for us, what’s left against us?
32 God didn’t even hold back his own son: For every one of us, he gave him up.
What more won’t he grace us with?
33 What’ll accuse God’s chosen people, since God made us right? 34 What’ll condemn us
when Christ Jesus died, was raised (even better!), and is at God’s right hand, defending us?
35 What’ll cut us off from Messiah’s love? Suffering?
Limitations? Persecution? Starvation? Nakedness? Danger? A knife?
36 Like it’s written: “All day long, we’re put to death because of you;
we’re thought of as butchered sheep.” Ps 44.22
37 But despite all these things, through the One who loves us, we’ve entirely won.
38 I’ve been convinced neither death, life, angels, leaders,
the past, the future, powers, 39 height, depth,
nor any other creation can divide us from God’s love,
which is in Christ Jesus our Master.

God is so much in favor of us that our suffering—especially when we manufacture it for no good reason—is an utter waste of time. Our sin doesn’t cut us off from God’s love; Jesus took care of it. Our self-abuse doesn’t earn us God’s love back; he doesn’t want it. We don’t earn our way back; we were never out of it.

Don’t punish yourself. Stop punishing yourself. Embrace God’s forgiveness. Go and sin no more.