Why doesn't God punish sin immediately?
It's somewhat unfortunate that God doesn't treat us more like children, because we really are children most of the time. He gives us an awful lot of freedom, that we can use or abuse as we see fit - and frequently it's just enough rope to hang ourselves with.
I mean this mainly in the area of discipline. When we were children, our parents usually disciplined us as soon as they found out what we had done. Steal a cookie from the cookie jar, get caught crumb-fingered, get daddy's belt across the backside. Cause, effect. Simple as that.
When we break God's laws, on the other hand, there may be immediate earthly consequences, or there may not. If I say a bad word in the comfort of my bedroom, probably no one hears it, and probably nothing happens to me. Even the eternal consequences of this act, if I die without being forgiven for it, are very far removed from the act itself. On the other hand, if God's discipline was immediate, such as if I felt a sharp pain in my leg every time I said a bad word, it's pretty safe to assume I wouldn't do it anymore. As it stands, though, I take the freedom that God gives me and I abuse it, often with a smile on my face.
Because there are often no immediate consequences for doing things wrong, we're led into an odd situation where people either assume that there are no consequences (God does not exist, or God does not punish sin) or that God has no problem with the way they are living. We may examine the example of 1930s eugenicists, who believed that "inferior" people - the mentally retarded, usually - should be surgically sterilized to keep from spreading their taint to the next generation. If God had really laid down the law, perhaps roasting a few of them or gifting them crippling diarrhea till they regretted the way they had treated their fellow humans, I bet the eugenics movement would have stopped then and there. But it didn't; people continued to wallow in the belief that what they were doing was just fine, and even today, although most mainstream scientists would distance themselves from it, the eugenics movement continues alive and well.
If God's ultimate goal was to have total moral control over the universe, a sort of gestapo of right and wrong, he could certainly adopt the "zap the sinner" approach to things. Since he doesn't, we must conclude that his goal is something different.
And in order to determine his goal, and answer the question of why he gives us freedom, we must examine his methodology. If he doesn't zap us, then how does he treat us? Psalm 145 tells us that God is gracious, compassionate, and loving toward everyone that he has made. Psalm 146 tells us that he cares for the widow and the fatherless. John 3 explains that he sent Jesus to earth with the goal of saving the world. This is an interesting methodology, to approach us with love instead of zapping us, but we still can't be sure exactly what he is hoping to accomplish.
1 Chronicles 28 sheds some light on the situation, however, when one of God's prophets explains, "Seek him and he will be found by you, but if you reject him, he will forsake you forever." What he wants, then, is for a relationship with us, for us to seek him. He wants our hearts, not merely our behaviors. Indeed, even justice is not enough for him; he says in Ezekiel 18 that he takes no pleasure from the destruction of the wicked, something that he should definitely enjoy if righteous behaviors were all he was after.
He could zap us into submission, and we would do a much better job of following his rules, but we would not be seeking him. We would have a relationship with him rather like what a kidnapper has with his victim. It would be based on terror and fear of punishment. It would also be a purely selfish relationship; we would not love God at all, but merely obey him to avoid personal harm. Yet that is not who God is, and those things cannot characterize our relationship with him, or else we do not have a relationship with the true person of God. What God really wants from us, what will result in him revealing himself to us, is if we seek him. He wants to be sought. He wants to be valued and loved.
And he has observed that this cannot be accomplished with force, by zapping people into submission. It can only be done by pursuing their hearts with steadfast love, so that's exactly what he does. That's the only way to get my heart plus my behavior. The problem is that my sin nature keeps me from doing what I want to do, as Paul observed so poignantly in Romans 7.
All I can do is look forward to the day when I can be who I want to be without even the temptation to sin. I know that who I am in my heart is a God-lover, but that there is a relic of my old self in me, which will not obey who I want to be. Maybe that's why God doesn't punish me more. He knows what's truly in my heart, and he knows that he's already forgiven all my sins; indeed, Christ took them on himself, bearing my sin and my guilt on the cross so that I could be holy and redeemed. As far as God is concerned, he's in charge of my heart, and I am holy. I feel as if I should still be guilty of my wrongs and that I should still bear some kind of earthly punishment, but that's just my emotions lying to me.
As for why he doesn't immediately punish those who haven't already had their sins forgiven, the answer has to come back to the fact that he would rather love them than destroy them, rather pursue them than give them what they deserve. What an incredible testament to just what it means for him to be infinitely loving.
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Very good article. You have captured what grace and God's mercy is about. Thankfully, He does not give us what we deserve. Who could stand before Him. God Bless, Lynn E. Sheldon