Punishment is connected to our instinctive reactions to pain. (In fact, the word “pain” comes from the same root word as “punishment.”) When we experience pain or the threat of pain, whether physical, emotional, or relational, we are wired to fight, flee, or freeze. The ways we punish people usually take some form of those reactions. We either fight back, pull away and create distance, or shut down and shut people out.
Whenever we punish, the goal is the same. We want to get away from pain, stop pain, and prevent pain—and we try to accomplish this by inflicting pain as it was inflicted on us. When we spank a disobedient child, we use pain to discourage them from behaving in ways that cause pain (just as our parents did to us). When we punish a criminal and send them to jail, we feel satisfaction that we have removed a pain-causing individual from our environment. When we give our spouse the silent treatment because they did something hurtful to us, we are wielding the pain of disconnection to send the message that they must never hurt us that way again.
Punishment is our attempt to fight pain with pain. That’s all punishment can really produce: pain and the fear of pain. Unfortunately, this means punishment is like trying to fight fire with gasoline. It is purely destructive. It may provide a temporary sense of power or control over someone who hurt us, but after we have required payment from them in the form of “You hurt me, so let me hurt you,” we find that this has only resulted in more people being in pain than before.
The real problem with punishment lies in what it can’t do. It can’t produce healing. It can’t produce forgiveness or love. It can’t produce connection. And it can’t produce genuine learning and transformation that ultimately leads us to behave consistently in ways that not only don’t cause pain, but bring hope, joy, and peace. Punishment does nothing that contributes to thriving, healthy lives and relationships.
If we want to find healing, connection, love, and transformation on the other side of emotional and relational pain, we need to learn another way to respond to it besides punishment.
God Made a Way Out
Contrary to what many people think, punishment is not God’s primary way of dealing with our sins. Sin can broadly be defined as anything that violates our relationships with Him, ourselves, and one another. Violating these relationships produces pain for everyone involved, but God’s goal is not to increase that pain, but to heal it. Instead of an angry Punisher, God comes to us as a loving Father who wants to train us to live in a way that protects and nourishes our relationships rather than hurts them. This training process is what the Bible calls godly discipline.
God went to great lengths to prove not only that these were His relational goals with us, but also that His way of dealing with our sin—taking it and all its pain (punishment) on His Son and doing away with them through death on the cross so that He could offer us forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration—would actually accomplish them. This greatest display of His love opened a way for us to come out of the prison of pain.
Taking this way begins with stepping off the throne of our own lives and surrendering our addiction to being our own protectors. This is where the real work of godly discipline, sanctification, and maturing as sons and daughters, begins and ends—in making the choice, over and over, to trust the Father to be our Judge, Protector, Forgiver, Healer, and Restorer.
This trust in the Father (what the New Testament calls the spirit of adoption) sets us free from slavery to our old fear-driven reactions to emotional and relational pain and leads us to a new set of love-driven responses.
When we cause pain, we repent—that is, we confess our sin, grieve for it with godly sorrow, and ask God to heal our hearts and renew our minds so that we stop causing pain in the same way.
When someone causes us pain, we confront them in gentleness and invite them to repent. Whatever they choose, we stay in a posture of forgiveness that says, “I refuse to be your punisher. When you are ready to repent and reconcile, the way is open.”
Learning to practice these responses in our relationships may be the work of a lifetime. Wonderfully, our Father is infinitely patient in helping us to unlearn our long habits of self-protection and punishment and build new habits of the heart based in trusting Him and His way of dealing with our pain rather than taking things into our own hands. The more we do so, the more we discover that the promises of the cross are sure and true. Godly sorrow does lead to repentance. Repentance does lead to a healed and renewed mind and heart that lives in the freedom of the truth. Forgiveness does open the door to healing and reconciliation.
Trusting the Father to be our Judge, Healer, and Protector does not mean that we won’t sin or be sinned against. It doesn’t mean a life without pain. But it does mean that we are no longer slaves to the fear of that pain. It means we have a way to become resilient to pain, to get through it and come out on the other side wiser and more confident in our Father’s great love for us. This is the beauty of godly discipline.
Today, if you are dealing with some kind of emotional or relational pain, I urge you: Don’t let that pain keep you in a prison of fear. Take it to the Father and lay it as His feet. Invite Him to show you His path to healing, and trust Him as He leads you in it.
P.S. Unpunishable is officially available everywhere you buy books! In this book, I go much deeper into learning the punishment-free ways God has opened to us to respond to sin. It’s a roadmap to healing and freedom! Get your copy here!