If God is merciful, how can there be such a thing as temporal punishments? Why bother to forgive our sins if he wants to bear grudges and retain the punishments due to us in this life?
Unfortunately, the term “Temporal Punishment” invites misunderstanding. The word “punishment” is too negative a connotation for what the doctrine truly represents, which is nothing less than the love and wisdom of God in helping a soul towards perfection. A better word would be temporal “purification”, but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s keep to its original and more familiar terminology to avoid confusion.
Contrary to what some might believe, it is not the cruel retaliation of some fuming deity seeking payback. It is however the just restitution made in atonement to God for all the harm and pain caused by our sins, even those already forgiven. Let us remember that no sin is personal. All sin is social, even when committed in secret and alone, since it infects and weakens both society and the Church because of our interdependence on each other. Either for evil or for good, we have to resign ourselves to the reality that each one of us no matter how slight, has an influence on every individual we encounter.
The idea that our sins have consequences that run their course despite our sorrow and contrition over them is a hard notion to swallow in this day and age. We’re so used to having dirt on our clothes washed away without a trace by a simple dash of detergent, that we often forget that mistakes in life sometimes have effects that are a little more stubborn to remove.
If we violate a traffic law, we conveniently pay the fine and move on with our lives. If we mistype a letter, we can always press backspace and start over. And for children used to the pampering love of their parents, there’s always someone willing to close an eye and white-wash their faults with characteristic indulgence.
Today more than ever, this complacency becomes the norm when so much in society and technology work towards delivering us from the burden of undesirable consequences. In fact, there is a distinct trumpet call in the world that incites us to reap the benefits of pleasure without any obligatory hassle. Contraception is one such example.
Yet in practice, nothing could be further from the truth.
For instance, we can strike someone in anger and still be fortunate enough to enjoy the person’s forgiveness, but the impact and bruise of our action remains visible and painful to the victim who continues to feel the effects of the punch long after it’s been forgiven. Saying you’re sorry for cheating on your wife might convince her to pardon you, but the pain of that betrayal will forever scar the soul of your marriage even if it doesn’t tear the two of you apart. And the tears of a young mother crying over the loss of her unborn child through abortion cannot absolve the memory of what could have been, even when she goes on to have other children later in life.
In each of these scenarios, there is contrition, forgiveness and perhaps even reconciliation. But the effects of sin in each case stubbornly clings on to the fabric of our lives and extend far beyond our naive expectations.
Justice and logic demand that for every wrong, there must be restitution. For every offence, there should be atonement. It is what we demand for ourselves when we suffer some personal injustice. We instinctively seek a just resolution to our grievances because it is part of our nature to do so. That is why every nation and state is empowered with civil and secular courts to uphold the rights of individuals and society to justice.
Even in everyday circumstances, we see the sensibility of this logic. A person who steals something must in addition to apologizing for the theft, return the stolen article. A father who reneges on his promise to celebrate his son's birthday must find some way to make it up to the boy if trust is to be restored.
Because talk is cheap, repentance is more than just muttering mea culpas and striking our breasts in great drama before returning to the "ho hum" routine of life as usual.
So if we feel so strongly for ourselves and cry out to God for satisfaction against the injustices in our lives, knowing in our hearts that there is no judgment more fair, more just than the eternal wisdom of our Lord, why then do we deny that same right and prerogative to God Himself who is so deeply grieved and offended by the nature of sin?
God is Love. But true love is also just. It cannot be otherwise. Love seeks the good and welfare of the beloved. That means righting the wrongs, correcting the injustices, repairing the abuses suffered by the beloved.
Frankly if we truly love God and are sincere in our repentance, we will do more than just be content with offering a verbal apology. We will in fact do all we can to repair the damage done to our relationship with the Lord by seeking to love more earnestly.
After all, any decent father is bound by love to correct his children. As scripture says, "The Lord disciplines those whom he loves." Likewise any loving child longs to assure his parents of his sincerity through a greater outpouring of obedience and improvement. In other words, true love seeks to satisfy not just the victim’s need for justice but also the sinner’s need for righteous correction.
This does not in any way diminish God's tremendous sense of mercy and forgiveness. But we must remember that forgiveness is a two-way street. It is not an end in itself.
It is a call to walk more righteously in the path of true conversion and holiness. So even though a person is forgiven and reconciled to God through the sacrament of confession, he must in true repentance strive to make amends for his sins by repairing the harm done to others.
If this is not at all possible in a concrete way, he can still participate in the healing and redemptive mission of Christ by undertaking acts of penance, charity and service for the good of souls. Most of all, he can atone for his sins by patiently and humbly accepting whatever crosses and difficulties Divine Providence might send him.
But hang on; if God is love, if he is all merciful and forgiving, isn’t he supposed to overlook things like justice for himself?
Much of this confusion comes from thinking that Love and Justice are incompatible. Yet in reality, they’re inseparable. You cannot have one without the other. There is no love without justice nor is justice possible when love is absent. The drama of our human history clearly proclaims that.
Because God is Love, he must also be Just, even if that Justice is tempered by his Mercy - a balance that cannot be perfectly achieved by fallen man but nevertheless describes the divine nature and mystery of God.
The psalms alone are full of lamentations and cries for the mercy of God, asking the Lord to show pity on the psalmist and grant him justice in his grievances. If scripture ties mercy so inextricably to upholding justice, true love to righteousness, real contrition to atonement, isn’t it righteous and just that in the divine law, there should be equal fairness and justice due to the dignity of God? The saints and angels would demand it out of love for Our Lord and Creator, even if we should deny it.
So temporal punishments are really nothing more than the just sentences accorded to our grievous actions by divine justice. Every man, woman and child has a pair of scales that measure how we live our life. Our Lord Himself says in scripture that "vengeance is mine" Romans 12:19-21.
Now vengeance is quite another thing from revenge, although the world constantly mistakes one for the other. Vengeance has the fulfillment of justice in mind, no more no less. Revenge is just returning evil with evil, oftentimes inflicting more harm than received to prove a point. Even though vengeance might sound cruel to us, what it simply means is that God is just and there is truly a fair judgment for every soul, even if in this life there will always be imperfect justice. In fact, our civil courts are but a poor substitute for the divine justice that we long for and can only find in the courts of heaven.
For all our philosophizing, the human spirit yearns for a just world where every victim has his day in court, where every wrong and grievance is fairly addressed and satisfied....
And this I think is due to our innate instincts and desire for righteousness.
We ask God to forgive us our sins and he does, especially since no matter how grievous our sins are, his divine mercy is infinitely greater. But we also expect him to remove all consequences and sufferings that occur as a natural consequence of our sins. That is as mature as a child committing a crime and asking his parents to bury the evidence in addition to pardoning him. Can there truly be sincerity in an apology that is more concerned with escaping the consequences than repairing the offence?
Common sense will tell us that there is no virtue or righteousness in such an attitude. In fact, the graver our sins, the more we can expect to experience painful repercussions. Remember that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. We see that in the physical realm. The longer we place our hand in the fire, the graver the burns and sufferings of pain, and indeed, the longer the recovery. So in a way, the "consequences" are proportionate to our actions.
In a universe governed by the natural laws of medicine, physics, nature and common sense, the spiritual dimension is also held together by supernatural laws of order that proceed from the wisdom of God. Naturally, telling a lie is not quite the same thing as murder. And quite logically, the effects of adultery and abortion are more serious and harmful than uncharitable words.
Temporal punishments refer to the purification that a soul must go through in order to recover its health and atone for the sins committed. If properly embraced, they not only give strength to our souls and restore peace to our conscience; they also enable us to grow in Christian perfection in much the same way that an athlete pursues greatness through discipline.
We often forget that the soul is like the body in that it can be injured and wounded by spiritual falls and dangers...and in some cases, mortally. Sin does that. Because we're not always conscious of its dimensions as we are of our material body, we don't think of our soul in those terms. And depending on the injury it suffers, it can either take a long while or a short time for the soul to regain its health.
Haven't you noticed often that sin brings despair to our hearts and prevents us from praying sometimes, or at least forces us to pray badly? We feel further from God and hope than we are accustomed to. Still, like any good mother, the Church rushes to our aid by guiding us to the healing power of the sacraments, while at the same time suggesting reflections, readings, devotions, charity, prayer, penance and acts of mortification which all do violence to one thing - namely our pride and ego.
But not everyone will hasten to take advantage of these counsels and apply themselves diligently to these commendable practices and reflections. Which leaves many more who will happily confess their sins and then go about their lives as if nothing more is required of them.
It is true that they are forgiven if they are truly sorry for their sins. But they are also more likely to commit the same sins over and over again, and wonder at the end of the day why confession and the sacraments have not made them any different.
The reason? No penance, no true repentance, no sacrifice. It is no secret of the sages that men learn best through sacrifice and suffering. What knowledge that is gained through hardship is not easily forgotten, and it transforms a soul as the pruning knife cuts and moulds a young sapling.
Instead we are brought up in a culture that seeks greater short cuts and comfort in everything, including the quickest, surest way to heaven that does not require too much sacrifice. That is false theology, no matter how appealing it might sound to our appetites.
Jesus constantly warned His disciples against taking the wide and easy path. At the same time, all is grace. Our desire to atone for our sins is in itself a grace. I've always said that no one can save himself or raise himself to greater sanctity by pulling on the roots of his own hair. He needs the saving action of God and faith.
In the same way, no one works his way to heaven and sanctity by "doing" penances without first and foremost believing in God's mercy and love. It is his mercy that forgives, pardons and inspires us to discipline ourselves in order to help ourselves. He alone does the saving.
When we think of the penances given at the tribunal of confession (which are nothing more than just restitutions for our offences), we already see the immeasurable mercy of God and His Church when all we need to fulfill in atonement for our sins are often some short prayers, some brief reflections or a simple act of kindness etc.
Come to think of it, this is totally disproportionate to the grave insult and grief that a single sin can cause the heart of God. So even in this, Newton's law is already demolished when divine justice refuses to give us what we truly deserve, but only a trickle of what should be our real punishment. Is that not mercy?
Hell is a real place. And the punishments of the fallen angels bear before our minds always. They rejected God but once and definitively in their inspired intellect, we reject God a hundred times a day and are given mercy evermore because of our dull and clouded minds. Why? - Because he loves us. He doesn't just tolerate us; he labors to save us.
Now what about people who do not take upon themselves the atonement that is necessary for sanctification in this life? More often than not, the penances we receive in Confession are sufficient payment to fulfill the penalty for our sins. However, for those who fail to adequately avail themselves of such opportunities, they will have to confront the same reality in Purgatory. There is no escaping this need for purification if we hope to stand before the all holy presence of God one day. Which is partly why the saints constantly offer their sacrifices and pains for the salvation of sinners. Happily there is always someone, somewhere atoning for us, taking upon themselves after the example of Jesus, the sentence that is rightly meant for us.
After all, as Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said; if it is possible for doctors to transfuse blood from a healthy person to save a dying man, why is it not possible to transfuse suffering? And if surgeons can graft healthy skin from one part of the body to restore goodness in another, why is it not possible to graft sacrifice?
It is also true that God sends material and temporal sufferings to certain souls because they need it in order to pave the way for salvation and change. For those who won't willingly take upon themselves the vocation of purification, he does not abandon them even in this delicate but necessary task of discipline. Instead he sends them some tough love in this life so that they may not be left clueless in spiritual wisdom.
Some stubborn children who refuse to take their medication have to be forced to receive their bitter prescriptions if they are to have any chance of a proper recovery, or they will always be vulnerable to relapses of viruses. And God sometimes slips these bitter pills under the gourmet of life, especially for those who feast continually upon this world's delights.
Thus our crosses when borne courageously with faith and love can bear us to heaven. Without this chance to aid our own purification, who knows how long we'll be in purgatory, a state of existence which is also based upon this ancient teaching of atoning for our sins.
In the end, it is God's mercy and love, his utmost generosity and compassion, his understanding of our human weaknesses and poverty that teaches us the crucial importance of spiritual discipline and personal responsibility.
So that in being truly sorry for our sins, we may strive more joyfully towards Christian perfection...and by our witness...win redemption for a broken and wounded world.