The Orthodox priest John Breck responds in his latest “Life in Christ” column: “No.” Here are the concluding paragraphs:
The Greek term metanoia, which we translate “repentance,” actually signifies a “turning,” a changing of direction or orientation. Once this radical reorientation begins, we enter on a pathway often marked by struggle and even suffering. But if we truly “seek first the Kingdom of God,” we quickly learn that the Hand that guides along that pathway never punishes us out of vengeance or vindictiveness. As the Risen Lord declared to Saul, what He seeks from His followers is a transferal of their loyalty and their liberation “from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). Suffering endured in this light is not punishment; it is not the bitter recompense for our sinfulness. It is, like any “penance” a spiritual father may impose, a call and an encouragement toward true metanoia, toward that reorientation that leads us through life’s struggles and temptations, and ushers us finally into the open arms of the God of infinite compassion and mercy.
We can reply to our original question, then, with a simple “no.” No, God does not punish us. Rather, He guides, chastens, purifies and strengthens us through every event and every experience, with the single minded concern to embrace us forever in the fullness of His love .
The final word belongs to St John, the Beloved Disciple, who knew Christ perhaps better than any of the other apostles. Before the fearful day of judgment, he declares, “we may have confidence,” not in our merits nor in punishing penances we may have endured, but in the love of the God whose very essence is Love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment….” The Way into the Kingdom of Heaven is not through punishment, through suffering imposed by a wrathful God whose justice outweighs His mercy. It is through love: the boundless, self-giving love God has for us, to which, in an attitude of ongoing repentance, we respond with love for Him and for one another (1 John 4:16-21).