Punishment and Self Flagellation


How's that for a happy title? I'm feeling warm and fuzzy already...fear not, it will get better.

One of the most impacting things I have learned as a mother is related to a theme appropriate for this Lenten season - forgiveness of others and self.

I have two daughters. My oldest, Shayel, is now almost 5 *gasp* and my youngest, Aliyah, is 20 months. They're beautiful and 'practically perfect in every way' (note the nod to my favorite movie, Mary Poppins). Becoming a mother was very good for me in many ways and when Shayel was about 2, I learned something about myself and human nature in general...we are a species hungry for revenge. Instead of taking ownership of our own feelings of hurt, frustration and anger, we force the other to carry the burden. We inflict a debt on the other until our own feelings lessen or disappear.

According to dictionary.com revenge is defined thusly:

to exact punishment or expiation for a wrong on behalf of, esp. in a resentful or vindictive spirit.

When Shayel was about 2 years old, she had to serve her first time out. When she had successfully "done the time" and I let her get off the chair, I found myself very irritated that she just trotted off, happy as could be to go play. I wanted her to feel bad, I wanted...well, I wanted revenge. Even though she had served the consequence and learned what I wanted her to learn, I still had negative feelings about the situation and wanted her to pay a price for those feelings. I might have claimed that I forgave her but I really hadn't because if I had, I would have released her of her debt and taken responsibility for my own feelings.

Rom. 12:17-21 17Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. 20“BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

After that revelation into my own selfish heart, I noticed this response all around me, in myself and in others. It makes sense to me that God would have to tell his people how to punish and seek retribution because our fallen nature is naturally unjust and lacks mercy. Someone takes something from us and we want them to not only apologize and seek forgiveness but we want them to go further in order for us to feel better.

During this time of Lent, I am reminded that it is not my job to inflict punishment on others for wrongs they have committed against me, especially not after they have sought forgiveness. When I try to make them feel worse or bring up past wrongs, I am the one in the wrong and in need of THEIR forgiveness.

Even more than forgiving others, many of us struggle to forgive ourselves. Perhaps for us, fasting from self flagellation would be a worthy endeavor. Learning to release the feeling that we have more of a debt to pay than what has already been paid; thinking that we have to pay penance.

What does it mean, during this time of reflection, to seek forgiveness and repent? First, we need to seek the heart of God and release others from their perceived debts to us. We need to assess our own hearts to examine why we are trying to inflict further punishment on those around us instead of owning our own feelings and dealing with them directly.

We also need to be cautious in our lives that we don't continue to punish ourselves for sins and shortcomings by mentally beating ourselves up. Making ourselves feel bad doesn't do anything but generate shame and guilt that causes us to turn our faces away from God - who is not demanding penance - and onto ourselves which is simply another form of pride. We are behaving as if we ourselves can "make things right" which in essence implies that God's forgiveness is not sufficient. Which in turn, translates into how we treat others when they wrong us because if we cannot accept God's love and forgiveness, we cannot extend it to others.

Seeking God's forgiveness gives us hope to move forward in repentance. Punishing ourselves (and others) only causes a "chasing our tails" affect of spinning purposelessly in a cycle of self loathing, taking our eyes off of hope in God.

So during this time of Lent, how are you feeling about the ideas of forgiveness, repentance, punishment and guilt? When pastors/priests talk about reflection, is is something you shy away from? Is it something that causes you to break out in a cold sweat? What are the steps you are going to take during this time to become whole?