Recently, I have been thinking about punishment. As I wake up each morning, horrified by what I see on the news and terrified by the hate and anger in the world, I can’t help but wonder if God is punishing us for the complacent faiths we have developed through easy lives. I don’t mean that He is causing us pain in a “you get what you deserve” kind of way. Instead, I mean that I wonder if He is using punishment as a tool to shape and refine our faith in the same way that good parents here on earth punish their children.
This idea was reinforced when my oldest daughter and I read about an amazing saint today in her Loyola Kids Book of Saints. Her name is St. Margaret Clitherow and she lived in England during the 1500s when it was illegal to practice Catholicism. Although it ultimately cost her her life, St. Margaret held secret Masses in her house, taught children about the Catholic faith, and offered accommodations to traveling priests. The story of her faith, refined through persecution, strengthened my own.
As I read about St. Margaret Clitherow, I could not help but wonder if I would risk my life to do the things that she did and, sadly, I am not sure that I would. In fact, when I am really honest with myself, there are several aspects of my life that suggest that I would not choose the path St. Margaret chose. For one thing, getting out of bed for church is a big obstacle to my faith. What would happen if I had to go to church in secret and at the risk of death? For another, there have been times when I wasn’t willing to stand up for my beliefs when they conflicted with the opinions of those around me. If I couldn’t defend my beliefs when the worst possible result was losing my job, how would I share my faith if I faced was jail time? Of course, there are many other things that make me doubtful about how I would do if I had lived at the time of St. Margaret.
The issue is that I wouldn’t be surprised if a time of persecution like that is coming. Never before have I been so concerned about the future of our civil rights and freedoms. I hope I am wrong, but I am afraid that we are heading down the proverbial “slippery slope” towards a country where freedom of speech and press is limited. In a society which limits what can be said, religious freedom will likely be threatened as well. Again, I hope that my ideas about our current situation are incorrect, but the hatred, division, and disdain for Truth that is rampant in our country is horrifying. Honestly, a future America where people face persecution for strongly held beliefs about God’s goodness, compassion, and love for all people doesn’t seem that improbable.
All I know is that, if that persecution comes, I want to be better prepared for it than I currently am. I want to have the faith of St. Therese of Lisieux who, while kissing the ground of the Coliseum in Rome, “begged for the grace to also be a martyr for Jesus.”*** I do not want my grandchildren to ask me, “why didn’t you do more to prevent poverty, hatred, environmental destruction, suffering?” Instead, I want my grandchildren to look back at my life and to be moved by my faith that persevered even in the hours when Darkness reigned. I want their faith to be inspired by mine, in the same way that my faith is inspired by that of my in-laws, who continued to quietly attend church and refused to join the Communist party in Czechoslovakia. Ultimately, I want my faith, and the faith of America, to become stronger and purer because of the trials that we face. I suspect, that if American Christian faith is purified through God’s punishment, the country will truly be blessed.
Because of all my musings about punishment, I wonder if we really mean what we ask for when we ask God to bless America. It seems that one of the greatest blessings that God can give us is a country where our faith faces challenges, where living a life that embraces Truth results in persecution, and where we will be purified by fire. God tells us that He “disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” History echoes this statement as time and time again, God has used large-scale suffering and persecution to be glorified in the lives of His people. I am terrified of God’s discipline, but I know that we desperately need it. I pray that there is another way to make us into the people and the nation that He intends us to be. If not, though, I will remain full of hope for the eventual results of God’s discipline and confident that His ways are best. I hope that God loves America enough that He will discipline her and I hope that, if it is His will, I will have the strength to withstand His chastisement and will be purified as silver by the fire of persecution.
***This story about St. Therese was taken from a letter she wrote. It is recorded in Louis and Marjorie Wust’s book, Louis Martin An Ideal Father (1957).