If we make wrong choices and behave badly our actions not only bring judgement and punishment on ourselves, they bring judgement and punishment on our families and our societies. Here’s an example: last week my son had his wallet stolen while he was serving Mass. That selfish action touched him, me, the youth director who helped look for the wallet, our ushers who have to put new security measures in place…and so forth. My son’s faith in his fellow church goers has been dented. My youth director’s family were negatively touched because he spent an extra half hour helping us. The ushers have to spend more time and effort to keep us secure.
So when sin is happening at a multitude of different levels in a vast variety of ways in a society, the cumulative effect is devastating. This is why societies disintegrate into chaos, violence and finally crumble and fall. God’s punishment then comes as another nation invades, and the society–sick from sin–is too weak and lazy to defend itself.
The third way God punishes us is through the natural course of human history. Certain nations rise to power. They sweep in and take over weaker nations. God allows this for of punishment within the whole panoply of history to judge those people and nations who walk apart from him. Nations that walk close to him and follow his ways will invariably be good, strong, righteous and prosperous. Those who do not will eventually stumble, crumble and fall.
A good example of God punishing a people through the course of history is the total destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Many commentators say the rebellion of the Jews against the Romans brought its grim reward, but their rebellion against the Romans was also tied in with their rejection and murder of their Messiah. They chose a worldly path to power and it led to perdition.
Finally, God does also use natural disasters to punish our disobedience. This form of punishment does not have the inner logic and relationship of cause and effect like the others, and I don’t believe God actually sends natural disaster on mankind. My theory (and this is just a theory) is that the minds and hearts of humanity are far more tied in with the underlying, invisible structures of the created order than we are aware of. If we live in harmony with nature and cultivate our world carefully and are good stewards, if we live peaceably with one another striving for the best flourishing of our families, our society and our world, then the created order is also more at peace.
However, if we allow our human lives and societies to descend into war, violence, rape of the natural order, abuse of animals, destruction of the planet, then nature might just kick back. The natural order becomes infected, if you like, with the disorder, chaos and crime of the human race. We pollute it not only with our physical trash, but with our psychic and spiritual trash. We pollute it with our negativity, violence and hatred. Then when nature kicks back with an earthquake, asteroid strike, hurricane or tsunami we should not be surprised.
If I am right, then this fourth form of God’s punishment is also “built into the system” but is far more subtle and difficult to discern.
Finally, we should also always remember that God’s mercy is everlasting. He love us and does not want these terrible things to happen, and we know that through prayer and sacrifices we can implore him to restrain these terrible events.