When God Takes Away: Punishment or Promise?

Imagine you are looking for a god. Like a single person looking for a spouse, you make a list of what you want in your god. What kinds of things would you include?

Characteristics like loving, powerful, good, comforting and forgiving would top my list. And if I am really honest, I would also add fair to my search for the ideal divine candidate. This way God would fit neatly into my life plan of being rewarded for all the good things I do. And when I mess up, I might also be punished. And I am okay with that, at least when I deserve it.

But when all a person does is express a little bit of doubt, like Zechariah did when Gabriel told him he would have a son named John, and God hands them a punishment, it doesn’t strike me as fair.

Stories like Zechariah’s mess with my mind. They make me question God’s goodness and long for His fairness. They also illuminate all the “shoulds” I place on God. God should be more understanding of Zechariah’s questions. He should give him more information. He should give him time to process. I could go on, but I gave up God shoulds for Lent.

Besides, what if my fairness lens is a skewed one anyways, because it takes me on a rabbit trail instead of to the truth of the story?

Gabriel the angel tells Zechariah he will be “silent and unable to speak until the child is born” because he didn’t believe. In other words, God takes away an old priest’s voice because he questioned something that seemed utterly impossible. If the story ended here, I might label God as punishing, unfair or even insane (after all, what human never doubts God?) and continue my search for a god who fits my criteria.

Thankfully, there is more to the story. Gabriel’s message includes promises beyond the mere birth of a son named John. He paints a picture of who this boy will become and his purpose in the world: a man great in the eyes of God, full of the spirit and power of Elijah who will turn Israelites and other rebellious people to the Lord.

This miraculous son is going to be an influencer. He is going to shape the history of the world. People need to pay attention to this guy. When the boy is born and it is time to name him, mute Zechariah writes “John” on a tablet. Immediately after naming his son, Zechariah can speak again. And, guess what? People pay attention. They are in awe of what they have witnessed. The news spreads “throughout the Judean hills” and everyone who hears the story asks, “What will this child turn out to be?”

Now Zechariah’s “punishment” seems like it is part of God’s promise. Perhaps God took Zechariah’s voice away to fulfill the promises he made. Was it always part of His plan? Maybe. It is also possible that God was simply working in real time with real people to do the most good He possibly could in the world. He met Zechariah where he was. He could have blown off the man’s questions and charged ahead with His plan by moving on to the next, more agreeable elderly priest. Instead, God worked with the man he chose for that specific time, place and purpose. God used Zechariah’s doubt - his questions - to make His promises come true.

Maybe God’s response to Zechariah was less punishment and more promise.

I am no longer sure I would include “fair” on my list of desired traits in a god. Because there is not much in Zechariah’s story that is fair. But, there is so much goodness.

When God takes away, maybe it is less punishment and more promise. Not just for Zechariah, but for us too.

When God Takes Away: Fear vs. Truth

“When are you going to get this fixed?” my husband asked as he picked up my cell phone and started at the three spider web cracks in the screen protector, framed by two oblong bubbles. “I guess I am just so used to them that don’t even notice them anymore,” I replied with a shrug.

            From broken screens to smudges on my eyeglasses to made up stories in my head, I can become accustomed to a wide range of perspectives that are not ideal. As with the fiberglass cover on my phone, I eventually stop noticing at all. This is why I am excited about Lent this year. The story of Zechariah reacquaints me a with few, old cracks in my perception of God, and challenges me to get curious about them.  

            One way of reading Zechariah’s story is that God hands an innocent, elderly priest a big, unfair consequence because he did not have enough faith. When the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah, he will be unable to speak because he doubted the angel’s wild message, I am tempted to speed read to another part of the story. I want to continue on as normal like I do with my cell phone, because the truth is that this part of the story makes me angry. It feeds one of my beliefs about God that is deeply ingrained but not helpful: God expects us to have perfect faith.  

            But what if there is another way to read this story?

            For me, Lent is about giving up the box I build around God. The limitations I place on Him. The ways I make God fit into my understanding of how the world works. Beliefs about him that are not really true. So, I come to the story of Zechariah with a shift in perspective: “How can I find what I know to be true about God, instead of what I fear is true about Him, in this story?” I fear God expects my faith to be flawless, but I know God loves our honest questions. After all, why would God want me to pretend I believe something when He knows my heart better than I do?

            When I get caught up in the vision in my head of Gabriel pointing a shaming finger at Zechariah, I miss the game-changing statement Gabriel makes next: “but my words will be fulfilled at their proper time.” Here lies the truth about God. He accepts Zechariah’s doubt, and nothing changes about the way he sees Zechariah or what He is going to do for him. God could move on to the next guy. He could go search for a Yes-man who won’t ask his angels any questions. He could also say something like, “Maybe after you suffer in silence, you’ll believe in me. Then we can talk again.” But he does none of these.

            When I cling to the truth of a God who loves our honest questions, I like to imagine a quick conversation between Gabriel and God that goes something like this:

            Gabriel (freaking out): What do I do now? He doesn’t believe me!

            God (lovingly reassuring): It’s ok, we can work with this. Zechariah’s my guy, no matter what. I know who he is and I chose him. Nothing in my plan changes just because he asked an honest question. In fact, I will use his doubt to help him and others.

            Maybe God really does not expect our faith to be flawless after all.

If you are still stuck on the fact that Zechariah’s voice is taken away just because he asks a question, me too. In next week’s post, we will dive into that one.


When God Takes Away: A Lenten Wilderness Journey

All the elderly man did was ask a reasonable question: “How can I be sure?”

            It is a question deeply embedded in my heart too. As the rule-following, planning type who is afraid to make mistakes, I crave certainty. Sometimes, like Zechariah, I ask God how I can know for sure.  More often, I set out to look for signs to confirm what has already been spoken to my soul. I make up my own criteria to test God. If the plane tickets are that price, then God wants me to take the trip. If the puppy that becomes available is a boy, then he is meant for our family. If that verse pops up in my life again soon, then I will know God is really speaking.

            Zechariah was a married, childless priest near the end of his life when the angel Gabriel visited him to give him the message that he would become a father in his old age. Who can blame him for wanting more assurance about something that seemed impossible? 

            Yet Gabriel responds to Zechariah’s inquiry with a biblical phrase that makes me cringe. He says, “Since you didn’t believe, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.” Since you didn’t believe. I hate this. I really do. The thought of God taking away an old priest’s voice just because he wanted more proof wrecks my heart. Everything in me screams in defense of poor Zechariah; I am inclined to label God as angry, unfair and completely unrealistic. I want to protest the punishment and throw up my hands in defeat under the premise that I will never have the amount of faith God expects.

            But, when I let these feelings move through me, and stay with the story, they clear the way for new questions.

·      How can I find what I know to be true about God, instead of what I fear to be true about Him, in this story?

·      What if stories like these are less about God’s punishment and more about God’s promises?

·      What do we do with the uncomfortable reality that God both gives and takes away?

            These three questions inspire me during this Lenten season. They nudge me to fast from my inclination to put God in a familiar box. They challenge me to give up allowing my fears about the way He responds to our doubts and mistakes color the way I interpret hard stories like Zechariah’s and the events of my own life. Over the next 40 days, I will set out into the wilderness with these three questions in this group of posts titled When God Takes Away.

            Will you join me? You can read posts here on the blog, sign up to receive email posts here or follow along on Instagram @hollybpennington.

How I Am Learning to Listen to Myself

Hi friends,



Hi friends!

Welcome to my new space! 

It's been ready for a while but it's been, well, waiting. Hanging in the waiting, hovering with questions of when and how and why. 

But today seems like the day. Over at one of my favorite online spots, The Art of Simple, I'm sharing my story of "stopping with the experts" and it's a fitting launchpad for my new website. Welcome to hollypennington.com where I'll share words and art about learning to trust your true self - the divine, mysterious part of you that is God's design but gets buried in worldly stuff like busyness and "shoulds" and, well, books, podcasts and experts like I write about in, "How I am Learning to Listen to Myself" over at The Art of Simple.

I hope you enjoy it and welcome to the journey!