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.