Yes, tough love is fully appropriate:
If you are a parent, you know (or should know) all about loving your children, but also about the need to sometimes discipline or even punish your child. The latter is fully compatible with the former. When you love someone, you want what is the best for them. So that will mean you sometimes must be firm with them, even appear to be harsh toward them.
But all this can be done as an act of love. Sure, parents – and others – can easily just degenerate into mean and vindictive people who treat others horrendously. So I am not talking here about genuine evils such as child abuse. But I am talking about tough love.
Parents are right to engage in tough love. And Christians know that this is just what God does as well. He loves us too much to leave us as we are, and he WILL take steps to chastise us and discipline us when needed. I have spoken about such matters before: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/23/in-praise-of-tough-love/
The reason I want to revisit all this is because of a comment that came in to my site recently. I had penned a piece on how God does in fact bring judgment in the here and now, and I provided a number of passages to back this up. One gal wrote in and said this:
Does God need to afflict to get His message to an individual though? Wouldn’t it be more effective that God would put His arm around a troubled or backslidden soul in an act of Fatherly love to bring His son to repentance?? Some of us lack a father role model and struggle to even understand what a father really is so, how can God enable us to open up to Him as a father??
This is what I said in reply:
Thanks ****. The biblical Christian knows that God works in both ways, just as any good parent does. God sometimes wraps his arms around us, but sometimes he afflicts us, chastises us, and disciplines us – also done fully in love. Loving and concerned parents will use the appropriate means to keep their children from danger and lead them in the right path. God is no different. Thus we have passages like this from the psalmist in Psalm 119:67, 71: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word…. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”
And of course any loving father will discipline his children when needed, as we read in Hebrews 12:5-11:
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
More could have been said on this matter of course. The issue of there being few good father figures and role models around – at least in the West – is certainly an important one. There has been a war on fathers and fatherhood now for decades. Fathers matter hugely, as I have often discussed. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/09/01/fathers-a-threatened-species/
There is much that can be done about this. For starters, we should do all we can to seek to maintain and promote heterosexual marriage as a norm and an ideal of society. Marriage is the best means by which a man can stay connected with his female partner, and remain with any children conceived by that union.
But let me here conclude by saying just a bit more about God, love and punishment. As I say, there is no contradiction whatsoever between a God who loves us deeply, yet also hates sin deeply. Because God does love us, he must take radical steps to deal with sin and evil.
The ultimate step of course was to send his Son to the cross to suffer and die for our sins, so that we might find new life in Christ through faith and repentance. But God has always dealt with sin and evil, and seldom allows it to go long unchecked.
The prophets of course knew all about this. Jeremiah is a key case in point. He proclaimed judgment and the wrath of God constantly – but he did it out of a broken heart, and out of a deep love for his own people. Many writers could be brought in here at this point to discuss this.
But since a hefty volume just arrived in the post, let me simply run with that. I refer to the 630-page commentary on Jeremiah by Walter Kaiser (Lexham Press, 2019). In his introduction he looks at some theological emphases in Jeremiah. Here is part of what he has to say:
THE GOD OF LOVE
Just as Hosea emphasizes the love of God for his wayward people (Hos 11:1, 8–9), so Jeremiah describes Israel as “the one I love” (Jer 12:7), or even as “my beloved” (11:15). All the previous signs and wonders done on behalf of Israel were further evidence that Israel was an object of the love of God (31:3; 32:20–22). This, of course, is not to infer that Yahweh was some sort of national deity with no concern or love for other nations. Israel did have a special role in being the agents through whom light of God’s revelations would flow to all the nations, but Yahweh was just as much “king of the nations” (10:7) as “the God of all flesh” (32:27). That is why God appointed Jeremiah not only to the nation of Judah but also as “a prophet to the nations” (1:5, 10), for he had Jeremiah deliver his “burden messages” against the nations (46–51) as well as to Judah and Israel.
THE GOD OF PATHOS
Probably more than in most other biblical books, Jeremiah presents God as one having deep feelings, emotions, and passions (pathos). Yahweh shows his love and affection for Israel and the peoples of the earth, but he also shows his deep anger and wrath for all the moral degradation and flaunting of his law. This is hard for many contemporaries to understand, for we have forgotten that it is a matter of evil to stand in the presence of wickedness or sin and not be moved to hate that evil with a passion.
Our problem with God’s anger is to be located in our definition of anger. We tend to identify anger with a desire to “get even” or to retaliate against someone who has hurt us. But God’s anger doesn’t involve that desire; instead, it is the passion of his soul and his total being stirred up against all that is wrong, unjust, unfair, evil, and wicked. If mortals loved righteousness and goodness like God loves it, then we would better understand his revulsion against all that stands opposed to that sense of right, truth, goodness, and justice.
God’s anger is provoked when his mortals sin in word or in deed (7:18; 8:19; 32:29–32). Anger must be God’s response, but it is not one of God’s attributes. His response is his expression of grief and dismay over the ruptured relationship that had, or could have, existed otherwise, had it not been for sin, evil, wrong, and injustice. God’s grief and sorrow are great in the presence of sin and wickedness. Even though God’s sorrow and grief must be distinguished from his anger, the two cannot be separated. But the matter never rests at that point, for his grace and mercy are greater than the aggregate deeds and words of unrighteousness by mortals. To the amazement of all, this Lord can also atone for the sins of those who persistently err and sin against him, so that his grace and mercy might eventually triumph for all who call on him in faith. This would be the sticking point of interpretation for those in Jeremiah’s day as well as in our own day: how could God simultaneously hate our sin, yet love the sinner? But all who make this objection have never thought about the way they regard themselves; they oftentimes hate some of the stuff they do, but that does not keep them from having a decent regard for themselves. If we can do that for ourselves, then we ought to withdraw the objection when God does the same: he does indeed love us, yet he also totally dislikes some of our actions.
So the true Christian has no problems in affirming both the love of God and the just judgment of God. Both are part of who he is. They go together. Yes, we rejoice that God is so patient and merciful to us. But we also rejoice that justice always happens, now, or in the next life.