Awhile back we let our older son get a couple of pet fish. You all know how this story goes. “I’ll feed them every day, twice a day, I promise.” Well, of that hasn’t really happened. And my wife has taken quite a shine to these two fish, she’s gotten pretty attached. She told me that she loves them more than our cats, who we’ve had for over ten years. She read somewhere that fish like to snack on peas, if they’re soft enough, so she boiled a single pea for them. Brought it upstairs on a plate and everything. So of course, twice a day, she reminds our son to feed the fish or she does it herself if he says he’s too busy.
Now, as a parent, I’ve always been an advocate for natural consequences, as opposed to arbitrary punishments. I think that’s what God does for us; let’s us deal with the fallout of our mistakes, and learn from them, rather than punishing sinners with eternal torment.
But in this case, the natural consequence of not feeding the fish is to let them starve and die. Which, I would argue, is bit harsh for a seven year old, to say nothing of the poor fish. It’s a punishment that crosses the line. A more appropriate measure, perhaps, is to take the fish away if he forgets to feed them a certain number of times. And that’s what I’m going to do, as soon as I work up the nerve.
Consequences are often necessary; but they should be instructive, not strictly punitive. It should be about teaching someone the error of their ways, rather than satisfying our anger or righting some karmic imbalance. Christ, as always, provides the right model here. He wasn’t a judge, jury, or executioner; he was a teacher. He frequently called out injustice, sin, and all around wrongdoing; but he didn’t go around whacking sinners with a stick. He talked with them. Tried to help them understand, tried to help them be better people. So if you’re angry with your spouse, don’t punish them with silence; they can’t learn anything from that. If you’re frustrated with your kids, don’t scream at them or slap them; it only teaches them to do the same. And if someone breaks the law, they should get a punishment that fits the crime; rehabilitation, in many cases, is more instructive than incarceration. And sometimes a warning is better than a speeding ticket, as the case may be, for those folks who may have, you know, hypothetically, been driving 19 miles over the speed limit. Hypothetically.
Rev. Seth Ethan Carey