Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Sermon on Divine Chastisement

The following is an excerpt of the sermon titled “God threatens to chastise in order to deliver us from chastisement” by Saint Alphonsus Liguori. This is the first sermon of a series which discusses divine chastisement. You can find the full set of sermons here. Liguori was a Bishop in Italy during the 18th century. Known for his prolific spiritual writing and moral theology, he has been recognized as a Doctor of the Church.

Ah, I will comfort Myself over My adversaries: and I will be revenged of My enemies.

Isaiah 1:24

Such is the language of God, when speaking of punishment and vengeance: He says that He is constrained by His justice, to take vengeance on His enemies. But, mark you, He begins with the word Heu, “Ah!” this word is an exclamation of grief, by which He would give us to understand, that if He were capable of weeping when about to punish, He should weep bitterly at being compelled to afflict us His creatures, whom He has loved so dearly as to give up His life through love for us. “‘Alas,’” says Cornelius a Lapide, “is uttered by one who is lamenting and not insulting; God signifies that He is grieving, and that He is unwilling to punish sinners.” No, this God who is the Father of mercies, and so much loves us, is not of a disposition to punish and afflict, but rather to pardon and console us. For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of affliction. (Jeremiah 29:2) But someone will say, since such is His character, why does He now punish us? Or, at least, appear as if He meant to punish us? Why so? Because He wishes to be merciful towards us: this anger which He now displays is all mercy and patience. Let us then, my brethren, understand how the Lord at present appears in wrath, not with a view to our punishment, but in order that we may cleanse ourselves of our sins, and thus enable Him to pardon us…

Yet forty days, exclaimed Jonas, and Nineveh shall be destroyed. (Jonah 3:4) Wretched Ninevites, he cries, the day of your chastisement is come; I announce it to you on the part of God: know that, within forty days, Nineveh shall be destroyed and cease to exist. But how comes it that Nineveh did penance and was not destroyed? And God saw their works, that they were turned from their evil way, and God had mercy. (Jonah 3:10)… St. Basil says that God often appears in wrath because He wishes to deal mercifully with us; and threatens, not with the intention of chastising but of delivering us from chastisement. The Lord could chastise sinners without warning by a sudden death, which should not leave them time for repentance; but no, He displays His wrath, He brandishes His scourge, in order that he may see them reformed, not punished.

The Lord said to Jeremiah: thou shalt say to them, If so be, they will hearken and be converted every one from his evil way: that I may repent Me of the evil which I think to do unto them. (Jeremiah 26:2) Go, He says, and tell the sinners if they wish to hear you, that if they cease from their sins, I shall spare them the chastisements which I intended to have inflicted on them. And now, my brethren, mark me. The Lord addresses you in a similar way out of my mouth. If you amend, He will revoke the sentence of punishment. St. Jerome says: “God is wroth, not with us, but with our sins;” and St. Chrysostom adds, that “if we remember our sins God will forget them.” He desires that we being humbled should reform, and crave pardon of Him. Because they are humbled I will not destroy them. (2 Chronicles 12:7)

But, in order to amend, we must be led to it by fear of punishment; otherwise, we never should be brought to change our lives… And let Him be your dread, and He shall be a sanctification unto you.” (Isaiah 8:13) The holy fear of God makes man holy. Wherefore, David begged of God the grace of fear, in order that fear might destroy in him the inclinations of the flesh. Pierce Thou my flesh with Thy fear. (Psalm 119:120) We should then fear on account of our sins, but this fear ought not to deject us; it should rather excite us to confidence in the Divine Mercy, as was the case with the Prophet himself. For Thy Name’s sake, O Lord, Thou wilt pardon my sin for it is great. (Psalm 25:11) How is that? Pardon me because my sin is great? Yes, because the Divine Mercy is most conspicuous in the case of greatest misery; and he who has been the greatest sinner, is he who glorifies most the Divine Mercy, by hoping in God, Who has promised to save all those who hope in Him. He will save them, because they have hoped in Him. (Psalm 37:40) For this reason it is, Ecclesiasticus says, that the fear of the Lord bringeth not pain but joy and gladness: The fear of the Lord shall delight the heart, and shall give joy, and gladness, and length of days. (Sirach 1:12) Thus this very fear leads to the acquisition of a firm hope in God, which makes the soul happy: He that feareth the Lord shall tremble at nothing, and shall not be afraid, for he is his hope: the soul of him that feareth the Lord is blessed.” (Sirach 34:17) Yes, blessed, because fear draws man away from sin. “The fear of the Lord driveth out sin.” (Sirach 1:27)

Thou hast given a warning to them that fear Thee: that they may flee before the bow : that Thy beloved may be delivered. (Psalm 60:4) He appears with the bow already bent, upon the point of sending off the arrow, but He does not send it off, because He wishes that our terror should bring about amendment, and that thus we should escape the chastisement… Give us help from trouble. (Psalm 60:11) Thus prayed David: and thus ought we to pray. Grant, O Lord, that this scourge which now afflicts us, may open our eyes, so that we depart from sin; because, if we do not here have done with it, sin will lead us to eternal damnation, which is a scourge enduring forever. 

What shall we then do my brethren? Do you not see that God is angered? He can no longer bear with us. The Lord is angry. (Malachi 1:4) Do you not behold the scourges of God increasing every day? “Our sins increase,” says St. Chrysostom, “and our scourges increase likewise.” God, my brethren, is wroth: but with all His anger He has commanded me to say, what He formerly commanded to be said by the prophet Zachariah: And thou shalt say to them, thus saith the Lord of Hosts: turn ye to Me saith the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn to you saith the Lord of Hosts. (Zechariah 1:3) Sinners, saith the Lord, you have turned your backs upon Me, and therefore have constrained Me to deprive you of My grace. Do not oblige Me to drive you forever from My face, and punish you in hell without hope of pardon. Have done with it: abandon sin, be converted to Me, and I promise to pardon you all your offences, and once more to embrace you as My children. Turn ye to Me, saith the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn to you. Why do you wish to perish? (mark how tenderly the Lord speaks). And why will you die, O house of Israel. Why will you fling yourselves into that burning furnace? Return ye and live. (Ezekiel 18:31-32) Return to Me, I await you with open arms, ready to receive and pardon you.