I noticed an article by a pastor refuting the idea that God ever punishes (via weather or individual tragedy) in these modern times. You can find it by doing a Google news search on punishment, which is how I came across it. I thought about writing to the pastor but decided to write a quick column here instead.
Now, I'm going to say this with kindness, but firmly. Too often pastors who want to minister in a time of grief are so mushy that they surrender all scriptural integrity and thus ultimately lose their credibility with the believers that they are trying to help. The tone of that opinion piece, for those who don't read it on their own, is as follows. 1) He's quivering with indignation at those pastors who imply that disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina etc might be the full or partial result of God's wrath 2) He is faced with a person situation where members of his flock have suffered the loss of a small child in a tragic accident 3) The parents, grief stricken, worry if they are at fault via sinfulness or omission of faith in some way and 4) Pastor assures them that God does not punish temporally. What???
I am ALL for comforting the parents. Here is how it ought to have been done. 1) Yes, God does punish, because the scripture is full of God's own words of warning and specific follow up, and he does punish both individuals and nations 2) Thankfully his punishment is very rare because most humans suffer their own consequences of misdeeds, so God tends to punish mostly in instances of great sin and falling away of faith, such as idolatry 3) They can, however, receive great comfort from the Gospel's clear and unmistakable correction of two sinful misapprehensions of the time of Jesus, which is that the sins of fathers and mothers are visited upon the children (Jesus refutes that) and that children are not of great worth to God (Jesus most certainly refutes that).
So this pastor should have confirmed rather than minimized or denied that God has, does and will indeed punish both individuals and nations, but thankfully that is rare and it is very difficult to second guess a specific incident. He should have praised them for their self examination in this matter. He then should have comforted them most strongly by explaining that Jesus himself refuted what was a popular belief which is that calamity fell upon children due to either their own sinfulness or that of their parents, plus Jesus explained that children are the role models for those who wish to enter heaven. Thus it is extremely unlikely that God would punish parents for some imagined (or real) fault by having their little child run down by a car.
The pastor probably would have to explain the difference between God being in control and allowing bad things to happen versus God actually smiting via punishment, since people, including those in ministry, seem not to understand that, so of course the people are also confused. It is back to the obvious truth that God put into place natural laws and consequences, including the dangers due to mechanics and physics of death via injury due to mishap or lack of care or attentiveness. God is not going to step in with a miracle to overcome such an inevitability in a finite and injury/sickness prone human life. That is the difference between God "being in control/allowing" bad things to happen versus God "punishing" or "smiting."
Think of the time when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and God sent punishments, warned of by Moses and intending to motivate the Egyptians to let the people go. God sent punishments that on a low scale happen anyway, for the most part. For example, grasshoppers eat crops all the time, and people die of plagues, etc. When it is normal part of life, it is an example of God being in control but not punishing. However, when Moses warned the Pharaoh that he was defying God's will and then God backs up what Moses says with an eruption of pests or the sudden onslaught of plague, that is God smiting or punishing. If one always uses common sense when reading scripture one always finds illumination.
So the pastor could have explained to the parents that little children get into tragic accidents all the time and it is a constant but natural danger of life, which God is in control of but does not manipulate arbitrarily... far from it, since he allows humans to stumble into finally doing the right thing (such as automobile safety features, safe food laws, etc) all on their own taking decades or even hundreds of years to do so. Like the natural hardships in Egypt, their child's accident is a consequence of a routine risk of being alive. God intervenes with punishment, as the scripture demonstrates, only when the people and their religious leaders as a whole fall away from him, especially those who engage in idolatry.
The parents may be grieving but they are thinkers. They will read the Bible and wonder why any pastor denies that God does punish somewhere and somehow since the Bible is filled with examples. The pastor's job is not to strip God part of his job description, but to explain how to wisely discern and be comforted through the Gospel, the word of the Lord Jesus Christ, who addressed exactly those questions during his time (see where the disciples ask Jesus about deaths in a recent rebellion, plus deaths in an accident involving a collapsed tower, where they asked him who was the sinners that caused these current news tragedies, and Jesus explains that it does not work like that in God's eyes.)
I hope you have found this helpful, especially if you are in a helping profession where such questions are encountered on just about a daily basis.
.... I just decided to add one more thought, as I'm trying to pretend this is a conversation and anticipate questions. What if I was asked, "OK, suppose these parents were idolators? Does this mean that God kind of sent that car to run over the child as punishment?"
My answer is that no, it's not such a direct action, since God never causes evil to happen. What it means is that if the child's death is at all connected to the parents' idolatry, this is how it would occur, in one of two ways. The first is that their idolatry distracted them from routine precautions and responsibilities. I'll make an extreme example just because it's simple to get. Suppose those parents thought that nothing bad would ever happen to their child whenever the Moon is in the sign of Leo (which occurs for a few days every month). So on those couple of days the parents are very lax in their dilligence of their child's safety, thinking that due to the idolatrous teachings of their cult that their child is "protected" due to idolatrous and bogus powers. Thus God does not have to "send the car" to hit the child since the parents' own false beliefs prompted through natural law of cause and effect a dangerous situation with no precautions. So it is a punishment of their own making for putting their faith in false idols instead of in God and in the truth of the world as it really is, which is that children must always be watched and protected, where at all possible without turning yourself into a total control freak.
The second possibility is that again, suppose the parents were secret idolators. As idolators that means they have no faith in the true God, or that they are lukewarm believers who diminish God's authority in their personal lives by sharing it with bogus idolatrous beliefs. In this case God has a option to perform a miracle and save their child by having an angel tap the shoulder of the driver, or push the child out of the way, etc. but God will usually withhold a miracle if, I mean, duh, people are diminishing his authority through disbelief and idolatry. Thus, again, God does not send the car to hit the poor child and instead, God's heart breaks for the child, but he does not intervene with a miracle if that miracle is going to be attributed to glorify idolatry and occult beliefs. Again, that is punishment that is a natural outcome of the people's own actions, in this theoretical scenario...