23 Feb What Everybody Ought to Know About God and Justice
“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” ~ Deuteronomy 32:4
“For I the LORD love justice.” ~ Isaiah 61:8a
A picture hangs in the hallway of my school, put there by students completing a project. A three-year-old child named Alan lies face-down in the sand of a beach. His lifeless body looks cold and wet. Arms limp at his sides. I pass it every day on my way to the office, and the picture cries out, “Save me!” in haunting lamentations as I walk.
It’s too late, I think in grief. You’re already dead.
My heart filled with anguish when I saw the photo for the first time. I stared at it long and hard. The most tragic kind of casualty in a massacre that much of the world is desperately trying to ignore. But lately I’ve been troubled by something else. The more I walk past the photo, the more I avert my gaze. I too am looking for reasons to ignore it.
Injustice has a way of doing that. There’s something about it that either inflames the fiercest passions or kills them in a malaise of denial. There’s no way to look at the body of a dead boy on the beach without feeling something. But sometimes the feeling is unwelcome. Sometimes it’s easier to look away. Sometimes it’s easier to deny.
But here’s the thing about God. He never looks away. In the aftermath of Abel’s murder, God approaches Cain and says, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). You can almost sense the anguish in his words. Scripture describes our God as one who hears the cry of the righteous (Ps 34:17). He avenges the blood of the innocent and “does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Ps. 9:12).
He doesn’t forget. He doesn’t ignore.
So the obvious question is how can we? God’s wrath burns hot and his sorrow runs deep over the wrong that is done in this world. To intentionally avert our gaze from injustice when we claim to be God’s children is a terrible denial of the Spirit within us. It is anti-Christian to the core.
Justice is at the heart of the Gospel message
“Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.” ~ Isaiah 51:4
Justice is not about punishment, though it’s often treated that way. Consider that victims of crime rarely experience closure or “feel better” once a perpetrator is punished (see “Does Death Penalty Bring Closure?” or “Does Perpetrator Punishment Satisfy Victims’ Feelings of Revenge?”). Sometimes, their grief and pain actually worsen.
That’s because punishment is a poor substitute for justice, and we know this instinctively when “getting back” doesn’t give us what we want. No matter the penalty for murder, it won’t bring back the dead. It could make things “even,” but it won’t make things right. And making things right is what we really want. We want our loved one back again. We want things to go back to the way they should be. We want justice, because justice is about what’s right. And that’s the problem — we can’t set things right.
“Yet God my king is from of old,” the Psalmist declares, “working salvation in the midst of the earth” (Ps. 74:12). God enters the world at precisely this point, where our ability to set things right has failed, and we finally realize our need for a savior. He doesn’t just see injustice, he responds to it. He uses his very life as the means to fix it. On a cosmic, sinking Titanic, the God of the Bible sets down his heart as a lifeboat big enough for all of us and promises — on his life — to make “all things new” (Rev. 21:5). He promises to set things right. This is the Gospel. This is the thing that Christians believe. This is the hope we share.
But sometimes I think even Christians forget it.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a story about the triumph of justice. It’s a grand tale of God’s work in this world to “wipe away every tear” (Rev 21:4) through the promise of a new life made possible by Jesus Christ. While much of the world justifies inaction as a response to pain and suffering, the God of the Bible gets to work. Through the saga of the Gospel, he “maintains the right of the afflicted” (Ps. 82:3), and he sets his “justice for a light to the peoples” (Isaiah 51:4). Make no mistake, our God is in the business of justice, and he paid the ultimate price to get it.
And yes, this reality has strong implications for those who follow him.
We are called to walk a path of justice in this world
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” ~ Micah 6:8
Before I consider applying for a job, there’s one thing I tend to read first: the “requirements” section. Every job description has it, and it usually determines whether I’m qualified for the position or I need to look elsewhere. If I don’t meet the requirements, I know I’ll get rejected on the spot, unless I come up with a really good reason for them to hire me. Usually, I just try to meet the requirements.
The things is, God has requirements too. God has told us in very simple terms what he expects from those who follow him, and one of those expectations is justice (see Micah 6:8 above). “To do righteousness and justice,” the Bible says, “is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). God’s heart for justice is all over scripture, and he expects the same from his children. The nice thing about it? God actually gives this kind of heart to his children. “I will give you a new heart,” he says in Ezekiel 36:26, “And a new spirit I will put within you.”
Years ago, when I served at a restaurant, the manager gave me an apron and expected me to wear it. So that’s what I did, and it wasn’t very difficult since the apron was provided. God is much the same. He gives a new heart to his children, and he expects them to use it.
In other words, Christianity is good news for the unemployed: no experience required. But that doesn’t mean no requirements. The new job comes with a dress code, so to speak, and there’s no excuse for not following it. Part of that dress code is justice.
“Seek justice,” God commands, “correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17b). Regardless of the political or social climate of our culture, walking a path of justice is not an option for the believer. It is absolutely required. Elsewhere, God says to his people regarding their systems of law and order, “Justice and only justice you shall follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20), and the psalmist says, “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!”
More importantly, those obstructing justice are actually obstructing the work of Jesus Christ, and they stand in direct opposition to the kingdom of God on earth. Consider, for instance, the following prophecies concerning Jesus:
“I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…. [H]e will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.” ~ Isaiah 42:1-4b
“Give counsel; grant justice; make your shade like night at the height of noon; shelter the outcasts; do not reveal the fugitive; let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer. When the oppressor is no more, and destruction has ceased, and he who tramples underfoot has vanished from the land, then a throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness.” ~ Isaiah 16:1-14
Jesus Christ is committed to working relentlessly to establish justice on earth, and his followers are called to do the same. Nevertheless, many people are in the habit of using every bit of political reasoning available to avoid pursuing parts of justice that happen to be disagreeable.
And a significant portion of these people claim to be followers of Jesus.
God’s wrath is upon the unjust
“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” ~ Matthew 25:41b-45
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God.” ~ Luke 11:42a
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
When mothers, fathers, and innocent children beg to enter the country, and we turn them away, we violate the justice of God. When a desperate husband, wife, sister, brother, son, or daughter begs to remain in our homeland, and we kick them out, we violate the justice of God. When a race of people is locked up and beaten down for generations of our history, and we don’t even visit their neighborhoods, we violate the justice of God. When people in poverty sleep on the sidewalk, and our best response is to grumble about government handouts, we violate the justice of God.
And we already have God’s response: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41b). This verdict is echoed elsewhere, throughout the pages of scripture. “Cursed be anyone,” the Bible says, “who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow,” (Deuteronomy 27:19). “I will draw near to you for judgment,” God says, “…against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me” (Malachi 3:5). “I never knew you,” Jesus says to those who claim to follow him, “depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:23).
He says this to professing believers.
Few leaders in the church have truly confronted this reality. Among those few is David Platt, who speaks of the danger we face in light of this indictment:
“Now I want to be very careful here, because we could begin to twist the gospel into something it’s not. Jesus is not saying that our works are the basis for our salvation. The grace of God is the only basis of our salvation… But in our rush to defend grace, we cannot overlook the obvious in what Jesus is saying here (and in many other places as well): only those who are obedient to the words of Christ will enter the Kingdom of Christ. If our lives do not reflect the fruit of following Jesus, then we are foolish to think that we are actually followers of Jesus in the first place.” ~ p.16 from Follow Me: A Call to Die. A Call to Live.
The implication is clear. If you don’t look like a duck or quack like a duck, well, you’re probably not a duck. The same goes for Christians. Christians may claim to be saved when their actions betray them as one of the damned.
We ought to be startled by this reality.
We must repent and learn justice
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” ~ Luke 4:18-19
God’s wrath is against the unjust, but his grace extends to the suffering. A paradox — because we all contribute to the injustice of this world and we all experience suffering. It’s the human condition. Which of us has not done wrong, and which of us has not been wronged? Despite ourselves, we cry for justice but hide when the fault is our own.
In the climax of such a dilemma, the human race is pulled apart. But that’s precisely when God intervenes. The paradoxical mystery of the Gospel is that he resolves our discordant symphony and then teaches us how to play. He heals the wounds we’ve suffered as well as the wounds we’ve inflicted and instructs every one of us to spread this healing to the world.
So have we been healed? Are we learning from the great conductor how to play our instrument right? The Bible says that those who have experienced the saving grace of God will “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8). If that be the case, then let us all repent of injustice and join the work of God in this world.
Justice is absolutely inseparable from the mission of Christ on earth, and Jesus said in Luke 11:23, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Put simply, if we do not actively promote and pursue justice in the world, then we are categorically against the kingdom of God. If we are his children, we must pursue justice.
“Open your mouth for the mute,” the Bible says, “for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). My challenge to you is this: let’s truly examine our lives and be honest with ourselves. Are we helping the cause of justice? Or are we justifying the cause of helping ourselves?
Our allegiance to Christ — or lack thereof — is waiting for the world to see.