Justice and the Christian: Justice and God

Smith Hopkins | January 23, 2018

This series of posts is drawn from a teaching series at Oliver Creek on Wednesdays in Winter 2018. Join us! Catch up in the series here. In this post I hope to show that questioning God is not only normal, but, in the Bible, it is one of the ways we most clearly see the nuances of the true nature of justice which God reveals.

Have you ever questioned God’s justice? Of course. Most all of us has or someone very near to our heart has. But why?

In God on Trial, a film set in a Nazi death camp in World War II, a group of Jewish prisoners question God as they await their inevitable deaths. Has God acted in justice? To decide, the captive Jews form a rabbinical court to weigh if God is guilty of breaking his covenant with them. Ultimately, in a climactic scene, they rule, yes, God is guilty. Just then, Nazi officials march into the room, reading aloud the ID numbers of the next to die. A young man whose number is called asks in panic, “What do we do now?” The primary prosecutor in the case against God answers, “Now…now we pray.”

This is the paradox of human experience. We feel intimately the injustice of the world, and we know that the buck stops with God. Is God just or not? But in those very moments where we most poignantly feel the pain of the world, we know that the buck stops with God, and so we fervently pray in response. Is God merciful or not? Prayer captures the full range of human experience.

Feeling injustice and questioning God are parts of our story. I’m comforted that they are frequent parts of the story of God.

How can we know anything about justice? Look at God.

In Part 1 and 2, I argued that justice must be rooted in God to have legitimacy and truthfulness. To know justice, then, is to know God.

And yet, in some sense, I do know justice. I believe that we each have an innate, God-given sense of justice. In that sense, God’s justice has been revealed in a general way. But this is not enough. I can often mistake my innate sense of justice for the full picture of justice, but it always falls short. The problem, as always, is that I’m not God.  What I need very often is to have my innate sense of justice refined around the knowledge of God. My portrait of justice must be shaped by the unique revelation of God in the Word of God empowered by the Spirit and the Word of God come in the Son.

In other words, we know about God and his justice by looking at him revealed. Who he is, what he loves, what he does, and what he commands are illuminated for us in the pages of Scripture. 

God’s justice

When we look for him, we see clearly that God is just. Many passages of Scripture describe God as just and righteous in his being and behavior. Here is a small sample just from the OT.

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-18 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.
  • Psalm 11:7 For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.
  • Psalm 33:5 He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
  • Psalm 146:7-9 (The LORD is) who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
  • Isaiah 61:8 For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
  • Jeremiah 9:24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
  • Zephaniah 3:5 The Lord within her is righteous; he does no injustice; every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame.

The Bible is clear on this point—God is just, he loves justice, he does justice, and he commands justice. I’m glad we cleared that up. Hopefully now that we’ve read those verses no one will ever question God’s justice again, right?

Not so fast.

I’m thankful that the Bible so clearly affirms the justice of God. I’m also thankful that the Bible has so many passages, stories, and characters who so clearly question the justice of God. These texts create a tension where most of us live in real life. The ancient tension of the experiences of suffering and sin is still the reality we live in.

Justice or love?

The questions in Scripture have an amazing capacity to expand our definitions, rather than restrict. They often embrace, not erase, the tensions of human experience. Many of the accounts which force us readers to question God's justice leave us contemplating not whether God is just, but how God is just. 

For example, which do you think is more central to the nature of God—justice or love?

I did a show of hands vote in two classes. Every vote was for love. Zero votes for justice. (Granted, most people know there’s a mind trick coming, so they refuse to vote at all.) The reasons varied, but most who voted for love argued that instead of God’s justice, we have experienced his grace and mercy. If justice were primary, they argued, then we wouldn’t have a chance. Love trumps justice, many of us think. (It’s hard to argue with the logic. I appealed to something similar in my journey toward justice in Part 1.)

I want to suggest that these kinds of distinctions between God’s love and justice may actually be artificial. They may say more about us than God. What if love and justice aren’t actually opposite ends of the same spectrum? What if they are not competing agendas, as it were, in the mind of God? What if many of the stories are intended to prompt us to meditate on how God's love fits within his justice, and how God's justice fits within his love?

Many biblical accounts explore the nuances of God’s justice. (Job is among the dense explorations of God's justice, but for I'll set it aside for now.) I want to briefly sketch just three. Consider these texts (and the many others like them) as case studies in the justice of God.

CASE 1: Sodom

The first time mishpat (the Hebrew word for “justice”) occurs in the Bible is in Genesis 18. The LORD’s messengers have visited Abraham, promising once again to provide an heir through his wife, Sarah. As the messengers visit Abraham, “they looked down toward Sodom” (Gen 18:16). God and his messengers ponder whether or not to include Abraham in what is about to Sodom in this wicked city. Ultimately, God decides to include him. His reasons? “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (18:19).

In this first occurrence of mishpat in the Bible, God calls Abraham and his family to be a reflection, an imitation, of his own justice in the world. But Abraham still needs to be convinced that God's justice is worth imitating. If we’re reading for the first time, we wonder if God is just. So does Abraham. So he asks God. (Asks is generous; he challenges God.)

Looking at Sodom, Abraham stood before God and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham has a built in assumption about the nature of just judgment—it should be meted out fairly, with the wicked and the righteous each getting their due. He calls to God, saying, “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (18:25, emphasis mine).

Do you see the tension highlighted in the question? If God is judge, is he a just one? The narrative doesn’t explicitly answer the question. Implicitly it becomes clear. You know the story. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city.” God will not destroy the wicked city on account of 50 righteous. That’s when the negotiation begins. “Suppose five of the fifty are lacking.” “Suppose forty are found there.” “Suppose thirty…” “”Twenty…” “Ten”? God answered in each case, for the sake of the righteous, “I will not destroy it” (18:32).

Fascinating. Is God just? Sure. But this account seems to answer a slightly different question. Not is God just?, but what is the nature of God’s justice? God’s justice is a merciful, patient justice which does not sweep away the righteous with the wicked. This is the kind of righteousness and justice God intends for his people to display as they bless the world. By answering Abraham’s questions, God shows us another important theme in Scripture: God can handle the questions of his people.

CASE 2: Israel

Fast forward to Exodus. God’s people, Israel, have been victims of great injustices in Egypt, and they have cried out to God. He heard, he remembered, and he redeemed them. God brought his justice to bear, lifting up the Hebrew slaves and bringing down the Egyptian empire. The people are saved because of God’s justice! God then gives his people the Law in order to make them into the holy nation suitable for his presence. Interestingly, many of these laws or rules are actually mishpat in Hebrew (ex: Exod 15:25; 21:1, 9, 31). God shares his justice with them to help make them into reflections of his justice in the world.

But there is soon a problem. God’s own people are guilty of breaking God’s justice and law. Read Exodus 32. These are not minor offenses. They dishonor God, create an idol after him, and worship in revelry. God is hot in his wrath, ready to restart his people in the person of Moses. Moses intercedes for this “great sin,” saying, “I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Moses offers himself in their place, begging for forgiveness.

Before we see what happens, let me pause. What do you think is the just thing for God to do?

Ultimately we know what God did do. He revealed his true nature to Moses (and us readers). When we see God, that's when I think we see true justice. God put Moses in the cleft of the rock and passes by him—a technical phrase for a theophany. He reveals who he is to Moses. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod 34:6-7).

This passage becomes one of the most important in the entire OT. It is cited within the OT more than any other passage. One of those citations comes right after after story of Israel's rebellion, this time after the spies returned from the land to report on the great and powerful armies and cities (cf. Num 13-14). Once again, God is fed up with their sin, and he is ready to reboot with Moses. What Moses does is incredible. Moses says, “‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now” (Num 14:18-19).

Moses quotes God's own words back to him! Why? Because Moses has encountered God's nature, and he has seen his justice before.

Is God just or merciful? Well, yes. It’s not that God suspends his justice to show mercy; his mercy is just; his justice is merciful. It seems we should not separate them. We cannot parse between them because both are the nature of God. Once again, we see that God listens to the voice of his people, especially if a faithful mediator speaks on their behalf.

CASE 3: Nineveh

The prophet Jonah is sent to preach to the people of Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. These people are renowned for their violence and brutality, responsible for destroying and enslaving the northern tribes of Israel, among many others in the region.

Jonah refuses the call. Instead, the goes in the complete opposite direction, boards a ship, and runs away from God. The book is about God’s pursuit of this reluctant prophet. In his resistance, Jonah becomes another lesson in God’s gracious justice.

Jonah is cast into the sea, swallowed up by a sea creature and spewed out. Kicking and screaming, Jonah finally does preach to Nineveh. Except his sermon leaves much to be desired. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). That’s it? No mention of God; no mention of repentance. All Jonah does is announce their judgment. Given the tenor of the book, this seems to be an intentional plot to minimize their response.

It doesn’t work. From the beast of the field to the king in his court, all of Nineveh repents and turns to God in prayer (Jon 3:6-8). “Who knows?” says the king, “God may turn and relent from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” Who knows? Jonah knows. He is fuming and frustrated. He complains to God, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2). Sound familiar? Jonah knew about God’s gracious justice. That’s why he didn’t want to preach. He would rather die (4:3) than live in a world where his enemies received justice from God because he knew that God’s justice, in the end, is merciful and gracious.

Which begs the question, how did he know? Oh, that’s right. He knew because that’s how God revealed himself over and over. He knew what Abraham learned. He knew what Moses encountered and learned. Jonah knew because that’s how God treated him when he ran, rebelled, and rejected him. He knew God’s grace, but refused to share it with his enemies.

Even so, God patiently worked on Jonah, even his questions and challenges, to show his true Self.

Encountering the justice of God

Sometimes I see myself looking a little too much like Jonah. Here are two final takeaways for when you catch a glimpse of him in the mirror.

The first reminder is that you are not God. God is the definition of justice, not you. I am not God, so my questions of God are actually far above my pay grade. My complaints are likely because I lack his mercy, his patience, or his perspective. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t question God. Numerous passages and people throughout the Story of God do so. Good, faithful people often question the justice of God. This is appropriate. God can handle your questions and wrestling. It’s to say that when you do, do so with an eye that he is the creator, the judge, the redeemer, and the savior for all nations. Do so with an eye on who he's revealed himself to be.

The second reminder is that you are not always good. I may not know God's justice fully, but I know enough to be assured that I fall short of it. If there is a God who is just at all, I am guilty before him. This is not reason to despair; it is reason to trust. God in Christ has been gracious, patient, and generous to me, a sinner. I have personally experienced the generous justice of God through faith in the crucified Messiah. I may be guilty before God, but God's justice extends mercy.

Can you imagine encountering God's presence passing before you, revealing his true nature? It's not an exercise for the faint of heart, for it will convince you of God’s glorious Self and of your own sinful self. When we encounter God in Christ, we discover, like Moses, that he is full of grace and justice. More than that, when we encounter God in Christ, we are called, like Jonah, to be ambassadors of his gracious justice to all peoples, even our enemies.