Don’t ask God for justice

Mercy, not justice
Domenico Mondo, Wikimedia Commons

When we are wronged, do we ask God for justice? Maybe we should reconsider that impulse.

After descending the mountain of the Transfiguration, Jesus sent some messengers to a village to prepare for his arrival. The villagers, however, did not want Jesus around and told the messengers to, in so many words, beat it.

Jesus’ disciples, James and John, were indignant.

“Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” they asked.

You can imagine their outrage. They had just seen Jesus radiating with the uncreated light of God, flanked by Moses and Elijah, and these bumpkins were refusing him room and board!

But Jesus was having none of their pique. He did more than say no to their fatuous offer to call down fire on the town. As Luke recounts the episode, Jesus “turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9.52-55).

You don’t get what’s coming

Love “does not rejoice at wrong,” as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13.6. But we often rejoice nonetheless. We’re always pleased when people get theirs, aren’t we? I know I am. There’s a certain satisfaction in watching someone get what’s coming. But this attitude is totally backward.

Listen to what Isaac the Syrian says:

“Do not hate the sinner. We are, indeed, all laden with guilt.”

Instead, he says, “[b]e a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to him is very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you” (Ascetical Homilies 51).

We are all in the same boat. We are all sinners. As the psalmist says,

The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
to see if there are any that act wisely,
that seek after God.
They have all gone astray,
they are all alike corrupt;
there is none that does good,
no, not one. (14.2-3)

This puts us all in a precarious position:

If thou, O LORD, shouldst mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand? (130.3)

Given this reality, to ask God for justice is ludicrous. By so doing we condemn ourselves. We call down fire on our own heads.

Thankfully, God is merciful, rather than exacting.

Mercy, not justice

Psalm 130 often goes by its Latin name, De Profundis, “The Depths,” owing to its desperate opening lines: “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O LORD! Lord, hear my voice!” (vv 1-2)

When commenting on this psalm, the sixth-century writer Cassiodorus brought into view several examples: David, Peter, Jonah — all crying from the depths of sin and remorse, all in desperate need of mercy (Explanation of the Psalms 129.1).

Rather than being quick to ask God for judgment over those we feel are in the wrong, we should see ourselves in these men. I am David. You are Peter. We are all Jonah, on the run from God. In such a scenario, justice is too awful to contemplate. We need mercy, not justice. And we have it in Christ.

I love how the prayer of Clement of Rome puts it:

You who are merciful and compassionate, forgive us for our lawless acts, unjust deeds, transgressions, and faults. Take into account none of the sins committed by your male slaves and female servants, but cleanse us with your truth. Set our steps straight that we may go forward with devout hearts, to do what is good and pleasing to you and to those who rule us. Yes, master, make your face shine on us in peace, for our own good, that we may be protected by your powerful hand and rescued from our every sin by your exalted arm. (1 Clement 60.1-3)

Instead of asking for justice for our neighbor’s sins, we should be aware of our own failings and ask God in his mercy to “[t]ake into account none of [our] sins,” as he certainly could.

Pray for those who curse us

What about the hard cases — the people who are not just doing wrong, but who have done us wrong? Jesus says to pray for those who curse us. And of course he forgave his murderers as he endured the agony of their vile deed. We cannot be like the servant who when forgiven his debts then demands payment from his fellow servant.

We’ve received mercy for ourselves. Let us not ask justice for others. Let us pray mercy for all.

The Prayer of Ephraim the Syrian
The Prayer of Ephraim the Syrian

On the same subject, here’s a piece from the archives worth mentioning: “Praying for grace instead of judging others.” It highlights an insightful comment from that great moralist, Duke Ellington.

Don’t miss Frank Viola’s recent post reporting three surprising quotes from Billy Graham. Whichever way you come down on it, Quote No. 2 references something with which we must all grapple.

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  • gilles lamoureux

    Besides, what amount of justice will change a person’s heart. After all, hurt is administered by hurting people, ones that too felt at some point unjustly treated. And hearts are hardened to such an extent that their holders sometimes just don’t care. How will a just verdict change that. Convince them somehow, that they are loved, that someone actually cares for them. Softening the heart does the trick. Yet, enough pressure, and a good conscience can lead to a repentant heart, to remorse and a renewed care and concern for the victim’s hurting heart. I’d say don’t right off justice just yet. Certainly, if the guilty just don’t care no matter what, then at least the victim knows to some degree they are safe; if the perpetrator does care, then justice may just help to redeem them.