Healing and the justice of God

Healing and the justice of God March 30, 2012

So I’m reading this book of essays about the future of the church. Some of them are pretty good, but last night I hit a real clunker.

The writer is stressing the importance of a right and proper formulation of “the gospel”:

The true gospel. The real gospel. The gospel of the Bible, the one that stands at the very heart of the Christian faith, the one on which the church stands or falls. There are all kinds of gospels floating around out there, all kinds of gospels competing with one another. And amid all of these gospels, we need to discover, or rediscover, or cling to and proclaim, the real one, the true one, the only one that fully and finally matters. The only one that saves. We have got to get the gospel right.

That is the language of a sales pitch. “Babbington’s is your only source for the real, true widgets you must have …” And the stuff being sold isn’t much better — as you may notice from the claim there of a gospel formula being the thing “that saves.” Um, no. The author goes on to describe his onerealtrue gospel and it takes him five pages, suggesting that St. Paul must’ve left quite a bit out, since it never took him five pages.

But what struck me most in this essay was the author’s discussion of God’s justice. “God is also just,” he writes. So far, so good. Yet the very next sentence contradicts that claim by offering a definition of “just” that isn’t about justice at all:

God is also just. This may be one of those character qualities we are guilty of losing sight of, this idea that God is just, that he will never let guilt go unpunished, that he can never let sin go unpunished.

What does it mean, according to this writer, to say “God is just”? It means that God “will never let guilt go unpunished.” That’s not a description of justice. It’s a description of vengeance. Those are not the same thing.

Note that this definition of justice prohibits mercy and grace. God “can never let sin go unpunished,” he writes — the emphasis there is original, stressing God’s incapacity for grace. That’s a weird leap, but it’s the logical conclusion of defining justice as merely inescapable punishment.

There are three big problems (at least) with thinking of justice in this way. The first is that it suggests that grace, mercy, pardon and forgiveness cannot satisfy justice and are not a part of justice. It suggests that grace, mercy, pardon and forgiveness violate justice. God’s bodkin that’s a bad place to be.

The second problem with defining justice as inexorable punishment is that it reduces justice from an end to a means. Punishment can never be an end unto itself, it always serves some larger purpose, some desired end. Punishment that serves no larger end or purpose cannot mean anything, and meaningless punishment is merely torment. The end that legitimate punishment serves is justice — justice in this sense meaning not simply the rough justice of fairness, but the justice of wholeness, of reconciliation and restoration.

The third problem with this definition of justice is that it is wholly negative. Justice cannot only be concerned with punishing wrongdoers, it must also be concerned with compensating and restoring those who have been wronged. The writer of this essay is preoccupied with the injustice of this fallen world, seeing here a world full of sinners deserving punishment. But because this world is, indeed, fallen and unjust, it is also a world full of people suffering unjustly, people being oppressed, exploited, abused, misused, cheated, injured and violated. That, too, requires the correction of justice — not inescapable punishment, but healing, compensation, reparation and restoration.

The clash between this positive sense of justice and the wholly negative view of this essay writer can be seen in a story from John’s Gospel. Jesus comes across “a man blind from birth.”

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” … He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The man was born blind. That’s not fair. He was cheated. It’s unjust.

The disciples see this injustice and assume that it must have something to do with punishment. Jesus corrects them. It’s not about punishment, he says, it’s about healing and making things whole. Sin and punishment don’t play a part in this story until later in the chapter, when Jesus suggests that “sin remains” only for those who refuse to celebrate this healing and wholeness.

The man born blind — like the prodigal son, like Ninevah, like the late-arriving workers in the vineyard, like the prostitutes and tax collectors entering the kingdom — encountered the justice of God. He encountered “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

That’s from the story of Jonah, but Jonah’s description of God isn’t a compliment, it’s a complaint. Jonah — like the religious officials who sneered at the man born blind, like the prodigal son’s older brother, like the workers who arrived earliest to the vineyard, like those who refused to associate with prostitutes and tax collectors — was offended by God’s idea of justice. It made him angry that somebody else might catch a break.

Jonah wanted God to define justice as “never let sin go unpunished.” God had other ideas.


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  • hagsrus

    “It’s worth considering the possibility that a god exists who cares about human suffering but who lacks the power to do anything about it” 

    Wasn’t this the premise of Thomas Covenant?

    It’s been years since I read it so my memory may well be faulty.

  • Kirala

    And now I’m thinking about theodicy in general. Which is, in my opinion, a problem no mortal intellect can solve. I’m at a point where I trust that there is a solution that’s simply beyond my capacity to understand, but I don’t in the slightest blame people who need to knock out the least plausible leg of the table, so to speak.

  • guest
  • Anonymous

     Would you say you only obey the law because of the punishment if you don’t?

    A shocking number of people, in my experience, would not say this precisely, but would say that other people in general only obey the law out of fear of punishment. It does rather shut down the discussion.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure that a “like” is the appropriate response to your comment. It was honest and brave but I would have “liked” it if your childhood had been so different that you had never needed to say these things.

    No, you don’t owe your abuser the time of day, much less forgiveness. Frankly, if you want to piss on his grave I will cheer you on.There was a time when I quite literally dreamed of killing my own father and I had a lot less reason to do so than you. I recognised that my feelings were toxic and destructive and I didn’t want them ~ but being told that I should “understand” him, let alone forgive him, didn’t help me in the slightest. I understood that he was the archetype of the cowardly bully only too well. The smug and the self-righteous who tell the victimised to forgive are, as you so rightly say, adding to the burdens they bear. And too many criminals ~ in prison or the White House ~ have proclaimed that they have been “forgiven” by God, as if it gives them a retrospective free pass.

  • Anonymous

    What this reminds me of is Nietzsche’s discussion of punishment in Genealogy of Morals.

    He rejects the notion that the real purpose of punishment is a deterrent, basically dismissing this as a late-coming, post-factum rationalization, and toys with several other notions of the meaning of punishment, including a reminder for a species that has trouble remembering the rules, and what amounts to a manifestation of sadism.  But the one that particularly stuck in my head is the notion that society’s need to punish is actually a weakness on behalf of society, and that a truly strong society wouldn’t see any point to it.  Individual transgressions couldn’t threaten  such a society, so society would, as it were, say to the transgressor “what are you to me, that I should expend any effort on your account?”

  • Tricksterson

    I pick #4 as the optimistic scenario.  More likely humanity is a pile of sghit because the Creator wants us this way and gets off on the suffering we inflict on each other.

  • Tricksterson

    Yes, basically and that his choice for a Messiah was a borderline sociopathic shit who didn’t even believe the universe he was sent to save was real. 

  • Auroramama

    > the character of God knew *exactly* how many righteous people could be
    > found in the city before going into the negotiation with the character of
    > Abraham. It makes the whole exchange feel more than a little cruel.

    G-d may have known, but humans cannot. Short of divine knowledge, how can I even imagine a city in which there were fewer than ten decent people? And in the case of Nineveh, G-d adds to the accounting those not yet capable of discernment (those who don’t know their right hand from their left) and even the cattle! Therefore we humans have to err on the side of sparing the undeserving, even a thousand undeserving people, for the sake of a single, hypothetical, innocent person.

    The other lesson, I think, is that just because G-d knows everything doesn’t mean we can’t question Divine judgement. Abraham’s argument is that what G-d proposes to do would not be just. Job got scolded for questioning the egregiously unfair things that happened to him, but Abraham got away with arguing a much less clearcut issue about letting guilt go unpunished. I choose to go with Abraham here, right or wrong.

  • Baf

    If you ask me, his first mistake is the insistence in the first quotation there on rejecting all gospels but one.

    My bible has four. Is he saying that’s wrong?

  •  > Therefore we humans have to err on the side of sparing the undeserving [..] I choose to go with Abraham here, right or wrong.

    (nods) For my own part, I choose to leave God out of this question altogether.

    If it is best to spare the undeserving, it is best regardless of the story of Sodom, and it is best regardless of the story if Nineveh, and it is best regardless of the story of the Flood. The inconsistencies in God’s behavior in those stories has nothing to do with what is best.

    The same is true if it is best to punish the undeserving.

  •  There are many laws I obey only out of the desire to avoid punishment. I expect the same is true of pretty much everybody. Does saying that really shut down the discussion?

  • hagsrus

    ” There are many laws I obey only out of the desire to avoid punishment.”

    Like not killing people or not parking illegally?

  • Andrew Galley

    My understanding is that we demonstrate the nature of god by taking responsibility for the imperfect (or “fallen”) state of creation, and rectifying it through justice and compassion (as well as reason, etc.) Thus, God’s works are revealed in our response to suffering. The problem of what it means that the world is not-right in some way is a thorny one, no question. I’m not so sure it strikes me as absurd or horrible on the face of it, though. The oft-quoted passage about lions lying down with lambs in the Kingdom seems to suggest that this “not-rightness” is not just a matter of human sin, but that there’s something spiritually disturbing about the *whole* world, including the part of it where lions tear lambs apart to maintain their own lives.

  • >> “There are many laws I obey only out of the desire to avoid punishment.”
    > “Like not killing people or not parking illegally?”

    I’ve never been in a situation where I would have killed someone directly if not for the desire to avoid punishment. (Being morally responsible for someone’s death, e.g. by supporting policies or governments or designs or what-have-you that subsequently cause deaths, is a separate matter.)

    Then again, I’ve never been in a situation where I would have killed someone if not for the law existing in the first place.

    I’m frequently in situations where I would have parked in a space were it not for the desire to avoid punishment, regardless of the presence of law. (In fact, there have been cases where there was no law, but I was afraid to park there anyway.)

  • Jenny Islander

    @Eris: What helped me the most was learning that forgiveness has nothing whatsever to do with love.  It is in fact a financial term.  It means to cease to attempt to collect a debt.  Eventually, after years of therapy, I realized that my abusers were never going to apologize because one of them was dead and the other pretended that she had not wronged me.  So I forgave them:  I ceased to expect that they would ever acknowledge what they had done to me, much less try to make it right.  And then I put them out of my life.  Forgiveness does not imply any future relationship whatsoever between the forgiver and the forgivee, except in the minds of people anxious to pretend that nothing is wrong.

    About loving those who wrong us: Jesus quoted the Two Greatest Commandments, of which one is “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  So when my then-surviving abuser was dying of cancer, I took shifts on the deathwatch.  I knew that if I had any brief moments of clarity in such a state, I would not want to be all alone.  I also knew that my siblings were all stretched thin because unlike me they had not begun mourning her before her long course of self-destruction came to its end.  (She smoked, among other things, hence the lung cancer that metastasized to her brain.)

    We are supposed to do the best we can with what we have.  I read aloud from one of my favorite books, which she had introduced to me.  I played nice music.  But I was only able to provide physical comfort measures once, which involved nerving myself up for half an hour first because it meant touching my abuser and fighting back the urges to vomit and flee afterwards.  So the nurse had to do it.  But we are asked to use what we have as best we can, and that’s all.

  • hagsrus

     I think Elizabeth Goudge commented (approximate from memory) “Love is not some wonderful thing you feel but some hard thing that you do.”

  • Anonymous-Sam

    Exodus 4:21: The LORD said to Moses,
    “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the
    wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so
    that he will not let the people go.

    Exodus 7:3-5: But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with
    mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the
    Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”

    Translation: “I’m purposefully going to make Pharaoh refuse to listen to you so I can send the ten plagues to Egypt and kill a bunch of people, probably including a lot of the Israelites too, all so you’ll all know how awesome I am.”

  • Amaryllis

    Kirala: And now I’m thinking about theodicy in general. Which is, in my opinion, a problem no mortal intellect can solve.

    Well, it’s certainly far beyond mine.

    Sometimes, I can come to a sort of accommodation with things as they are, by telling myself that the world can’t be other than what it is, this “stew of honey and thorn.” That is, that the same physical forces which create the gentle waves, create the tsunami. That the same forces which create the mountain (“have you seen My Alps?”), create the avalanche. That the same physical and mental qualities that allow us to feel joy and pleasure and love, are the same ones that allow us to feel pain and illness and hate. That the same free will that allows us to do good, has to allow us to do evil. That if God made an invariable practice of interfering with the results of our choices, even to prevent pain, our choices are not in fact free.

    That if we had been created without the capacity to feel pain or to do evil, I don’t know what we’d be, but it wouldn’t probably be anything that we’d recognize as human.

    Can we ever get to the point, as a species, where we more often choose love instead of hate or fear, instead of the other way around? That’s beyond my intellect also.

    And none of that is likely to be of any comfort to the man whose home has been destroyed by the hurricane, or the woman whose child has been murdered, or the “old scholar” losing a lifetime’s worth of hard-earned wisdom to Alzheimer’s… Does God care? Or does he just shrug–

    The wheel weighs and weighs. You’re chained in; you toil.
    Then they extract you. Where have your years vanished?
    What difference? says theodicy-god. Wheel, toil: what difference?

  • Ursula L

    What helped me the most was learning that forgiveness has nothing whatsever to do with love.  It is in fact a financial term.  It means to cease to attempt to collect a debt.  Eventually, after years of therapy, I realized that my abusers were never going to apologize because one of them was dead and the other pretended that she had not wronged me.  So I forgave them:  I ceased to expect that they would ever acknowledge what they had done to me, much less try to make it right.  And then I put them out of my life.  Forgiveness does not imply any future relationship whatsoever between the forgiver and the forgivee, except in the minds of people anxious to pretend that nothing is wrong. 

    This is a very interesting way to think about forgiveness.  

    It also makes sense, in a way, of my relationship with my mother, whose mental illness led to some odd sorts of mental and emotional abuse as I was growing up.

    My preference for dealing with her is simply to write off any debts, and walk away.  I don’t want to reconcile, I don’t want to try to reconnect, as it seem like everyone thinks I should.

    But she wants to reconcile, wants to talk over all the old pains, try to understand why I was upset, to try to make things right.

    In an odd way, she doesn’t want me to forgive the situation.  She insists on payment, even if I don’t want repayment, and I don’t want the renewed risk of debt if I take the risk of future contact.  

  • Tonio

    Too bad Newsweek didn’t include questions about beliefs in more than one god. Our culture seems to assume that a single god’s existence is obvious or natural.

  • I wonder how many responses they’d have gotten if they included “a God who intervenes with events and is actively evil”?

  • Michael Cule

    I pass by a street preacher from one of the smaller churches in our town on those days when he’s out with his flock haranguing the High Street and I’m coming back from my shopping. And he often causes me to think it would be nice to be one of those people who can just filter out what people are saying and just not listen to it. He is one of the people who are not good for my blood pressure.

    On one recent occasion, I heard him explain that we had to turn to God because:

    1) We are indelibly stained with sin
    2) Only God can cleanse us
    3) God is perfectly just and cannot abide to look at anything stained with sin….

    And at that point I went WHAT? (quietly to myself: this wasn’t one of the WTFs where I shouted back at him): “What? But…but…but… God so loved the world… Only begotten Son… In orthodox Christianity Jesus==God so that’s bloody H|ERESY!” (No one like an interested agnostic for finding heterodoxy, I tell you!)
    And a few moments later, when my whirling thoughts settled down I thought “God must get very bored with nothing to look at….” And then I realised that this wasn’t so much God as the Sadistic Torturer of Mankind as God with an Obsessive-Compulsive Cleaning Habit. This is God as Hannelore from QUESTIONABLE CONTENT. (Look it up if you haven’t come across it: it’s a fun web comic.)

  • friendly reader

    This is actually at both you and Matt McIrvin, but if you read my entire post you would see I specifically mention both of those things. I specifically say I don’t know if these categories were established beforehand or after questions, and that it’s not perfect because it doesn’t include polytheism, monotheism, or misotheism.

    Sorry, it’s just… I put in effort to right something and then people don’t finish reading it before they comment!

  • Tonio

    My criticism was directed at Newsweek, not at you, and I mentioned those other theistic models precisely because you did so first. Sorry for giving offense. My point is that the word “God” is a name for a monotheistic being and doesn’t apply to other theisms, and when Newsweek uses the word in its polling, it privileges monotheism in principle and Christianity in practice. All isms about beings purported to live in other planes of existence are equal in terms of their likelihood of being true, and the fact that most Americans believe in a single god doesn’t give weight to monotheism’s claims over the others. Granted, it would be very difficult to craft a fully inclusive poll question on this subject, but that’s no excuse for Newsweek treating religion as though only Christianity mattered.

  • friendly reader

    To be fair to Newsweek, I have no idea what the survey was like that they used. I don’t know if polytheism was on the checklist, and they just got such a low response that it didn’t make it into the final results, or if they really did only allowed monotheistic responses. I don’t remember the exact percentage points, so there might’ve been a 1-2% leftover that contained alternate models. There’s probably some way of looking up the original survey, but I wouldn’t know how to do it.

  • Tonio

    I haven’t seen the original survey either. I wasn’t suggesting that Newsweek was deliberately structuring the questions to bias the results toward monotheism. My theory is that assumptions inherent in the culture may have skewed both the writing and answering of the questions. I hear far too many Christians insist that “all religions believe in God.” Even many atheists treat religion as either “God or no god.”

  • Hi

    I recently talked with a catholic who says it is enough for him to be a good person and he doesn’t need to attend mass

    how can I explain to him in a very simple way the importance of the mass

    thanks for your help

    Original Healing

  • I stopped being able to use this story as a metaphorical anchor point
    when it occurred to me that the character of God knew *exactly* how many
    righteous people could be found in the city before going into the
    negotiation with the character of Abraham.

    Only under a supposed “literal” reading of the Bible. The actual story says nothing about God being omniscient at all – and most of the stories about that time period tend to imply that God is neither omniscient or omnipotent.

    Saying “but clearly God already knew…” is reading something into the story that isn’t there.

  • Tricksterson

    Boy have you came to the wrong place.

  • That’s interesting. I was introduced to the story in the context of a religious tradition that imputes to God knowledge of who is and isn’t righteous; I’ve never gone through the Old Testament looking for textual support for that claim.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    The Old Testament would rather just sum it up as “If a man is without righteousness, it’s My doing, as is the man who is. And it doesn’t matter, because I’d drop rocks on you both at a moment’s notice. Can you dig it?”

  • The problem is that we confuse the Roman concept of iustitia with the Hebrew concept of mishpat. The Latin word Iustitia from which we get our word justice is the name of a Roman goddess who is depicted blindfolded holding a scale. This concept of justice is a mathematical, absolutely impartial equivalence, i.e. eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc. Mishpat which is translated from Hebrews as “justice” in English is different from iustitia. Mishpat is God’s perfect discernment. It’s more intricate than a sort of one-dimensional equivalence between deed and punishment/reward. Justice is what happens when everything in the universe is ordered perfectly, when all things have what they need in order to fulfill their purpose in existence. Mishpat is that which brings forth shalom, the peace that is not simply the absence of conflict but the presence of perfect wholeness and reconciliation.

  • Tricksterson

    I reccomend reading the Bible in as much of it’s entirety and with as open an eye and mind for what it actually says as opposed to what people have told you it says as you can manage.  Fair warning, if you’re currently a Christian there’s a good chance you may not be when you finish (Book of Joshua killed the last lingering embers of my Christianity).  Regardless of whether you are now or still are when you’re done I can almost guarantee that you’ll have a very different perspective on it.

  • If it matters, I was raised an Orthodox Jew and have been a militant agnostic for some time. 

    I was first exposed to the Old Testament (Torah and Talmud) by reading it in Hebrew, actually. And I endorse reading the text in the original if one can; translations often introduce interpretation.

    The New Testament I read years later, in English (two different translations, though I’ve forgotten which ones they were).

    I’ve no doubt that reading those texts again twenty years later would reveal different insights, though I doubt I’ll do so.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    Translations also introduce agenda, like Yahweh, Jehovah, El-Shaddai and Sin being mass-flattened into “God” and “THE LORD,” erasing the indicators that the Hebrews were a polytheistic people (an uncomfortable fact for a staunchly monotheistic religion). References to God were translated to refer to angels, on the basis of “No man has ever seen the face of God.” Or the apostle Junia being retranslated into Junias because “I suffer not a woman to teach.” To say nothing about Elohim becoming a singular noun… I’m still laughing over that one.

  •  Entirely agreed that translations reflect the agenda of the translator.

    That said, some of your examples puzzle me.

    “Yahweh” and “Jehovah,” in particular, are as far as I know both English transliterations of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton (also sometimes transliterated YHVH), I’m not even sure what it would mean for those to be distinct entries in the original Hebrew text that are flattened into a single term.

    Can you elaborate?