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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Justice Tempered with Mercy

Yom Kippur starts tonight at sundown (as I mentioned in my last post). It's a Jewish festival centered around God's justice. Jewish people traditionally believe that for the first ten days after the start of the year (on the Jewish calendar), God reviews His records about every individual and all the nations, and on Yom Kippur He passes judgement on each individual for the coming year.

Now, since this is not written in the Bible, I am reluctant to fully accept this tradition, but I do think it is a good starting point to reflect on the nature of justice today. If God was passing a ruling on the nations right now, what would He say? More importantly, what kind of justice can the world expect from God?

Justice: The Foundation of God's Throne

If I had to answer the first question, I would say God's assessment would be pretty sobering. I, in my humanity, have seen a lot of things in the news this week that offend my sense of justice, but I'm pretty sure that I am still blind to little injustices all around me.  I also know that not every injustice that is done in a day will ever make it to the news. If I in my weakness and limited knowledge can see injustice and be grieved by it, then I can only imagine what God sees, and records, in a given day, week, month, or year, and how much it grieves Him.

All the time that God is watching all of this, He is waiting for us to straighten up so He doesn't have to give us a whipping--pleading with us in the Bible, demanding our attention through nature. To Him, obedience is better than sacrifice and punishment (Hosea 6:6).  He loves not punishing people, because it distresses Him (Isaiah 63: 9), but for the sake of all the victims out there, He will continue to punish, and He won't forget even one punishment that is deserved. God does this because justice is the foundation of His very throne (Psalm 89: 14), one of the basic principles of His nature, and He will not change. He will not pervert justice, for any reason, and we can count on that...but is this the whole picture?

Justice Tempered with Mercy

 I think everyone says they love justice, but when it comes down to it,what they mean to say is that they love benefiting from justice, not reaping it. When we were kids, we liked to see our siblings get punished when they were cruel to us, but we hated being the kid who got the spanking.  Now that we're adults, we see that being the one meting out punishment is hard, too. As a parent, boss, or jury member, we want punishment to be severe enough to fit the crime, but at the same time, we worry about being too extreme in our punishment.

So, honestly, what we all want is justice (for injustice done to ourselves) tempered with mercy (when we are on the receiving end). Even God wants that for us.

This is why God, who has the power to bring justice with such fierceness that no one could stand before Him, chooses to wait and be patient, only dealing out punishment when it has the maximum effect and the most benefit for all.  This quality of God's nature and will is what Micah was describing in chapter 7, verse 18:
 Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?  You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. (NIV)
This quality of God's nature led Him to send His son, Jesus Christ, to die in our places. Jesus made our punishment His own, so that everyone who calls on Him can avoid the full measure of God's punishment, which is eternal spiritual death. It was a creative way to uphold justice while still being kind and merciful, and it illustrated, once and for all, God's brand of justice: unbiased and uniform, but also endlessly merciful.

That, my friends, is the kind of justice we should imitate, because God practiced it first, and He proved to us that it is good.