Monday, July 11, 2011

Danger: Attempt at Deep Thought Below

Yesterday in church the sermon was on Micah 6:8 - "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. That's what God wants. Not burnt offerings, rivers of oil, and sacrificed firstborns (verse 7). Thank goodness.

But wait a minute - how are we supposed to act justly and love mercy at the same time? Aren't those things at odds with each other? Mercy is, by definition, what we receive when we are spared the consequences of what we deserve. Justice, in contrast, is what we receive when we do get what we deserve. Therefore, if we are to receive or grant mercy, justice must be abandoned. If we are to receive or grant justice, mercy must be abandoned. And yet God requires that we do both. How is this supposed to work?
I don't have a simple answer to this question, but one thing that is becoming more clear to me is that this tension of mercy and justice is something that runs throughout Scripture and seems to rest at the very core of the nature of God. God loves justice and He loves mercy. He hates wickedness and has no tolerance for evil, and yet He desires to extend compassion and forgiveness to people who do evil things. God "hates all who do wrong" (Psalm 5:5) and yet "His mercy endureth forever" (Psalm 136).

If all this is true, how is God not in constant tension with Himself? Does Christ's life, death, and resurrection somehow reconcile God with Himself, bringing these conflicting values into harmony with each other? If so, how? And is it heretical to suggest that God experiences (or has ever experienced) the tension and unrest that arises from conflicting values and desires?

I want to make it clear just how significant this justice/mercy tension is. If what most Christian theologians say is true, God's sense of justice is shockingly severe. In the true moral constitution of the universe - the one that accurately represents the holy and perfect character of the Creator - any wrongdoing merits Hell. And Hell - according to the majority of the Christian church - is a place of eternal conscious suffering. Are you hearing this? Justice, if it came to each one of us, would mean everlasting suffering.

Is there an honest soul on earth who can accept this standard of justice? I'm not asking if anyone can meet the standard. Clearly, no one can. What I'm asking is if there is anyone who can truly accept it. I, for one, have an extremely difficult time accepting the idea that it is just to hold humanity to a standard it is incapable of meeting. God's standard of justice seems...well, unjust. Besides, if justice served would mean eternal destruction for everyone but God Himself, what good is it? That standard of justice would send both the Nazi torturer and the tortured Jew to the same fate.

Perhaps the reason God's standard of justice sounds so unjust to me is not because it is actually unjust, but because it is not good. I know that sounds incredibly heretical, but before you dismiss it let me try to explain what I mean. When we say that an action is good, what we mean is that "it is as it should be." The idea that there is a way things should be is an assumption built upon belief in God. After all, if there is no God there is no design or ultimate purpose for the universe or anything in it, and under this circumstance the idea that certain actions are "good" or "bad" is nothing more than an illusion of the mind.

So, if we assume there is such a thing as true goodness, we must also assume there is a God who's will and character is the basis from which that standard derives. Now, as we have already established - God loves justice AND He loves mercy. This means that both justice and mercy are good things. If we try to describe God's goodness by only describing His justice or only describing His mercy, His goodness will not be adequately represented because God loves both things.

Would God be good if He just loved justice but didn't love mercy? No. He loves both.
Would God be good is He just loved mercy but didn't love justice? No. He loves both.

God has one spirit, one character - and that character is a perfect amalgamation of all His qualities. Qualities that we we try to separate and define apart from each other. Maybe God's qualities can't be teased apart. Maybe we do more harm than we realize when we say something like, "God's perfect justice would require all people to go to Hell forever," not because the statement itself is false but because God's character is not adequately represented by such a statement. The statement fails to acknowledge the fact that God loves mercy, and therefore mercy is a good thing. A God that loves justice but has no regard for mercy is not really good, because that's not who God is.

If God doesn't want everyone to go to Hell, and if God is good, then it is not good - or even RIGHT - for everyone to go to Hell. Perhaps justice and rightness are not quite the same thing.

In my mind, the justice/mercy tension remains unresolved. Is it possible that God somehow manages to love and exemplify both of these qualities all the time? He must. I don't know how He does it, but He must. As His image bearer in the world, my only hope for reflecting these seemingly contradictory values the right way is through His grace and the real, indwelling presence of His Spirit.

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