Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

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One of our deepest desires as human beings is a longing for justice. We long for our lives and the world around us to be bounded by what is just, right, true, and fair without impartiality.

At our jobs or in our classrooms, we want things to be fair with all people treated well and measured equally against a dispassionate measure of job expectations or class requirements. In elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and everyone is give appropriate consideration. This is why we have impartial monitoring groups paying attention to elections around the world. This longing for justice is behind the outcries that arise when human rights are violated, whether around the world or here in our own country. International watchdog groups give voice to the helpless or the ignored so that justice can be brought to bear in their lives. We long for justice because we experience injustice and sin in our world.

This is a concept that appears throughout the Bible. When we wonder what God is like, we inevitably encounter the God of the Bible as a God of justice. The Torah calls for maintaining justice and dealing appropriately with the wrongs in the world: protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and the weak in the face of a difficult world. The Hebrew word, mishpat, is the word most often translated as ‘justice’ in the Old Testament. It conveys the idea of right and appropriate order of a just cause being maintained in the world. When we ask the question, “What is God like?”, we discover that at least one answer is this: He is a God of justice.

But here is something interesting. Even as we long for complete justice in the world, we encounter our own need for leniency. We call for justice for wrongs done by some to us or others, but we often hesitate when we do wrongs ourselves.

When a toddler has his toy taken by another child who did not ask, the toddler cries out for the toy to be returned. It was taken unfairly. But it comes as a great surprise to that same toddler when he is placed in a time-out for unfairly taking a toy without asking from one of his peers later on. Justice looks good from one perspective but looks a bit more painful when justice hits closer to us personally.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a promising life ahead of her. But when a man broke into her apartment and assaulted her on a warm summer night, she vowed to put him in jail for the rest of her life. When the police gathered a lineup of men for her to identify, she pointed to man #5: Ronald Cotton, as the perpetrator. In the 1985 trial, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of release. Justice had been served, or so it appeared.

11 years later, Jennifer Thompson received a knock at the door of her home. She had moved on, gotten married, had children, but every day for 11 years, she had been praying for Ronald Cotton to die. The detective at her door had some important news for her. After a review of evidence through advanced DNA testing, it became clear that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant but, rather, another man already in prison, Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton was not guilty.

11 years. Ronald Cotton falsely imprisoned. Jennifer Thompson held in a prison of anger. The tables had been turned and Jennifer Thompson said, “I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison….I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.”

So, when Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were reunited, she begged for forgiveness. Ronald Cotton took her hands, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had forgiven her a long time ago.

Ronald Cotton said that both he and Jennifer were victims of the same man. They both became wounded, but they both began to heal. He said, “I choose to forgive…so that I stay free and not be a prisoner the rest of my life.”[1]

You see, we long for justice – for things to be set right in our lives and world – but we also long for mercy because we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our world and also right through us. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who was gravely indebted to a king for a tremendous amount of money. He owed the king so much money, in fact, that as a day laborer it would have taken him about 3,000 lifetimes to pay the debt off. When the king brought this man in to settle the debt – to experience justice – the servant begged for mercy. Seeing the servant’s pleas, the king decided to cancel the debt and give the man a new lease on life. Justice was going to be served but instead the servant received mercy.

Returning home, this servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him about four month’s wages and began to choke him, commanding him to repay the debt. Although this other servant too begged for mercy, the first servant denied it and had the man thrown in prison.

The king eventually heard of this situation and called the servant in. Hadn’t this servant owed the king more than he could repay in 3,000 lifetimes? Hadn’t the king shown mercy and cancelled the debt? And now the servant had thrown another man in prison for a debt of four month’s pay? Where is the justice in this lack of mercy?

We long for justice, but human justice can, honestly, at times be unjust. The encounter with justice leads us ultimately into a plea for mercy.  We long for mercy because we know we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our own souls as well.

What good news it is that the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. One of the most prevalent cries in the psalms is for mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony” (Psalm 6:2). And one of the most resounding themes of the entire Bible is that God is a God of mercy:

  • “Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
  • “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18)
  • “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

It is in the character of God to be both just and merciful. We struggle to bring these two characteristics together, but God is capable of bringing both to bear upon human lives in a way that also reflects His wisdom.

Ultimately, we encounter this within the work of Jesus Christ, whose ministry is one of both justice and mercy. James’ description of the Christian reality speaks to the ministry of Jesus: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Paul’s marvelous summary of the good news in Ephesians 2, finds its center in the mercy of God:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5)

What a gift that our strongest longing for justice meets with our strongest need for mercy in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. What is God like? He is a God of justice and a God of mercy.


[1] “Finding Freedom In Forgiveness,” NPR – This I Believe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307, November 26, 2011.

Seeing Ourselves and Others through God’s Eyes

Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost. He pursued unlikely people at the margins to welcome them into God’s kingdom. 

There is a story in Luke 7 that brings this to life so powerful. It happens after Jesus’ great sermon on the plateau, His healing of a centurion’s servant and raising a widow’s son from death. Even these stories remind us of the powerful grace found in Jesus. And then comes a moment that is unexpected.

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. (Luke 7:36)

Jesus is with some religious leaders, particularly a Pharisee, whose name we discover later is Simon. It is likely that Jesus and the other religious men are reclining at the table in the places of honor. However, it is also likely that this was an open event, which was not uncommon. Where others, who were not guests of honor, could enter the home and draw near to listen at the edges of the room. This was a visual representation of everyone’s social status: guests of honor at the center; everyone else at the edges of the room.

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:37-38)

Something unexpected happens. A woman known to the area as sinful appears. We don’t know exactly what this means, but tradition holds that she was a prostitute. She takes an exquisite alabaster jar of the most expensive perfume and lavishes it upon Jesus. She kisses His feet, weeps on His feet, and wipes His feet with her hair. Have you ever been to an uncomfortable dinner? Let me tell you, when this woman shows up in Simon the Pharisee’s home and pours out her thanksgiving to Jesus in this way, it may have felt like one of the most awkward moments you could ever imagine.

Jesus follows this awkward extravagance with a parable about forgiveness that reveals a stark contrast between the love of Simon the host and the love of this “sinful” woman. Simon offered Jesus no water for washing His feet, but this woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Simon failed to offer Jesus the common kiss of welcome, but this woman has endlessly kissed His feet. Simon offered Jesus no oil on His head for cleansing, but this “sinful” woman has poured out the most expensive perfume upon Him.

Whereas the religious leaders expected Jesus to be repulsed by the sinfulness of this woman, instead He is put off by the lack of gratitude from their religious hearts. Instead, He is drawn to the heart of this woman broken by her sin and overcome by the gracious welcome of a Savior who receives us and forgives.

Great forgiveness leads us into an extravagant response, while little sense of forgiveness makes it easy to miss the great gift. The value system of the kingdom is different than the value system of the world. This woman was anything but the most valuable person of her town, but to God revealed in Jesus Messiah she is significant and worth treasuring with the greatest gift of God’s gracious forgiveness.

Bringing Our Sins to the Cross :: Theodore Prescott, “All My Sins”

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Theodore Prescott, All My Sins; Cherry, lead, hand-blown glass, paper ash, and silicon; 1996.

When I was a new believer, I hungered for a deeper relationship with God. I followed the example of a mentor in my life who had taken a focused time to work his way through past sins as a means for drawing near to God, confessing them one by one, category by category. Over the course of several days in a summer vacation, I brought my sins to the foot of the Cross in the presence of the Lord. I started this process with excitement, eager to draw near in vulnerability to God, but over time I slowly grew overwhelmed by the multitude of ways I had turned away from God in the course of my life. When I finally completed the process of confessing sin over those days, I needed to read and re-read portions of Scripture about the forgiveness assured to me by faith in Jesus Christ. Certain verses struck me as incredibly powerful: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21) and “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). In his work of art, All My Sin, Ted Prescott relies heavily on process to create the final piece. In this work, Prescott first took a month to write all his sins that he could remember on paper (“a creepy and depressing list,” he writes). After shredding that paper, he inserted the bits into four open forms of glass that were heated up, sealed, and then cooled over the course of a day. The paper turned to ash and blackened the glass from the inside. The final work reflects the process of confession but also the process of Jesus’ work on the Cross. Jesus took upon Himself our sin and entered into the darkness of what sin does to us, in death and separation from the Father. Jesus did this so that we might have life to the full (John 10:10). Lent reminds us that when we bring our sins to the Cross of Christ, our creepy and depressing list of wrongs can be transformed by Christ, leading us into life, love, and forgiveness. One portion of Scripture I have never forgotten from that extended season of confession I mentioned earlier is a verse which we all might benefit from committing to memory: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Encountering Jesus the Healer and Deliverer

“That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” (Mark 1:32-34)

Jesus is the healer and deliverer. He knows the depth of our sickness and oppression. He understands the cause and the symptoms in ways we do not understand and can discern the difference. He is able to draw near in the mess with full awareness of human frailty, sin, and brokenness, yet without apprehension or distaste. At the same time He is not overcome by our frailty, sin, and brokenness, and neither does He sense the need to accommodate to it. He is motivated instead by a perfect love that impels Him to reach out toward us.

Jesus does not love us in spite of our sickness and oppression but in the midst of it. He can see us clearly as we are, while also seeing us clearly for what we could be without diminishment of love. With all that, and even with our human tendency to draw back when our vulnerabilities are revealed, Jesus draws near with the touch of healing and deliverance.

Let us be like those who are sick and demon-possessed in Mark 1. Let us also flock to Jesus, knowing He is the One who can handle all the weakness, sin, and affliction we can bring to Him.

Jesus on Sin and Forgiveness

This past weekend at Eastbrook, we launched into a new preaching series entitled “Jesus Said What?!” I began the series by looking at what it means to confront sin and also share forgiveness by exploring an important text Matthew 18:15-35.

This message is from the eighth part of our longer journey through the Gospel of Matthew, which includes “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” “Becoming Real,” “The Messiah’s Mission,” “Stories of the Kingdom,” “Who Do You Say I Am?“, and “‘Tis the Reason.”

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” (Matthew 18:15)

Sin, Confrontation, and Community Life (Matthew 18:15-17)

Sin and pointing it out

A pathway for pointing sin out

The goal of pointing sin out

Some considerations

Binding, Loosing, Prayer, and the Presence (Matthew 18:18-20)

Binding and loosing 

The power of prayer 

The presence of Christ in our midst

Sin, Forgiveness, and Relational Life (Matthew 18:21-35)

The limitless call of forgiveness 

A parable about boundless forgiveness

The connection between forgiving others and our experience of forgiveness

Walking Toward the Table

Seeing our need for forgiveness

Forgiving others who we’ve not forgiven

Experiencing the grace and forgiveness of God through Jesus


Dig Deeper:

This week dig deeper in one or more of the following ways:

  • Memorize Matthew 18:20 or 18:21-22
  • Consider reading other passages that address topics of sin and forgiveness: Matthew 6:12-15; 7:1-5; 9:1-8; Luke 6:36; 17:3-4; Colossians 3:13; James 2:13; Psalm 103:7-12
  • Take time this week in solitude to let the Lord search your heart about whether there is any sin you need to confess or any unforgiveness you need to release to Him. Respond to God by journaling or praying about that. 
  • Consider reading about Matthew 18: