Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

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One of our strongest longings 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.

In presidential elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and people are given necessary attention. 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 biblical concept that flows 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.

The Weekend Wanderer: 9 October 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


Ed Stetzer“When will Christians learn from the unending engagement cycle of evangelicalism and race?” – Ed Stetzer in USAToday: “As the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, one of my joys is leading people through our museum. Filled with historical artifacts and pictures, it’s a testimony to God’s faithfulness. One of my favorite pictures is of Billy Graham standing next to Martin Luther King Jr. I start by telling people how Graham took down segregation ropes for his meetings in the South. But the story doesn’t stop there. Historian Grant Wacker notes that as the civil rights movement intensified, Graham distanced himself from King by attempting to chart a moderate path. Decades later, Graham himself would speak of his lack of engagement in the civil rights movement as one of his great regrets. This same story of engagement, retreat and regret has come to define an evangelical culture that is bigger than Billy Graham. For more than a century, the broader evangelical movement has been in a cycle of engagement when opportunities arise, retreat when pressures and obstacles intensify, and regret at the failure to achieve any lasting change. Worse, the burden of this regret too frequently falls on evangelicals of color, as they are left abandoned only to be greeted with new promises next cycle.”


1067980“Donetsk: Three Protestant churches banned” – Felix Corley at Forum 18: “The unrecognised Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine, has this summer banned three Protestant churches. One of the churches appears still able to meet for worship as it tries to gain registration. The rebel entity’s latest Religion Law change restricts registered religious associations’ activities to “participants and/or members”. In June the Culture Minister ordered musical and other artistic institutions to display lists of banned books & organisations.”


Biopolitics“‘Biopolitics’ Are Unavoidable” – Matthew Loftus at Mere Orthodoxy: “In the struggle to fight COVID-19, terms like ‘public health’ and ‘community health’ have been bandied about in an attempt to describe the ways in which our health as individuals is not dependent on ourselves alone. Wendell Berry says: ‘I believe that the community — in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures — is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.’ Berry’s statement speaks to our intuition that not only our individual activities, but also the health of the people, animals, plants, microbes, air, water, and soil around us all affect our health and we in turn affect them. As often as modern human beings would like to think of themselves as autonomous agents who determine their own bodily destinies, the reality is that the only appreciable limit to our contingency is how many things around us we can name. From this observation about the nature of our bodies we can move to a theological understanding of health.”


GettyImages-1234554084-e1628612279165“The Bible and COVID Vaccines” – Mark Talbot at The Center for Pastor Theologians: “Does the Bible offer us any insight into whether we should take the COVID vaccine? I think it does when we think through the implications of the early chapters of Genesis. Right before God made the first human beings, he declared why he was making them: ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’ (Gen. 1:26). God made us to be his earthly images who would represent him by ruling wisely and lovingly over the rest of creation. Then, immediately after making our first parents, he gave them what is often called the creation mandate; namely, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’ (Gen. 1:28). God, as the psalmist puts it, gave the earth to us (see Ps. 115:16). We are meant to rule over it by exercising dominion over the animals and subduing whatever needs to be subdued.”


typewriter“5 Contemporary Poets Christians Should Read” – Mischa Willett at The Gospel Coalition: “I’m always a little sad after a poetry reading when someone comes up and tells me they’re ‘really into Christian poets,’ and when I ask excitedly ‘which ones?’ they rattle off a short list that ends with Gerard Manley Hopkins or George Herbert. Not that those poets aren’t required reading—absolute masters of the form and of the heart’s hows—but because there is so much good crop still being pulled from the fertile fields of theologically inflected verse. I always wish I carried around a backpack full of books by Mark Jarman, or Jennifer Maier, or Dana Gioia, to thrust into their readerly hands, beaming, ‘It’s still happening!’ It would be a kind of ministry, edifying the body thus. Here then is my own short list of contemporary poets of faith Christians should read.”


Justice Songs“Why Don’t We Sing Justice Songs in Worship?” – Michael J. Rhodes in Christianity Today: “In 2018, an unusual Bible made national news. Published in 1807, the so-called ‘Slave Bible’ offered Caribbean slaves a highly edited edition of the KJV. The editors presumably cut out parts of Scripture that could undermine slavery or incite rebellion. If you want a pro-slavery Bible, it’s unsurprising you’d get rid of the exodus story or drop Paul’s declaration that in Christ ‘there is … neither slave nor free’ (Gal. 3:28). But why did the creators of the ‘Slave Bible’ cut out the Book of Psalms? After all, the portions that tend to be well known and well-loved draw our minds toward well-tended sheep sitting by quiet waters. Yet upon closer inspection, Psalms is obsessed with the Lord’s liberating justice for the oppressed. And because the book offers us prayers and songs, it doesn’t just tell us how to think about justice—it offers us scripts to practice shouting and singing about it. But when I recently took a quick look at the lyrics of the first 25 songs listed in the ‘CCLI Top 100′ worship songs reportedly sung by churches and compared them to the way the Psalms sing about justice, I realized that we don’t necessarily follow that script.”


Music: Tim Hughes, “God of Justice,” Holding Nothing Back.

The Weekend Wanderer: 23 January 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


Francis Collins Templeton Prize“Dr. Francis Collins | A Christian Perspective on the COVID Vaccines” – I have received a number of questions from Christians about how to think about the COVID vaccines that are being developed. I am thankful I can lean upon the wisdom and insights of medical personnel within our own congregation, as well as those who operate in a larger sphere, such as Dr. Francis Collins. Collins serves as the director of the National Institutes of Health and is also a committed Christian. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this conversation between Dr. Collins and NAE President Walter Kim. If you want to dig deeper into this topic, you may also benefit from the Christian Medical & Dental Associations’ “Navigating Vaccine Ethics” and updates from the Roman Catholic Church in “US Bishops further clarify Church’s position on Covid-19 vaccine.”


Giboney peacemaking“Only Biblical Peacemaking Resolves Racial and Political Injustice” – Here is Justin Giboney at Christianity Today: “Some assume peacemaking requires inactivity or silence in the face of disorder and injustice. But true peace is not passive quiet or the absence of action or the silence of indifference. Biblical peace is shalom, meaning completeness, well-being, and right relationship with God and each other. Silence or inaction amid grave partiality and inequality is not peace. When we mute the poor or rob the victim of voice, we deny peace. Gaslighting or shushing the suffering perverts the wholeness and fulfillment Christianity demands….No other group is better situated to bring healing to this land than the church. There are Bible-believing Christians on both sides of the political spectrum, and outside of politics we have a lot in common. We’re stuck with one another for good. We need each other. It’s time to set our partisan hang-ups aside, make peace, and do justice.”


Cordoba“God’s many mansions: a guide to the world’s greatest churches” – While I might be one of the first to debate whether the word ‘church’ really refers to the people of God or to buildings, it is difficult not to be fascinated by the wonders of ecclesial architecture throughout church history. In The Spectator, Christopher Howse reviews Allan Doig’s forthcoming book A History of the Church through Its Buildings. Doig includes such treasures as “Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba among 12 examples of magnificent church architecture.”


Rosen - technosolutionism“Technosolutionism Isn’t the Fix: Whether a crisis of public health or public safety, is the best response increased surveillance?” – In The Hedgehog Review, Christine Rosen grapples with how the pandemic has eased us into a welcoming of technology into our lives in ways that may not be good. Addressing “technosolutionism,” the notion that engineered solutions should be prioritized in solving human problems, Rosen writes: “It was the very swiftness and uncritical enthusiasm with which Americans embraced an ‘easy’ technological solution to a complicated problem that suggests that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with technosolutionism, and not just during times of crisis. Such acquiescence seems understandable at such times, when uncertainty prevails, but as we continue to struggle to find our bearings, it is worth considering the significant choices we have already made with regard to technological problem-solving, and begin to contend with the consequences.”


Wilderness“Wilderness Perspective: A monastic ethos for a militant age” – I read this article back in December but returned to it this past week in relation to a recent message on John the Baptist and the wilderness (“The Voice of One Calling Out“). I have often reflected on what God has to teach us in the wilderness of our lives, and am reflecting more recently on what God may need to teach the church more broadly through the wilderness. Patrick Pierson reflects on this at the individual level in conversation with Thomas Merton in this essay in Comment that offers some interesting points, including this: “withdrawal is not an end in itself, but rather an indispensable means for more truly loving our neighbour as ourself.”


Church Our Lady Mary Zion Axum Ethiopia“Hundreds reportedly dead after massacre at Oriental Orthodox church in Ethiopia” – Meanwhile, in another part of the world: “At least 750 people are reported dead after an attack on an Oriental Orthodox church in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, according to a European watchgroup. On Jan. 9, the Europe External Programme with Africa reported that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, about 80 miles west of Adigrat, had been attacked, and that hundreds of people who hid inside were brought out to the front square and shot to death. According to Church Times UK, the attack was carried out by Ethiopian government troops and Amhara militia from central Ethiopia. At least 1,000 people were estimated to be hiding in the church at the time of the attack. Locals have said they believe the church was targeted by raiders of the lost ark. The church is thought to contain the original Ark of the Covenant, a sacred golden chest first mentioned in the book of Exodus.”


Music: I. Erickson [featuring Jpk.], “Flowers (Jpk. Remake).”

The Continuing Relevance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

On this day celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to remind us of one of the most significant writings by Martin Luther King, Jr., his letter from a Birmingham jail. Written after King’s arrest, along with 50 others, on April 12, 1963, as part of the Birmingham Campaign to shine a spotlight on the racist treatment suffered by African Americans in one of the most segregated cities in America. Letter from a Birmingham jail is a direct response to criticism that King and the protestors received from religious leaders through an open letter in a local newspaper.

While there is much that could be said about MLK as a leader, orator, pastor, and husband, I want to encourage us to read or listen to the letter (roughly an hour long as read by King). The issues he addresses continue to be important for our day and time as we wrestle with how our faith relates to the public sphere, just and unjust laws, consideration of how our Christian faith moves us to action or to wait, and what it means to lives as kingdom citizens while seeking to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).

Here are a striking excerpt from the letter:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

You may also want to explore more of King’s writings, sermons, and speeches through the compilation work A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003).

The Weekend Wanderer: 22 August 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Last week I took a break from “The Weekend Wanderer” as I spent a few days away with my family in northern Wisconsin. I never checked my email once and never went online throughout that time away, which was one of the greatest head-clearing moments I’ve had all summer. I hope you can make space to do that sometime as well. You will not regret it, even if you never leave your home. Of course, the moment I returned and opened my email the floods returned, but there was still value in getting to dry ground for short while to remember what life can be like.


renee-fisher-N7oCVnnhgCA-unsplash“A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory” – Tim Keller has put together a pretty striking series of articles featured in Gospel in Life, Redeemer Churches & Ministries’ Quarterly Newsletter. The series features two earlier articles, “The Bible and Race” and “The Sin of Racism,” and promises one further article on “Justice in the Bible.” This third in the series explores the wide ranging conceptions of justice in the broader culture, offering biblical responses to each coupled with some further attention to the hot topic of critical theory as part of a discussion. The entire series is well worth the read.


7_9076_HARPERS_0920_p063_02“Nonconforming” – Here’s Laurent Dubreuil in Harper’s Magazine about the challenges and inanities of identity politics: “Whereas identity politics, as theorized four decades ago, aimed to liberate the oppressed and to oppose American capitalism, its main form today is more invested in changing the direction of domination and in multiplying restrictions. It is the social order of the day, its rhetoric ubiquitous in the neurotic centers of the American economy (universities, the media, the tech sector). Under this regime, identities, once affirmed, are indisputable. If I say, ‘As an x, I think. . . ,’ I am no longer voicing an opinion that can be evaluated or critiqued within a shared space of discourse; I am merely saying what I am. If you disagree with me, you may trace everything I say back to my identity before availing yourself of corresponding counterarguments: you say a because you are an x, but I am a y and I therefore believe in b. Such identities, I insist, are not emancipatory, neither at the psychological nor at the political level. We all should have the right to evade identification, individually and collectively.”


love politics church“20 Quotes on Loving Church Members with Different Politics” – Matt Smethurst shares 20 quotes from Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli’s new booklet, How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? (Crossway, 2020). Here’s one example to get you thinking: “The gospel does not automatically resolve all our wisdom-based political judgments in the here and now. It helps us love and forbear with one another amid those different wisdom-based judgments. It creates unity amid diversity, not uniformity.”


800“Christian groups unveil new criminal justice reform push” – From the Associated Press: “A coalition of Christian groups including the Church of God in Christ and the National Association of Evangelicals is launching a new criminal justice reform push that seeks to rally believers behind policing changes grounded in biblical principles. Set to be announced Wednesday, the Prayer & Action Justice Initiative has its roots in a campaign started in the aftermath of the coronavirus to help save small churches at risk of closing, with top contributors to that work now channeling their energy toward the criminal justice project. It is expected to include prayer gatherings, nonviolent protests and policy advocacy — all aimed at advancing the cause of racial equity in the justice system.”


Hagia Sofia mosque“The end of secularism is nigh: The West’s ability to market this culturally conditioned assumption is dying – Here comes Tom Holland to alert us to what we should already know about the declining influence of secularism around the world. Holland highlights how this is seen in recent startling changes taken by Prime Minister Modi in India and President Erdogan in Turkey. This “should serve as a wake-up call to the West that it is not only its financial, economic and military muscle that is currently atrophying. So too is its ability to market its culturally conditioned assumptions as universal.”


Rick Love“He Loved Muslims Because He Loved Jesus. The Bible Showed Him How.” – Joseph Cummings remembers Rick Love, former international director of Frontiers and founder of Peace Catalyst, who passed away on December 29 after complications of cancer: “Rick Love loved Jesus above all else. He loved the Bible as God’s Word. Rick’s love for Jesus led him to love Muslims. But his love for Scripture eventually changed his mind about how to love Muslims.”


Music: Sigur Rós, “Glósóli,” from Takk

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]