Justice, Mercy, and Humility

Seek Justice. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly.

I have seen these sentiments thrown around a lot recently. Loudly. Boldly. Publicly. Usually to support one cause or another.

But the longer I sit with these ideals, the more inclined I am to fall on my knees than to parade my opinions in a public forum.

These concepts come from Micah 6:8.* They are commonly understood to be a formula of sorts for pleasing to God. A + B + C = a godly life. But could there be an error in our calculations?

Justice and mercy, if you really think about it, are opposite ends of the same spectrum. To mete out full justice one cannot give way to mercy. In order to offer mercy, justice must be tempered or set aside. It would appear, then, that total justice and pure mercy are impossible to pursue simultaneously. At best we will come up with some sort of compromise, in which neither is completely attained.

Could it be that the calling to pursue both justice and mercy is an impossible task, humanly speaking, meant show us how small, flawed, and insufficient we are, and bring us to our knees? In other words, to make us humble?

Only God can truly execute justice and mercy simultaneously—and yet even His perfect solutions could be criticized depending on one’s perspective. Take a look at the cross.

One might say that the cross was an instrument of absolute mercy, making it possible for those who deserved death to be pardoned of their guilt and given a clean record. And he would be correct.

Another could see in the cross an absence of mercy, pointing out that Jesus paid the ultimate price for the debt of others, dying a cruel, agonizing death even though He begged to be delivered from such a fate. And she would be stating fact.

Some might argue that absolute justice was carried out on the cross. God’s righteous requirements were perfectly satisfied as every last sin was condemned and punished. And that is true.

Others could say the cross was a great miscarriage of justice, as an innocent man, undeserving of any condemnation, was tried and tortured for things He had not done—and they would also be right.

None of us could have conceived of or carried out the cross. In fact, most of us with a sense of justice and heart for mercy would probably have done all we could have to keep the cross from happening. And yet it was God’s perfect plan.

God’s ways are not ours. We are fallen and we are fallible and we can only ever see our small part of the big picture. Anyone who is honest with him- or herself must bow in absolute humility under the impossibility of truly upholding both justice and mercy.

So what is the solution? Seek Jesus. Love Jesus. Make walking with Him intimately the top priority as well as the ultimate purpose of our lives. Listen. Ask. Be still with Him.

And only then move in this broken world as He leads and convicts—with deep humility—always remembering that another, who also passionately loves Jesus and is equally committed to pursuing justice and mercy, might see things in a totally opposite way. And they could still be right.

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*The Hebrew word translated “mercy” or “kindness” is hesed and carries far more breadth and depth of meaning than our translations convey. While this verse itself deserves further study, I am dealing in this essay with the concepts as popularly used and understood today.

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Of Nothing

(With many apologies after a long break, I’m back and hope to be more regular in my posting this year!)

I first came face-to-face with my nothingness in Cambodia. I went there full of hope and good intentions, sure that we were going to improve lives and change the world. What followed were years of disappointment, failure, and hard knocks. Unfortunately those tough times did relatively little to shake my confidence in myself as Something. I still had a lot to offer. The problem was everybody else—including God. They just weren’t cooperating with all my good efforts!

What finally did me in was a cat. One very small kitten. Too small, in fact. The vet gave me formula, warning she’d need to be fed every two hours, adding with a shake of the head not to get my hopes up. But my spirit shook an invisible fist at him, and at any other nay-sayer; but most of all I shook my fist at God. “YOU have let me down,” I railed. “I’ll take it from here. I’ll show You.”

After three days of ’round the clock feedings, the tiny thing finally died. Exhausted and crushed, I sobbed to my husband, “I couldn’t even make the world better for one little cat!”

His answer was simple, and revolutionary. “It isn’t your world.”

This was the first step in my journey toward realizing that I am not God. Somehow I had gotten the idea that if I just tried hard, thought hard, behaved right, prayed right, I could control outcomes and guarantee results.

That was about five years ago. I have been slow to learn. But over time God has been chipping away at my in-born impulse to take His place.

Will my worry make a relative’s surgery go any better or worse? No. Will lying awake at night playing out endless scenarios unravel a knotty situation? No. Will rehearsing imaginary conversations in my head make someone change or fix a relationship? No.

Why? Because I am nothing. I am powerless. I am not in control. That person, relationship, problem, situation, is not mine to carry.

The good news is that in counter-point to my nothing there is an Everything. There is God. He is in control. All these things belong to Him. He carries each burden. He holds all things together. He sustains all things by His powerful word. Him. Not me.

I don’t know that handing these things over to God changes the outcomes. It isn’t a magic bullet or a guarantee that all will be as I wish. But I do know that it changes me. I admit my nothingness. I kneel in submission to His sovereignty. I wait for His guidance. I learn what it means to trust.

I begin to live out Jesus’ invitation “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Whatever weighs you down as you enter this new year, I hope you join me in laying it down. It isn’t yours, or mine, to carry. This requires some crushing, some dying. But in the end, I truly have nothing (myself) to lose, and Everything to gain.

“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matt. 11:28–30, MSG