I saw this image today and it’s added to some recent thoughts I’ve had about grace and justice. Sometimes I really struggle with how those two things sit together. On one hand God is so outrageously and consistently loving and gracious. We see this displayed so powerfully in the cross and in his relentless pursuit of us. But on the other hand God loves justice and the bible mentions justice a lot. God is just and he will one day bring justice in full and make everything right.
I find the same tension in how I treat others. When someone does something wrong, I feel a strong emotional reaction that they should face justice for it, that they should be made to pay for what they’ve done because that’s what justice is.
Except of course, if that someone is me.
So often we crave, thirst and fight for justice, for everyone except those we have wronged. We want to dish out justice, but we actually don’t want to receive it. We say we want justice, but do we really? Have we really thought about what might happen if we actually saw justice?
It’s important to say that sometimes we think justice and punishment are the same thing, but they are really not. True, Godly justice will restore, make things right, replace some of what’s been taken. In the Old Testament justice is often linked to the Jewish idea of Shalom – wholeness, peace, everything as it should be. In the justice system restorative justice seeks to do just that – restoration in both victim and offender, replacing some of what’s been taken away. Punishment is not about restoration, it’s just about taking more away. It is about vengeance and it achieves nothing.
During my degree placement I worked in a Young Offender’s Institute with the Chaplaincy Team. What I heard, saw and experienced in those few months I will never forget. It completely threw my concept of forgiveness, justice, punishment and well just about everything. I remember my first week of cell visits in the isolation block, and walking towards the cell of one young man, aged 15 who I was told by the chaplain accompanying me had been convicted of sexually abusing several boys between the ages of 5 – 8. My mind instantly filled with thoughts about what a monster this kid must be and how glad I was that he was in prison where he belonged, paying for what he had done. As I walked into his cell and spent half an hour with him, I was ashamed by what I had previously thought. I met not a monster, but a polite, normal, funny, friendly young man whose only complaint was that the chaplaincy hadn’t brought him a bible yet. He had encountered God powerfully at a chapel service, given his life to God and was now desperate to learn more about what it meant to follow Jesus.
As I walked back to the chaplaincy, I was told horrific stories about this young man’s life. The abuse he had suffered was abuse that I could not fathom or even imagine, abuse so horrific the damage that had been done physically to him had involved reconstructive surgery. I began to see that what he had done to these little boys was just normal to him and that he had no idea of what he had actually done. I was filled with compassion for him and I longed to see him helped and restored. As I remembered my earlier thoughts, I escaped to the toilet and sobbed. The point I want to make is about judgement. I made a judgement based on the information I had but that information was incomplete. A judge in a court case makes a judgement on the information that is provided by the prosecution and defence. Sometimes a wrong judgement can be made if the information is false, incomplete or unavailable. The information we have on any person, situation or event, will ALWAYS be incomplete. So how can we make a judgement? To judge correctly you would need to know everything, and there is only one person who knows everything and therefore one person that is qualified to make judgements. That person is not me, or you. It is God and God alone. It’s easy to see why Jesus told us not to judge.
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the story of the Unforgiving Servant. In it, a King is owed money by one of his servants. It’s a huge debt, one that could probably never be repaid. The words used in the passage are the highest Greek numeral that existed in the language and the word for the largest amount of money. It would be like saying he owed him zillions of pounds! The King begins to order the man to be sold into slavery with his family – an acceptable solution at the time but still something that wouldn’t even come close to paying the debt. But after the servant begs for mercy, the King not only relents from selling him into slavery, he actually forgets the debt. Wipes it clean. Then the servant goes out and bumps into another servant who owes him a relatively tiny amount of money. Instead of showing the grace that’s been shown to him, he locks the other servant up until he can repay the money. The king hears, is obviously outraged and actually hands him over to be tortured until he can pay the money back.
It’s such a challenging story. When we have been the recipients of such incredible and overwhelming grace, how can we not show this to others? How can we demand justice if we’ve been released from facing it ourselves?
Earlier on in Matthew 5:7, Jesus says “happy are those who show mercy, for they will be shown mercy”. It’s like a mirror effect, that pops up at other times throughout the bible. Like in Luke 7 when Jesus explains to Simon that someone who has been forgiven a lot, will love a lot. When you have received grace, you show grace, when you receive love, you show love. When you’ve been given mercy, you give mercy. When someone has refused to give up on you, you refuse to give up on others. Sometimes half the problem is that we have no idea what God has done for us. We forget it and become detached from it. Just like the servant had somehow become detached from the mercy that had been shown to him. If only he could have made the link! When we’re in a place of wanting to dish out punishment, sometimes it’s good to take ourselves back to the place where we were spared punishment – the cross. ‘Laying something at the foot of the cross’ makes sense here. When we remember the cross, when we really feel what it means, nothing else even matters.
When I’m tempted to make a judgement, I remember it’s God alone who is qualified to make judgements.
When I struggle to show grace to someone, I remember the grace that’s been shown to me.
When I want to give up on someone, I remember the God who never gives up on me.
When I don’t want to forgive the inexcusable in someone else, I remember how God has forgiven the inexcusable in me.
When I’m not prepared to pay the price for something that I’ve done wrong, I remember the price that’s been paid for me.
After all that…justice and punishment don’t seem so important anymore.