Last week, we talked about Jesus’ heart for reconciliation. We studied how He’s strongly motivated to save sinners; to seek out the worst sort of people (us included) and make them clean. This presupposes that we are unclean without Him. That we’ve done something to separate us from God and need to be reconciled in order to have a relationship with Him.
Reconciliation is related to the concept of godly justice. If God were not a just God who will judge every human being for their actions, there would be no need for reconciliation and forgiveness. It is because we do things worthy of judgement that we need to be set right with God. There is such a thing as wrong and right in this world, and we attest to this fact every time our blood boils at seeing an innocent person hurt or our concepts of fairness violated.
Part of being set right with God involves a transformation in how we think. We’re to be like Him, motivated to reconcile with others and also to see justice done. We humans often see judgement and mercy as an either/or dichotomy, but God sees them both as important things which must be exercised in careful balance. Justice and mercy are both among the weightiest matters of His law and they must not be “left undone” (Matt. 23:23). Moreover, once we become part of His people God requires us to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with” Him (Mic. 6:8). But how do we do that? What is our role in seeing justice done?
Be Careful How and Who You Judge
In modern English, we tend to see justice as a good thing — fair and equitable upholding of what is right — and judgement as a bad thing — passing a sentence on someone for something done wrong. They’re much more closely connected in scripture, though. For one thing, they’re both translated from the same words — mishpat in Hebrew and krino or krisis in Greek (note: in addition to this, Greek also has separate words for concepts like condemn, katadikazo, and righteous/just, dikaios). Both these words have to do with forming a personal opinion, making distinctions, and/or deciding the outcome of a court case. Justice involves administering God’s law properly to make a judgement, which can be favorable or unfavorable.
We are very strictly warned to be careful how we form opinions, make judgements, and separate people into groups such as “good” and “bad.” Jesus flat-out says, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.” He goes on to say that however we choose to judge is the way that we will be judged. He also points out that when we cannot see ourselves clearly, it would be hypocritical to try and pass judgements on others (Matt. 7:1-5). This goes along with something Paul said in one of his letters.
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each man will get his praise from God. (1 Cor. 4:5, all quotes from WEB translation)
We can’t see as God does. Our information is incomplete, therefore we cannot know if our judgements are just. There is a place for discernment, however, and we can often see the state of someone’s heart from the fruits of their life. But we don’t know everything, and if we choose with that incomplete information to have a harsh, condemning attitude toward others we shouldn’t expect God to treat us with mercy (Matt. 7:2; Luke 6:37; Matt. 18:21-35). Our time would be better spent discerning our own selves than judging others, “For if we discerned ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31-32).
God Judges Things for Himself
It’s worth spending some time on this prospect of our own judgement. God will judge every human being. He’s judging the church now (1 Pet. 4:17) and will judge everyone at the end of the world. We’ll all have either a favorable (“Well done, good and faithful servant”) or an unfavorable (“Most certainly I tell you, I don’t know you”) verdict passed on our lives (see Matthew 25). Knowing that fact should inform how we live today.
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, “‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘to me every knee will bow. Every tongue will confess to God.’” So then each one of us will give account of himself to God. Therefore let’s not judge one another any more, but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block in his brother’s way, or an occasion for falling. (Rom. 14:10-13)
We’re not supposed to use our powers of discernment to pick other people apart. If we pass judgement on others we’re actually trying to take over a role that God reserves for Himself. As Paul says earlier in this same chapter,”Who are you who judge another’s servant? To his own lord he stands or falls” (Rom. 14:4). Instead, we’re to take a good look at how we’re living and make sure our own actions are aligned with what God wants and expects.
We’re also to exercise good judgement in how we interact with others to ensure we’re not hampering their walk of faith. One of the key traits of agape — the Greek word most often used for love, including in the phrase, “God is love — involves actively seeking good for other people. We ought to seek ways to build others up and encourage them toward what is right, not pass condemning judgement on them.
Here’s When/How We’re Told to Judge
There are situations where we’re expected to exercise certain types of judgement. God’s people should be able to tell the difference and make distinctions between the holy and common, the clean and unclean (Lev. 10:10; Ezk. 44:23). Failing to do so can actually lead to profaning God (Ezk. 22:26). God enables us to exercise this type of discernment by giving us His spirit and letting us put on the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:14-16).
Because we have this discernment, there are situations within the church where we’re expected to exercise judgement. In 1 Corinthians, Paul talk about appointing people in the church to settle legal disputes between members (1 Cor. 6:1-8). He also talks about putting those who commit clear, public sins without repenting out of the church fellowship (1 Cor. 5:1-7. Note that in 2 Corinthians, Paul tells them to welcome this person back, without holding any grudges, after he repented of his sins).
For what do I have to do with also judging those who are outside? Don’t you judge those who are within? But those who are outside, God judges. “Put away the wicked man from among yourselves.” (1 Cor. 5:12-13)
There are plenty of limits on the judgement we’re allowed/supposed to exercise. Jesus said, “Don’t judge according to appearances, but judge righteous judgement” (John 6:24). In order to do that, we must be familiar enough with God and His word to know what qualifies as righteous. Presumably, this also involves removing the beam from your own eye before picking the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matt. 7:5). Paul also adds that it is inexcusable for us to judge others if we are also practicing sinful things ourselves (Rom. 2:1-3).
We’re also told to judge those within the church and leave those outside of the faith to God. Jesus modeled this on earth, saving His harshest criticisms for religious leaders who handled the word of God wrongly and those polluting His Father’s temple (Matt. 15:1-9; 21:12-13; 23:1-36). That’s not to say that we don’t care about injustice happening in the world, but it seems that in most situations, correcting that is not something God entrusts to us. Our goal for interacting with those outside the church should not be to pass judgement. Rather, it is to introduce them to Jesus and share His message of reconciliation. This does involve pointing out sin, but with the hope that they will repent and change because we, like God, do not want to see people choose a path that leads to death instead of life.
Seeking the Justice God Loves
Though we are not given the right to judge those outside the church or to pass final condemnation on other people, we are to imitate the God who loves justice as well as mercy.
Open your mouth for the mute, in the cause of all who are left desolate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and serve justice to the poor and needy. (Prov. 31:8-9)
Learn to do well. Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed. Defend the fatherless. Plead for the widow. (Is. 1:17)
We should hate to see perversions of justice in this world and it should motivate us to take action. Part of love is knowing the difference between good and evil and always seeking good for others, and our love should abound in both knowledge and discernment (Phil. 1:9). We’re not to take vengeful action, though — such judgement belongs to God alone (Rom. 12:17-21).
So what can we do? Firstly, we can pray. Pleading for God to intervene might not seem as if you’re doing much at all but it’s one of the best ways for us to seek His will (see Psalm 82 for an example of this). Prayer accomplishes more than we often realize. Plus, in many situations, correcting the problems we see is outside of our control. Lamenting the terrible, unjust things we see in the world around us helps us turn what we can’t fix or make sense of over to God, trusting that He will set them right in the end. That’s one reason we pray, “Let your Kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
We can also act to relieve the suffering of the innocent. We’re not to keep silent when we see injustice, nor are we to limit our actions to talk if there’s any way for us to lend truly helpful support. In fact, serving others who are in need is one of the primary duties of Christians (James 1:27-2:18). This should involve real-world action as well as preaching the Good News. People need food as well as hope, medicine as well as truth, clothing as well as righteousness, and safe places to live as well as faith. Tending to spiritual needs does not negate the importance of tending to physical, emotional, and psychological needs.
We live in confusing, tumultuous times. It seems lately that sanity, justice, and safety have fled. This is not a time for Christians to panic, though. It’s a time for us to hold on tighter to God and dig deep into His word. We can’t fix all the problems in the world. No one will until Jesus returns. But we can stand up for what is right, help others where we can, and keep praying for God to show us His mercy and compassion as we walk with Him ever closer to the time of Christ’s return.
Featured image credit: Arek Socha via Pixabay