This article is part of a series looking at the Oxymoronic names of God and how understanding them helps us to live as Christians in a fallen world. Click here to read the introductory article and to find links to other articles in the series.
It turns out that the idea of God being a Merciful Judge is extremely difficult to wrap my head around, both theologically and in practice. As a result it has taken me ages to think about and write this article. Preparing it has also revealed some truths about myself that I don’t really like; I’ve discovered that I’m not all that merciful and prefer others to get their comeuppance.
The wrong idea
This is how I (wrongly) see things: God can choose how to respond to us and he swings between judgement on the one hand and mercy on the other. As for me, I find myself not particularly wanting to punish people, however I do want them to feel the consequences of whatever bad action they have taken.
Jonah got it wrong too
I’m not alone in feeling this way; in the Bible we find the story of Jonah. God asked him to go to a group of foreigners to tell them that how they were acting was wrong. When the Ninevites heeded Jonah’s message and repented, God forgave them and this made Jonah mad. He didn’t think the Ninevites deserved to be forgiven and to receive God’s mercy.
An angry older brother
Similarly, in a story that Jesus told, we hear of the anger of an older brother. His younger brother impertinently asks their Father for his share of the inheritance before disappearing for several years. The younger brother squanders everything he has been given on ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ before returning home penniless. Yet, their Father is delighted to see him and throws a party to welcome him back, infuriating the older brother who has dutifully remained at home all this time.
Now, let’s be honest. How many of us are happy when God’s throws a party for those we deem to be sinners? I know that I am a long way from thinking and acting like God in many situations, in fact I often think he’s too merciful. Why he does permit the war in Yemen to go on and on? What about human trafficking and all forms of abuse, couldn’t he do more to stop them? Sometimes I forget he’s a judge at all, I focus on the idea that love wins and don’t like the idea of Him being judgmental. However, I’ve noticed that in other church traditions the emphasis is on God as judge and Christians from these backgrounds become hung up on confession and regrettably feel enormous shame.
So, how does Jesus do it? How is he both merciful and just?
As I grappled with these questions it became clear that I needed to understand what God means by Judge and Justice. I have learnt that when God created the world, he intended for it to be perfect and for human beings to lovingly steward it. When the fall occurred (sin entered the world) creation became imperfect and out of kilter, the whole fabric of life was disrupted and corrupted. Since then it has been longing to be how it was supposed to be, the Bible describes the whole world as groaning to be set right. This then is God’s idea of justice: the dial is turned from corruption to flourishing. His type of justice is healing and we can take part in it both individually and collectively. It is impossible to separate God’s mercy from his justice because when God’s justice meets our brokenness He responds in mercy.
When Jesus overcame death, it qualified him to become Judge of the living and the dead. As a judge he doesn’t sit in a courtroom, wearing a wig and doling out reprimands, instead he is the prime exemplar of what life looks like when it has been set right. He’s our model and precedent. He can mercifully forgive our selfishness and put things right with justice because He has conquered everything that prevents our flourishing. He defeated death and so, rather than having a magical wand to wave away our sins, he offers victory over them and demonstrates an alternative way to live.
In practice: Justice, Mercy and Human Trafficking
What does all this mean in practice? To test my understanding of how justice and mercy can work together I found that I needed to apply them to a real-life situation. As the chairperson of a charity that helps vulnerable women in Nepal, one of the issues that really riles me is human trafficking. Each year approximately 20,000 young girls (the average age is 13) are trafficked from Nepal to India and are enslaved in brothels. The impoverished girls are deceived by traffickers with the promise of domestic work and a chance to provide for their families. Instead, they are raped and imprisoned in the countless brothels that do business in every village, town and city across India. It’s not actually the traffickers that enrage me the most, I know that they are often poor and frequently oblivious to where the girls will end up and are just pawns in the supply chain. Instead it is the men that casually frequent the brothels and pay for sex with these young girls that are the objects of my wrath. How dare they! Can’t they see how young they are? Don’t they realise these girls are somebodies’ daughters? My instinct is to call on God to strike them all down.
From the definition of merciful justice above, it seems that God would want these men to flourish and to be set right. This would undoubtedly mean that they would have happy and healthy home lives, where they would enjoy peaceful intimacy with their wives. Their minds would be renewed so that they would view all women as precious image bearers of Christ and therefore respect and esteem them, training their sons and nephews to treat them likewise. As a result, they would work to bring about the flourishing of girls in brothels by working for their release and undoubtedly preventing other men from going to brothels. Men may visit brothels because it is a cultural norm, or to improperly meet more profound psychological needs for love and affection. Whatever these needs are and whatever emotional wounds caused them, God would care about them and want to heal them. Ultimately the men would come to know God and his love.
Lord, have mercy on me
As I am re-reading the paragraph I have just written (I am sure I have missed many other ideas out) I can see that this response is so much better than swift judgment because it would lead to more right-living and flourishing in the world. I pray for those things I have listed and for these men to turn from their wicked ways. Lord, have mercy on me because I don’t often think like this. Thank you for being a merciful judge.
Many of the ideas in this article were based on a sermon given by N.T. Wright that can be found here. Any theological errors are mine not his.
To return to the Oxymoronic God series of articles please click here.
Dislocated Christians exists to create and support a community of like-minded people. Our prayer is that you’ll find some echoes of your own dilemmas with church and culture in these articles and it will encourage you to know others have the same struggles. Please like, comment on or share our articles if you’ve found them helpful. We’d be especially grateful if you could follow us, just click towards the bottom of the page.
Just as we are each works in progress, so too is Dislocated Christians. Sometimes we’ll get things wrong and we hope that when that happens, you’ll forgive us and continue to stick around.