What God is Like (Musings on the character of God) #16

[This is the 2nd half of a brief chapter on God’s justice. You might benefit from reading the 1st half first.]

He’s compassionate in distribution

Among us Evangelicals it’s a well-known fact, if not a particularly well-appropriated reality, that God is “consistent in retribution.” We know that his justice is retributive, and when he forgives, he’s being consistent with himself and forgives on the basis of a satisfied justice. Yet, at least in my circles, we haven’t been nearly as familiar with the theme, every bit as prominently taught in Scripture, that his justice is also an expression of his compassion.

As I said, the writers of the systematic theology texts that I have on my own bookshelf, though they make an exhaustive study the retributive aspect of his justice, completely vaulted over the distributive aspect of God’s justice. They devote chapters in their treatment of the just God who rescues sinners by substituting Christ but neglect to mention that the same God of justice rescues the oppressed.

Richard Rohr wrote some strong words about how we’ve overlooked this pervasive theme: “If you are a white middle-class American and all your beliefs end up making God look like a white middle-class American sharing all of your usual prejudices and illusions, I doubt whether you have met the Eternal God at all. You surely have not met Jesus, who always took the side of the outsider, the handicapped, the excluded and the poor.” Ouch!

It appears to me that we conservative Christians have relegated what we usually call “social justice” to the liberal wings of the Church and have written off their emphasis as a salvation by works. “Those Liberals only care about the poor because they’re trying to work their way to heaven!” Of course, we’re in no position to judge, but even where some truth may reside in our broad-brush allegation, it doesn’t expunge the biblical mandate for the justified to “do justly.” Somewhere along the line we threw the proverbial baby out with bath water – at least I did.

Here’s a tiny sample of passages that I overlooked about God being a God of compassionate justice (see more in Addendum #1):

May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. Psalm 72:2

The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. Psalm 103:6

I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. Psalm 140:12

Woe to those who issue unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. Isaiah 10:1-2

Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Isaiah 30:18

I was surprised when I actually spotted passages such as these and began to understand that God’s justice blesses the oppressed as well as blasts the wicked. Justice both purges and protects. It protects widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor –  “the quartet of the defenseless.” In the agrarian culture of biblical times these four groups had no socio-economic clout. They lived at a subsistence level and, in the event of famine, foreign invasion, or social marginalization they were never many days away from starvation. Today, we might expand this quartet to include such groups as refugees, minorities in a majority culture, migrant workers, single parents, the homeless, the unborn, and others.

That God often sides with the least, the last, and the lost is to say that he is “just,” and tells us to be the same. When the powerful take advantage of the weak, God takes the side of the weak. He is for the exploited and against the exploiter, for the victim and against the victimizer. Rather than collide, this is where both facets of his justice collude. He is as compassionate in distribution to the oppressed as he is consistent in retribution to the oppressor.

“He has showed you O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Some books and websites that I’ve found helpful on biblical social justice:

  • The Just Church by Jim Martin
  • The Justice Project edited by Brian McClaren
  • The Little Book on Biblical Justice by Chris Marshall
  • The Just Church by Jim Martin
  • http://ijm.org
  • http://thejustlife.org

What are you favorite resources on biblical justice? 

If you have a friend that might need a primer on biblical justice, please feel freed to reblog this along with your own thoughts and convictions on the topic…

2 Replies to “What God is Like (Musings on the character of God) #16”

    1. I have some thoughts about what I think you’re asking, but I wouldn’t want to appear as having more “answers” than are possible for mere people to have. These are my own musings about why God might not intervene as we’d hoped.

      I think that it causes him pain to “stand by and do nothing,” maybe even more pain than it causes us to wait for him to do something. He set this free-will experiment up with it in mind (at least far as I can tell) to make it possible for us to have a real friendship with him, rather than be puppets on a string with the puppeteer in the background making us say what he wants to hear. That would’ve made neither him nor us happy in the long run. As exasperating as it can be sometimes, he seems to be pretty serious about maintaining the integrity of this system, not only to our hurt, but to his own. I think I see his own heart bursting when he doesn’t bring immediate relief especially to innocent sufferers. I really do. Any father / mother would feel no less.

      I wrote more about his a couple years ago and if you’re interested, I refer you to those three posts called “God Hurts Too”



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