Aren’t Justice and Mercy Incompatible by Definition?

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Recently at White Fields we have been studying through the Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria – a violent and imperialistic nation which posed a clear and present danger to the very existence of Israel. And Jonah was called to take them a message which carried with it the promise of mercy if they would repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

Archaeologists and historians who have studied the Assyrian Empire report things such as human sacrifice, furniture upholstered with human skin, pyramids of human skulls, how they would put hooks in the faces of captives and leading them around by chains…

So it is not surprising that one of Jonah’s hesitations with going to Nineveh was that he didn’t think it would be fair for God to show mercy to people who did such terrible things. Jonah struggled with the question of how God could still be just if he were to forgive these sins and show them mercy.

This is a question many people struggle with:  If you forgive someone, then what about justice?  Can anyone just do anything they want and then say sorry, and suddenly it’s okay, and there are no repercussions? Where’s the justice in that?

For this reason, some people are hesitant to forgive those who have hurt them: because it kind of feels like in that case, they are getting away with it, or you are saying that it wasn’t a big deal — even though it was. (More on this topic here: Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?)

One of the great promises of the Bible is that God is just, and even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, there will be justice.  Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God, and He will deal justly with every hurtful action and every wrongdoing. This gives us great comfort in the face of injustice, corruption and unfair and unethical behavior that we see or which touches our lives.

In the Psalms, the Psalmist often bemoans the injustice that he sees in the world: that those who lie, cheat and steal get ahead, at the expense of those who are fair and honest. Nice guys finish last. Good doesn’t always defeat evil. However, the Psalmist then goes on to comfort himself with the knowledge that, in the end, God will bring about justice: there is no wrong deed that will not go unpunished.

There’s only one problem with that:    ALL of us have done wrong things. Without exception…

So the problem with justice is: if God is totally just and judges every wrong deed, then that means that He will have to not only judge those who have sinned against us, but He will have to judge us as well.

But then, the Bible gives us the good news: for those who turn to the Lord, He will give them mercy!

But here’s the thing:   The definition of Justice is:  Giving someone what they deserve. On the other hand, the definition of Mercy is:  NOT giving someone what they deserve.

So, by definition: if you show someone mercy, then you are no longer being just! The two are diametrically opposed. So, if God shows mercy, doesn’t that mean He is no longer being just? Does one of God’s attributes therefore contradict another one of His attributes?

Isn’t mercy therefore a travesty of justice?

One of the great tensions of the Old Testament is the question of how God can be both Just and Merciful at the same time.

In my last post I wrote about another one of these great tensions: the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

Neither of these tensions are actually resolved in the Old Testament. They only find their resolution in the New Testament – in Jesus.

The way that God can be both just and merciful at the same time, is because Jesus took all of the righteous judgment that we deserved, so that God could show us mercy. In this way, God remains completely just, and yet is able to show mercy without compromising his justice. In this way, He is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in Jesus by faith. (Romans 3:26)

In Jesus, the Judge of all the Earth came to the Earth and took our judgment HIMSELF, so that we could be saved. It was the ultimate act of grace. 

Whereas justice is giving someone what they deserve, and mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.

“Should I Not Have Compassion on that Great City?”

Greetings from Kyiv, Ukraine! I have been in Europe for the past week on a ministry trip to visit some ministries that White Fields Community Church partners with in Hungary and Ukraine, with the focus of my trip being here in Ukraine.

I got a good price on a multi-destination ticket with Turkish Airlines. Part of the reason for the low price is that it included a 12 hour layover in Istanbul. I can understand why for some people that would be a terrible inconvenience, but for me on this trip it was a great added bonus! Recently I’ve been teaching classes on the history of Christianity, and Constantinople is a big part of it, so I looked forward to the chance to get to see the “New Rome” and the old capitol of the Byzantine Empire along with the Hagia Sophia – the largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years, and a building that changed architecture.

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Inside the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), built in 537 AD!

Istanbul, with 14 million people, is the largest city in Europe. During my time there I went to the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, and from there I could begin to get a glimpse of just how big this city is. It was great preparation for the conference I was coming to teach at in Kyiv on the topic of “Vision for Our Cities.”

I was reminded of the message of the Book of Jonah, which is summed up in the final verse, where God says to Jonah, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

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Looking across the Bosphorus from the Asian side, toward the “Golden Horn”

Jonah’s view of Nineveh was that it was a city full of terrible sinful people who did terrible sinful things, and that they deserved God’s wrath. He was frustrated and upset by the fact that God wanted to offer them a chance to repent and receive mercy. But God spoke to Jonah at the end, and pointed out that Jonah was more concerned about plants than he was about people. God, on the other hand, cares more about people than plants – and so therefore, how could God not care about a city full of his most masterful creation, whom he loves? God wanted Jonah (and us) to understand the way that he feels about people, and about cities full of people: he loves them and we should too.

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

On the streets of Istanbul and in the public transport areas I saw a lot of refugees from the Middle East. While I was in Turkey, the United States issued a ban on bringing laptops and tablets onto flights originating from 10 airports in 8 muslim-majority countries, including flights originating from Istanbul, something which will affect me on my flight home. The ban came as the result of the discovery of a plot to put explosives into an iPad.

As I walked through downtown Istanbul towards Taksim Square, I began wondering what it would be like for someone to do Christian ministry in that city. I was surprised at how European it was; aside from the mosques and minarets, most of the city looks like any other large European city.

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Galata Tower and a typical European neighborhood in Istanbul.

At the same time, I remember the news about German missionaries who were killed in Turkey a few years ago, and I realize that it would not only be difficult, but also dangerous for someone to do Christian ministry there.

Cities in general are “humanity magnified.” And because of that, there is inherently a dual nature to all cities: on the one hand they are full of the pinnacle of God’s good creation: people who are made in His image – on the other hand, we are fallen and so cities also have more brokenness, danger and sin.

The story-line the Bible tells is one which can be summarized in four points: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. That means that because of Jesus there is hope for humanity.

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Istanbul: very European and yet unquestionably Muslim

A Google search helped me find some international churches in Istanbul. I pray for their safety and for them to have effective ministry in this great city. May we truly understand the message of the Book of Jonah and may God give us His heart for cities like this one.